Ecuador: Wonder in the Real Middle-Earth

In the last month of my jaunt through South America, I left Chile to divide my time in March between Ecuador and Chile.

The first half of March in Ecuador was spectacular.

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My guide, Jairo, on a trail off of the Cuyabeno river in Ecuador. Yes, it’s green here.

Quito

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One of the many plazas in Quito which relate the history of the country, most of which surround the independence of Ecuador, and heroes like Simon Bolivar. Who apparently looked nothing like his statues.

After a dull final two weeks in Chile, I was excited for the South American adventure to begin again. As soon as the taxi left the Quito airport, I could see the lights of Ecuador scattered in the mountains.

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While a statue of the “Virgen” is very common in South American cities, this one is quite different, known as the Virgin of the Apocalypse. Apparently at the end of the world, when Mary comes back, she’s going to be more like The Punisher than your spiritual guide to a decent parking spot. Locals also say she’s the last virgin in Quito.

As we approached Quito, we took a narrow, winding road through the dark, high walled streets, to reach the center of Quito. It was unlike any city I had ever visited.

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This is one of the lowest walls in the city. True story.

The next two days, I did two walking tours around historic Quito. Each South American country has its’ story of independence from Spain (or in Brazil’s case, Portugal) and their heroes of the revolution. I had never really understood who Simon Bolivar was, so Bolivar’s history as the liberator of not just Ecuador but Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru was fascinating, as were the earlier (suppressed) attempts at liberation by Eugenio Espejo and friends.

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A statue of Saint Nicolas in the San Francisco Cathedral (I think). This one looks like he’s pretty convinced that you’re naughty, and in your stocking you’re going to find a lake of eternal fire and suffering. Feliz Navidad!

Catholic churches are everywhere, and the culture of the country is still heavily in the grips of the church and it’s centuries of dogma. People cannot understand why I don’t want to have kids – they ask several times to make sure it’s not my broken Spanish. They share their family size with pride, and make sure I understand when they have a boy. It seems unfriendly to tell them that our planet is overpopulated and they aren’t helping, and that girls are the future. But that doesn’t stop me from rehearsing the Spanish words in my head.

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Carnival was in full swing during my time in Quito. I decided to retaliate against some kids who attacked me with spray foam, and I paid the ultimate price: more foam.

The Cuyabeno river in the Amazon Rainforest

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Hi, you’re in my rainforest. I’d like to see some indentification and understand your intentions. (Note: A lot of the closeup photos were taken by Jairo, my guide. He has a talent for close-ups with wildlife, while I certainly do not!)

The main focus of my time was to visit the Amazon rainforest – not the Amazon river, but the broader system of rivers and jungles that have the same ecosystem across South America – the same type of rainforest which has already been decimated, and the remainder is still at risk.

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The rivers are dark from sediment – they are not dirty. The color changes from green from the tree and plant oils that cover the surface, to brown from sediment, to a lustrous and reflective black.

I flew to Lago Agrio and was met by Jairo, who would be my guide for the next week. We rode in the van with Paolo, an Italian who was headed to the same camp as I was headed, Guacamayo Ecolodge. (Guacamayo means “macaw” in Spanish, guacamole means salsa made of avocado).

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One of a pair of mated snakes during our hike through the jungle at night. Just gorgeous, but her partner was there, so I was respectful and didn’t get her number.

The next week was incredible. Boating down the Cuyabeno river, seeing Toucans, boa constrictors, and monkeys day after day was amazing. The plush, dense forest simultaneously exploding with growth and rapidly decomposing was everywhere you looked.

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A monkey wants to understand who is making all the noise in the canoe. (Taken through binoculars)

The next eight days were filled with a great deal of wonder and tranquility, amongst the distant hum of cicadas and the calls of birds.

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The Ruby Dart, the most poisonous frog in the Cuyabeno. While these colors may say “fiesta!” I passed on the offer to stay and party.

A few experiences stand out:

A night walk through the forest, where snakes, spiders, tree frogs, scorpions, and other nocturnal inhabitants come out to eat and avoid being eaten by everyone else. The wildlife is completely different: the “night shift” comes out and fills the forest, with more species than you could see during the day. It’s a nerve wracking experience until you learn to settle in and accept that there’s a lot of species out there that are centimeters away from you, that you just can’t see because it’s dark.

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A scorpion (smaller than it looks in the photo) hanging out on a tree at night. While I was cautious of most of the animal life in the jungle, this was the one place where I felt simple, unchecked fear.

