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Arriving in the Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon rainforest covers about 1/3 of the land in Ecuador. Today, we would begin our 5-day journey in exploring the lush vegetation and hoards of creepy crawlies and animals that lived there.
To reach our home base deep within the jungle, we would be taking a small plane to the rainforest city of Coca, then riding a motor boat about 2 ½ hours down the Napo River, and then transferring to a hand-paddled canoe for another 2-hour voyage.
We walked down our long street in the old historic section of Quito, searching for a taxi to take us to the airport. Sebastian and Genevieve were ready, with their traveling companions “Kitty” and “Mr. Bear.”
Five minutes later, we were tucked in a taxi, on our way!
A traffic circle sculpture proved that the “make it big, and paint it red” philosophy behind many public art works has spread beyond the U.S. and Europe:
Our road to the airport gave us a distant view of the tall buildings in downtown Quito:
More glass-topped walls:
We were flying on a small airline, arranged through our jungle lodge, so we checked in at the main office and not the public airport terminal.
A woman named Gisella greeted us with a big smile, gave us additional forms to fill out, and offered us free snacks and drinks. Genevieve and Gisella:
Sebastian and Genevieve were excited about flying in the red and white, twin-engine, turbo-prop plane that would drop us from the high peaks of the Andes (about 9400 feet in elevation) to the low-lying rain forest (about 800 feet in elevation).
Our flight was short—less than an hour. Descending into the small city of Coca, we could see rows of homes spread along the Payamino River:
At the airport, we climbed aboard a large carrier to reach the boat dock:
Coca has a population of almost 30,000. Its official name is Puerto Francisco de Orellana, after a European explorer. However, the locals (and many others) still refer to it as “Coca”, a name that reflects the coca plants that were once grown and used here by indigenous people. Today, the growing and chewing of coca leaves is not a common practice. Instead, the economy in Coca centers around providing services for the oil companies that are drilling in the Amazon rainforest.
Through downtown Coca:
Our boat dock sat on the wide, brown Napo River, which ultimately connects with the Amazon River. We would be traveling down the Napo River for the second part of our journey today.
Near the boat dock was a long, low bridge:
Massive towers for a new bridge were being constructed on both sides of the river:
We were left wondering how severe the flooding gets to warrant a bridge that tall and sturdy.
Attached to the dock was an unusual boat with an interior made from the fuselage of a plane:
That was not the one we would be taking down the river, however. Neither was this 2-person skinny boat:
Our boat was more like a limosine, with comfortable seats:
Genevieve, getting ready to board:
All settled in for the long ride:
Our motorized boat zipped along past trees and thick foliage along the riverbanks:
Occasionally, we saw a few people along the banks. One small group was loading freshly cut wood boards onto a long boat:
Two kids stood in front of a house, one waving:
Other houses along the river:
This home had a small bed out on the front porch:
About half an hour down the river, we saw a bright flame among the trees ahead:
As we got closer, the flame rose above the tree-tops, as if it were dancing in the air:
We learned that the flame was from an oil well that was burning methane gas:
Since the 1970’s, Ecuador has derived a lot of income from oil, granting concessions to different countries to strike oil from designated blocks of jungle. The oil companies have contracts with both the Ecuadorian government and the local communities.
Paolo, one of the guides on our boat, explained there are several problems with oil wells in the rainforest.
One problem lies with the methane gas flames, which burn continually and attract bugs to the bright fire. Millions of bugs die in the jungle each night, drawn into the flames. This is a huge deal when you consider the fact that 60% of the birds in this area are insectivores. Studies have shown that places with flames from oil wells have a serious decrease in available food for birds and other animals that eat bugs. It is unclear what the long-term effects will be.
Another problem lies with miles and miles of roads that have been constructed by the oil companies. These roads cross through the rainforest and disrupt the natural habitat of animals. Furthermore, outsiders have been migrating to the rainforest and building their homes along the roads, leading to conflicts with local people.
