Around the World... One Journey at a Time. Around the World... One Journey at a Time.

Ecuador: The Amazon Rainforest

by Kathy 24. May 2011 21:22

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Amazon: Rain, Rain, Rainforest

Our wake-up call came at 5 a.m. today. We had planned to visit the lodge’s 12-story canopy tower deep in the forest to witness tree-top creatures starting their day. With pelting rain and low-lying clouds, however, we moved into “Plan B”—a rigorous morning hike on Guangana (“Wild Pigs”) Trail.

Genevieve wasn’t feeling well, so she stayed behind with Ben to relax in the lodge area.

The rain was intermittent, with sudden downpours mixed with moments of dry calm. By the time Sebastian and I climbed into our canoe, the sun was straining to break through the clouds. But just wait a few minutes, and the sky will change again!

Here we are, with our Añangu guide Mauricio (in the yellow shirt) and our naturalist guide Juan Carlos (in the green shirt):

Setting off across the peaceful lake (with Wilmer paddling in the rear):

In less than five minutes, we had spotted more capuchin and squirrel monkeys, as well as a black cap heron—with its light blue beak, white body, and black “cap”:

Some loud splashing up ahead brought our canoe to a slow glide—we didn’t want our paddle sounds to be heard. Around the bend was a family of giant otters! We could see their heads poking out of the water before they swam for the safety of dense shrubbery along the water’s edge.

The giant otter is an endangered species, with only a few thousand left in the wild. During the last century, they were hunted to near-extinction for their thick fur. The trading of their pelts is now illegal. Juan Carlos explained that their presence here along the Añangu Creek was a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem.

Moving on, Juan Carlos was excited to see a red squirrel on a tree branch.

Although found in abundance in the U.S., squirrels are not very common in the Amazon because they have to compete with monkeys for their food.

The canoe stopped next to an embankment, and everyone except Wilmer scrambled to the top to begin our hike. (Wilmer would paddle the canoe to the end of the trail and wait for us there.)

Sebastian, starting out:

(I was trying to protect my camera from getting wet during this hike, so I snapped the shots too quickly—resulting in a lot of blurry photos. However, I think I captured the essence of what was there.)

Sebastian and I enjoyed this hike immensely, not so much for the creatures or plants that we saw but for the terrain itself. Much of the trail was overgrown, and Mauricio had to hack our way through with his machete. There were also some steep ups and downs, as well as logs to crawl over and under.

A termite nest was attached to the side of a tree.

When the termite nests are abandoned, birds such as parakeets will break through the outer surface and make their own nests inside.

While some termite nests are made out of a papery substance, others are built from bits of clay soil. On the tree below, the light strip running up the tree is a clay-covered tunnel that leads to the light, heart-shaped termite nest. The clay exterior covers a nest that extends deep into the tree.

An opening in the tunnel revealed a steady stream of two-way termite traffic:

Continuing on, we found footprints from a tapir in the mud, as well as evidence that a tapir had slid down a muddy and steep section of the trail (shown in the photo below).

A tapir looks like a pig with an extended nose for gripping things. We weren’t fortunate enough to see one today, but here is a photo from the Internet:

(Photo credit here.) 

In a rainforest, only 2% of sunlight filters down to reach the floor. The vines and other plants often have to wrap, climb, and twist in their pursuit of survival. Check out how this large woody vine swirled along the floor:

Some of the plants had developed wicked-looking spines to protect themselves from predators.

The spines were very sharp and traditionally used as sewing needles by local people.

Mauricio showed us how the long fibers from the chambira plant could be split and then rolled together to make strong thread that is used for many things—fishing lines, hammocks, necklaces, bags, etc.

We could hear the rain pounding down overhead, but we were only getting a smattering of drops below. Sebastian said, “The trees are like an umbrella.” He was right! The canopy of the rainforest was stopping most of the rain from falling on us.

When we walked though patches of forest without a dense protective covering, however, we were getting wet. So we stopped to put on our rain ponchos.

Starting out again:

Sebastian in his rain poncho:

We were now walking along a ridge-line, with a slanted drop-off on each side of the trail. Before heading back down, we stopped at the viewpoint. On a clear day, one can see out over the tree canopy to the lake; today, however, we saw only misty clouds in the distance.

This nearby tree had a fascinating, bulbous growth:

Mauricio surprised Sebastian by creating a headband from leaves found in the forest:

Moving onward:

A fallen tree revealed once again how shallow the roots are in the rainforest.

