“Where the plantain are we gonna park the bikes for the night?” I barked down the helmet’s intercom at Jason, as we cruised into Caucasia around dusk. Scruffy buildings with washing strewn all over them dominated the municipality. Daylight was rapidly receding. Some Scots cruised up on their 1200ccs, the three amigos whom we’d missed out on meeting in Medellín and the five of us unknowingly kicked the side-stands down at a US government protected hotel. I was in high spirits as we walked away from the reception desk, somehow having managed to assimilate a negotiation of room rates strategy into my lexicon of survival Spanish for the group. A few friendly beers and a night’s worth of banter later, they offered us a trio of eyes for Central America, the Scots’ next destination. Fine fellas.
The next morning, the sun beat down with a club like intensity and my clothes clung diabolically to my body in clammy wet folds. Our daily norm. As we bounded through the overcrowded barrios—neighbourhoods via a busy connecting road, I did my utmost to ride like a Colombian motorcyclist; sticking my neck out and overtaking in the face of oncoming heaving great freighters. I’ve got quite a way to go to compete with the locals, not being the first to observe some were bearing flesh the shade of roasted coffee beans. Which reminded me, I was going to need sunscreen factor ‘Paint’ in a realistic aim to baste over bake here. Upon enjoying the hiatus of a departing sun but by no means the humidity—the ugly sister part of Cartagena unfurled her least redeeming features.
Reuniting and spending half a week in Cartagena with Mikey and Orla was outright cheeky postcard fun. From beginning to end, we seemed to spend more time erupting cavernous laughs than anything else, and saying our goodbyes was easier than the previous two occasions, knowing there’d be a next time. No drama, hasta luego chicos!
Within half a day from Cartagena, we had mosied on and met Minca, a hidden gem where dense vegetation scaled the mountainside up to a snow capped line before running back down to a sparkling turquoise shoreline. Fruits and colours ran rampant while the sun—searing those in Cartagena below—abated just enough to permit a lovely breeze atop our Sans Souci hostel. It took the edge off the afternoon’s hairdryer heat at least. An invigorating dip in the hostel’s cosy pool cooled me instantly; the fan in our room didn’t have a prayer in keeping up. Drying off almost immediately, I swung gently from a hammock, falling into a leave-me-here-forever siesta.
Minca is the perfect place if you adore your nights to be almost as hot as the days, alongside seeing to the odd spell of lethargy in the height of the heat. I liked the early evening best, when the light wrapped every contour of the landscape in a patina of pure gold. I looked out from our hostel, a perfect viewing platform to simple Colombian life settled upon the mountainside. Gorging my eyes on four toucans making their way home as the sun started to set, auburn red squirrels dashed from branch to branch while hummingbirds fluttered around frantically. Just eyeballing them was exhausting. It’s official: I’d reached an unprecedented level of lazy. Dusk deepened into the night, settling over the land like a dark blue cape. The blue deepened to smoky indigo, it was easy to let my soul drift on the beauty around me. Yep, this place in Colombia was achingly agreeable.
Bobbling a little further up Minca’s broken and unsurfaced road, we hit a pot of black gold at La Victoria. Not the oily variety, an English-built organic coffee plantation, now owned by a German couple. All processes were air- and water-pressure operated; every coffee plant was tended by hand including picking each individual bean. I’d think twice about sourcing big city, lower grade supermarket coffee; all the good stuff stays within local villages as a whopping 70 per cent is sold for export.
A fascinating story unfolded where FARC guerrillas came to La Victoria a short number of years back, assumed occupation by effectively squatting on the premises for the long haul. (And Minca in its entirety for that matter, made attractive to the belligerents for its all-seeing-eye vantage points and one-way entry.) The coffee plantation had been left to the son of a German man that had passed away. Frustrated but remarkably composed, the son walked onto his inherited estate, unarmed and calmly sat down to negotiate.
Long story short, the son managed to: communicate the guerrilla’s new responsibilities of running the place alongside the massive debt they’d have to manage against the banks; convinced them all to either embrace such a livelihood; or leave. Not a single shot was fired and without any further persuasion, they all scarpered. Another variation of the story involved the guerrillas working and living beside the German owner, all mucking in to keep the plantation a going concern, before eventually deciding to make tracks and skedaddle. Whichever the more accurate account, it left me with a profound sense of intrigue about the feel-good closure.
Coinciding with our laid-back, hammock-swinging days in Colombia, we sauntered up to Rancho Relaxo, a four minute stroll from the beach and a forty minutes ride to Palomino. I gravitated towards the personable owners, around my age, particularly Ryan who laughed enough to migrate an entire flock of birds. The place sat in a beautiful setting with rates to match, so I casually enquired if they had a website, declaring that we were carrying a drone. A twinkle in Ryan’s eyes suggested that he guessed the fanciful direction of my thoughts. And I felt pure gratitude when I noted his expression—his face every feature a picture of understanding. The rates for a private room plunged to within reach; in exchange for ten minutes of raw aerial footage. Winner winner, chicken dinner!
Upon a wish to return to Palomino—and it was a shame that for the first time we lacked the time—we’d hire an indigenous Arhuaco chap called Bienvenido. At the right price, he’d guide us on foot for a week or so, high up and trek deep into the mountains to track down jaguars. Now there’s a lure in its purest form.
Our last look at Colombia came in Cartagena, tucked away high on a stony hill at an Air B&B, affectionately strap lined: ‘Livin in the Barrio’. While not sailing motorcycles to and from Panama on the Stahlratte ship, Ludwig floated around the B&B. Given his professional matter-of-fact correspondence, he was about the most unexpected person known to my imagination. A larger than life German character, he had the appearance of a sun kissed, avuncular hippy. I just had to look at him and thought ‘lentils’. It wasn’t just his appearance that was outlandish—clad in either his snug undercrackers or just a towel—he also possessed a novel sense of humour. I warmed to him instantly; his jokes as my-sides-are-hurting-now funny as his laugh, this guy was a firebrand alright. Playful personified..!
Cataloging his mannerisms as wildly unpretentious, forthcoming without being over-familiar and so effortlessly at ease in his bronzed skin, I felt enmeshed in his happy aura. A solid and transparent sphere of cheerfulness. His lips were pursed in a smile even when he wasn’t smiling. And when he did smile, it curled at the corners of his lips—one movement away from a roar of hilarity about to burst forth. This guy could hardly contain himself and I was in a permanent state of amusement because of it.
To add further fun and frolics to the raft of entertainment, we met Mike, Shannon and Clinton. Two Americans and a Kiwi, all astride splendidly light Suzukis: hellbent on giving me more laughter lines. They were heading south having covered a tidy portion of territory we’d be wending our way through; engaging in a monster information swopping exercise seemed only right and rational in middle Earth. I love it when you get to ‘pay it forward’ with travellers on the road.
Mike had seen previous pictures of us online and must’ve studied me anew because it tickled him pink that I wasn’t “the ‘churchy lady’ with a pocket for her Bible” he’d envisaged—after a few days under the same roof with me. Mike’s voice was perpetually laced with a cheeky streak, which teased the feistiest form from the lot of us. Guttural laughter rose continuously with a boisterous beauty, pervading the close air.
