The jungle was absolutely amazing! And I would recommend it to anyone who’s not opposed to the odd hand-sized insect, intense humidity and simple living.
The area of jungle I went to was called Cuyabeno (rather than the more controversial Yasuni region which is currently being fought over by various oil companies and environmentalists).
After a stuffy overnight bus from Quito to the pre-jungle town of Lago Agrio, we had a brief pause in the already sweltering 8am heat before piling into a mini bus with our tour group for a two hour trundle with no air conditioning. The leaves grew bigger and the vegetation more tangled as the sun rose steadily higher and hotter. We arrived at a spot on the river bank that seemed to be the last point of civilisation, complete with a special wooden stand off to one side where you could put your phone in order to get the last trace of signal. There was a cluster of local boys hanging around it, incredulously wearing jeans, trainers and long-sleeved, city jackets while we tourists changed into shorts as fast as possible and desperately sought out what little shade there was.
The next stage of the journey was a 3 hour trip down the river in motorised canoe. I must say though, despite living through Romanian summers and visiting Cairo, this was the hottest I have ever experienced. In the middle of the wide river there was not a scrap of shade, and even the air movement felt like a hot fan blowing in your face as the midday sun burned down directly above. Luckily I love the heat, so this was actually a pleasant change from the cool climate of Quito.
The first sign we had that we were in fact in a totally different world, was when we had a brief pause at our canoe driver’s house. Pedro, 32 yrs, leaped out and disappeared up the river bank, emerging minutes later with more petrol. As we pulled away, three children emerged to wave us off. Our guide explained how Maria, the little Quechua girl in pink shorts was in fact Pedro’s wife, aged 13. She already had a baby. That definitely shut the group up for a bit.
Hours later, the canoe finally slowed and we turned abruptly through a narrow tunnel of green and came out onto a small lake with fallen branches cluttering the waters edge. Here was our lodge. A secluded collection of bamboo huts with leaf roofs and a tumble-down jetty reaching out into the lake. Now, I don’t know where Quechua people get the inspiration for names, but we had a quick introduction to the lodge staff, of which Lenin, Darwin (who made me a ring out of a nut that he’d been chiseling away at for days) and Bangladesh stuck out most…
Our first activity was a night time walk following one of the paths. Apart from various spiders and massive, vibrant grass hoppers the only thing of interest we saw was a coral snake – one of the most poisonous in the world apparently. He was curled around a branch about knee height as we climbed over a log, but instead of retreating from the vibrations of our footsteps, casually began to slither towards us a little too close for my comfort. By the end of the walk having had massive moths fluttering at my head torch and dangling vines brushing against my back and face I was incredibly jumpy. Not to mention having been warned not to touch anything because of potential hazards – proven to us by finding several tiny black scorpions concealed on tree trunks. I was actually quite relieved to climb into the safety of my mosquito net after checking in and under the bed with a candle. Having no electricity did have its merits however, as the night sky was so crowded with stars you couldn’t even pick out the basic constellations.
The next day was mainly devoted to animal and insect hunting by foot and canoe under sporadic torrential showers. Rain in the Amazon is quite a beautiful experience though, as you know you wont be cold and wet for long, you can just sit back and listen to the sounds of drops on the leaves and breathe in the heady smells of the soil and vegetation. We were lucky enough to see: parrots, toucans, yellow-headed vultures, macaws and countless other birds, monkeys, pink and grey river dolphins, a baby boa constrictor, tarantulas, scorpion spiders and machine spiders (all way too big for my liking), piranhas and other much, much bigger fish, vibrant butterflies, massive grasshoppers, stick and leaf insects and caiman (similar to alligators). All in all a pretty successful horde. Although I must say my favourite animal had to be Lyanna, the semi-tame woolly monkey that lived on a little island across from the lodge and would sometimes join us in the canoe for her daily dose of fruit, which she would seek out pretty aggressively from peoples pockets if not given willingly.