As we had learned yesterday, all of the nutrients come from the decomposing leaves and logs, which create a rich layer of top soil.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the soil is very poor. People who clear the forest in order to grow crops may have a good first season, but they will find that the soil does not remain fertile and cannot sustain agriculture. The barren land will eventually be abandoned, and the people will move to the next section of rainforest to continue a vicious cycle of deforestation—clear cut / grow crops / abandon land, clear cut / grow crops / abandon land, and so on. The rain forest has a delicate ecosystem; once destroyed, the original balance cannot be recreated.

I loved the trees that had developed a broom-like skirt to compensate for their lack of deep roots.

Some of the tree “skirts” had different patterns, such as these red/burgundy tubes with raised speckles:

We did not see a lot of creatures on our walk, but we saw a few, such as this wolf spider carrying a white sack of eggs underneath:

And this big millipede, curled up in Sebastian’s hand:

And a chunky green beetle:

An extra-special sight was a group of spider monkeys. These monkeys use their tails, as well as their long arms, when swinging through the trees. They live in primary (not secondary) forest areas and need big territories to thrive.

The ones we saw were on the move, high in the trees. Down on the ground, we ran after Mauricio, as he zig-zagged around trunks and plants, crossed a small gully, and finally arrived at a spot where we could get a clear view of the spider monkeys swinging toward us.

The lighting was bad for a photo, but I managed to get a silhouette of a spider monkey leaping from one tree to another (about 1/3 of the way from the top of the photo below):

The monkeys were wild, not tame, and they wanted nothing to do with us. Juan Carlos had stopped about 30 feet behind us in another clearing, and one of the monkeys focused on him and emitted loud raucous sounds. It didn’t sound like Juan Carlos was being invited to a tea party!

After a few rapturous minutes of watching, we exchanged our own excited chatter as the monkeys disappeared from sight.

By tracking the monkeys, we were no longer on an obvious trail.

Mauricio was an excellent trail guide, however, and the last part of our hike had Sebastian feeling like he was in an Indiana Jones adventure movie—crossing single-log bridges:

Taking a “short-cut” through over-grown plants:

Wading through boot-sucking mud:

And traversing more log bridges:

Near the end of our trail, we spied a type of fungus that I had never seen before—a jelly mushroom:

The jelly mushroom has antibacterial properties, and Juan Carlos demonstrated how the forest people would place the mushroom over a wound:

We also saw some more golden-mantled tamarin monkeys, which played a little game of peek-a-boo with us. (no photo)

At the end of the trail, we had to drop down a short embankment to reach the canoe. Wilmer had spent his time waiting by graciously carving out a set of stairs for us in the slippery mud:

Back on the river, we paddled by an “owl butterfly”, which had wings with large spots resembling owl eyes to ward off predators:

Close to the lodge area, we could see two figures waiting for us at the end of the dock—Ben and Genevieve (who was feeling much better after a relaxing morning):

After lunch, we decided to venture off on our own and hike the short trail called the Lodge Loop. On our way to find the trail entrance, however, we discovered a long trail of leaf-cutter ants on one of the lodge sidewalks (to the left of Genevieve’s feet, below):

The ants had apparently been walking this same route long enough to wear a bald path through the grass:

We were curious to see where the ants were getting their leaves, so we followed the path backwards until we reached a tall flowering shrub. There, we watched in awe as ant after ant used its jaws to slice off green chunks and cart them away:

What a great beginning to our hike!

Shortly after we entered the Lodge Loop trail, the children almost ran into an outstretched web with a big spider:

Genevieve and Sebastian had been leading the way. Because of the close encounter with the web, however, they unanimously elected me to go first. Okay, okay. I walked out front, waving my arm up and down occasionally (picture a not-so-graceful elephant trunk) to make sure I wasn’t going to plant my face in an unseen web.

This tree looked like it could just pull up a few of its “legs” and start walking:  

And indeed, that's exactly what it does!  Well, almost.  It is called a Walking Palm and moves about 4 to 6 inches a year by growing roots in the direction of sunlight or nutrients in the soil--whatever it needs.  The trunk remains elevated above the ground.  When the new roots dig into the ground, they pull the tree in that direction.  Some roots on the other side of the tree die off, and the tree actually moves in the direction of the new roots.

