Discovering the Amazon Rainforest

The adventure began in Quito, Ecuador when, along with three other guests and three staff members of the Kapaui Eco-lodge, I climbed aboard a brightly colored 30 passenger aircraft. Two hours later, after flying over volcanoes, rivers and jungle, we landed in Shell, a small village seemingly a million miles from nowhere.

However, I had not begun to experience the isolation of my destination deep in the Amazon Rainforest. Then, transferring to an 8-seat aircraft, we flew over miles and miles of what looked like fields of broccoli but was the jungle. We finally set down on a dirt runway in the middle of a small native village and when I emerged, I was hit by a wall of heat and humidity. Cordial members of the Achuar community greeted me and guided me to a shelter from the sun where I was offered a cool drink in a small bowl.

A short time later, I continued on to the final leg of my journey. Cautiously descending the rickety wooden staircase towards the river, I felt a sense of anticipation laced with mild apprehension as I began my excursion into the most remote area of the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest. Climbing aboard an over-sized, motorized wooden canoe, I welcomed its canopy shielding me from the intense rays of the sun. A pleasant breeze seemed to diminish the humidity once the canoe was in motion heading up the river towards my destination. Gazing around, all I could see was the muddy river snaking its way thorough an expanse of greenery that seemed to go on forever and the only sounds were those of the birds and the purr of the motor.

One and one half hours later, I arrived at my destination, deep in the Amazon. Smiling staff members of the new Kapaui Ecolodge & Reserve, greeted me as I climbed onto the dock and was guided down a bridged wooden walkway towards the lodge. Seemingly out of nowhere, several thatched roof, wooden structures of varying sizes, built on stilts, came into view. It looked like an authentic indigenous village and as I later learned, it was built by the native people using traditional techniques, but featured modern amenities.

I was escorted to my spacious cabana into which my luggage had already been placed. An inviting hammock strung across my large balcony fronted a peaceful lagoon where I would spend a part of each day relaxing. Electricity and water, I was advised, were at a premium and I was instructed on the use of tiled bathroom facilities. My bed, topped by a mosquito net, offered extra peace of mind during the nights to come.

Throughout my activities and explorations I was accompanied by Paulina, an Ecuadorian naturalist and Christobel, an indigenous Achuar guide, my information transmitted via Spanish to English translations. Christobel, often repeated the English translation to himself, as he became more and more proficient in the language of North Americans. Although the heat was so intense that it baked my bones and the humidity hovered around 95%, the dense shade of the rainforest trees and shrubs shielded me from the direct sun. With perspiration dripping from every pore in my body, I began to feel cleansed and touched by the restorative, healing energy of unspoiled nature replenishing the life force of the planet.

Jungle treks along muddy paths, both in sunlight and by moonlight, proved fascinating. Night hikes were led by Christobel and Paulina who donned headlamps, carefully guiding us down paths and over walkways which seemed more ominous in the dark of night. Christobel, never without his companion machete, bushwhacked our way into the depths of the steamy, lush rainforest. He regularly stopped to explain the medicinal or nutritional uses of various plants as he uncovered the unique riches of this complex eco system.

Slicing off a piece of tree bark, he exposed a nest of lemon ants which he assured me were edible. I took the bait and discovered a crunchy, lemony taste. Further along, he unveiled a fat white larva, which he had told me about earlier. This was a creature which Achuar men were encouraged by their wives to bring back to the village. I interpreted this as jungle Viagra which gentle, soft spoken Christobel popped into his mouth and swallowed. Further along the way, a long, smooth cane-like vine grew toward the heavens and when I shook it, I could hear that it was filled with water. This was the jungle’s answer to a desert’s fresh spring oasis.

The quiet jungle sounds were suddenly interrupted by what sounded like a jack hammer but turned out to be a woodpecker. We made our way to the black lagoon, which initially appeared to be lime green. The water was indeed black but covered with a green algae. Baby alligators snaked through the water and yellow and black birds darted in and out of the trees.

Crossing to the opposite side over a log bridge, we continued into the rainforest. A colossal ficus tree loomed ahead, one which the natives hold sacred and seemingly an oracle. Its roots formed cave like enclosures and its energy seemed to encompass us. Thunder rolled across the skies at recurrent intervals and rain fell regularly, sometimes in huge single drops which barely made it to the ground or at other times in torrential downpours.

Although, part of my initial apprehension was unexpectedly meeting up with some deadly animal, I discovered that in this natural habitat, all creatures were only interested in their own survival and consequently, were very shy. What I did see and hear a lot of were some of the more than 500 varieties of birds of many colors calling out in their unique voices. A woodpecker’s hammer-like noise broke the silence. Two chachalacas flying overhead in cloudless blue sky seemed to be arguing. The squawking of a large flock of parakeets and lime green, chestnut fronted macaws at the riverside salt lick created a noisy ruckus and further along some yellow crowned Amazon parrots darted around another salt lick. A snowy egret and cocoi heron stood quietly on the black sand beach while a yellow headed vulture flew above.

We spent a part of each day either cooling off in or rafting on the Capahuari River near the Peruvian border. Its silt-laden waters joined other rivers which eventually emptied into the Amazon. Puffs of white foam dotted the river and I learned that they came from the rain washing minerals from the trees into the water… a natural mineral bath. As we floated down the river amidst the peaceful surroundings of the breathtakingly exotic scenery, a chorus of cicadas would erupt suddenly, becoming quiet once we had passed. Several huge electric blue butterflies floated by, standing out against the emerald jungle. Gray river dolphins gently surfaced, maintaining their distance from our raft. Unlike their ocean going cousins who cavort and perform for onlookers, these kept a low profile. We passed small groups of Charapa turtles, lined up one in back of the other, looking very comical floating downstream on a log.

