Quito, ECUADOR – After receiving yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus and Hepatitis A shots, going on malaria tablets, purchasing a mosquito net for my face, buying insect repellent with deet and quizzing anyone who has traveled within 500 miles of the Amazon rainforest, I was ready for my ensuing adventure.
“The mosquitoes are bad,” warned a recent visitor. “Avoid scented items – shampoo, soap, makeup, sunscreen. Even Coca-Cola. Don’t drink it because the sugar attracts mosquitoes.”
Despite these alerts and precautions, my daughter Kathryn and I departed from Quito for a remote lodge called La Selva (Spanish for “the jungle”). At the airport Mary Beth and Brian, a young environmentally conscious couple from Chicago, and John, a 50ish Calgary-based bird enthusiast, joined us.
Reaching the destination ensconced in Ecuador’s upper Amazon basin was half the adventure.
Following a 25-minute plane ride, a 90-minute local bus trip (commandeered by a NASCAR wannabe), a two-hour motorized canoe journey down the Napo River, a 20-minute trek on an elevated bamboo walkway (carrying a full backpack) and a dugout canoe ride across Heron Lake, we slid alongside La Selva’s welcoming dock.
“Greetings. I’m Effy, your guide,” said our English-speaking Ecuadorian naturalist.
He proceeded with warnings and info. We were cautioned not to drink water from the tap, even to brush our teeth – a large ceramic jug outside the restaurant contained drinkable water.
Excursions would be early morning and late afternoon, leaving warmer mid days for relaxation – fishing, napping, reading, whatever.
At the conclusion of the informal meeting we were fitted with knee-high rubber boots for the rainforest’s soggy mud-filled terrain.
La Selva’s dock prior to rainstorm
Kathryn and I headed to Cabin 4 – a thatched-roof hut on stilts, punctuated by a hammock swinging from its porch. Each of La Selva’s 17 cabins was similar – built in the region’s traditional Indian style but equipped with amenities like a toilet, hot shower and mosquito netting for the beds.
The only missing luxury was electricity, although there was a bathroom light (the generator was on until around 10 p.m.). After dark our return to the hut would be by flashlight, its entrance illuminated by a lantern and the room lit dimly by a sole kerosene lamp.
Our first foray into the jungle was wondrous.
“This is primary forest,” said Effy. “It’s about 10,000 years old.”
I observed our lush, compact surroundings.
Trees jetted towards the sky, seeking sunlight. A colorful, poisonous frog clung to a small branch as a millipede crept along another. Thousands of Leaf Cutter Ants carried thumbnail-size leaves in single-file procession to their underground nest. A sturdy vine strangled the trunk of one tree; nearby another was armed with one-inch needles to prevent a similar fate. The jungle clearly protected itself.
Highlights of our four-day adventure were innumerable. We fished for piranha. Kathryn caught several and the cook prepared her catch for dinner. During a late night canoe ride, a coiled python snake was spotted by flashlight in an overhead tree.
We snacked on lemon ants (recipe: wet your finger, run it along the tree’s trunk and bon appétit). And we frequently observed monkeys swinging from tree to tree – sometimes dropping two and three stories.
One morning began with a daybreak hike to a 135-foot tall tree house-like tower. From its lookout, we watched the rain forest awaken – spotting toucans and parrots in flight. And each evening we fell asleep to the indecipherable sounds of the jungle’s inhabitants.
What surprises did my Amazon adventure hold?
Mosquitoes were a non-issue. Kathryn and I never wore the extra-strength repellent with deet and ceased wearing any insect protection the final two days of our jungle visit.
The weather was hot, but it wasn’t unbearable. However, our clothing was always damp. It was impossible to have too many clean undershirts, underwear and socks.
Most importantly, I was pleased that a moderate adventurer like myself was both challenged and confident.
Our return journey began long before daybreak. At 3 a.m. I awakened to thunder and its ensuing rainstorm. “Buenas dias,” came the personal wake-up call at our door an hour later.
I was concerned.
We were to travel across the lake in a tipsy dugout canoe with all of our belongings during a downpour. I began double-bagging my camera in zip-lock plastic for extra protection.
I envisioned baling water from the canoe as our predecessors recounted of their wet arrival – but for us it would be in complete darkness.
The rain miraculously stopped at 4:15 a.m. Fifteen minutes later we departed La Selva.
“Take a photograph in your mind,” I whispered to Kathryn as we silently glided across the lake for the final time.
Effy paddled from the bow of the canoe, periodically using his flashlight to ensure he was on course. The only sounds were the soft lap of the water against the vessel’s side and the croaking of a lone bullfrog.
The black skies had cleared and stars were visible.
“Is that Orion?” Mary Beth asked Brian. “No, but there’s a satellite. See it?”
And with that statement, our re-entry to civilization all too soon began.
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