A beautiful orchid:

Colorful tree fungi:

An “earthstar” mushroom:

No more spider encounters!

Later that afternoon, we set out for the 12-story canopy--back to Plan “A” that had been scheduled for this morning! As our canoe left the dock, we noticed a tall pole in the water. Juan Carlos asked us to look closer, and then closer still. Our eyes finally discerned something unusual--small long-nosed bats were lined up on the pole:

Once we saw them, we wondered how we could have missed them! They were “hiding in plain sight”!

We entered a waterway to the left of the lodge area:

Our channel got smaller, and we scanned the shrubs and plants around us.

The looped coil of a “parrot snake” was easy to spot within a small tree:

Its light green body had pale pink scales:

We finally found its head among the tree branches:

As we glided smoothly through the water, our sense of tranquility was jolted by the bellowing shriek of a huge black bird, about 3 feet long, rising suddenly from the shrubbery next to us. It was a “horned screamer”, rare in these parts due to all the hunting (before this area became a protected preserve). Ben’s camera caught the bird as it flew away:

Another bird flying above the shrubbery was a rainforest hawk, which came to rest and then took off again as we approached:

We left the open wetland and entered a dense forested area:

Here, we left the canoe behind and began a 10-minute walk to the canopy tower. Soon we came upon a giant Kapok (also called “Ceiba”) tree, about 150 feet tall, with wide, natural buttress supports along its base.

You can gain a better idea of the massive size of the tree with Sebastian standing next to it:

The kaypok tree has an umbrella-shaped crown and is home to many birds, mammals and insects. The ancient Mayan people believed the kaypok was the “tree of life”, connecting the earthly world to the spirit-world.

Nearby was a small crop of earthstar mushrooms:

Perched on a log was a cricket that had been killed by a fungus called cordyseps:

Cordyseps takes over and kills a host body from the inside, generally after the host eats a leaf or something else that contains a bit of the fungus.

The observation tower was at the top of another kapok tree, with a tall set of metal stairs next to it:

Over 200 steps carried Genevieve and Sebastian up 120 feet to the top:

The canopy was originally completed in 2004 but had been rebuilt and enhanced in 2009. To keep the weight of the tower from compressing the tree roots, the builders dug down below the roots to pour the cement base of the tower. Moreover, the tree platform itself was constructed by specialists from Peru, who replaced the wooden deck with recycled plastic and designed bumpers that rested between the tree and the platform to ensure that the tree would not be scarred.

Sebastian, on the observation deck:

Yes, those are big gaps in the railing—large enough for someone to fall through. Sebastian is an experienced hiker and climber, and I knew that he wouldn’t intentionally jump over the side. However, as his mother, I kept having to shove images from my mind of him leaning over too far, losing his balance, and plummeting to his death. There are reasonable risks and unreasonable risks, and sometimes the line between the two is blurry. After considering various options, I asked Sebastian to stay away from the railing and, in light of what I lovingly call his “happy, skippy feet,” to sit as much as possible in a chair.

I have to admit that I still had some trepidation, but I could breathe a bit easier knowing he was away from the edge.

Comfy in his seat, Sebastian joined Juan Carlos (in the green shirt), Wilmer (in the purple shirt), and Mauricio (in the light olive shirt), in scoping out the trees below for any signs of wildlife:

We had sweeping views out over the treetops:

In the distance was the curved top of the giant kapok tree that we had passed on our hike here:

The roar of howler monkeys was close by, but they never emerged from the leaves. However, we did see a variety of birds, including some bright blue ones and a crimson crested woodpecker. We also saw a 3-toed sloth hanging from a tree, far in the distance.

Up close, we saw many jumbo-sized ants known as “bullet” ants (be careful of their jaws!):

Genevieve and I, enjoying the view together next to the tower of stairs:

Looking down at the tower:

The tree canopy above us:

We headed down the tower as the sun was setting.

Hiking back to the canoe, we saw two tarantulas:

A scorpion spider:

A smaller spider in a web:

An amazon treerunner lizard:

Two leaf grasshoppers that resembled dead leaves:

A female grasshopper, showing her long rear slicer used to cut holes into leaves before she lays her eggs:

And a silver millipede:

Once in the canoe, we turned on our flashlights to search for black caiman in the water:

We found a baby one, just a few months old:

There was no shortage of colorful frogs:

A smooth green caterpillar had reached the end of her twig:

Just before reaching our boat dock, we caught a glimmer from the big orange/red eyes of an adult black caiman:

What a wonderful finale to our day of exploration!

