It was our first full day in the Amazon basin, and we were raring to go. My mood couldn’t even be dampened by having to layer insect repellent on top of sunscreen. After breakfast, our little group piled into the canoe along with our new friend Steven from Belgium and our guide, Elvis, and we headed downriver to do some wildlife spotting.
There were a few jungle animals high on our priority list including caimans, anacondas, piranhas, and jaguars. We got really lucky and saw a baby caiman on the way to our lodge the day before despite the clouds, but today the Amazon started us off slowly. First up were “social spiders” – a giant communal web in which dozens of spiders lived together. (We couldn’t get a good photo of the actual spiders from the canoe. Sorry.) We saw more Anhingas (Snakebirds), the giant blue butterflies that don’t hold still, squirrel monkeys, pairs of parrots flying high overhead, and lush, lush foliage full of beautiful bromeliads – plants that grow in the trees and are related to the pineapple family.
The first totally unique animal we came across was a bird called the Hoatzin, but the locals call it “Stinky Turkey” due to some scent glands on its head. (We never smelled one though.) The cool thing about the Stinky Turkey is that scientists believe it to be the closest living bird relative to the dinosaurs. This is because when they’re born, they have claws on their wings that enable them to climb trees. Watching these guys, I practically expected a T-Rex to come thundering out of the foliage.
As we motored on, our guide somehow noticed a coiled red snake hiding in a tree. How he saw it, I’ll never know, but it was just to whet our appetites for the main event which occurred ten minutes later. We happened on an anaconda sunning itself in the low brush by the river. This was a young one – only about two meters (six feet) long – but an anaconda nonetheless. Cross the second major jungle animal off the list!
Up next was a hole, high up in a tree from which two tiny monkeys (lemurs?) watched us with curiosity. We could only get a good photo by zooming all the way in. As we were leaving the monkey tree, even our guide was surprised when Kelsey picked out a three-toed sloth high in another tree. Rather than curl in a ball as they usually do, this sloth was hanging all stretched out and enjoying the beautiful morning.
Eventually, we came to a local community of indigenous people – the Siona. Here we went to a ceremonial hut where we had lunch before meeting an honest-to-goodness Siona shaman. He was dressed very elaborately with lots of necklaces made of seeds and the teeth of jungle cats, and a crown of feathers. We learned that to become a shaman, one must study for years, and the culmination is to drink a powerful hallucinogenic that last for 24 hours. If you can get through the visions (and the non-stop vomiting) then you “graduate.” The shaman performed a symbolic ritual on each of us to determine what might be ailing us and to help rout the evils out of us. He also let us all try the local hunting weapon – blowgun. The blowgun was much lighter than it looked, and each of us was able to hit the target.
There was also a local Siona woman, Maria, who showed us how to make bread from yucca in a surprisingly quick process. First we went out behind the hut and Maria used her machete to cut down a bunch of plants and then we dug up the yucca roots. Yucca apparently regenerates very easily, and all one needs to do is shove the cut stems back in the ground and they will grow new roots in about two months. Next we grated the yucca on large, handmade graters. Then, using a rattan mat, our hostess twisted the ground yucca tightly to squeeze all the moisture out. A TON of liquid came out of that stuff, and then “bam!” Instant yucca flour. The flour was then pressed into a hot clay pan, and in minutes, we had a nicely toasted flatbread similar to a tortilla. Add a little guava jam, and… yum!
We took a short walk from the Siona village to one of the most enormous trees we’ve ever seen. Our guide told us he thought it was over one hundred years old, but I think it was easily triple that. On our way back upriver, we saw a huge nest of “marching wasps” in a tree. When threatened, they echo through the nest in a way that sounds like hundreds of soldiers marching in step. Sure enough, when we all yelled “March,” they started up. It was definitely unnerving, and we thought it best to leave before they came to investigate.
Back at the lodge, we had time to relax for a bit before our evening foray to watch the sunset from the lagoon. This time, we were ready with suits, and enjoyed a swim in the warm waters of the Cuyabeno as the sky darkened around us. It was such a trip – swimming in the Amazon!! The girls, bent on getting exercise, stayed in much longer than the guys, and we got back to the lodge just in time for dinner.
The day, however, was not over. After dark the jungle comes alive, and our guide suggested…a night hike. Stay tuned as Elliott confronts the creepy crawlies of the Amazon jungle.