I wouldn’t argue that Colombia was my ‘Go to’ South American country but it was by no means a ‘Don’t bother’ part of the continent. Despite its twice- and thrice-fried, cholesterol-filled, gob-smacking heart-stoppers. Fortunately, there’s a whole array of placatory fruits for the arteries in Colombia, which were totally new to me. The most exotic quickly became an unassuming orange skinned, fleshy green fruit called lulo—whose flavourful taste convened somewhere between gooseberry and lemon. I’d heard of various people raving about it, but believe me, it all but turned my face inside out, sucking the moisture from my mouth in the process. Startling; strange; citric thing. It catapulted me out of my languid torpor if nothing else.
With only a handful of main highways in Colombia, it facilitated travel around its curvaceous landscapes; the Andes and its coffee-covered valleys, the Amazon rainforest, the sandy coastlines of the Pacific and Caribbean, and the Llanos—plains. Unexpected extras like Minca cropped up and the tantalising prospect of jaguars, which restored my confidence in a place whose past is as wretched as it is woeful. It’s a country that’s easier to misconstrue than mitigate—yet it has more on offer than people—myself included appreciate.
So that concludes our 14-month chapter of South America. We’ve meandered for 22,000 miles, mostly up, bearing enough Latin American memories to last a lifetime. And to be fair, I really think I’ve only just gotten a feel for this overland motorcycling malarkey. Admittedly, it’s nowhere near as mind-bogglingly difficult or body-beseeching as I’d imagined, but it is as ‘out there’ as we’d come to date. Not ones to rush, an extended and jaw-on-the-floor year has been spent in almost every corner, nook and cranny of South America—a continent into which we’ve sunk our teeth and hearts. Bodies a little more intact over budget, we were all set for the next volume.
Reluctantly extricating ourselves from the Ecuadorian jungle, we found ourselves in a non-lulling state of head-loll as the bus buckarooed its way back to the concrete jungle, Quito. Seated near to a pair of young males, I overheard a similarly aged girl sat adjacent pipe up: “Sorry, I’ve got to ask: why’ve you got a broom with you?”
“Oh ya, this is so fun-ny” in between hyena-like laughter, as though caught out by his own hilarity, “I’ve literally just bought it so that my friend Will, here, will have to carry it around where ever he goes. Crazy I know but not as crazy as Will. Ya, Will bought a parrot and gave it to his friend Mark at the start of his round the world tour. He’s had to carry it around with him the whole time, and get this: smuggle it across borders by putting it in the fridge on the back of buses! I know, hil-ari-ous!” The girl burst into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. I turned the volume up on my David Attenborough audio book—being back astride Pearl couldn’t come quick enough.
As cyclones in Colombia, due primarily to the last ferry crossing the Darien Gap to Panama ending for the foreseeable, we had to roar up the road like conquistadors. And faced only four scanty weeks in which to do so. Entering Colombia all guns blazing—stiflingly hot—the first thing we encountered was guns and riders. So many of each but one whose nose was poised pointing down, while the other was razz-tazzing around like a sniffer dog. Thumbs up from virtually every armed soldier was the order of the day—a reassuring state of civil rest, where security remains an issue on occasion in the southern portion of the country. So far, so calm.
That is, until I was rudely bumped by a local on his 125cc, flinging me forward haphazardly in a drunkard fashion up a hill. Easy chap. Keep your eyes ahead, would you, dear? No matter, my thoughts were elsewhere: the heavy presence of the military didn’t stop me pondering if we were already wandering on ground unwelcome. Good work either way fellas (although fellas might be stretching it; most hadn’t yet broken into that deeper octave range), and gracias for watching our backs against any unsavoury acts from guerrillas or armed bandits.
Go figure: Colombia’s reputation isn’t exactly speculative. Neil Bennion in his book Dancing Feat neatly summarised—and I barely summarise his words—that it started with one of those long, drawn-out internal conflicts back in the mid-60s, with its root in La Violencia—a period known as The Violence in the 1940s. The death toll over fifteen years reached an estimated 300,000, came to an end around 1958. What started as brutal, politically aggravated vengeance became the norm until Colombia was drowning in its own blood. An agreement was eventually struck between two political parties but the shadow of that era still looms, not least in the form of armed groups that emerged thereafter.
Bennion continues to explain that it’s not just the FARCs (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) that seem to elicit all the media’s attention, they’re just one of many militants across three main divisions: “left-wing groups (known as guerrillas), right-wing groups (known as paramilitaries) and government forces. Together they’ve been involved in a special citizen-twatting competition, with the first two also showing a predilection for terrorism, kidnapping and drug trafficking. And whilst in recent times the guerrillas have very much been pushed back to the margins of the country, all the entities are still very much alive and present in the belly of Colombia.” Days after riding out of the coffee zone that is Cali and its neighbouring areas, it was reported that a FARC group had shot ten soldiers there. Good grief. I’d heard of a Colombian guy recently commenting “After 200 years we’re still uncivilised. We haven’t learnt to value our freedom and all that we’ve been given.”
Thanks to Lady Luck, we only fell victim to a phenomenon that troubles various South American countries—arroyos—street rivers. Part way up Colombia, we rode into a town treading water in a torrent of rain having sought out shelter for the night: a love hotel in Tuluá moments before. Eyeball-sized rivulets of rain streaming down aside, what the pair of us couldn’t stop staring at all evening was the main attraction, right above our heads.
Lightning bounced around inside the purple belly of a bank of dark clouds as thunder billowed deeply in our ears. Talk about electric. Loving the love hotel—the entire bathroom was on display in the corner of an open plan bedroom—there goes any mystery in one’s relationship. Still, such gaudy establishments always offer a perfect place for not only couples eager to consummate their premarital relationship, folks having a fling and needing a little discretion but foremost, motorcycle overlanders in daily requirement of secure parking. Boom! Forget third base, that’s a home run.
Although Colombia’s reputation is far from remedied, the country is undergoing some serious amelioration. For the first time in a long time, tourist revenue has overtaken the income generated from coffee export. What’s more, the drug cartels were largely disbanded in the late ‘90s. Even so, Bennion informs “where big efforts have had some success, in the bigger, international picture there is still an ongoing problem of the ‘balloon effect’. This is where you squeeze it in one place and it grows bigger somewhere else.”
While the khaki-clad boys had our backs on Colombian turf, we watched the backs of beefy but immobile iguanas on asphalted turf—suddenly coming into view a little faster than felt comfortable at 50 miles per hour. Magnetised to the warmth of the sun-baked road, I slammed on the brakes a flurry of times and swerved in order to avoid elongating these already lengthy reptiles. The novelty of arboreal lizards frequenting roads rather than trees soon passed—the choked carriageways comprise such a spectrum of road users—undertaking becomes a sucking-your-backside-up-through-your-heart necessity.
Munching miles, we ploughed bottom up through Colombia; impossible to miss an inordinate number of low flying vultures and the odd pair of kites overhead. As well, the prevalence of deforestation and low-lying cane toads—the former being an utter disservice to the latter. We were half way up the country and the security detail all but disappeared. It was one of those rare occasions where an absence of evidence is actually valid evidence, where lack of guns spelled a more peaceful place. I didn’t exactly need to be reminded to stay off ground uninvited—this was Colombia..!