I must add that even though black caimans are nocturnal hunters, I’m glad that I hadn’t seen those eyes before going swimming in this lake two days ago!

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Map of Our Journeys

(click the map to enlarge)
Our travel map

Places We’ve Been, w/Quick Links

   Bumthang Valley
   Gom Kora
   Paro Valley
   Punakha Dzong
   Sangdrup Jongkhar
   Wangdi Phrodrang

   Janko Marca
   La Paz
   Laguna Colorada
   Laguna Verde
   Salar de Coipasa
   Salar de Uyuni
   San Pablo
   Santa Rosa
   Sud Lipez
   World’s Most Dangerous Road

   Banff National Park
   Battle Hill Nat'l Hist. Site
   Boya Lake Prov. Park, BC
   Burns Lake Bike Park
   Canyon Sainte-Anne
   Dawson Creek
   Eastern Townships
   Fort Nelson
   Jasper National Park
   Kluane Lake, YK
   'Ksan Historical Village
   Lake Louise
   Liard Hot Springs
   Niagara Falls
   Quebec City
   Thousand Islands
   Vancouver Island
   Watson Lake

   Forbidden City
   Great Wall at Mutianyu
   Hong Kong
   Summer Palace
   Terracotta Warriors
   Tiananmen Square
   Yungang Caves

Costa Rica
   Arenal Volcano
   Finca Corsicana
   Hanging Bridges
   Manuel Antonio
   Poas Volcano
   Proyecto Asis
   Sky Trek Zip Lining
   Venado Caves


   Amazon Rainforest
   Chaquiñan Bicycle Trail
   La Mitad del Mundo
   Napo Wildlife Center
   Papallacta Hot Springs
   Proyecto DCR
   Yasuní National Park


   Baja California
   Frida Kahlo Museum
   Hierve el Agua
   Marietas Islands
   Mexico City
   Monte Alban
   Oaxaca City
   Puerto Angel
   Puerto Escondido
   Puerto Vallarta
   San Agustin
   San Martin Tilcajete
   Santa Fe de la Laguna
   Santa María el Tule
   Studio of Jacobo Angeles
   Teotitlán del Valle

   Dead Vlei
   Elondo Village
   Etosha Nat'l Park
   Hippo Pools Camp
   Hoba Meteorite
   Khowarib Camp
   Moose McGregor's Bakery
   Mowani Camp
   Ngepi Camp
   Nkasa Lupala
   n'Kwzi Camp
   River Dance Lodge
   Seisriem Camp
   Treesleeper Camp

   Cañón del Pato
   Cerro de Pasco
   La Oroya
   Machu Picchu
   Nuevo Jaén
   Tingo Maria
   Yungay Memorial


South Africa

   Rock of Gibraltar
   Santillana del Mar

United States National Parks
   Arches National Park, UT
   Badlands National Park, SD
   Bandelier National Monument, NM
   Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
   Cahokia Mounds (UNESCO site), IL
   Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
   Canyon de Chelly Nat'l Monument, AZ
   Cape Hatteras National Shoreline, NC
   Capitol Reef National Park, UT
   Civil Rights Memorial, AL
   Death Valley National Park, CA
   Denali National Park, AK
   Devil’s Tower National Monument, WY
   El Morro National Monument, NM
   Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
   Glacier National Park, MT
   Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
   Grand Tetons National Park, WY
   Great Basin National Park, NV
   Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI
   Joshua Tree National Park, CA
   Kaloko-Honokohau Nat'l Hist. Park, HI
   Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, NM
   King's Canyon National Park, CA
   Martin Luther King Jr. Nat'l Hist. Site, GA
   Mesa Verde National Park, CO
   Montezuma's Castle Nat'l Monument, AZ
   Monticello, VA
   Mount Rushmore National Memorial, SD
   Mt. Rainier National Park, WA
   Olympic National Park, WA
   Petrified Wood National Park, AZ
   Pinnacles National Monument, CA
   Pu'uhonua o Honaunau Nat'l Hist Pk, HI
   Pu'ukohola Heiau Nat'l Historic Site, HI
   San Antonio Missions Nat'l Hist. Park, TX
   Tuzigoot National Monument, AZ
   Walnut Canyon National Monument, AZ
   Washington Monument
   White Sands National Monument, NM
   Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, AK
   Wright Brothers National Memorial in NC
   Yellowstone National Park, WY
   Yosemite National Park, CA

