We’ve been trekking through the forest for about an hour when we come face-to-face with our greatest threat so far. After much talk of man-eating anacondas, elusive jaguars, feisty piranha and tarantulas shooting poisoned darts, it had seemed inevitable that we wouldn’t be leaving the Amazon without a confrontation of some kind.
The conditions to this point have been the most challenging so far. Travelling first by canoe and then on foot, we follow a local guide who uses his machete to cut a path through the thick vegetation. We traverse narrow logs across muddy swamps, dodging stinging nettles and tripping over vines as the humidity zaps vital fluids and energy. When we finally emerge, sweating but unscathed into a clearing, our normally fearless guide Diego stands rooted to the spot. Armed with a canoe paddle, he holds their gaze and looks for a way forward. He takes a few steps but backs off as they stand their ground. Eventually backtracking to a safer path, our group is feeling a little surprised – four Brahman house cows don’t somehow match the predator we were expecting to flee from.
But then, you never really know quite what to expect in the Amazon. Known to Ecuadorians as the Oriente, the Amazon basin occupies almost half the country and holds the world’s biggest tropical rainforest. For its size, the rich diversity of Ecuador’s plant and animal life is impressive: 1600 types of bird, more than 600 species of fish, more varieties of mammals and amphibian per square kilometre than any other country, 10% of the world’s plants and, apparently, some rather scary cows. But while the larger animals grace the pages of travel brochures, it’s the smaller inhabitants that make this place memorable.
Our Amazon adventure starts at the oil town of Coca, from where we take a motor boat three hours east along the Rio Napo from where we must walk and canoe a further 90 minutes to our lodgings. Entering what seems an impenetrable wall of green from the water is like stepping into a wildlife encyclopaedia. Diego wastes no time getting us acquainted with the forest, stopping every few minutes to point out spiders, birds, insects, plants and toads as we walk. We are surrounded by so many things but we can’t always see them,” he explains. To prove his point he uses a stick to prize behind a vine leaf clung to a tree trunk. A tarantula the size of a hand appears, its thick hairy legs and body inciting equal measures of awe and horror.
Life is even more visible on the lake, where yellow spotted Amazon river turtles sun themselves on logs and an American pygmy kingfisher – a small bird distinguished by its orange belly – darts from a branch by the water. Late in the afternoon, common squirrel monkeys swarm the trees by the lake to feed on flowers and fruit. Beneath the surface swim freshwater sardines and catfish as well as white and pink-bellied piranha, whose reputation far outweighs their size. For those of us who are game, a swim in the lake is followed by a spot of fishing. Within seconds piranha are snatching small chunks of meat off the hooks but only one makes it into the bucket for dinner.
Another famous lake resident is the South America alligator, or caiman, which are best viewed by canoe at night when they come out to feed on fish, their eyes glowing red in the torch light. We enjoy a particularly good sighting, clearly seeing a caiman’s small narrow head and thick banded tail. One water dweller most are content to avoid is the green anaconda, which lives in the narrow swampy channels that dissect the forest. “To find the anaconda you have to walk barefoot in the mud so you can feel its slippery skin,” Diego offers, “but they are only dangerous if they are starving because then they will eat anything.”
But it’s not just animals that invite intrigue. The forest is a one-stop shop for food, natural medicines and building materials.
Some 50% of the plants found in the jungle have a medicinal use. Sap from the Dragon’s Blood tree can be rubbed on the skin to cure skin spots and scars or drunk to treat gastroenteritis. A white-topped fungus is broken off and squeezed to release an antiseptic for the eyes and ears while the aroid vine can be sniffed to alleviate sinus and flu. The soft, pliable wood of the balsa tree is used for making arrows, while the nut of the tagua palm consists of type of vegetable ivory which is carved into figurines and buttons. The casaba plant contains a natural stimulant used by indigenous tribes to prepare an energy drink that enables them to work and hunt for long periods in humid conditions.
While large sections of pristine rainforest remain, the clearing of land for agriculture and oil exploration, Ecuador’s main export, and exposure to tourism are taking their toll on the forest and its communities. A small number of tribes still live with virtually no outside contact but many others are losing their traditional way of life. Every moment in this amazing region is a true privilege. My greatest fear upon leaving is that next time I’ll be dodging bulldozers instead of cows.”