A flying visit meant we managed to see little and less of Medellín, although listening to Lucy, our hostel owner of Grand Hostel flung us right into her past hell. Tearing up, Lucy briefly touched upon her first boyfriend’s merciless death, his life executed by guerrillas for greenbacks. She went onto relay the story of a well-known wealthy family—employing 2,000 employees in their company—whose figurehead, the father got kidnapped. The eldest son arranged a non-negotiable exchange of his father held hostage, for himself. Or no money thereafter. The kidnappers agreed, surrendered the father and took the son captive. Within the next six months after the exchange, the family, including third cousins removed all left Colombia—many to the States.
The son beforehand, had organised his own hefty and private army to enter the jungle once his family could be deemed at a safe distance, and attempt his no-guarantee-getting-out-alive rescue. There must be a God; the mission was a success—no family member was murdered nor a cent paid to the captors. Around 80 guerrillas were killed. Business operations ceased and proceeds were distributed to the family and ex-employees. This was one of a handful of happy-ish endings. People have not forgotten, nor will they ever be likely to forgive.
NB: Special thanks goes to Neil Bennion, author of Dancing Feat whose un-put-downable account of Colombia added meaningful value to my experience of the country. Top stuff!
In Luis’ back garden one bright morning, he randomly brought out a couple of snakes he’d caught for identification and study purposes, before releasing them back to where he’d scooped them up. For God’s sake, let me take hold of one. Had I been body-snatched? On the brink of flinging it away from me in a trajectory as far as one could manage with pipe-cleaner arms, I held onto my teetering nerve along with the writhing creature. To calm myself, I called it Sally; now a ‘she’, I noticed Sally possessed the temperament of a purring pussy cat; and wasn’t actually writhing at all; rather, lay quite still in my hands. She didn’t even have teeth.
Minutes later, I happily handed Sally back to Luis. I’d just done something that had terrified me. Relinquishing irrational fear is a process and I suppose I’d undergone the necessary-evil start of one. If nothing else, I remained unruffled on the proceeding night walks. And wasn’t it Elizabeth Gilbert that said, “The point is not for you to do something that’s never been done before. The point is for you to do something you’ve never done before.” I headed off back to my cabin feeling satisfaction rather than smugness. You betcha!
Stepping foot into the Amazon rainforest by day is a world apart from its overpoweringly exotic experience at night. In dappled daylight, you are entering: a pharmacy and DIY first-aid kit; a carpenter’s dream and house-builder’s heaven; a birth control clinic and beauty parlour. As a starter for ten. It’s the Genie’s bottle inside Aladdin’s Cave. I was too human to absorb the significance of everything engulfing me but tried to drink in the enrapturing benefits of it all. Starting with smearing an anti-wrinkle tree sap around my eyes, upon which Jason assured me took a day off.
The sap of one tree for instance is used to cure diarrhoea while the potent sap of another would do more than bung up your business; it would anesthetise, or in greater quantities kill as a component in a poisoned dart. Luis had to use something approaching ‘the knowledge’ in order to avoid getting us all heinously lost, especially penetrating the swampland. We later encountered a tiger vine, which when a negligible sized nugget is cut away, boiled down to a treacle like oil and drunk, relieves symptoms of asthma. Whoa!
Next up, a tenant-loathing tree grabbed my attention when I learned that it sheds its ‘skin’ every year or so, in order to cast off anything parasitic—clinging on for a free ride. The natives refer to it a selfish tree, although I preferred to think it was ‘survival-chic’. I meandered a little further along the snaking forest floor and met a walking tree. Sounds like a scene from Lord of the Rings meets a scene out of Avatar—what a profound message-invoking movie that was—but this tree was literally capable of upheaval, putting down new roots and moving 20 centimetres about every 20 years. Por qué? To remain in an optimum position, alive and kicking. Well, it’s more of a snail-paced walker. Knock me sideways; utterly dumbfounded. What Jason and I wouldn’t do to become Luis’ lifelong apprentices.
We stuck our fingers on the latex sap of a rubber tree, observing from where the material of our wellington boots and ponchos had derived. The jungle canopies alone give adequate protection from showers. A tiny cut made by Luis into an inconspicuous tree oozed a strong anti-malaria sap—one where the smallest of smears spread on the crease of your arms at the elbow and cheeks—the places where you sweat first—combined to emit the most potent smell, apparently; an aroma that mosquitoes loathe and will keep their distance for hours on end. Armed with rain gear, repellent and rubber boots along with my Girl Guide approach, I really needn’t have bothered.
Luis pointed to a tree bearing an exotic orange coloured fruit—its vitamin C levels tenfold that of an orange and one that can be fermented to produce a rather energising beverage. If you can’t be a good Girl Guide and glug a little too much of the enticing ‘Red Bull and vodka’ jungle equivalent, you may end up needing the tree rich in a substance capable of preventing the prospect of pregnancy. Indeed, there’s no morning after pill here but guess where the chemical properties of said birth control capsule comes from? Amazing, ya.
If you are a good Girl Guide or Boy Scout, you might not fancy getting gazebo’ed in the jungle with your fellow foresters. Then why not snap a twig from a scrawny branch off another particular tree, light up the end and enjoy a soothing smoke on a long, somewhat-skinnier-than-average ‘cigar’. No nasties inhaled either—beats the non-nicotine out of those faux Parker Pen cigarettes. And keeps any biting blighters at bay to boot!
Upon side-stepping around a city of termite houses, we eventually noticed that they were always constructed on the west side of the forest. Why’s that then? Because when it rains here, precipitation always comes from the east. Did you know that the exterior of their habitats also incorporate ridged drainage systems, which allow any rainfall to neatly drain off and divert away from the material holding their live-in premises together. Talk about enterprising engineers and award-winning architects for ingenuity.
On an arbitrary note, I clocked columns upon columns of leaf cutter ants, all on their global deforestation programme. They crossed the trail, carrying dismembered plants from one side to the other, despite there being plenty of plants on the side they were already on. The reason for this I am yet to become enlightened. Every so often I’d spot a lost ant away from the colony; like a line dancer looking for a line.
Although the snuggery of Siona Lodge was more untouched by tourism—the Caiman lodge in our second week was the landing spot for backpackers—attracted by the mixture of low cost and authenticity. A shock to the system having left the sunny exuberance of Luis and four other like-minded jungle-adoring explorers, compared to around 30 kids and 10 others all chomping at the bit for a piece of jungle pie. Come now, let’s have you all jump aboard the motorised canoe and tootle back from whence you came. Not that I was suffering from a bout of fellow-outsiders-ruining-my-authentic-experience annoyance or anything.
Plus, I’ve never been sold on the idea of modern-day ‘adventure tourism’. For me, adventures should involve chewing your way through undergrowth with your bare teeth, dodging jaguars and patching up wounds with a spider monkey. Going on well-established tours several times daily, led by guides who cater for all your needs is only as ‘out there’ as going to a job interview wearing a loud tie.
“Mira”, pointed David, our new naturalist guide at Caiman Lodge bringing me back to where I should be. Look. A load of yellow-handed titty monkeys. Arrr, wow—haven’t seen those before. See Lisa, stop being prissy because all’s good again. It always was. Just look where you are! The two of us were given free rein with our own personal guide, away from the masses and the rigidity of schedules, plus a second week in the Amazon for free in exchange for some professional shots and a little aerial footage. Which kept us just about on budget despite being where we were…right oh, I’ll stop being a ginger whinger.
