Caiman, Piranhas and HUGE bugs!

Trip Start Nov 24, 2007
Trip End May 15, 2008

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Friday, December 7, 2007

Since I was a little kid one of the things I have always wanted to do was to experience the Amazonian jungle and see what it would be like to go deep into the tropical forests. I'm talking Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator style (as I figured out, that's not quite the Amazon)! I'll carry on...

East of the Ecuadorian Andes, the mountains fall away to the expansive green 'Oriente', where vast expanses of wilderness conquer the landscape and growing tributary rivers from the eastern mountains eventually feed into the great Amazon drainage. Although large oil companies have unflappably staked their claim on certain areas rich in petroleum and the demand for wood has led to tracts of land standing will little less than the shade of a planted banana tree, the land remains largely unspoiled and just sparsely populated, save for a few colonized oil towns.  After spending a few hours researching different trips into the jungle in Quito (which is the best and safest place to do it), guide obligatory, we decided to head on a five day excursion into the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve
or 'Reserva Faunistica Cuyabeno'. The reserve is made up of over 1.4 million acres of pristine jungle environment and home to river dolphins, tapirs, capybaras, caiman, ocelots, various monkeys, hundreds of birds and of course, also where the anaconda and piranha call home too.

After visiting Otovalo, a famous market town North of Quito and stopping over in Papallacta (famous for its hotsprings) further to the East in route to Cuyabeno, we decided to stay the night outside of Lago Agrio which is the jumping off point for our trip, in the small town of Cascales. It's only reason of existence is probably because some people, myself included, would die before living in Lago Agrio. There in Cascales we witnessed one of the loudest thunderstorms and hardest rainfalls we have ever layed eyes on! I've witnessed an electrical storm that will never be forgotten with some close friends in Argentina as we drove through the deserted province of San Juan but never before a thunderstorm with so much force. Welcome to the Jungle! Shun, n,n,n,n,n,n,n,n,n,,n,n,n-Lighting Shun,n,n,n,n,n,n-Rain Shun,n,n,n,n,n,n,n-Thunder!
It was the perfect way to set the stage for what we were about to experience - a boatride to the eastern reaches of the Amazon and five days exploring its inhospitable depths. Watching the storm all alone from the front porch of our little hospedaje, in order to talk we had to shout across the table above the storms ferocious voice and as the rain came down like...well, no metaphor needed, like an Amazonian downpour there were times when we shreeked outloud because of the downright proximity of the strikes! More than once night turned to complete daylight. I'm sure to everyone living there it was a regular occurence but for us, that night we knew how lucky we were to be where we were and have what we have. Some things are greater than words can explain and  no matter what you cannot explain them in a way that'll do justice. They're just monumental enough that you forever will be able to recall the exact feelings you had at that moment in time. This was one of those moments. That is what wealth means to me and this is the life.

Going back a little, I am a little heated up thinking back on that storm. After ending up in Cascales (pre-storm) we met the owners of where we were staying and talked with them about life and Ecuador and all sorts of things in spanish for some time and then believe it or not, we went fishing in their ponds out back and caught Tilapia for our dinner. Hungry fish = Satisfied Craig.

After the EPIC storm and a meal which consisted of rice, our tilapia, Ecuador's version of a salad, and patacones (the most filling snack ever) we bid farewell and slept the night away. The next morning we said our goodbyes and hopped on a local Chiva (more authentic to Colombia but LA is near the Colombian border and has a definite influencia colombiana) and were off.  L.A. is the poorest city in Ecuador and is aptly named after Sour Lake, Texas, the headquarters of Texaco and yes, you guessed it, the first company to draw oil from this particular area in the Oriente.  It definitely lived up to its title. Some of most common stores suffocating the narrow streets were those specializing in chainsaws (moto-sierras) and coffins (ataúdes). OK, maybe I'm embellishing the story a little but I kid you not, Stihl and Husqvarna signs filled up multiple storefront windows and I saw not one but TWO stores selling only two products...coffins and headstones! Hell, what amazed we most were the auto-mechanics. Those guys were covered from head to toe in grease, welded things with no eye protection on whatsoever and were working on vehicles some people probably would have thought fun to drive off cliffs ages ago. Take one of them home and they could fix now I'm sure they've had more experience at fixing things than mechanics back home do in a career. All I can do is shake my head when I think of that city...
Believe it or not, deep down I actually want to go back there...

Not soon after though, we were on our way outta there and far away from Lago Agrio did we go. After long hot four hour bus ride down dirt roads that led us past banana plantations, an ongoing cockfight, multiple stilt houses and even a school that wouldn't pass for a abandoned cement building back home, we eventually arrived at destination Cuyabeno. Our small group loaded our things and soon after set off five hours downriver in a motarized canoe to our thatch roofed lodging deep into the primary forest. The entire trip over the next four days was mind blowing. I could write on it forever but I´ll save readers and myself the time. In bad grammar I'll just briefly write about the splendors.