In the evening we took the canoe out for a spot or piranha fishing. Just to clarify that it is a myth that piranhas will come and eat you alive if you go into the water, we were using chunks of bloody meat as bait and even then they were timid with their nibbles. Our two local guides were pro fishers, catching massive cat-fish looking things for their dinners while we tourists were given roughly made fishing rods without a hope in hell of catching even the slowest fish. Despite not catching any dinner, it was a lot of fun trying, and listening to the cacophony of the jungle as night approached. I could have sworn I heard a dog barking in the distance, so I asked our guide who then explained it was actually a type of toad.
By now I had settled into jungle life, which was just as well as we got back to find a massive tarantula had decided to take up residence in the shower. The flickering candle light made it seem even bigger and as if is was moving all time. The worst thing was that in the morning it had gone… I decided early on to put my fears aside and just accept that I was in the jungle and yes, I would see massive spiders and have flying cockroaches on the outside of my mosquito net and potentially fall into a nest of anacondas or get savaged by a caiman (we’d heard some horror stories en route). Once you relax, then you see everything with curiosity and amazement instead of tense wariness. I could see how the jungle would not be for everyone, at the same time the guides were very knowledgeable and I trusted them not to let us get eaten. One night though, in our room, we did have a jungle rat scurrying around the rafters, and those things are no cute, little mice. I was happy when that had gone in the morning.
Talking of putting fears aside, one afternoon after lunch it was particularly hot again and our guide suggested a swim. On the way he casually mentioned to watch out for electric eels, sting rays, caiman and poisonous water snakes, but then added that the little stretch of river we were going to was perfectly safe… mere metres away from the ‘not so safe bit’. Swimming down an Amazon tributary was unreal though. The water was so warm and it started raining as we drifted down the surprisingly fast flowing river with monkeys swinging along in the tree tops either side and macaws flying in pairs overhead. You almost expected to see a naked tribesman with a spear chasing a jaguar. That was another nice thing, the jungle felt timeless. You could spend a lifetime there while a nuclear war was being waged elsewhere and be none the wiser. Life there is pretty much the same as it must have been 50, 100 years ago. The isolation was an awesome feeling and somehow very refreshing.
Even without the wildlife, the jungle itself, the very vegetation was fascinating. Trees so tall the tops vanish above the jungle canopy, vines twisting around any branches they an reach, plants growing out of other plants as they clamour for soil space. Looking up, you can barely see the sky through all the different shades of green dripping down as steam rises up. I had the impression that if you pulled just one tree out of the ground it would pull the whole entwined jungle up with it.
Our guide took us on a walk to examine the medicinal and practical uses of various plants. It is amazing, but the jungle really does have a plant for everything: a type of sticky mushroom that is used as a plaster, a tree leaf used as tea to sooth muscle pain, a very nondescript looking plant called ‘the garlic of the jungle’ that when mushed with water is snorted up the nostril to clear your nose and help prevent colds (I tried a bit and wow is that strong!), a type of tree with the same pattern as the snake to which it antidotes its venom, even a red flower used for contraception and a tree called the ‘devil’s penis’ said to make men stronger and more fertile, there was a special type of palm where the strands could be twisted together to make fishing line, a massive tree that if you hit the trunk the sound would carry to up to a mile radius and a type of ant with pincers so strong they can be used to close wounds by embedding the head and snapping off the body.
We were even treated to a mid-walk snack. Our guide was ahead of us in a clearing hacking into a sort of small coconut with his machete to reveal three white blobs in the solid surrounding nut. He tapped the nut several times and the blobs tumbled, wriggling onto his open palm and offered them to us. I obediently put a live maggot into my mouth and surprisingly enough it tasted like almonds and coconut. Apart from the initial squish as you bit into it and the unusual texture it actually wasn’t that bad. We also tried another jungle delicacy – tiny little ants, which coexist symbiotically with an acidic tree, and tasted of lemon! They were so tiny they dissolved on your tongue so there was no crunching necessary.
I could easily have spent much longer there as the pace of live was fantastic, and I actually enjoyed getting up at dawn (I know!) to see the forest waking, and casually reading in the hammocks listening to the sounds of the jungle.