By William Graham
Over my head a brilliant blue morpho butterfly danced in the humid jungle air. It was a splash of blue against a curtain of endless green. In the trees monkeys jumped from branch to branch like Olympic gymnasts. In the sky, more species of birds than I could ever hope to know flew through the vast Amazon sky.
These images represent the beauty of the Amazon rain forest. But as I came to discover on a recent trip to the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador, the forest is not always benign. Plants, animals and insects will conspire to hurt or even kill you — from ferocious fire ants and bullets ants to vampire bats to caiman to snakes to piranhas. The Amazon is both a paradise and a place of danger. This contrast is what makes it a unique place to visit.
I visited Quito and the Amazon with my 15-year-old son. This was our second father/son trip to the wonderful country of Ecuador. We had previously been to the Galapagos Islands. Before we ventured into the jungle, we sampled the many charms of Ecuador’s capital of two million people: Quito. The city sits at an elevation of over 9,300 feet above sea level.
The vast, bustling city — which stretches nearly 20 miles from north to south, wraps around the eastern slopes of Pichincha,an active volcano over 15,000 feet high that last erupted in 1995, covering Quito with over an inch of volcanic ash. The city is named after the Quitos people, who ruled the area before being conquered by the Incas, who were in turn conquered by the Spanish invaders in the 16th century.
The best way to enjoy Quito is to spend a day or two walking through the Old Town with its many churches, museums and stores. Our guide took us to neighborhoods into which tourists rarely venture so that we could see how the locals live, work and shop.
While in Quito we also went to the Middle of the Earth Museum complex on the northern outskirts of the city. This is where you can have your picture taken straddling the northern and southern hemispheres. The facility also features a very informative history lesson about the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, especially if you want to see a real shrunken human head and learn the gruesome details of how it’s done. This info was particularly enlightening to my teenage son. I highly recommend the experience.
After our urban sojourn in Quito, we were ready to drop into a place that is the antithesis of urban — the Amazon rain forest. Our journey began with a short 30-minute flight to Coca, which sits on the Napo River (which flows into the Amazon River).
Before getting into the details about our stay in the rain forest, I think it would be useful for some background. The famous river we now know as the Amazon was initially called the Rio de Orellana — named after Francisco de Orellana, a Spanish explorer and conquistador who completed the first known navigation of the river in 1542. It took him two years from the time he departed Quito until he arrived at the Atlantic Ocean. He lost hundreds of men along the way as he searched in vain for the famous city of gold: El Dorado.
The river was renamed the Amazon by the Spanish King Charles, who learned about the ambush of de Orellana’s men by fierce women warriors of the Icamiabas tribe. This incident inspired the king to rename the river after the Greek myth of the female warriors called Amazons.
The Amazon rainforest we know today stretches across eight countries (Brazil, Peru, Ecuador Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Suriname and French Guyana) and covers over 2.7 million acres of land. The rain forest in which we stayed in Ecuador is in the eastern part of the country that borders Peru and Colombia.
Our journey to the Sacha Lodge (“Sacha” means “forest” in the local Quichua language) began with a two-hour motorized boat trip down the Napo River, followed by a 20-minute walk through the jungle, and culminated in a 20-minute canoe trip to the lodge itself. There are no roads into this remote property, which opened in 1992 and covers 4500 acres of pristine rainforest. The lodge was the created out of the wilderness by a visionary Swiss man named Arnold Ammeter.
The lodge experience was incredible. All guests are lodged in a comfortable cabin with modern amenities. The real excitement comes when you are assigned guides who take you out on multiple excursions during the day and night. If you go to the Amazon, be prepared for heat, humidity and rain. In short, you will likely sweat and get wet. As for mosquitoes, however, I can honestly say that they were not an issue — a pleasant surprise to be sure.
At Sacha Lodge, you will encounter many kinds of birds and animals. Indeed, the area is a bird watchers’ paradise. In the small country of Ecuador alone there are over 1600 different species of birds, which is about as many species that are in North America and Europe combined! Neither my son nor I were “birders” before we went to the Amazon, but we were soon swept up in the search for different types of birds that swoop in and out of the forest. Our eagle-eyed guides could literally spot birds from one or two miles away. I don’t know how many times I said to the guides: “How can you possibly see that?” But when I looked through the binoculars, there was the bird.
In addition to developing at least a novice joy of bird watching, some of the other animals we got up close and personal with included a caiman (a South American alligator); a giant river otter; howler, squirrel, capuchin and owl monkeys; an agouti — a large mouse-like rodent the size of a house cat; a boa constrictor: an anaconda that was 18 feet long; tarantulas; and leaf-cutting, fire and bullets ants. The leaf-cutting ants were fascinating. They march up trees with military precision, cut leaves and carry them back to the nest for their queen. Our guide mentioned that when you see such an ant carrying a leaf, it would be as if we were carrying a grand piano in our mouths. That’s one strong ant!
We also spent a morning learning about the daily lives of the Quichua people. Two women showed us how they prepare food and drink for their families. Then they cooked a traditional lunch for us, which featured fire-roasted grubs. I tried some. My son did not. I liked them. But I don’t think the grubs will soon appear on the menu at our home in Vermont.
As we departed the lodge, we were both grateful to have experienced the beauty and grandeur of the Amazon rain forest, which has been described accurately as the “lungs of the earth.” The plants and animals need to be protected. Our existence is directly linked to the continued existence of a thriving ecosystem in the Amazon rain forest.
William Graham is a poet, novelist and travel writer who lives in Stowe, Vermont. His latest children’s book was inspired by the Amazon: Olivia Turner’s Amazing Amazon Adventure.