After sleeping off the heebie-jeebies from the mutant, Chernobyl night-insects of the Amazon, we kicked off the next day with another hike – this time to learn about some of the local plants of the Amazon rainforest. Along with Morgan and Kelsey, we canoed to the starting point. Our canoe driver (Manuel) took off again leaving us with a canoe we actually had to paddle if we wanted to return to civilization.
Along the trail, we found a giant nest of Leaf Cutter Ants. They seem just as diligent during the day as they were at night. And we then learned about the “Walking Palm” which has stilt like roots which allow it to change where it grows by simply throwing down roots in a new direction and letting the old ones deteriorate. The big question is: if a palm tree walks in the woods, and no one is there to see it, does it boogie like Michael Jackson?
Not much further along the trail, we got a pleasant surprise. In the middle of the jungle is a monument informing us intrepid hikers that we are, in fact, crossing the equator. Too cool! We hopped back and forth and took some photos before moving on. Elvis then showed us a flammable tree resin that the local tribes use for torches, and a type of tree that is partially hollow inside. The local tribes would use it to communicate, but I just used to bust out some funky jungle rhythms.
Next it was back to the world of bugs as Stephanie tried on a molted cicada shell “earring,” and we found another katydid desperately pretending it was a leaf. And of course, no trek through the jungle is complete without some vines to swing on. At one point, there was a log to cross over a small boggy area, and Elvis warned us to stay on the log. One member of our party mis-stepped and ended up knee-deep in muddy water that promptly filled her boot. (I won’t say who it was but I’m married to her.)
(Notes from the mis-stepper: There were several boggy areas, several logs, and I made it across many of them before falling in!! And my other half forgot to mention that 25% of the time, the logs were submerged in muddy water themselves, so we couldn’t even *see* what we were supposed to be walking on! And I wasn’t the only one to fall in by the end of the hike!)
The hike was supposed to be one way, but when we got to the end Elvis realized the canoe hadn’t been moved to the end of the trail, so we had to turn around and hike back. No worries – we got to cross the equator again! It started raining but the rain felt great. We paddled our canoe in the pouring rain, and just laughed and had a great time. What an amazing experience. We were in the Amazon, it was pouring, we were on the water, and everything was beautiful. Stephanie told Elvis she wanted to swim and he said sure, so they both jumped out of the canoe fully clothed. We – I mean the canoe – kept going forward without them and they had to swim to catch up with it. It was seriously one of those great afternoons where you can’t stop smiling and are thankful to be alive.
That night, after the requisite dip in the lagoon, we went caiman spotting again. We saw many more pairs of eyes on this night, and a full gown, 3 meter (9 ft) adult decided to come check out our canoe a little closer. And by closer, I mean *really* close – as in snapping distance. In the past, we’ve had guides who would attract crocodiles by slapping a rag tied to a stick into the water. Elvis, however just swished his hand around in the water to lure the caiman closer. He said the Spectacled Caimans were docile enough to do this, but he couldn’t try that trick with the Black Caimans. The next morning, we had caiman-shaped bread, courtesy of the fabulous cooks at our lodge.
On our last full day, we towed the small canoe out to a different lagoon, and did some manual paddling while looking for more wildlife and just drinking in the serenity. We saw birds and plants, but not much else. The whole time we were there, I had been jokingly asking to see a piranha, but apparently they hide. They’ve been given a bad rap by Hollywood. That whole strip-a-cow-to-the-bone-in-60-seconds thing? Not true. Although piranhas do eat meat, it’s usually just a nibble off the fin of another fish. Sixty percent of the time, they are vegetarians eating fruit that has fallen into the water.
After I asked about them a few times, Elvis told us it is illegal to fish for piranha in the reserve. Doing so often results in broken teeth as the fisherman removes the hook, and then the fish dies a day or so later. Concerned for their well-being, I quickly reneged and said I did not need to see a piranha, but our guide now wanted to ensure my happiness. So therefore, we did NOT tuck our canoe into a secluded little corner, we did NOT go fishing for piranha with cubes of beef, and our guide did NOT catch a Red-Bellied Piranha. Had any of that happened, our guide would have been very very careful when removing the hook , and, after a photo shoot, he would have rewarded the piranha with another chunk of beef after which it would have swum away happily like nothing happened.
In the afternoon, we took another (different) jungle hike. Since there were new people with us, it was mostly a recap of the day before. Before we left, our guide Elvis looked up at the bright blue sky, and confidently declared that we did not need to bring our rain ponchos with us. An hour later, deep in the jungle, it started to spit. Then it started to drizzle. Then it started to pour in biblical proportions. It was so hot in the jungle that the warm rain was a welcome relief. For hiking, they gave us Wellington-style galoshes, but with pants tucked in, they served to funnel all the water to our feet and hold it there. It felt like walking around on water-balloons, but it was kind of cool. And besides, we found more vines to swing on! By the time we finished hiking, and took our requisite trip to the lagoon, we were dry enough to dive in and get wet again.
Our last adventure in the jungle occurred on our way back to the lodge. When the rain had started, we put our camera in a Ziploc bag to keep it safe. Later when we went swimming, we put said bag into one of our boots to keep it protected. Motoring back to the lodge, Stephanie thought, “I’ll just dump the last of the water out of my boots,” and then shrieked as she watched our camera go over the side and into the river. Thankfully there was just enough air in the bag for it to float. Our boat operator put it in reverse, and one of our boat-mates nobly dove over the side to retrieve it for us. It had gotten wet and refused to function, but after being immersed in dry rice for a week, it came back to life, and we’re able to take photos once again.
On our last morning, we departed by canoe at 9:30 am for the trip back up the river. After lunch in Lago Agrio, we caught a bus to Quito, and then another one back to Cuenca. Twenty-two hours later, we arrived home at last, still reveling in the marvelous few days we had just experienced in what seemed like another world.