City Girl Meets Jungle: What was I thinking?

Guest Post: Experienced, Written and Photographed by Leslie A Thomson, April 2018

Checking Things Off My Travel List

It started with my list of 101 things to do while I am Fun-tired. Yes retired with fun, and due to good genes, thank you mom, I don’t look old enough to retire. On this list, the Galapagos Islands, and taking photos of wildlife not seen in the United States.

In doing my research for the Galapagos with the various tour companies, Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) rose to the top of possible selections. The tour included the Galapagos and the Zero Zero Marker in addition to “Ecuador’s Amazon Wilds.”

Made the call to OAT. Booked a trip. Leaving in 60 days.

Fast Forward 60 Days

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Traveling on the Amazon River

Arrived in Quito Ecuador, met with the trip leader, and had a day of touring around Quito before heading to the Amazon basin the next morning, where I boarded with the group on a small prop plane with seats for about 50 passengers heading to Coca, Ecuador. The views of the mountains, fields and wooded areas from above were fabulous.

It was a short flight. Our bags were loaded in a truck bed, and all 15 of us boarded a mini bus, and headed off to the pier, where long canoes with motors, were tied up together at the end of a floating dock.

Shortly after leaving the dock for the Napo Cultural Center Lodge, our canoe gets pulled over by the river patrol – military looking guys, large guns and all. They counted each one of us on the canoe and made sure the life jackets were properly worn.

Now on the Napo River, part of the Amazon River watershed, we are moving along at a pretty good clip, and then suddenly come to a complete stop due to a sand bar and trees floating down the river. It’s a game of cat and mouse with various obstacles for the next two hours with other canoes, fast boats, ferries, barges, small paddle canoes, all making their way to some unknown location,

Then comes the rain.

The plastic that can’t be seen through is lowered and the steam bath starts. Good thing the captain knows where he is going, because I can’t see a thing.

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Rooms at the Napo Center Lodge near Quito, Ecuador

Our Digs in the Jungle: Napo Cultural Center Lodge

Upon arrival to the lodge, there are several strong men assisting us as we climb out of the canoe onto the riverbank stairs cut of mud. It really is jungle – mud, puddles, wood covering larger puddles to cross and more rain. Amazon, jungle, rain. What did I get myself into?

There is a grassy clearing with a thatched roof building. This is a no-shoes-allowed location: just bare feet or socks. I remove my shoes and am immediately treated to hot coco. Wait, what? It’s the jungle! I’m already hot and they provide us with hot coco? But, boy, was it delicious.

Introductions are made to the lodge staff and we get fitted for boots, which will be my friend, or enemy, for the next four days.

The lodge is simple, yet beautiful; the floors shining brightly even with the rain. There are community tables throughout, with heavy, hand-carved chairs with carved animals at the base. The lodge is the meeting place for all the activities and meals.

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Carved chairs and shining wood floors in the dining room of Napo Center Lodge

Keys for room safes are handed out with the cottage number. I’m in number 6. There are no locks on the doors, we’re told. We are pointed to a stone pathway, lined with tropical flowers, ginger, heliconia, in a variety of colors. There are several thatched roof cottages along the stone path. Not far beyond the path is full on jungle. I could hear critters. Didn’t know what they were. I later found out they were monkeys.

Cottages are also boots off. Very simple, white linens and mosquito netting. They provided bottled water as the tap, shower and toilet are reclaimed water and not drinkable. Lights are low due to solar power for the whole lodge. I’m reminded about the bugs. Bug Tip: spray bug repellent on the side of your bed linens, just in case they make it under the mosquito netting. The porch has a lovely hammock to rest after adventures of the day.

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Sights and sounds from the forest

Now I’m really in the jungle.

Most of the adventures will occur in the early morning or late afternoon. Being at the Equator, sun up and down is at approximately 6 am / pm. Our first activity after arriving is a swamp walk (need those boots) and climbing a 120-foot tower that is higher than the jungle trees to see the top of the forest canopy. The path to the tower was mainly on 2 x 6‘s on cement blocks to keep from sinking into the mud.