A canopy tower from the Caiman Lodge, at 25 metres tall gave us access to a different perspective, showing us secret gardens of jungle life from the treetops—impossible to see from the understory—standing like a sentinel guarding the fruits of the forest. It facilitated travel through different levels of the rainforest and emerged us on top of the canopy. Caiman Lodge was growing on me fast.
David had to depart so hanging out with Vin, perhaps one of the Caiman Lodge’s most knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides took over and us deep into the Amazon. By means of a slightly leaky, slow-going paddle canoe. The experience that greeted us was worth the wait. While we watched tropical birds and chatted like monkeys for hours, Vin had a 101 stories—all filled with firsthand knowledge of indigenous peoples throughout South America, their shaman culture, the forest and rural life. What it is and what it can be. I felt at ease and content, full of peace around the guy.
The Amazon has to be one of the most exuberant places on Earth, a place some people still get to call home. Upon entering a native village Puerto Bolivar one day, I got to glimpse a life so simple, so achingly beautiful that I couldn’t stop staring: a laughing child waving at a canoe, a shawl-clad woman gracefully throwing grain to her hens. A breathless charm. Each little thatched lodge we passed, nestling amongst its banana palms, drenched in sunlight, was a vision of Eden. A vision of happiness I wanted to keep. Surrounded by the Amazon’s wreath of wildlife, I was beginning to think…Could we stay right here; til the end of time; til the Earth stops turning? The forest was starting to get at something very deep in me.
A stillness settled over the lake as dusk grew closer. A hand pointed at 9 o’clock from the bow and I led my eyes in said direction. A fully matured boa coiled itself serenely around a low tree branch, at eye-line with us in the canoe. Like the snake, I was unable to blink. I watched the silken surface of a small inlet below, broken only by brown and gold leaves that fluttered onto it from nearby trees. My life it seemed, had been transformed, the scales fallen from my eyes. I idly scooped up some water and let it aimlessly trickle through my fingers. How on Mother Earth would we leave this place? They say endings are usually laced with regret while beginnings are sprinkled with hope. We glided close to the bearded shores of the creek to get a more intimate look at this limbless reptile. She was a boa beauty, embossed with a flawless and bewitching skin.
The Amazon’s orchestra of indigenous organisms—comprises en ensemble so large in one given location—is, well, beyond wild. The air is permanently alive with cicadas; in harmony with a pacifying symphony of tropical birdsong, which paints the air with colour; magnified by growls from the howler monkeys; and a bit of base from the bull frogs. Mentally spent from over-stimulation with cravings for more—despite holding in a myriad set of visuals—is how one will leave the Amazon. Because fortunately, your filters will be forgotten. We lived, breathed, ate and slept at becoming one with nature; my umbilical cord connecting with the roots of the jungle so profoundly, I felt an energy like no other.
The hauntingly beautiful power that Pachamama—Mother Earth had over us was simply a given. Not to mention almost tangible forces at all levels: whether furrowed deep in the understory, forging ahead on the forest floor or reining over all high in the treetops—we absorbed an assembly of colours, sounds, scents and the most captivating creatures on Earth. A chance to perceive life ancestral of Pachamama and forest nature; it’s all here in the lungs of the planet. Yet in the face of wanting to feast our eyes on it all, we only saw a finger monkey’s breadth of it.
The morning greeted us to the near-imperceptible flap of a long nosed bat and gentle flurry of notes from Luis’ panpipes, our breakfast call. The previous evening’s brown scorpion—stuck to our shower curtain like a brooch—had scuttled off. Into a small wooden canoe we climbed, clasped a paddle and off the three of us went into the watery wild. Clouds haunted the surface water as we forged our way through the creases and folds of the forest’s labrinth of watery highways . A distinct and rapid tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap ensued. I had no idea that a woodpecker’s tongue is curled around the back of the head between the skull and skin—or that a thick, spongy bone buffers its brain—befitting a lifetime’s worth of hardcore boring with its chisel-like bill. Now there’s a bird that can’t turn around to its partner and say, ‘Sorry darling. I’ve got a headache.”
A rarely sighted ringed woodpecker appeared to have fed well that morning; the strong sun was welcome; its young were long gone from the year’s nest. He was happy to perch on an old gnarled cedar and cock a bright eye at the curious comings and goings below.
A troop of mocha brown woolly monkeys, including a pregnant mama seated on the mid branches in the tree tops, stared intently at us—wondering what we’d do next. Their prehensile tails facilitate the movement and dexterity of a fifth hand, and boast such Olympian level agility, I was simply awed by their ‘blink and you’d miss’ nimble movements. I sharply turned low and left, it’s a challenge to stay focused on one species when there’s always something else vying for your attention—like the pygmy kingfisher—swooping down over the water. Or a three-metre pink river dolphin coming up momentarily for a bubbly breather.
Monkey business doesn’t even begin to do the capuchins justice. A family of these intrepidly clever capuchins were lured into our lodge—taking their name from a cap of hair on the head which has the appearance of a cowl. We watched the interplay of hierarchical power cascading; the alpha male exerting his dominance over his young, successfully intercepting any banana swung their way. Others relented early on and took to snoozing on a branch, at an arm’s throw from us. Probably one of the closest displays of fiery jungle life, for which we had the ‘right-place-at-the-right-time’ fortune of seeing.
The yellow rumped Cacique bird was something else altogether. Jet black and mustard in plummage, the male in particular comes prepped with an innate talent to imitate the calls and cries of other species. Multilingual, it can lucidly shriek: “Shove off mate, you’re encroaching my crib!” The male is also adept in assuming an overarching role of leadership. The champion of delegation but a chauvinistic taskmaster, the male will often have up to ten wives with which to crack the whip. Its raucous squawks are reverberated—purely to coerce the females to tirelessly labour in retrieving threads for nest-building. Once the belligerent vertebrate deems sufficient material has been gathered, it screams some more for its married-to minions to start construction work. So many required nests in fact, this little dictator is able to oversee and implement the perfect decoy for its predator, the toucan. Only one centralised nest will contain all of the Cacique’s precious eggs (don’t think they belong to the female counterparts), concealed by a massive clutch of empty nests. Aggressive tyranny but an effective ‘Survival of the fittest’ result all the same.
A seemingly sedate spectacled caiman came to the water’s edge now and again, lured by Luis’ ‘educational purposes’ bits of bread. Those beefy reptiles can emulate a floating log better than a floating log. I was told a true story about a native woman who’d encountered a particularly aggressive caiman—seconds away from taking her. Without hesitation, she hoisted her spear-sharpened canoe paddle and plunged it into the soft spot on his head before he could steal the claws of victory. As menacing as the reputations preceded such crocodilians, the one metres away from our cabin was as placid as Playdough. Despite being terrorised by biting insects in bloody hot pursuit of it; I would’ve been on the brink of madness.
