The Sights, Sounds, and Stingers of Amazonia

I lathered all my exposed skin with insect repellent before my canoe ride deep into the Amazon. It didn’t matter. It never would have mattered. Some would say that horsefly and I were destined to meet that day. That we had already met in that jungle many times over many lifetimes. That we will continue to meet again and again in that same spot for all eternity.

He awaited me as we cruised down the Cuyabeno river. Out of nowhere the big, buzzing asshole is all up in my face. I swat at him out of instinct. He jabs me on the ear then takes his leave. I grab the side of my head and double over. Searing pain. Like nothing an insect has ever done to me. What’s more, in the commotion I had accidentally swatted off my sunglasses, which now sit at the bottom of a river in the Amazon.

It was my welcome to the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest in the world. The bugger had left his message loud and clear.

“You’re on my territory now, gringo”

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After two bus rides and a real stinger of a canoe trip, I arrived at the Cuyabeno wildlife reserve. Enflamed ear and all.

Our group of eight is treated to a nice lunch at the Guacamayo lodge, our home for the next four days. I half expected to start feeling loopy or weird, convinced that my horsefly friend had passed on some dengue. Thankfully aside from some pain I made it through my first Amazon experience without issue and disease-free.

My elfish/elvish/elven ear (which one is it??). It lingered beyond my time in the jungle. 

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The Guacamayo lodge, a completely eco-friendly series of huts and an accompanying restaurant.

That afternoon we met our guide for the journey, Fabian. He hails from the Ecuadorian coast and speaks flawless English. Fabian sets the stage for our four day, three night stay and lets us know what to expect, how to be safe, and what not to do (not peeing while swimming really stuck with me, apparently this will cause a certain type of fish to swim up your britches and try to…you know…follow the trail of pee…all the way to the source. *Shudder*).

My group consisted of three Irish folk, a Swede, an Italian, an Aussie, and a girl from Holland. Over the next four days we would hike, trek, swim, and row our way through the Amazon basin, keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife while perpetually avoiding giant, gnarly bugs like the one I met on our way in.

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Canoeing was our main mode of transportation. The river was calm in many parts. We could row along passively, admiring the calm waters, towering trees, sounds of birds and bugs and howler monkeys.
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Our guide, Fabian. He was great. Essentially our ambassador to the rich biosphere.
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Our group.

It’s hard to describe in words just how vast the Amazon is.

7,000,000 square kilometers. 390 billion individual trees divided into 16,000 species. 2.5 million insect species. 40,000 plant species. 1,294 types of birds, 427 mammals, 428 amphibians, and 378 reptiles. One in five of all the bird species in the world live in the rainforests of the Amazon. One in five of the fish species live in Amazonian rivers and streams. One in ten known species in the world lives in the Amazon rainforest.

You can throw out any number of brain stretching statistics without coming close to capturing the Amazon’s sheer immensity. The region I spent time in, Cuyabeno wildlife reserve, is only a tiny sliver of the rainforest’s entirety.

Yet it is considered by many to be one of the most rich biospheres outside of Brazil, which features about 60% of the Amazon’s landmass. We enjoyed many flora and fauna encounters thanks to Fabian’s world class guidance.

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There are 10 species of monkeys in the Cuyabeno region. We could often see them from a distance, jumping through the trees. The howler monkeys especially make their presence known, bellowing their powerful call that can be heard over two kilometers away. Alas, I only got up close to one, this curious tamarin below, who was interested in our lunch at the lodge one afternoon.

We had more luck getting close-ups with colorful insects and reptiles, both of which are numerous and hung out closer to the riverside than the monkeys.

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A baby anaconda.

By night we would go on treks into the bush, using flashlights and headlamps to spot the critters that come out after the sun has retired.

We would tip-toe along the trail in complete silence, so as not to disturb the wildlife. Such excursions were eerie and kept me on edge, but that made it more fun, and night’s shade provided for some excellent insect and animal sightings.

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Erik the Swede leading the way.
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Thousands of leaf carrying ants followed us along the trail toward their massive hive.
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Menacing spiders were a common sight by night. Can you spot him?
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A massive, sinister tarantula we came across.
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My Legolas ear and I made it to the equator line in the jungle, my second such hemispherical crossing in two weeks.
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Back at the lodge we came across this colorful, slithering little guy, a baby rainbow boa constrictor.
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As well as this yellow-eyed tree frog.

Once afternoon during a trek, it started pouring rain and continued for hours as we hacked our way through the jungle. Thankfully we had ponchos and rain boots. We trudged through swampy waters that sometimes reached as high as our knees. It was a proper Amazon experience. There’s a reason they call it a rainforest.

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After the rain cleared that day we boarded the canoe back to the lodge. Along the way we had our first freshwater dolphin sighting. They were quick and fickle, difficult to photograph. A disappointment, they apparently have a beautiful bright pink hue on their bellies.
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You can barely see it surfacing here. 

While most of the critters we came across were docile, there are a great many that pose an immediate danger to humans.

Jaguar, cougars, poison dart frogs, vampire bats, electric eels, and piranhas all dwell in the jungle and can pose varying threats if you encroach on their space. Thankfully, we didn’t come across any of those. But during a nighttime canoe trip, we did come across a black caiman, who could have caused problems if one of us had fallen in.