I slowly climbed the tower. At different levels various birds could be seen and heard. Before reaching the top viewing area is a lookout made in a large tree with birds landing on the limbs, posing for photos. Toucans, parrots, and other colorful birds flying above the trees. Not quite dark on the tower, but only about 10% of the sun light makes it to the jungle floor. Walking back down is a little tricky due to the low light levels.

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Now we are really in the jungle

We all clean up a bit. Sofy, the trip leader provides information regarding the community and lodge. She tells us the community, as a whole, decided to build the lodge and cabins as a means to sustain themselves economically. Everyone works at or for the lodge in some manner. Twenty-one days of work, then seven days off. School aged children do not work; their job is to learn. Beyond the lodge is a large soccer field, with children of all ages, boys and girls, cheering and having fun, in the last light of the day.

Plenty of movement in dining area. The tables are a set in simple elegance and my boots are off. Farm and Sea-to-Table are how the meals are prepared. The smell of popcorn is close by. What’s this all about?   A refreshing hot, cream of spinach soup is served with popcorn on top as a garnish, with bowls of popcorn on the table. Never thought of popcorn in soup, but the lightly, salted flavor enhanced the soup. The servers are moving between the kitchen, shoes on and the dining area, shoes off. They have this pattern well-rehearsed. The main course comes next, Ecuadorian Shrimp, in a lovely pink sauce, served with vegetables, potatoes and rice. Everyone received a plate loaded with shrimp while the remaining dishes were served family style. White cake with a sweet berry sauce was a great finish to the meal.

I am in the jungle, eating 5-star food! The chef came and checked on the food quality and taste. I couldn’t be happier.

After dinner, I retired to my little cottage and stayed within the mosquito netting, reading my book, lulled to sleep by the sounds of the jungle and the rain.

Day 2: Jungle Adventures Continue

5:30 am: up early for bird watching before breakfast. Boots: need to check them out for bugs and other creatures. Who knows what’s lurking? Supposed to be a walk, but the birds are near the lodge with a scope set up for a closer view.

The aroma of fresh baked bread lingers in the lodge. Breakfast is ready. A spread of fruits, cheese, meat, and juices, coffee, or tea. Suddenly the servers arrive, note pad in hand to take our egg orders. Way too much food this early in the morning, but the eggs are definitely as fresh as the chickens nearby.

Put those boots on again. Headed to the riverbank to the motorized canoe. The water level has increased greatly, about six feet (two meters). The mud steps have disappeared. Several young men meet us at the boat to assist with boarding.

Downstream on the main branch of the Napo River the crew drops anchor where vibrant green parrots flock to the river bank for the morning lick of salt from the mud. There were about twenty birds flying in and out of the area at any given time. Our guide indicates that something is wrong, as there are usually a hundred birds. We come to find out later in the day, as the guides and rangers talk, there was a large snake nearby, waiting for an easy meal.

After our short stop, we motor to an area where the rivers meet, the main branch of the Napo is a coffee-with-cream color, while the branch, Augana, is black coffee. The next activity is bird and wildlife watching in a smaller canoe without a motor and two young men paddling. My job was to look for wildlife, hear the sounds of the jungle, enjoy the ride and take photos.

I was not disappointed. Saw four different monkey species: squirrel, howler, black and wooly. Also, a black caiman peaking its snout and eye out of the water, supposedly 6 -8 feet in length. Oh, and my least favorite critter, snakes. I don’t care how big, long or harmless they are, I don’t like them. We couldn’t get out of the area fast enough for me.

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A black caiman peaking its snout and eye out of the water

More monkeys and lots of beautiful flora and fauna, and back to the lodge for lunch. Getting used to slopping through mud in my boots. My friends.

