Sunday, August 18, 2013

Feathers and Fur: The Amazon´s Creatures

Unfortunately for me, raiforest conditions are just about the worst for operating my wimpy camera.  Between clouds taking away sunlight and drizzle, animals being far away and sitting in a rocking boat, I just don´t have that many great shots to share with you.  I will share with you some of the cool things we saw, but please forgive the blurry or flat shots.  

One of our first sightings was of the local favorite: Hoatzin.  It´s a funky, silly lookig bird, who makes a good deal of noise.  There is a flock of about 12 that live around the lodge where we spent our first night.  Most were across the river from us, but one came over to watch us while gorging itself on fresh leaves.

Hoatzin, or locally named Stinky Turkey

Also near the camp was a small group of tamarins.  They were quite high in the tree, so these were the best shots I managed to get with my super zoom.

We saw a number of these nests everywhere, belonging to paper wasps.  Apparently they just keep uilding and building, until finally the weight is too much for the branch and the whole nest falls to the ground.

This is Lianna.  I forget what type of monkey she is, but the lodge bought her from a local who had been keeping her as a pet.  The set her free nearby so that she could have a more normal life.  I´m glad she´s not in captivity, but tell me that she doen´t look at least a bit lonely....?

We saw lots of really cool birds, but usualy they were too quick for me to catch a picture.  Here are some of my better shots.

Scarlet Macaws
Hanging nests of the Oropendulo

Capped Heron

Kingfisher (these guys were everywhere!)

Turkey vulture, saw lots of other vultures (black and yellow-headed), but this guy doesn´t naturally live here.  It was an interesting sighting.

Snowy Egret
Laughing Falcon

At our first lunch stop, I happened to be walking around when my eyes caught sight of this:

zooming out a bit...
and a bit more.....
It turns out that a jaguar had been trailing a group of Capybara.  The trail died off in the grass, so we´ll never know how that story ends.  We did happen to see a capybara on the shore during our last trip in the canoe!  What a nice treat!  They´re basically  large guinea pig-the size of a medium dog.

 Sloths were a pretty common sighting, having seen maybe 5 or 6 over the course of our trip.  They basically just look like a big dark lump hanging in the trees, that doesn´t move.  On closer look, you can see the splotchy markes on tehir coat.  We saw both 3 and 2 toed sloths, though I couldn´t tell you how he could tell them apart fro msuch a distance.

Our closest encounter of the trip, though, came with this little guy.  There is so much floating debris in the river, that we passed right by him.  Thankfully, Roni has eagle eyes, so he signaled for us to turn around. 

When we came back, we saw that this juvenile sloth was crossing the wide river, now just over halfway across.  We disoriented him though with our waves, as he began to swim in circles to keep an eye on us.  We didn´t want him to end up going the long way back across the river, so we gave him a helping hand.

Not only was this little guy completely waterlogged, but he was exhausted.   He must have been swimming for hours in order to battle the strong current.  The moment we set him on teh bench (right next to me!  yipee!)  he sunk down and closed his eyes, looking relieved.

After much debate, we decided to just shuttle him directly to the side he had approached, as we assumed he had left the other shore for lack of adequate habitat.  Andres wanted to bring him back to the camp, but all of the guests insisted he return to his proper habitat.  As cute as he was, and as content as I would have been to have him ride snuggled in my lap for the duration of the trip, this was not in his best interest.  After whispering some encouraging words and silently sending a plea out into the universe for his protection, we carefully positioned him on a sturdy branch and went on our way.

I´ve thought of this little guy often since then.  I hope he made it safely to the top of a strong, healthy tree, and is flourishing there as I write.  Good luck, little buddy!

The Amazon Rainforest: Exploring Cuyabeno Reserve by Boat

I just returned from my trip to the Amazon.  I did a six day trip by boat.  It took a long time for me to find it.  I spend nearly a whole day going from tour agency to tour agency, seeing what sort of programs they offered into the Amazon.  Without fail, most offered a 4 day trip into the Cuyabeno Reserve, staying at a luxury lodge, and costing up to $250 a night.  This was not my style for many reasons.  

Aside from being insanely expensive, this meant that I would be staying in the same place for all the nights, making it likely that we would reuse the same trails, revisitng the same sights.  Another drawback to this model, is that lodges service as many people as they can, meaning between 25-40 people.  With that comes noise, and greater disruption to the ecosystem, which in turns makes animals run away.  But the largest damning factor of the trip, was the amount of time you actually spent in the rainforest.

All of these tours start from one of the two major towns at the edge of the reserves:  Coca or Lago Agrio.  Both are at least 8 hours bus ride from Quito.  Once you have gotten yourself there, you convene with your group, usually between 8 and 9am.  From there, a 3 hour drive into the reserve and to the river, followed by a 3-4 hour boat ride to get to the lodge, with an hour lunch stop in between.  The timer to your "4 days" starts at pickup...  which essentially means the first whole day of your "Amazon Adventure" is spent in a van and then a boat....  doing the same for the exit, effectively leaving you with only 2 full days in the Amazon.

Hence my excitement when the travel agent described this option to me:  6 days/5 nights, camping along the river, with a maximum group size of 8 with Dracaena Tours.  Done and done.  To the tune of $590, I would receive all the necessary transportation from Lago Agrio, all the accommodation, meals, a naturalist guide, a boat driver, chef and assistant.  No electricity, no phones, no large crowds, just me and the big ol green.  Happiness.

