The meter-long caiman stared at us from its hiding place among the tangle of roots that stretched into the shore of Lago Cuyabeno, its orange eyes reflected in the beams of our flashlights. As we coasted closer in our canoe, with a single flick of its tail it dove beneath the boat and made for safer waters.
Pausing to measure the distance, the Squirrel Monkey squatted and then launched its tiny body into the air, floating in the sultry Amazon heat as it fell 15 feet or so and landed expertly on a tree branch on the other side of the river.
Rising to the surface, the pink river dolphin exhaled through its blowhole, arched its silvery back and then plunged into the murky waters to resume feeding.
It’s just another day in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where life shimmers, glows, flies, swims, crawls and slithers all around you in a constant ballet of nature’s dance. The sights, sounds and colors conspire to create an overwhelming sense that everything everywhere around you is either hunting, eating, breeding, or sleeping – or in quest of one of the above.
For the best experience, enter this place with eyes wide open, camera and binoculars in hand, and with a cautious step. A qualified, experienced guide is also an essential, for there are things here that harm or kill the careless or unaware.
“The jungle has more eyes than leaves,” says our guide, Guilver, as we headed into the dense thicket, sweating profusely in the mid-morning heat, covered by insect repellant, light weight long sleeved shirts and pants and rubber boots. Guilver was born here and grew up making peace with the jungle, so he knows his way around. He sees, hears and smells things that would pass by our senses.
“Look! The soldier ants are eating the Bullet Ant,” he exclaimed excitedly, stooping to cast his flashlight on an army of invading small ants that are making a meal of the much larger insect. The Bullet Ant is called the 24-hour ant, owing to the amount of time you can expect severe pain if you’re unfortunate enough to be bitten by one of these half-inch long beasts.
There are other more serious concerns, too, and Guilver tells us he limits the night hike into the jungle to an hour because the venomous Bushmaster snake is attracted to flashlights and might come exploring. Fer de Lance snakes abound, as do boas, anacondas and countless spiders, scorpions and millipedes, all of which evoke fear and respect in the most experienced inhabitants of this region.
“Don’t grab onto trees or branches,” Guilver warns, as we head up a trail where a concrete post marks the location of the equator. We pass to the north and head deeper into the jungle to see moths, beetles and frogs. Night birds call randomly as we trudge on, and then stop.
“Turn off your lights,” Guilver tells us. “Now find your way on the trail. Slowly. You must work together to stay on the path. Carefully.”
We questioned the wisdom of a bunch of neophytes stumbling along in wilds, and it took a ton of cooperation and communication to stay on track as the dozen of us tripped over roots and slipped in the thick mud despite the faint light from a near-full moon. But we made it back to the boat unscathed, smiling and with a new appreciation for what it takes to survive in this place.
On one morning hike, we had to cross a dense swamp of thick ooze infested by leeches. Gabi got stuck at midpoint of the 100-foot crossing, and I had to pull her out to wrest her left foot from the muck. Our friend Tim lost his balance on his way across and nearly became lunch for the leeches. He remained upright, however, and the mid-calf rubber boots protected us all from the blood-sucking creatures that flourished in the mud.
Such are the thrills of the taste of the Amazon you’ll get at the Cuyabeno Lodge or any other of the dozen or so lodges that ferry people into the wild. This is no simple commute. It’s a 35 minute flight from Quito and a two-hour bus ride from Lago Agrio to the meeting point on the Cuyabeno River where the boat and Capitan Hector took the dozen of us for the 2.5-hour meander.
We eased past dense jungle humbled by immense trees that have stood untouched for generations. Dozens of species of birds, insects and monkeys welcome the boat with calls and howls, often scampering from their perches as we ease past. Guilver and Hector are both keen-eyed guides, and we pause frequently to get a good look at one of the jungle’s inhabitants.
We slept in simple cabins with hot water heaters and mosquito nets, languished in a row of comfortable hammocks in the covered community room where we ate delicious meals prepared by Cuyabeno Lodge’s impressive cook, and sweated intensely from the heat and humidity that make the rain forest what it is.
Each of the four days at Cuyabeno is packed with a different look at the surroundings. There are hikes, river cruises and swimming expeditions (in the center of the lake; it’s simply not wise to swim in the riverbank feeding zones, where caimans, piranhas and electric eels with 600 volts of killing power lurk).
I ask Hector why he isn’t joining us for a swim.
“Piranhas,” he deadpans, and then bursts into laughter.
We’re safe in the hands of these guys, but there are plenty of reminders that we are on very foreign turf.
“We are the visitors here,” says Guilver, reflecting the respect he maintains for the jungle he knows well but nonetheless exercises extreme caution when he’s on the loose with a bunch of foreigners in tow.
He tells us of the conflict between oil interests and naturalists; of villagers uprooted and disenfranchised by development and expansion. He laments the loss of so much as a meter of unspoiled jungle, and is careful to put a three-inch long millipede back where he found it after explaining its mating and eating habits.
Guilver is a walking Wikipedia of jungle information. I’m a lifelong fan of wildlife television programs and have spent some time with people who know the wild well. But Guilver – self taught in all the flora and fauna– conveys special insight into what hovers around us. His family works in the oil business in the Amazon region and people from his town suffer from some of the cancers that have become common. So his work is more than just a way to make a living for him; it’s a bit of a preservationist’s crusade, tinged with a friendly touch and a great sense of humor.
“Have any of your guests ever had a problem with a snake, insect or caiman?” I ask him.
“Not yet,” he smiles. “But it’s still early in the morning.”