Lunch (like dinner): pork chops, plantains, and veggies. After an exhausted morning of floating in canoes and eating, it’s time to make use of that hammock for a siesta. Ah, to remove those boots, my toes are thankful. As the sun came out so did many different types of butterflies. I could hear the monkeys in the trees. The rest was well appreciated as another jungle walk was forth coming.

Our next guide takes us on a walk through a different jungle path. I wouldn’t want to get lost in here. Everything looked the same. Boots are a necessity as there is mud, tree roots, leaves with pools of water and more critters. Some of the trees were 100 years old and used for medicinal purposes.

Long nose bats flew out of one tree, and scared the (expletive) out of me. Remember I’m the city girl. Lots of harmless tree frogs – white, brown and green, so I’m told, but the colorful frogs are poisonous. Good thing for the long camera lens, don’t have to get too close.

We take a short cut back to the lodge through Poncho’s homestead. He started a coffee plantation, so they won’t have to buy coffee to supply the lodge. Another six months to a year before the beans are ready for roasting. Basically, Poncho and family cleared an area of jungle for coffee production.   The family home is on the edge of the field, raised to a second floor to keep the water from entering the living area. The laundry is hanging dry under the house, where the family dogs are laying in the shade. His four kids are at school or doing homework elsewhere. His wife is working on a project with the other women.

Life is simple, but also complex for this community.  

As we continue to the lodge, the water treatment and solar panel area is impressive.   There are buildings for various functions: welding, chopping wood (keep it dry), recycling, a medical office and a computer room for the students and others. In the distance I can hear hammers pounding and sawing. They are constructing another building and fixing one of the cabins. It’s like a barn raising – everyone knows what their function is, and progress is rapidly seen.

Prior to dinner, I get to take off these boots. Sofy provides another discussion about Ecuador. This time, the political problems, much the same as the US. Ecuadorians don’t care for their president. She talks about the late 2000’s recession in the US and how it affected Ecuador. The discussion gets my mind off being in the jungle.

I can smell the dinner cooking. What’s the menu today: Chicken with a tasty sauce, Yucca Mash, veggies and rice. Top this off with a blackberry/raspberry sorbet in parfait glasses set on a platter designed like a fiery red sun. How satisfying!

Day 3: A Day in the Life of the Community

The day starts a little later as we are heading to the school, community center, a home-cooked lunch, and a tour of the homeowners garden. Boots on! Rain Ponchos on! Check, Check. After breakfast we head over to the school, everything is close by, but the school is away from the distractions of the lodge and community. The building looks just like our lodge cabins, although connected. All grades are taught here, with 12 teachers. There is another building next to the medical center, where the computers are maintained for the students use. Yes, do they have internet! It’s not reliable, and expensive for guests, but still.

We visit the class with four grades, one through four, and one teacher. The kids are in different areas of the room with their own white board and desks. No more than six students in a grade. Poncho’s daughter is in the classroom. The students are excited to practice their English on us, and we, likewise, with our Spanish. An “I Spy” game is being played.   A word of an object in the classroom is written on the white board in Spanish, and we have to translate to English and help with pronunciation. It was a lot of fun. One of our group, Jim, who looks like a grandpa, was chosen several times by the kids. At their desks each student had a wooden tablet with four columns and 10 rows, and a container of stones or corn kernels. These tablets/ calculators were made by the family from local wood for the arithmetic portion of learning.

Next stop, the preschoolers, 10 of them. One little guy is not happy to be in school. The kids sing songs in English and Spanish.   The community wants the next generation to be bilingual as this will assist with future jobs and tourism at the lodge.

For the morning break, we head to the dining hall, and each student is given juice, fruit and a protein bar. There is a large tree outside the hall, where the boys are climbing to the top, gathering red fruit, which look like jungle apples, which become part of the snack for those willing to partake.