In addition, the new roads have allowed local people to travel to Coca and other cities from formerly remote areas to sell goods, including meat from forest animals. However, many people feel that killing the forest animals to feed one’s family is very different from killing in order to sell the meat in a city market. This is a hot issue right now, prompted by a realistic concern that the increased selling will lead to the depletion of the forest animals, which would not only impact the balance of nature but would decrease the ability of local people to provide for their families in the traditional way.
Finally, the oil companies have dumped toxins in the waterways that local people depend upon for drinking and fishing. Paolo concluded by saying that he had nothing against the oil industry in general, but this was the worst type of industry for the delicate ecosystem of the rainforest.
The Napo River was very wide, and some spots had small islands:
A white cloth was stretched between stick poles to create an open tent, but no one was home:
Boats remain one of the best modes of transportation within the Amazon jungle. Here are some boats that we saw:
This barge was transporting two trucks:
Our wildlife spotting was limited to birds, including these bright blue ones among the extensive roots of this tree:
At one point, we slowed down and turned south into a small tributary. The light brown water had sweeps of darkness called “black water.” (They look like shadows in the photo below, but they are actually darker colored water.)
The black water comes from rain that washes tannins into the river. These tannins are the same that make coffee and tea black.
After a short distance, we arrived at the welcome area for the Napo Wildlife Center, which covers over 82 square miles of pristine rainforest and is wholly owned and operated by the Añangu Kichwa community, an indigenous people who live here.
An Añangu woman and her child:
The welcome area also marked the entrance to the Yasuní National Park, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the largest area of tropical rain forest in Ecuador.
Napo Wildlife Center operates the only lodge within Yasuní National Park. To reach the lodge, we would be transferring from our motorized boat to smaller, hand-paddled canoes.
Before loading into our canoes, we enjoyed stretching our legs on solid ground for a few minutes. Looking down, we saw a Urania moth, with the most beautiful iridescent turquoise on its wings:
At this point, our large group was divided into smaller groups, each with a naturalist guide who would be with them for excursions and meals during the entire stay at the Napo lodge. Off went the first canoe:
We had wanted greater flexibility because of the children, so we had paid extra for a private guide, rather than be grouped with other guests who might have wanted longer (or shorter) hikes than we did. We were fortunate to get Juan Carlos (in the hat) as our naturalist guide, and Mauricio (in the brown shirt) as our Añangu local guide:
In the rear of our canoe was a second Añangu man, Wilmer, who was not only a skilled paddler (able to stop our canoe on a dime and navigate into tricky spots), but he shared the ability of Mauricio and Juan Carlos to spy animals and insects that were camouflaged among the plants.
Wilmer is behind Ben and Sebastian in the photo below (along with a local woman named Mary, who had hitched a ride in order to join the housekeeping staff at the lodge).
We slowly made our way down Añangu Creek,
The initial part of the creek was lined with secondary forest, as the original plants and trees had been removed by the Kichwa people who arrived here about 40 to 50 years ago and started farming and growing crops. The land was now protected, and the forest was regrowing.
Not too far along, we encountered our first big spider—a female “fishing spider,” about 5 inches long, carrying a sack of eggs:
Her name comes from the fact that she usually can be found scurrying around on top of the water, snatching insects around her.
If I had found her in my bedroom at home, or perhaps on my shoulder in the jungle, I’m sure that my fear-o-meter would have been in the red zone. But seeing her stretched out on a log in the jungle, I calmly admired how she seemed to be just another small piece of our amazing surroundings.
Along with big spiders, we saw the webs of many tiny spiders called “social spiders”, who work together to create a web for capturing insects.
Around the bend ahead, slithering up a tree branch, was a yellow-bellied “whip snake”, about 6 feet long:
Meanwhile, all around us were the sounds of things unseen—the steady buzz of cicadas, punctuated with unusual bird calls, and the occasional blowing wind noise made by distant howler monkeys. A loud clacking, like two wooden blocks being slammed together, revealed the close proximity of a hidden group of peccary (members of the pig family) cracking palm nuts open. The peccary also marked their territory with a pungent, musky smell, similar to that found in a well-used gymnasium.