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We found him lurking close to another lodge nearby.
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I was worried the headlamps might bother him but he remained stoic.
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He got pretty close to the boat and stared us down.
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Despite the immediate danger, it is a beautiful creature that warranted a selfie.

We stumbled on another poisonous reptile during our day trip to a Siona community nearby, one of five distinct indigenous groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

The Sionan women who welcomed us to her village spotted a small but apparently deadly little snake as we walked with her. Fearing for the lives of her children and fellow villagers, she did what she always does, whipped out her machete and slashed away until the snake perished.

Later on the woman would show us how she extracts yuca from the ground and took us through the whole process to make bread out of it. Yuca is a staple of the diet of indigenous Amazonian people due to its abundance, nutrition, and dynamism.

We helped with extracting the yuca from the ground

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Shaving the yuca into fine bits.
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Pouring over the stove.
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The finished product! We ate it with some fresh rice and beans.

Though the yuca bread was delicious and the woman was sweet, I found this portion of our Amazon experience to be a letdown. We didn’t really get a tour of the village, nor did we get to meet other villagers. All our time was spent in a few huts designed to host visitors. It merits the question: why wouldn’t other villagers want to capitalize on the influx of tourists? I would have gladly paid to have a Sionan show me their farm or to even just have a conversation in their home.

Of course, there is a natural resentment for tourists in indigenous communities around the world. Rightly so, many of them (or us, I should say) are just interested in a photo op. That said, if more cash flow led to, say, buying school books for the children, it would add value to the village as a whole. In the Honduran farming communities where I worked, one of the communities was able to buy a defibrillator using the money generated from eco-tourism. It has saved lives.

But I digress…it is entirely up to indigenous peoples how much they want to share with pesky Westerners. I fully understand and support their desire to preserve their culture as much as possible. It was a treat just to be around the Sinoan woman and see her work. Other indigenous peoples in the Amazon and elsewhere in the world have completely rejected contact with the western world and remain isolated. So I suppose I should appreciate my experience for what it was worth, however brief or limited.

Later on we had a somewhat more immersive experience with a nearby shaman.

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We took a canoe ride to his hut, surrounded by lush flora, where he hosts those seeking physical and spiritual healing, 

Shamanism involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to interact with a spirit world and channel these energies into this world. The shaman told us that the practice has been passed down for generations in his family. He had to study under his father for some 20 years before he was allowed to enter the ranks of the full-fledged shamans. After his fathers death, he became the chief shaman for the nearby Siona village.

The bread and butter of shamanism is the use of entheogen, psychoactive substances that have been ritualized over thousands of years as a way to channel celestial energies. Ayahuasca is the preferred entheogen all over South America. It is a type of root, which, after brewed into a drink, releases psychoactive properties that are extremely intense and effectively put the user in a state of trace. This allows one to connect with their inner spirit and better understand the energies that bind us all together with the natural world. It is a form of healing. Only one person in our group, the Aussie, has tried it, and he reported having a lasting, transcendent healing experience.

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I jumped at the chance to participate in a “healing demonstration” which involved the shaman waving ayahuasca leaves around my body and singing in his native tongue. It was relaxing, but nothing like the full fledged ayahuasca ceremony, surely.
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Erik reported having back pain and the shaman offered to run some special leaves over it. The result looked quite painful…
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Yikes! Despite appearances, Erik reported feeling about the same.
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The shaman showed us his ancestral poison dart staff, which he promptly used to shoot and hit a small, thin wooden stick lodged in the ground. An impressive sight.
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Tried my hand at it but missed wide right. Wouldn’t cut it as an Amazonian, apparently.
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The shaman wears a necklace adorned with the teeth of fallen jaguar and wild boar. It has been passed down for generations in his family; the indigenous people have long done away with the practice of killing wild animals unless they pose a direct threat.

Hearing the shaman talk about his natural healing practices was an enlightening experience. Moreover, spending time in such the world’s flagship tropical biosphere was humbling.  The flora and fauna interact with each other to create a perfectly melodious, enduring rhythm. Constantly ebbing and flowing, it is a work of art, both ancient and grand. Indeed, spending time in the Amazon is like being immersed in the finest concert the natural world has ever composed.

So when the scientific community tells us that global warming will lead to a loss of biodiversity within the Amazon, we need to listen.

As individuals, we can all do our part day-to-day to create a more sustainable world and reduce our carbon footprint. Beyond that, we can also demand change from our elected officials, who need to take action on a policy level and begin converting to a clean energy grid while doing away with our reliance on fossil fuels.

Some scientists project that between 30% and 60% of the Amazon rainforest could become a dry savanna in the next 100 years. Can you imagine the toll this will take on the forests, water availability, biodiversity, agriculture, wildlife, and health of the indigenous peoples?

“We are running a serious risk of losing a large piece of the Amazonian tropical forest. If warming exceeds a few degrees Celsius, the process of ‘savannisation’ may well become irreversible.”

  • Carlos Nobre – Senior Scientist
    INPE – Brazil National Space Research Institute
    The carbon dioxide factor

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