Over the course of the trip, we: saw beautiful pink and grey river dolphins surface from the murky waters almost in a greeting, walked through overgrown primary forests where Ceiba trees rose like skyscrapers in a city of organic madness, caught and ate piranhas which I did not know tasted so good and unfishy, canoed through lagoons and up and down overgrown jungle rivers where small river turtles looked at us in angst before diving off of their log into the water... and the list goes on. An experience unlike anything else. What I´ve always wanted to do since I was a kid finally came to fruition. From swinging on jungle vines and eating ants off sticks to swimming in the great brown waters of the Cuyabeno and Aguarico rivers or sticking my hands into huge ant piles (not the harmful type of course) I definitely couldn´t have asked for a better experience. That is, aside from not battling an anaconda or seeing a jaguar!

In the mornings we would wake up early and go by dugout canoe down arms of the cuyabeno river, looking for awesome wildlife such as turtles, monkeys, birds, dolphins and anything else. In the afternoons we did multiple things such as forest hikes, boat rides and piranha fishing. In the evening, in the dark, we would either head into the jungle in search of nocturnal species or do the same by boat. On the second day before sunset, a few of us spent nearly two hours playing soccer on a large beach with about ten boys and girls from the local Quichua community and then cooling off, or escaping mozzies (mosquitos) by jumping into the Aguarico. Our group included three Belgium medicine students, along with one more doing a three month practicum in the public hospitals of Ecuador, two great Aussie guys....who also happened to be med students themselves and a Spanish- Ecuadorian couple. Needless to say, if anything would have happened, minus the fact that we were hours from any good medical facilities, we were as safely covered as could be.

In addition to all the fun things we did, we learned some pretty spectacular things about different flora and fauna. -Plants that create toxic residue to protect themselves from bugs and to keep other plants from growing near them by creating a highly acidic soil where their leaves fall. Trees that find nutrition from a specific fungus which in turn makes them fluorescent at night. Others that ward off overbearing species of vegetation battling for sunlight by shedding their bark or dropping their lower limbs which are overtaken by huge vines as they both try and grow upwards to the light. Vine trees that act almost as parasites and use other trees as crutches to grow up to the top of the canopy as fast as they can before then growing in size and engulfing the crutch tree in growing completely around it and taking making it disappear.  Each plant and animal has so uniquely adapted to their environment over the hundreds of thousands of years that it is almost hard to believe something so extraordinary and highly evolved can exist in true life. When you walk through the jungle it looks so pretty, as if everything is peacefully coexisting and offering something nice to look at. People always enjoy scenery and green scenery at that because it largely symbolizes life. However the reality of it, underneath it all, is the constant battle for survival and cycle of birth, death and rebirth. An always changing,
neverending struggle for balance, survival and sunlight. What a cool place.

To top it off, the group was cool and our Ecuadorian guides Domingo and Enrique, had some pretty incredible knowledge of the jungle; including how to catch cayman. To do so, you must jump out of the canoe in the middle of the night after spotting its two red eyes by flashlight and grab it with your bare hands before it effortlessly swims away....hmmm....sounds easy enough.  Domingo happened to be quite the expert though as his methods held true! Up close, it is definitely one highly evolved, extremely efficient animal. No wonder they have been around for so damn long!

We stayed in an awesome little thatch roof cabaņa with no electricity and shared it with huge spiders, crazy looking frogs, ants, cockroaches and other unknown bugs! At night all the noises, in addition to the humidity put you right to sleep. No sheets needed. The Howler monkeys were there to greet us in the mornings. I´d do it again in a heartbeat but for now, there is still to much yet to see, to do and to experience. Tomorrow there will always be more. And so I´ll end it at that. Hope everyone is doing well. I´d love to hear from you all! For now, off too the highest waterfall in Ecuador before heading south to Tena.

Oh and get this, one last cool thing that I learned. So the water in the Amazon is dark, muddy and murky right? Well, that's what I thought but get this. There are two different types of rivers in the drainage. Those which come from the mountains and run into the Amazon and those which originate in the Amazon. The Amazon itself if you want to call it that. The difference being that tributary rivers are called white water rivers and contrary to what you would think at first, are murky, muddy and full of....yes...sediment. The Amazon river on the other hand, the black water rivers, are in fact clear in the sense that they are virtually void of sediment and grains like hot cocoa would be compared to coffee or wine or like a river carrying with it a bunch of sediment from the mountains above. So at the confluence of two large rivers like these, their densities are so much different that it takes miles before they fully become one. Interesting? I thought you'd agree! It almost symbolizes this continent as a whole. So virtually backwards but at the same time it's the way it is and it makes sense why it is once you think about it...
white rivers=muddy and murkey meanwhile black rivers=clear (but wish a lot of tannins that cause the color that the faster moving white waters don't have the time to build up)

And where does the coffee-wine-tannin-black water come from? Well, over generations and generations of constant and gradual leaching of the organic material that coats the forest floor, over time as it slowly decays it is brought into the water during rains and such and proceeds to leach into the slow moving, topographically (very) flat rivers of the Amazon which flow through such swamps and ever-decaying wetlands! I love it. What a cool cycle...
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