Moving along, we came upon a tree, with a round lump sitting on one of the forks:
It was a curled-up anaconda, one of the largest and most powerful snakes in the world:
Averaging 20 feet in length, the anaconda kills its food (mammals and aquatic animals) by squeezing them to death. Juan Carlos estimated that the one before us was about 9 feet. Anacondas are skilled swimmers and spend a lot of time under water; however, they like to dry themselves off on tree branches.
Another animal who had mastered the art of camouflage was the zigzag heron, sitting on her nest of eggs inside a bush. With her neck stretched high in the air, and her body perfectly motionless, she looked exactly like a branch of wood:
Here, you can see her face:
As our creek emptied into a small open area before reaching Lake Añangu, one of our guides spied the tail of a black caimen immersed in the shallow edges:
Black caimen are related to the American alligator and crocodile, and they are one of the largest predators in the Amazon, growing to 20 feet. The one beside us was only about 6 feet long. They are fast swimmers, and they eat fish, birds and mammals by swallowing their victims whole.
We didn’t want to disturb it (for more reasons than simply wanting to respect its personal environment), and didn’t get a look at its face. However, I found a photo on the Internet:
Photo credit here.
We also saw many birds, including the large, long-necked “anhinga” with its black and white wings:
This blue beauty from the cuckoo family is called a "Greater Ani":
We rounded a curve and entered Lake Añangu:
On the far left bank were the thatch-roof cabanas of the Napo Wildlife Center lodge:
Our sleeping area was in the right side of a double cabana next to the dock:
It was much bigger than I had anticipated. The door opened to a small area that had two twin beds for Genevieve and Sebastian, each with a mosquito net:
The kids’ area opened into another attached space that held a king-sized bed, also draped in a mosquito net:
Above us was a high ceiling with a fan:
The windows had screens but no glass. Our view couldn’t have been nicer:
After checking out our room, Genevieve and Sebastian began lobbying for a swim in the lake before dinner.
The water was refreshing after a long day:
The lake was full of black water (from the tannins) and you couldn’t see very far down. So when something large brushed against my leg as I was getting into the water, I knew that I wouldn’t be staying in for long.
Genevieve and Sebastian, however, invented various jumping games off of the lower, water-covered dock:
Is there any sound more beautiful than children’s laughter?
"Welcome to the Jungle":
With the mosquito nets secure, everyone settled into their comfy beds. In the darkness, calls of “Goodnight!” criss-crossed the room.
A small voice piped up: “I can’t go to sleep!” It was Sebastian.
I sighed. My eyelids were so heavy, I could barely pry them open. “Just close your eyes," I murmured. "You need to sleep so that you’ll have energy for our long hike tomorrow.”
The response was no surprise: “I’ve tried closing my eyes, but I can’t fall asleep!”
Ben chimed in: “It’s time for bed, Sebastian. Everyone needs to go to sleep!”
Sebastian’s voice suddenly became agitated: “Something fell on my bed! There’s a bug in my bed!”
I was almost asleep now. “Nothing’s in your bed, Sebastian. You have a mosquito net to keep all the bugs out.”
A flashlight beam started waving from Sebastian’s bed. “I see spots up there! There’re bugs up there!”
Ben got up and stuck his head between the mosquito net curtains on Sebastian’s bed. He took the flashlight and swirled the beam upward. “Those spots were on the netting before, Sebastian," he reassured. "There are no bugs . . . .” His voice trailed off as the light settled upon a 3-inch flying cockroach in the upper corner of the bed, inside the net.
Sebastian’s body recoiled. His voice, however, was strong and full of relief. “See! That’s what fell on me!”
Ben thought quickly. “Why don’t you just crawl into bed with Mommy tonight, and I’ll sleep in your bed.”
Five minutes later, Sebastian’s eyes were closed, his small body sprawled next to me. Soft exhales were the only sound in the room. Ben stretched out in the twin bed across the way, pulling the covers up high, and trusting that his 6-legged companion would remain far above him during the night.
Epilogue: Our new friend, the next morning (one of many that we caught and set free outside):
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