United States, Cities and Places
   The Alamo, TX
   Alaska Wildlife Conservation Cntr.
   Alpine Loop in CO
   Anchorage, AK
   Antares Junction, AZ
   Arctic Circle, AK
   Barrel Oak Winery in VA
   Biloxi, MS
   Bottle Tree Farm in CA
   Calico Ghost Town, CA
   Canfield Mountain Trail System, ID
   Cape St. Vincent, NY
   Carson City, NV
   Carter Caves State Park in KY
   Chappie-Shasta OHV Area, CA
   Child's Glacier, AK
   Circle B Chuckwagon Show in SD
   City Museum in MO
   Cody, WY
   Corn Palace in SD
   Crazy Horse Memorial in SD
   Custer State Park, SD
   Dalton Highway, AK
   Dinosaur Tracks in AZ
   Discovery Place in Charlotte, NC
   Dry Falls (Sun Lakes-Dry Falls), WA
   Fairbanks, AK
   Front Royal, VA
   Gallup, NM
   Goffs, CA
   Grand Canyon Caves, AZ
   Grand Canyon Skywalk, AZ
   Grave Digger Monster Truck in NC
   Great Salt Lake, UT
   Hackberry General Store in AZ
   Hannibal, MO
   Hatteras Island, NC
   Hawaii (Big Island)
   Hickison Petroglyphs, NV
   Holbrook, AZ
   Hole in the Rock, UT
   Homer, AK
   Honey Island Swamp Tour in LA
   Hoover Dam, NV
   Hyder, AK
   Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Co. in AZ
   John’s Peak OHV Area, OR
   Kailua-Kona, HI
   Keepers of the Wild Nature Park in AZ
   Kennecott, AK
   Kennecott Copper Mine in UT
   Kingman, AZ
   Lake Havasu, AZ
   Lake Tahoe, NV
   Las Vegas, NV (winter 2010)
   Little Brown Church in IA
   London Bridge in AZ
   Loneliest Road in America, Hwy. 50, NV
   Los Angeles, CA
   Lost Colony Show on Roanoke Isl., NC
   Lowe’s Speedway in NC
   Mardi Gras World in LA
   Mark Twain Museum in MO
   Meteor Crater, AZ
   Million Dollar Highway, CO
   Minnesota Zoo
   Mitchell, SD
   Moab, UT
   Moab, UT (dirt biking)
   Montgomery, AL
   Montpelier, ID
   Navajo Nation, AZ
   Needles, CA
   Nevada Beach, NV
   Newberry Springs, CA
   New River Gorge, WV
   New Orleans, LA
   Niagara Falls 
   North Pole, AK
   Oatman, AZ
   Old Faithful Geyser in WY
   Omak Stampede, WA
   Painted Desert, AZ
   Park City, UT (summer)
   Plymouth, NC
   Portage Valley, AK
   Portland, OR
   Prospect OHV Trail System, OR
   Resaca, GA
   Riverside State Park, WA
   Rock City in TN
   Rosa Parks Library and Museum in AL
   Roswell, NM
   Russian River, AK
   Salt Lake City, UT
   San Antonio, TX
   San Diego, CA
   San Juan Islands, WA
   San Francisco, CA
   Santa Catalina Island, CA
   Seattle, WA
   Sedona, AZ
   Shoe Tree in CA
   Shoe Tree in NV
   Silverton, CO
   Sonora, TX
   St. Louis, MO
   St. Paul, MN
   Talkeetna, AK
   Telluride, CO
   Route 66
   Twin Knobs Recreation Area in KY
   Virginia Beach, VA
   Washington D.C.
   Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park in IL
   Williamsburg, VA
   Winom Frazier OHV Area, OR
   Winslow, AZ
   Zion National Park, UT

Planning Our Adventures

For us, each journey begins with the initial heart pangs to venture to a certain part of the world. Then the ideas start coming together . . . ahh, the possibilities . . . and the dream evolves gradually into an actual plan. But, oh, the joy of the dream!  Click here to learn more about how we plan and prepare for our journeys.

Where Are We Now?

Click here to discover where we are now, as well as our uncoming travel plans.

Words for the Heart

“. . . and then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Anais Nin