The older I get, the more fascinated by birds I become. Courtesy of the vivacious jay, another screeching bird, sounds a call so piercing that Luis frequently makes use of them. He finds the origin of their terrorising signals—emitted to deter whatever has walked into its territory uninvited—as failsafe indicators as to where there is something else worth seeing. Cue an unassuming baby boa constrictor that had slithered inadvertently into the jay’s patch. While pouring over the intricate pattern of the snake, Luis recalled upon seeing an owl once, all but skinned alive by the jays; bird of prey feathers fluttering in the air akin to a kid’s pillow fight at their first slumber party. Don’t violate the terms of a vivacious jay, you will come off worse..!
When we clocked various pods of pink river dolphin, you can’t help but state, “They’re not pink.” Marvellous observation, Miss Morris, there’s no flies on you. That’ll be my jungle-strength repellant. Indeed, they’re grey. Their skin only turns a rosy shade of pink when—just in the same vein as people—they become flushed from frolicking, fornicating and other forms of excitement. They also have the ability to turn their heads 360 degrees to optimise intake of the nutrient rich soup in which they swim, but never sleep. Their constant need to breath every five minutes or so means it’s impossible to take even a siesta. How they’re not pathologically tired is beyond me.
I beg your pardon, back to birds. Amid the rare orchids, bromeliads and bamboo cane, hanging vines and shrubs all worked together to protect the ‘broken branch tree’ bird, the potoo. Nocturnal, this stealth creature by day is so heavily camouflaged that it took our group the best part of 20 minutes to all spot it; perched upright in a tree next to, well, several broken branches. Equally as challenging to clock is the pocket monkey—a pygmy marmoset—about the size of a mouse engorged on too much cheese. It’s roughly the length of your little finger, weighs about 100 grams and mayhaps the most adorable creature I’ve laid eyes on. The mother always gives birth to twins twice a year but when she does, the parental care is shared between the troop. Tough love in the jungle; I guess that’s nature—poor little mites, I mean monkeys.
Our guide Luis had a crop of dark hair, and that sunny indigenous skin I was seeing so much of in the jungle. He was quite short with a solidity of body, without actually being fat. Passion oozes from this guy’s pores. Never to raise a false alarm, spotting wildlife that shows almost imperceptible movement is his forte and seeking out anything stealth is his speciality. I guessed half the time he instinctively just knew where things lived. He’s a living Crocodile Dundee—indulging his daily soft spot for snakes while paralleling the passion of Steve Erwin’s fixation with wildlife. But far less gun ho and far more trained by his tribal father at grassroots, the textbook and in the field. Numerous bouts of malaria, Dengue Fever, stings from bullet ants, bites of spiders and snakes—including one from a viper, has left him with quite the battle-scarred set of limbs. Not to mention an impenetrable immunity from all the venom and neurotoxins having coursed his veins. Always a silver lining.
Our ‘Man of the Forest’—seems more fitting than ‘Luis’—grew up practically naked in the jungle. (Remember it is 99.9 per cent humidity there, give the guy some slack(s). Offer him a pair and he’d probably deferentially decline; unless they were light weight and quick drying.) And was blessed with the teachings from his father of the Shuar tribe and mother from the Kichwa clan, which was pretty controversial to marry across different kinfolk once upon a time. When Luis’ father taught him to fish for example, he showed him where to locate a particular tree sap—along with all the other purposeful trees—with a soap-like substance, collect just enough to release into fishy waters, which subsequently gives fish a light gill-irritation bringing them to the surface in order to seek richer oxygenated air. Up the fish poke, and landing the catch of the day is easier than shooting fish in a barrel. What enviable if not invaluable local knowledge.
Luis’ father, and I forever digress—in the winter of his days—was persecuted for participation in ‘head-shrinking’. It’s an ancient ritual that among other less savoury and more gruesome purposes, preserves the human spirit once the body has deceased. This is achieved by shriveling the removed skin of a human head, treating it in a conserving concoction, and keeping it close to the living so they may continue to live in close proximity. I can’t help my morbid curiousity around this and would love to see an example in the withered flesh.
To complete the kudos and credentials, Luis is fluent in both of his parents’ native languages, plus a third picked up as a child. Then he naturally adapted to Spanish, saw the benefit of speaking English and is self-taught in German. I’d also add there isn’t a species in the Amazon that he doesn’t know in Latin to boot. After retiring as an instructor in the army for five years, and amongst being headhunted to guide for various National Geographic projects, Luis has been a naturalist for 17 years. A résumé with which David Attenborough would be hard pressed to beat, eh David? “When you come back to the jungle, I invite you to come and stay in my village, with my family. And then we go into the forest looking for snakes!” were Luis’ parting words to us. Man alive, I’m looking forward to that invitation.
The penis fish or vagina fish, depending on your preference, is an aquatic species that comes with a fathomlessly ghastly purpose. Its humble beginnings start as a small catfish, but is capable of instinctively entering almost any orifice where there’s sustenance. Including any human male or female waist deep in water having a pee, or menstruating, respectively, via the genitalia. Why the catfish-in-hell would it wish to do that? Simply, to tear through tissue until locating its favourite dish, your blood. The creature will grow at an astounding rate, striving for maturity at around 14 centimetres and won’t stop devouring your fortifying lifeblood until it does. These things commonly swim around the the white waters of the Amazon, but by no means are contained to such areas. I went for a ‘refreshing dip’ on a few occasions in black water but each time wondered ‘What if…’ Don’t think about it—the probability remained low. It’s the caimans or piranhas that are going to smart.
One of the highlights was a day trek—deep in the rainforest. As I squeezed through the thicket of jungle, a police bird’s siren put me on high alert from the outset. Relaaax, your adrenaline levels are spiking already. Luis piped up, “Don’t fall off the slippery log now Lisa, it’s waist deep swamp water below you.” Oh look, an army of bullet ants, akin to a viper’s neurotoxins. I’ll just side-step around those bad boys. When Luis got bitten by one in his teens, his father collected a few of the culprit ants, mashed up their backsides into an organic pulp, which made the perfect anti-venom. Boom! The excruciating pain fades away. Other ants—known as ‘Take-your-clothes-off’ ants—are still used by the people of the forest when their dogs for example, become languid. They place them in a biting nest of these blighters, which does rather more than energise the dog; it just about keeps it on its toes for the rest of time. The indigenous must really loathe laziness.
Talk about balance. Pachamama—Mother Earth is all about control, hasn’t she always been? Spiders for example produce prolific numbers, which is wonderful from the arachnid perspective but there are only so many predators of the spider—they simply can’t keep up. It’s not unusual for a spider to produce a clutch of around 1,200 babies. Cue the fungi-curbing. The ‘zombie fungus’—cordicep—chooses a creature, in this case a spider as the host; plays mind games with it; and convinces the arachnid to move to an optimum spot in which the fungus can thrive. The fungus can then relax and concentrate on devouring its host, tasty too, and start to sprout vine-like appendages from the inside-out. Seems quite fun-gusizing for the cordicep. It leaves the corpse caked in a crystalline powder of white dust. Thank fungus there are those in the forest.
Back in our canoe, we all leaned comfortably on the backrests. I gazed up and let the Amazon wash over me. Lowering my eyes from the skies rife with birdlife and with the sharp eyes of Luis, led us to the tail of a yellow crowned brush tailed rat. A hermit in the hole of a tree trunk. Rodents out here can grow up to 20 kilograms. What?! The same afternoon gave us an intimate encounter with a tamandua anteater, seen only annually. These mammals have a 20 centimetre long tongue in which to suck up their preferred dish of insects like a lemon slurpy. And don’t get me started on the power of an anteater’s enzymes.