An almost six hour canoe trip to the end of a river where Jairo had never been before. We ducked under fallen logs as the canoe glided under each one, crashed through brush filled with ants and spiders, and never stopped paddling. Despite a mid-adventure snack my blood sugar crashed and was a useless lump at the end of the paddle. Jairo is incredible strong and is also a keen navigator through the narrow twists and turns of the river.

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A scorpion spider, on a tree.

A hike through the jungle where we walked through a swamp, and with each step in the swamp, if you flicked a lighter, a cloud of methane gas would burst into flames. This is one of the reasons that the agricultural “slash and burn” approach with rainforests is so idiotic – it frees ridiculous volumes of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is estimated to be responsible for 25% of the overall impact of human-initiated climate change.

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The Men in Jungle Boots calendar photo for March 2019. It’s the biggest tree, with the biggest tourist right in front of it.

There were two modes in the jungle: First, Adventure Mode, where you are experiencing something new, that maybe you thought you’d never do:

- Having a scorpion spider put on my face. Letting a stream of 50–100 live ants crawl into your mouth. Making insect repellant by letting a swarm of ants crawl into your hands. Putting a neuro-toxin on your tongue that is deadly if it enters the bloodstream.

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Adventure awaits! Did you bring your rain poncho? Boots? Sun cream? Insect repellant? Camera? Sunglasses? Hat?

- Seeing a caiman up close. Having a exotin soldier ant bite the end of your finger so you can understand how it can be used as a medical stitch. Ducking under fallen logs as you canoe downstream. Pulling a tree out by the roots to help a local villager create a cure for parasites. Being face-to-face with a mated pair of snakes.

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I would never get this close to a crocodile in Australia in an open canoe. This is a caiman, which is well, a lot like a crocodile.

- Chuckling at the fact that the tarantulas seem to hang out mostly in the smokers area of the lodge (natural selection? maybe they like smokey meat?). Witnessing the explosion of methane gas up your leg above your boot when you flick a simple lighter walking through the swamp.

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The head of an exiton solider ant, still gripping (and drawing blood) even after it’s body has separated from the head. Nature is really cool.

- Seeing an entire family of 30 Flying Monkey (no relation to the winged monkeys of Oz) cross the river, throwing themselves fully across the divide to catch a soft branch on the other side. Seeing the rare pacas and shy kinkajou. Tacking tapis and wild boar tracks in the forest. Finding the homes of sea otter. Talking to the Shaman about how he uses iowaska. Helping make yuca bread. Laughing at the squabbling “stinkey turkeys” that line the banks of the Cuyabeno.

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The same scorpion spider, now on my face. For some reason, people tend to react to this photo.

It is a different world. One that alone, I would have missed 99% of, but with Jairo as my guide, I saw worlds big and small that I’d never imagined.

Ten thousand years ago, wildlife made up 99% of the world’s biomass. It now makes up 2% of the world’s biomass. The demand for meat, and the resulting conversion of forest to farmland, is destroying species like clockwork.

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A small florescent bettle, playing dead. I actually took this photo, one of the few closeups I did well.

The second mood of the trip that surrounded me clearly should be named “At-One-With-Nature. The other side of the jungle slowly sinks in during the quiet moments, where your paddle hits the water without a sound, where you’re gliding down the river, surrounded by walls of green and the background noises of toucans, cicada, parrots, and macaws. The river has an unnoticeable current at times, and your mind empties itself of everything outside the present. There is no breeze except the one you create by paddling the canoe forward.

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Note the multiple violations of boating safety. The water is also less than a meter deep. This place is outside the bounds of conventional rules and feelings.

Jairo recognized that I enjoyed these moments of silence. We had shared our personal histories and were both survivors of health crises, and appreciated the fact that we could be here, in this moment, and needed nothing else. I think he appreciated a client who wasn’t out to complete the checklist of all the animals, and I appreciated a guide who didn’t need to be a full time entertainer and would give me the space I wanted.

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Jairo wades through a swamp, showing me the massive quantities of methane that lurks under the surface.

Ecuador – te amo

While I have only spent three weeks in Ecuador, they have been the best weeks of my entire trip. The week in the Galapagos (which is Ecuador) in November, and now the week in the Cuyabeno, and the days in Qiuto, have been the best of my trip.

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The marker for the equator (Y=0). Yes, you’ve stepped right in the middle of it.

If I return to retrace my footsteps anywhere in South America in the future, Ecuador will be at the top of the list.

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