I signed up on Monday, leaving me nearly a week before I had to meet my group on Saturday.  With that spare time, I made my excursion to Cotopaxi, and then my smorgasbord in Baños.  Time very well spent.  From Baños, I took an overnight bus, passing first through Ambato.  I left around 6pm Friday night, arriving in Lago Agrio around 5:30 am. It was a slightly disjointed night of sleep, but was otherwise a smooth sail.

When we arrived at the riverside, we first had to pack the canoe, carefully covering everything in plastic as a precaution against the sporadic rain showers.

My ever-so-charming new Swiss friends were always the first to lend a helping hand.  They nearly single-handedly packed the boat!
Our luggage, along with a week´s worth of water, food and propane.  The enormous jugs of gasoline are at the back.

Our amazing driver, Theodoro, has us all settled, and off we set for our first night.

It turns out that the information we were given wasn´t exactly accurate.  Our first and last nights were to be at a lodge, setting off the next day for a tenting site.  We arrived at Nicky Lodge around 5pm, finding a place that somehow manages to be both comfortable yet rustic.  The cabins were mostly open, using thatched roofing and screens in front.  It as not uncommon for visitors to be found in the roofs.  While we were there, there was a tarantula and tree frog sighting.  Every bed had a nice, large bug net.  We had running water, and lit the pace by candle light.  Best feature?: every porch had a nice hammock.

Each cabin was named after a local animal.  This was my cabin: Harpey Eagle.

The ground gets very soggy, so all cabins and walkways were elevated.  The only drawback to this was that the wood got slippery after the rain, so you had to walk super carefully.
The main lodge was the hangout spot.  There were about 10 hammocks, tables often used for card games, and slightly out-of-tune guitar for fiddling, and perpetual clean water for refilling water bottles and hot water for tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

The lodge usually had 2-3 canoes at the ready.  They were a thick fiberglass hull with no built in seats.  This gave them the ultimate flexibility to have a few or as many seats as they needed, leaving ample room for goods.

After our first, luxurious night, we hit the water, as it were, heading off with our gear, food water, tents, blankets, and great company.  We mostly traveled with binoculars and cameras in hand, as you never knew how long of a glimpse you would get of something before it flew, jumped, crawled or swam away.  The most essential piece of equipment, however, turned out to be the rain ponchos we borrowed from camp.  Nearly every day there was at least one squall, slapping us in the face as we zipped down the river.

We were a bit of a hodge-podge crew, but it turned out to be a good combination.  There was a family of four visiting from the UK.  Tonya, the mom, is a jewelry designer, working with leather in 3D sculptural ways.  The dad, Mishkin, is an architect.  The 14-year-old son, Noah, is a science wizard, easily memorizing all the bird species to teach the rest of us later.  The youngest, Rafi, was 11, and the mascot of the adventure  He has enough energy and charm to last for weeks.  There were also two friends, Ralph and Benedikt, from the German part of Switzerland.  They were in the middle of a 3-week trip to Ecuador as a last hurrah before returning to school.  Then there was me.  I already mentioned our driver, Theodoro.  He turned out to be a rainforest genius, knowing everything about medicinal plants and the local animals, despite being illiterate.  Our chef, affectionately called Bangladesh, visited here 7 years ago and decided to stay.  Our naturalist guide was named Andres, originally from Quito, he has spent about 4 years leading groups like ours.  Lastly, a young 19-year-old guide named Roni came along because he hoped to learn more English.  That was our group.  Together for 6 days.

We spent our first night camping at a lodge under construction.  A local family has been pooling whatever resources they could to build a lodge that is deeper into the Amazon.  As we got ready to leave the next morning, the patriarch of the family asked to take audience with us, introducing us to all the members of his family who could be present.   He thanked us for supporting them, explaining that we were the first group to stay at the site.  It was very rough still, and very much under construction, but it served us perfectly.  My favorite anecdote of that moring?  They are debating different names for the lodge.  The current favorite is: Uquiañangu, which refers to a colony of leaf cutter ants.  The family works together as a cohesive unit, trying to build their lodge, much as leaf cutter ants do.  We all were fans of this choice.

Large family, larger welcome.
Another interesting anecdote of our adventures, is that there are a number of military check points you have to cross.  Our boat trip took us to the Peruvian border, so we had to leave our nationality and passport information, along with details of our return at both the Ecuadorian and Peruvian bases.
Ecuadorian side
And so, our happy little family made our way through thick jungle, narrow rivers, getting closer all the while.  I made some quite good friends from that journey, and have felt quite lonely since having to say goodbye.

Roni, Andres, Benedikt, and Ralph

All those rain showers paid off!
I will write more about what wildlife we saw in subsequent posts, but here are just some of the interesting details.  The is one of the encroaching vines that are so abundant here.  Birds leave seeds in the branches of taller trees when they defecate, the seeds sprout, sending long tendrils of roots down to the group.  Over time, they take root, eventually wrapping around the tree and suffocating it.  The tree then dies and decomposes, dropping lots of healthy organic matter for the invasive plant to grow.  Before too long, all that is left is an intertwining mass of vines, much resembling  tree.

Here we are at the base of a Kapok tree, the grandpappy of the rainforest.
My favorite camping site was on a lake with no inhabitants.  We set up our tents under a tarp, getting the best views of the sunset.

It was hard to believe when the time finally came to say good-bye.  I´ve never been very good at those.  We snapped whatever last minute shots we needed, and loaded up for the last time.  I will always look back on this trip with great fondness.  Apparently if I want to find kindred spirits, I have to go to remote places....  ironic.