Low and behold, we caught sight of a two-fingered sloth, inverted for the best vantage of spotting its predator, a harpy eagle. Conversely, we later saw a three-fingered sloth seated upright in a meditating Bhudda position, peacefully slanting its head from side to side keeping a beady lookout. The quintessential couch potato of the rainforest. As precocial as sloths are—practically independent from birth—they do in fact have a symbiotic relationship with the sloth moth and algae. The sloth descends from its tree once a week to defecate, providing a breeding ground for moths that live in the animals’ fur and nutritious gardens of algae that supplement the sloths’ diet, the latter of which camouflages the sloth’s fur from its predators. What an nourishing exchange.
Darkness crept across the wide expanses and intimate lights started breaking out within the lodges. That evening, the lights started to come on in my head when we sat laughing with Luis. Having witnessed one of nature’s greatest shows—my heart was suddenly penetrated by unexpected joy. I felt a sudden wild and unfamiliar happiness. The person I loved was with me. The effects of alcohol gave this a Spielbergian radiance, as if we were sitting at our own movie, awaiting the final scene and credits. A sunset of brilliant colours and patterns played off the few clouds that had waited in the wings to become central actors in this unique presentation. I’m a rich woman, I thought to myself, in all the ways that mattered.
Do you ever let your mind wander to a place just out of reach? Have you seen the fossils of extinct creatures in museums and wondered what they were really like? Have you been teased by thoughts of what our human ancestors might have seen when they first came to South America—creatures now gone from memory, represented only by the hardiest fossil record? Many have fallen into extinction but some remain. In great tracts of primeval forest, still chiefly untouched by human hands, life teems in myriad varieties, millions of nooks and crannies filled with specialised life forms, known and unknown, awaiting our curious glance. I could only begin to wonder how many weird creatures—with whom we share their fragile planet—I’d get to intimately glance. I wanted to see them all! An unattainably romantic ambition but heading into the Amazon, I was going to give it a damn good try.
An earthy dirt track led us out of Peru onto an eventual paved-ish road, squeezing past umpteen more soggy mud-stricken and rock-riddled landslides along the way. Taking a part of Peru with me was easy; dirt was ingrained on my skin speckling me with a face full of au naturel ‘beauty’ spots. A long border crossing at La Balsa and an increasingly sore day in the saddle contoured us around the rough green fabric of the mountains, with a town gently coming into focus on its hem.
Arrr, the Ecuadorian utopia that was Vilcabamba; a rural idyll after spending all morning up to our maracas in mud—sloshing through Ecuador’s quaggy roads under construction, around every cruddy corner. Oh my Yin-Yang, where were we? No more rough-shack villeras—shanty towns scurrying up the mountainside. Or an ebb and flow of people selling ropey food and liquid sugar in their faded sombrero shaded, plastic table and chaired open-air cafes. Goodbye cholesterol palace of heated display cabinets containing twice and thrice deep-fried everything, hello actual sustenance. Even the searing heat had mostly gone, tamed by the elevation.
Instead, we were greeted by a crisply painted plaza bedecked with colonial buildings—some in an elegant state of decline, while others had been spruced up into bohemian bars and bustling little eateries, rurally decorated. The odd tienda neatly displayed its handicrafts, organic super-food produce and local wares. Through the gaps between the mountains, in the patches of blue sky, wisps of clouds painted graceful swirls. The sun was in free fall towards the town, glinting off the swept streets and anointing the place with a golden glow. The gleam of cut lime green grass added further to this pristine clean enclave. Feeling a year’s worth of muck and grime in my tramp-blackened body and motorcycle gear—the latter of which hadn’t seen soap for over a year—I took my thousand-wear-grey riding suit straight to the launderette and me to get washed.
Tantalising on all the senses—all three and a half of mine anyway from having a zero sense of smell and a weak sense of taste—Vilcabamba boasted a deep sense of good healthy living amongst a bubbly boho community. I overheard one woman walking her dog on a string remark to her friend, “Ooh I just ad-ore talking about bowel movements, it’s fascinating. Seriously, I could talk shit all day.” Appreciating that they should fly out like a neat loaf perhaps more than most, I was hooked and hadn’t even kicked the side-stand down. The view out was one of peaceful treetops, and the soundtrack played the uplifting twitter of tropical birds. Even our Hostal Taranza didn’t cost us several arms and legs, although you’ll be falling over places that will if you do visit.
Upon a disinclined departure, I couldn’t help thinking we’d chanced upon a standalone sparkling gem of a place, contrary to so many garbage-infested places prevalent in Peru. But no—after the sudden shockwave of Vilcabamba receding in our mirrors—for the next few hours, I clocked a handful of cheery lads hanging off the back of a waste disposal truck, big bottle banks in the proceeding towns, bold road signs alerting folks to ‘Keep Ecuador clean’ and a complete lack of trash. How can one country get it so wrong and an adjoining one so right? Oh, and fuel set us back 25 pence per litre, equivalent to $1.40 USD for a gallon. Ecuador was definitely going to agree with us both.
Having donned the LBNs (little black numbers) for the rainy season’s drizzly ride ahead, a second shock horror ensued: this time Jason’s rear suspension decided to expire like a campfire at dawn. He pogo-sticked his way for 235 miles from Vilcabamba to Alausi on his two-wheeled bouncy castle. If it’s not one thing, it’s your BMW shock—clearly not designed to cope with long term adventure riding. My vantage from behind though was comedy gold; a bobbing-to-some-hip-hop-beat-Cadillac on two tyres instead of four. Shouldn’t joke, no it wasn’t funny. Just the ups and downs of motorcycle travel…stop it, Lisa.
Through a straightforward road system of remarkably calm and considerate traffic, my die-hard survival instincts kicked in all the same; expecting the worst upon entering Quito. As a tendril of anxiety took leave from my soul, I had to entirely reprogramme the ‘inner-anarchist’ part of my brain. Eerily quiet in the Sunday silence—courteous buses(!), truck drivers and 4x4s were all giving way to me—pre-empting a change in their direction with indicators(!), and all without honking the horn. Not even once. It was steady; unspectacular; fine. My Zen was rapidly restored in turn equilibrating a mental inner balance. And I could have sworn my body all but exploded into beams of sunlight.
Bikes safely stowed in Hostel Zentrum courtesy of its two attentive German owners, we packed only the essentials: rum and repellant, a fresh razor (I’ve been mistaken for a redheaded primate before) and our remaining store of English teabags. The overnight bus—from Quito to Lago Agrio—was a rampaging old boar of a vehicle with an imposing snout and grille. It looked like it should be foraging wildly in the Amazon’s undergrowth rather than roaming the streets. The vehicle snarled into life, reversed out of its berth and our journey began. Our short-range rural beast and then an old banger of a minibus took us to the start of our jolly in the jungle at the Cuyabeno River.
“WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE!”, blared through my head, courtesy of Guns and Roses the moment we stepped into our motorised canoe. Down in the river bottom, the barest hint of green whiskered the banks of the Cuyabeno. At only six metres deep, it looked more like an abyss of beef stock gravy made dark and glossy by the nutrients infused by the soil and tannins released from the decomposing leaves. Every drop was from rainwater, which fascinated me; it dries up completely come the dry season in parts, forcing certain lodges to fall into abeyance.