Off to the women’s area

The community is well planned with separate areas to take care of different needs. The women have a large community hut with smaller surrounding huts. We are welcomed with song and dance. One little boy is playing with his mom’s pink cell phone. The babies are gathered on their backs, or hung in hammocks for naps, so they can continue with chores and make items to sell in the small shop. I buy myself a woven owl necklace.   Although, I don’t normally buy touristy times, an exception was made to support the women. It will be a birthday gift for a friend who is an owl fanatic.

The Rains Return

The skies opened up with torrential rains, so one of the guys ran back to the lodge for umbrellas. The boots are made for walking through mud and water, but everyone’s clothes are clean.

At lunch time, we walk to Silva and Mary’s home for a cooking lesson and a home-cooked lunch. OAT pays the individuals for the food and preparation; 15 guests for lunch is a lot of food. The family has two kitchen areas, one with a dirt floor, the other, upstairs, for when the river is flooding. Now, it’s a play area for the kids, afterschool.

The main course is what they normally eat, catfish chopped in small pieces, with finely chopped hearts of palm, a little salt, tossed together and placed in a banana leaf for cooking over a wood fire. Tasty and filled with protein.

Next up their delicacy, large yellow and black larvae, about three inches long and half inch around. Placed on a skewer for grilling. Well, I may be adventurous, but the city girl in me does not eat anything like that, unless it is the last meal and I’m on the brink of starvation. Others tried it and said it was crispy on the outside and fatty inside. Salt hides a lot of the taste. Dessert was ice cold pineapple.

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Yummy larvae on the grill

After lunch, a walk to the family garden. Yucca, a staple food, is grown in different stages, making it always available. Mary, with her machete, digs up the root, and one of the guys helps pull it out of the ground. Bananas and papayas are also in various stages of ripeness. The people in this community truly live off the land.

Blow gun practice is next.

Yep, some of the communities still use the blow gun for hunting. Much quieter than a gun, easier than bow and arrow. When it came to my turn, I missed the fake parrot by a mile. A couple of the school kids hung around to laugh with (at) us and also find the darts. That hammock is looking good right about now, and also getting out of these boots.

Later in the afternoon, before dinner, it’s off in the motorized canoe for more wildlife viewing. The sun setting on the river was beautiful. We need to get back before dark as the river is dangerous, with sand bars and floating debris. There are no lights. This really is the Amazon River Basin. The boat motors are silent, and all you can hear are the sounds from the jungle and children giggling in the distance. Tomorrow we leave the jungle, and head back to the city.

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Blow dart practice after lunch

Day 4: Back to the City.

Well, the jungle didn’t disappoint. The rains came in buckets today. Those boots on again until we get to the motorized canoe. Our luggage is picked up at the rooms, placed in plastic bags and taken to the boat in wheel barrels. After breakfast, we maneuver around the large puddles and mud to the canoe. Those young helpful men showed up again to assist. Our clean shoes are handed to us. I haven’t had my comfortable shoes on in four days. My feet are thankful.

The two-hour motorized canoe ride with the plastic sheeting down and sauna feel is great for a morning siesta. Just about the time we are arriving in Coca, the rains stop and the air is clean and fresh, plastic sheets up. Sofy informs us about a small market under the bridge. Got about a half hour before the bus for the airport. I need the walk, and there’s always more photos.

Finally, it’s time to leave the jungle adventure and return to Quito. The laundry was a definite must to take care of as well as a long hot shower. Best of all, the boots were left in the jungle for someone else to don for their adventure.

 

About Leslie Thomson:  Leslie is an avid traveler with all seven continents under her belt, over 100 countries, 47 of the 50 states and seven Canadian provinces. She combines multiple passions with travel including photography, theatre, chocolate, tea and volunteering. You can find Leslie exploring cityscapes or walking hiking trails (she doesn’t hike) and just about anything that sparks her interest When meeting Leslie, she will take you on a storytelling journey of the fun-employed and fun-tired (retired with fun). Enjoy the ride.

 

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