One afternoon we visited a small primitive Achuar community, which upon initial inspection appeared very similar to the lodge where I was staying. Indeed the Achuar indigenous people had leased the land to build Kapaui and were hired to do the construction. I was instructed on correct protocol before entering the social dirt floored hut where Walter, the head of the community, greeted us with “win ya hi.” He spoke in Achuar to Christobel who translated in Spanish to Paulina who translated in English to me. I was asked my name, if I was married, if I had children, my religion and my work. Walter’s wife, Veneranda, who had borne him 10 children, all living in the community with their children, provided each guest a bowl of their traditional drink. Having earlier been explained the primitive process of making the Chicha by masticating manioc, I politely held the bowl in my hands without putting it to my lips.

After our visit, Walter gave a demonstration using a black six foot long blow gun, and offered me the opportunity to shoot a homemade dart into a nearby target, an unsuspecting papaya. Under a thatched canopy, one of Walter’s sons strummed a guitar while several men enjoyed a lively game of volleyball. He guided me over to a stand of slender trees where he began cutting the branches off of one until merely a stump remained. I was then asked to pull it out by its roots (since only the women of the village do this) to reveal several yuca tubers, the staple of the Achuar diet.

Back at Kapaui (the name of a river fish), breakfast, lunch and dinner were served in a large dining hall where we were summoned for each meal by the blowing of a bull’s horn. Freshly baked breads, handmade jams and exotic fruit juices tantalized me each day. We indulged in homemade soups, various forms of yuca, fish, chicken and vegetables attractively presented. Our final night’s meal, served on place-mats of banana leaves, featured a traditional hearty Achuar soup and bowl of imitation Chicha followed by bagre, a local fish baked with hearts of palm, in a maito leaf tied with vine.

Evenings were spent in the lodge and adjoining bar in conversation with other guests and staff members, most of whom were Achuars who were learning to run the lodge. The land which the lodge is built on is currently leased from the Achuars and in 2011, Canadros, the current owner, will turn over full ownership to them. I discovered that Kapaui is situated in the last intact forest in the Oriente and that it has given the indigenous people an economic alternative to oil exploration which has already devastated much of the rainforest. The mood at Kapaui is congenial and the non-native staff members confided that once you spend a good amount of time in the rainforest, it gets in your blood and you cannot imagine not returning.

As darkness fell, a cacophony of jungle sounds erupted into full blown orchestration, lulling me to sleep each night. A sense of peace and serenity overcame me as I inhaled the beauty of my surroundings. Initially perceived with some trepidation, in reality my visit to Kapaui presented an unforgettable opportunity to experience this very isolated, unspoiled part of the world far from the reaches of frantic civilization.

On the last morning of my visit, we floated downstream in a giant raft, taking a final plunge into the river. Nearing the end of our ride, three pink dolphins shyly surfaced as if to bid us Adios and Weajei before the final ride back to civilization.

Photos: Valerie Summers

More information:

Being prepared with a proper wardrobe and equipment will make a trip into the Amazon rainforest much more enjoyable. I strongly suggest spraying lightweight, quick drying long sleeved shirts and pants with insect repellent before leaving home and packing them in sturdy plastic bags. The extreme humidity makes clothing smell and feel unpleasantly damp. A wide brimmed hat or cap deflects the sun and insures that nothing from above falls in ones hair. Insect repellent and sunscreen should be smeared on exposed skin at regular intervals.

The lodge supplies its visitors with high rubber boots which are used during jungle treks. Do bring backpacks and take along bottled water, sunscreen, insect repellent and a waterproof pancho. In the evening, the only outside light came from the moon, so a flashlight comes in handy. By day, a camera and binoculars are a must and plenty of extra film, batteries and sun glasses are recommended.

Before you go, check with the Center for Disease Control for any immunizations which may be required.

American Airlines, whose extra leg room is greatly appreciated by its passengers, offers connecting flights from Miami to Quito, the first leg of the trip to Kapaui.

Canodros, a private organization dedicated to the development of sustainable tourism ventures in areas of natural and cultural interest. They are ecological tour operators and owners of Kapaui, providing excellent, reliable, friendly service, making sure of all connections for their guests from plane to plane to boat.

Urbanizacion Santa Leonor
Manzana 5 Solar #10 (via Terminal Terrestre)
P.O. Box 09-01-8442
Guayaquil, Ecuador

Urbanizacion Santa Leonor
Manzana 5 Solar #10 (via Terminal Terrestre)
P.O. Box 09-01-8442
Guayaquil, Ecuador

Columbia Sportswear, manufacturers of active clothing for men and women, includes a variety of attractive pants and shirts in lightweight, comfortable, quick drying fabrics, perfect for jaunts in the jungle.

Swissotel, managed by Raffles International, first class all the way with gorgeous roses everywhere, includes Amrita full service spa offering a variety of treatments, oustanding fitness center with indoor courts, indoor/outdoor swimming pool, spacious guest rooms and suites, stunning decor, and business center. Welcoming staff greets each guest with a hot towel and cool drink. Also features several excellent restaurants whose variety of specialties include Japanese, Swiss, and prime rib offerings. Conveniently located 15 minutes from the airport.
Av. 12 de Octubre 1820 y Luis Cordero
Quito, Ecuador
(593-2) 2 567-600
800-63 SWISS (North America)

Toppsa, (Travel Opportunities South America) specialists in last minute travel for Galapagos cruises, jungle tours, adventure programs