As intrepid if not clueless voyeurs, we canoed our way down an Ecuadorian affluent of the Amazon Basin. Following the tropical vegetation for three hours down river familiarised us to the powerful clay-coloured current of the Basin’s mighty headwater. It’s a place, if there ever was one, where everything is always more than you could ever expect it to be.
The warm breeze whipped at my clothes and ruffled my hair; I looked up and there was a snake bird. Not because it seizes snakes, but because of its long slender neck. Oh my goodness, “Look over there!”. It was a squirrel monkey with a white painted face—nimbly hanging from a ceiba tree. The show turned into a circus of monkeys clowning around—swinging acrobatically from tail to branch, just for the fun of it. Just because they can. It didn’t take long to realise the opportunity cost of looking at one creature to the forfeit of missing another. I needed more eyes, and quick.
The squirrel monkeys often follow the capuchins, another primate perhaps a shade more skilled at seeking out provisions than they are. With a keen sense of where to go to stave off hunger, the capuchin monkeys don’t seem to mind at all they have a scrounging set of followers. Good for them, it’s not always a ‘Dog eat dog’ world.
Furiously pushing food into their faces while eyeing us up, these squirrel monkeys took—oh, what was that? Something akin to your Nana’s bulbous shopping bag, or your Grandad’s old sock—suspended from the end of a tree branch. Strategically high up but still hidden from terrestrial (ground-dwelling), arboreal (tree-dwelling) and aerial predators—for the most part. A filigree weaver bird’s nest, wow.
Fluttering by—diverting my attention yet again goes a Morpho butterfly, shimmering its iridescent cobalt blue wings—as big as a pair of man’s hands. Supersized was going to be the common denominator here, my fourth and a half Spidy sense could feel it. Paul, our Quito-based tour operator of Carpe DM located just inside Secret Garden Hostel had exclaimed on top, “If you don’t like your experience with naturalist Luis Torres I’ve assigned to you, I will personally refund every cent.” Money-mouthed convictions that strong coupled with scores of raving Trip Advisor reviews of this Luis, and having spent 6 minutes in the jungle, I had an incline we were onto a win-win.
Dumping our bags was the sum total of ‘Getting settled into jungle life’. Done. Siona Lodge was a handmade thatched-roofed snuggery. Adorned with rustic detailing, it struck the perfect cord of traditional: bamboo furniture and locally weaved hammocks, a learning station for all the species awaiting us in the thick of the Amazon and fully enclosed mosquito nets enmeshing our four poster bed from any overly curious creatures. In a wooden cabin on stilts—in the event of flooding—the white fluffy towels and en suite added that little bit of luxury on top.
Dawn spilled through a labyrinth of trees: ferns, ancient kapoks, palms and strangler figs endemic from Cuyabeno were the ones I’d started to recognise. I awoke wide-eyed at a golden veil of light that fell over me and washed by the drowning noises of the forest—crickets, monkeys and birdsong. The dew silvered the spiders’ webs that draped the lodge’s wild garden. I sucked in a deep breath of the damp, moist air. We’re talking 99.9 per cent humidity, so quite humid.
Wafting away a pair of carefree wasps with stingers the size of nails, our first canoe outing ventured us into the heart of the Cuyabeno River, sandwiched by jungle dripping with creepers. A damp mist still hung in the air reducing peripheral visibility and softening the edges of everything making the place look like an indistinct fragment of memory. At a stone’s throw, we spotted a pair of blue and yellow macaws and a rookery of the gregarious Greater Anis. More affectionately known as ‘the cook’ birds who make the sound of gurgling water on the boil. The Hoatzin ‘Stink bird’ is also ten a penny in the Amazon; their meat is renowned to be repulsive but their eggs scrumptious.
Our night walk took us—and by us I mean me more than Jason—to an intense level. Even though my enthusiasm dial was turned to high and I was assuredly in the mood, my ability to relax in a state of mindful awareness was stymied by some unfounded anxiety. Mayhaps because it was my first night in the jungle, my image tank was getting full and I felt a little overwhelmed by it all. We donned the jungle-strength, tan-removing deet and armed with cameras and rubber boots, ventured out in pitch blackness on foot into the forest. An eerie prickle fluttered up my back—knowing all too well poisonous creatures, paralyzing creepy crawlies with neurotoxins squirting out from giving a misconstrued, furtive glance —come alive at night to play. And hunt. And mess with your melon.
Man, I needed to grow a backbone at that moment. A small thread of panic stitched my chest, I was on edge albeit tingling with raised-hair-on-the-nape-of-my-neck excitement. I soon succumbed to a series of less-than-ladylike flavoured gasps with each brush of hanging vines and plants sweeping around my head, neck and shoulders. Every other tree root seemed to writhe and slither in the shadows cast from erratic beams of torchlight—appearing moistened and snake-like underfoot. To the chorus of the bull frog and rhythm of the cane toad’s ‘ribbet’, we stepped deeper into the black wilderness, a sea of tiny eyes glistening back in the illumination of our headtorches. So far, so nuts.
Arachnidphobics would not last a minute here. Into battle I went, pressing on amidst a constant veneer of adrenaline-induced moisture on the skin. I found myself wiping my hands on my trousers, a reflex when the jungle is sweeping over your shoulders every second with goodness knows what crawling down your back. Every few feet and we were side-stepping around big, furry bird eating spiders, sociable tarantulas, aquatic walk-on-water wolf spiders and tailless whip scorpions whose name pleases me no end. I loved the golden silk orb weavers whose webs were so strong, had you fallen from a height on one, you would probably just sproing right back up and land softly into its deadly trap. Their spun silks are actually used for fishing line and police apparel up in Columbia. Who knew?
The spiders, as venomous as they can get, like the unassuming banana spider—capable of taking a grown man down in minutes—were placid, happy to keep themselves to themselves, industriously working on catching their next meal. It was only when Luis started skillfully grabbing snakes that made my heart start to jump around my chest like a flea on a hot rock. Flying insects darted through the evening dusk in hot pursuit, buzzing in glittering dances around us. They landed on my clammy face, attracted by the beam of my lumens until I was on the brink of madness. Just turn it off! Better, so much better. But then I couldn’t see where the bullet ants were headed—they’ll give you a nasty nip. Equivalent to being shot by all firsthand accounts…whoa! Go figure with a name like that.
I burst out from the foliage and into the open. The understory of our night walk ended on finding a rainbow boa constrictor taking comfort beneath someone’s cabin, which was elbow-jostlingly popular. Luis debriefed us as we poured over the species safely behind laminated plastic we’d seen that day. He’s the kind of guy that thrives from his cultural heritage and biodiverse back doorstep. I was buzzing off his buzz, like an emphatic bee. The guy dropped all pretense and unexpectedly launched into a great roaring chuckle every now and again. Certainly when I happened to explain what trumping meant. I love it when someone’s laugh is funnier than the joke.
I closed my eyes for a few minutes, barely swinging in a hammock and allowing the last effects of dusk to disappear for the night. Digesting and processing my first encounter with the forest. When I opened my eyes, the night sky was so powerful that I all but experienced vertigo. It felt like I was falling up into space, the stars racing toward me as if to embrace me. I lay down to gaze in wonder at the Milky Way, stunning and intense when undiminished by the pollution of city lights. It was a vastness calling to be gazed up into, making me feel small but comfortable with myself.
Lifting my hands imagining that I could reach out and pluck diamonds, one by one, off a velvet black sky. Shooting stars would occasionally blaze a brief trail across the night blackness. I lay as quietly as I could, allowing the immensity of space and scattered light to dwarf me. Stillness fell like a silk shawl as I lost myself to the starry night. The night’s quiet asserted itself once more.
Much of Amazonia is surprisingly easy to traverse. The rivers are your highways, and most of the land is flat or has a gently rolling topography. Low hills rise in some places, but these are climbable. Ravines along the intermittent streams are more of a challenge; most are spanned by slippery, narrow fallen trees in varying degrees of decomposition.
Cuyabeno reserve, our home for ten days is close to 600,000 hectares—Ecuador’s second largest region in the Amazon Basin to Yasuni’s 900,000 hectares—27,300 of which belong to the tribal communities. These are the ancestral lands of five indigenous groups: Siona, Secoya, Cofan, Kichwa and Shuar. We’d be venturing only into primary forest on ‘terra firma’—high ground that isn’t subject to seasonal flooding with frequent wellied-walks and canoe paddles through stagnant swamplands, flat forest of black and white water, and swamps of herbs and palm. Bring it on.
Faced with the ongoing obliteration of the world’s tropical rainforest, Cuyabeno’s lodges believe it’s imperative to reach their visitors, share and promote a deep respect, and foremost spawn a wider awareness about the natural areas left that are biologically as rich as the Amazon. Not to mention its importance played in the rest of the world.
With a strong focus on conservation in an area with one of the most complex ecosystems, our snuggeries—Siona and Caiman Lodges gave us: electricity created from solar energy and high-efficiency generators; wastewater treatment systems—later recycled back into the ecosystem; and peace of mind that hunting has been voluntarily ceased for well over a decade. A portion of our dollars would also be ploughed back into the forest to continue making good inroads on the sustainable path to eco-tourism. Sounded like a promising starter for ten.
Current climate of primary preservation
Refreshing is how you’ll be pleased to feel when learning that Ecuador—despite only home to two per cent of the Amazon basin—has become champion when it comes to preserving their precious rainforest. Ecuadorian forestry law, best practice and exemplar behaviour is pretty well embedded now: prune, fell, bark, burn or destroy a protected forest tree and you’re looking at a hefty penalty of at least a one to three year prison sentence, and a fine that would hemorrhage most bank accounts.
Of course there wasn’t always zero deforestation in Ecuador—today, the country only lays claim to around 35 per cent of its original share of the Amazon basin. And devastatingly, there’s still several riggs pumping into the reserve’s forest ground for oil, but as always, slowly slowly, save a monkey. Clients come to the Amazon and are either oblivious of what’s going on—choosing to blissfully uphold the romance of the jungle, or are increasingly aware to the current destruction of human hands. May we all proactively pitch our tents in the latter camp.
Sadly, money only knows why the Brazilian government are still paying people to cut down 60 per cent of ‘its’ Amazonia in order to facilitate room to grow more soy—I understand—to feed more pigs in China. Among other inanely unsustainable purposes. Blindsided by the bottomline doesn’t quite portray the imbecility that eradicating habitats and extinguishing species faster than we’ve studied—let alone identified—will have on the ecosystem. Or survival of the human race. And of course the Earth.
An interruption from the constant visuals and vistas of the jungle came from a village visit to ‘Puerto Bolivar’. Handled by the women of the indigenous community gave us an opportunity to learn about the Kichwa culture—participating in a traditional method of preparing yuca (cassava), which is a starchy tuberous root from a native tropical tree—into flour:
Rita, an indigenous woman aged just 41 years old led us into her wild garden. More salt than pepper had crept into her hair and her expression was kindly but revealed a lifetime of hard graft. Interestingly, Rita had long since adapted to wearing lightweight western fabrics—practical quick-drying clothes over a traditionally heavier weave from the forest.
Possessing the skill of a trained sword fighter, Rita took hold of her machete and slashed at the foliage, wildly and skillfully to extract a handful of yuca from the fertile ground. Rich organic soil alien to any pesticide or fungicide. With the Midas touch and an experienced pair of hands, she whipped it into Amazonian pizza bread using time-honoured means and handmade kitchen utensils from the forest. Fascinating to watch, take part in but foremost feast upon for lunch.
Being educated to some of the village’s traditions, still alive today gave me pause for thought: There’s a pressure for women to master the delicate process of preparing yuca in order to heighten their eligibility in securing a husband. Likewise, if the man is unable to triumph in the art of blow-pipe hunting, preparing the poisoned dart in just the right quantities of frog and plant juices in order to cleanly take down a 600 pound tapir—as well as constructing a durable hammock from vine threads—then no resultant wife or “boom boom” (as our naturalist guide so aptly put it), respectively for the husband. Fair enough, it works both ways. Jason was given the blow-pipe and aiming at a papaya from 10 metres away, managed to strike a hole in one. Guess that makes him ripe for the picking…
An illustration of rituals from a shaman in his malloca—a ceremonial house—one afternoon, gave us a small but intriguing window to watch him gain access to a world of good and evil spirits in the practice of divination and healing. I am still pausing for thought about the indisputable power of a shaman—without any firsthand experience. On an arbitary note, I was told that redheads are particularly adept at attracting chaotic forces.
The shaman’s head dress was particularly eye-catching, decorated by the vibrant feathers of a trogan bird. His skinny neck was like cured skin but fabulously adorned in a string of teeth from jaguar and peccary (a skunk pig). Now a priceless family air loom that’s passed down each generation.
No ayahuasca was consumed in a ceremony on that occasion—a vine based hallucinating beverage but an explanation of how a few gulps would set you into a terrific trance and give rise to a profound insight into yourself, and some, was relayed.
Perhaps most curious of all was the story told about the upbringing of the next great shaman, a process that is still happening today. When the unborn child, ‘the one’, is chosen, a group of shamans whisk the wee bairn away upon its arrival into the world to a cave. Away from the community. The mother is allowed to breast feed the baby and father permitted to visit on a weekly basis, although essentially the newborn becomes the responsibility of the shamans.
For the next 19 years, the child is reared and moulded in all the rituals, traditions and ways of a shaman. On its 19th birthday, the late teen is taken out in twilight, in order to experience its first moonlight and through a night of meditation, prepares for their first sunrise. Looking into the eyes of that individual must be a profoundly extraordinary experience, with something not quite present, which ordinarily would be in our eyes, replaced by something else entirely. The mind boggles.
Incidentally, the Yellow Food People is a tribe that still resides somewhere deep in the Amazon jungle. Fully naked, nomadic and dependent on the land. Now here’s the extraordinary part: any interaction whatsoever forced upon them from the outside world has concluded so far in death. They want less than zero to do with the western world; apparently one small group of tourists each paid $30,000 USD to a South American tour operator to get dropped off nearby to the clan. Once they eventually caught up with the tribe, they were all killed on their initial greeting. A clear signal from which to take permanent heed.