Tarantulas, shaman, anaconda, monkeys… the
Jamu Lodge in the Amazon rainforest provided a fantastic adventure for Craig and I on his birthday. But complex issues surround the rainforest and its people. The people were given land here before Cuyabeno became a wildlife preserve: the result is that the indigenous communities have become one of the protected species of Cuyabano, in a way.
Skim through to find the pictures that interest you, or click on the first pic to start the slideshow.
After a 30 minute flight to Lago Agrio, a 2 hour bus ride brought us to this meeting place at the river.
We met our team and had lunch. Then enjoyed an ice cream bar treat while our backpacks were loaded onto a canoe.
Craig and I shared the ice cream.
Rain was beginning to fall, so we were given ponchos along with our life jackets. The lodge is about 18 miles downriver from the road.
Wet but happy!
This anaconda was curled up in a bush next to the river. We were able to get within 10 feet of it – close enough to see its tongue!
A monkey family was gathering food in a palm tree along the river. The two cuddling on the left are juveniles. It’s harder to see the one against the trunk.
Craig got this great shot of a Wooly Monkey hanging by its tail. We also saw Red Howler monkeys later, but didn’t have our cameras with us.
After two hours of sightseeing, we arrive at our lodge. It looks like a movie set.
This boardwalk leads to our lodge.
The primary lodge building. The dining room and kitchen are downstairs. Upstairs is a hammock lounge. Drinking water, coffee, tea, hot chocolate are unlimited and available all the time. Three meals a day are included. We can buy beer and snacks if we want them.
Some of the cabins adjoining the lodge. We are advised to stay on the raised walkways, and told “If you need to walk on the ground, please look very carefully where you put your feet.”
Our group will stay together, with the same guide, for the whole four days and eat all our meals here.
Our room is on the third floor of this 5-story tower.
Our room! It’s about the comfort level of summer camp. Compared to a hotel, not great. Compared to a tent, it’s heaven!
The view from inside my mosquito net. Note that we do have a toilet & shower.
There is no glass in the windows. Our room is open on all sides to the jungle.
The first thing you notice about our guide, David, is that he’s incredibly handsome, relaxed & friendly, with a big easy smile & dimples. Gradually, you learn that he’s well-traveled, has a graduate-level education in the plants & animals of the forest, and that he lived for 10 months with the indigenous people of the Amazon while working on his thesis. His wife, who is Dutch, runs a program for street children in Quito. It’s heartwarming to see how lovingly David speaks about his family, his daughters, and his dogs, but it is his passion and enthusiasm for the Amazon that makes him an incredible guide.
These are the steps that lead down from our room. Yikes!
And the path from our tower back to the main lodge.
The rain has stopped and we’re heading out on the canoe again. The river is the main way to get around here.
The “flooded forest.” During the wet season, only the tree tops (and the countless bromeliads that live in them) can be seen above the water.
A sloth raises his head to look at us!
The sun is beginning to set as we approach Laguna Grande, a big Amazon rain forest basin lake that exists only during the rainy season.
A beautiful bird.
Fascinating plant life.
As the sun sets on the lake, we jump off the boat into the water for a swim. The lake is the only safe place to swim around here… no piranha or dangerous plants & animals here. This is Olga, Sverta, and Francesco, members of our group. Sverta is Russian, but has lived in Ecuador for 28 years. Olga, her daughter, was raised here but lives in Italy now. Her boyfriend, Francesco, is Italian. I’m fascinated by how easily Olga moves between four languages all weekend!
The sunset is spectacular, and we can see it reflected on the water as we swim.
climbing back into the boat. It’s so hard to believe that in the dry season this lake disappears complete and this area is a meadow!
Going for a hike on Saturday — Craig’s birthday! This is his birthday suit. They’ve now given us rubber boots to wear with our ponchos. It poured rain all night long and the ground is one giant mud puddle.
See that crazy-looking bird on the right? It is a prehistoric bird called a Hoatzin, but the locals call it a ‘stinky turkey.’ Very common here!
Sloth peering at us!
I’m fascinated by the number of bromeliads, mosses, and vines that grow here (adaptations to live above the water on the trunk of another tree). Each tree supports a complex ecosystem.
Another tree, functioning like an island and supporting a whole host of species.
This is how far inside the forest you need to navigate a canoe before there’s land.
Starting on our hike. In the rain, in mud that is sometimes shin-deep. This is the tradeoff for having that beautiful lake to swim in!
David explains that this tree oozes red latex when cut. There’s a hole on the side where a monkey ate some of the sap. Locals make a machete cut and catch the latex in a bowl. Rubber companies make a series of cuts along the whole trunk and drain the tree until it is dead. Some guides have made cuts in the trunk to show the sap, but David won’t cut the tree.
We are taught to watch where we put our feet and hands because the forest is full of well-camoflauged bugs, snakes, etc. We met some bees that like to burrow in your hair, and some very aggressive ants that will climb inside your pant leg to your crotch, where their every bite feels like a match being put out against your flesh. YIKES!
David explains the many vines of the forest. One gives water if you are stranded. Another gives a poison that the indigenous people use on their arrows. The trees of the forest also give malaria prevention and cures, arthritis cures, wound healing, and countless other medicines. Pharmaceutical companies have made a fortune distilling what they’ve learned from the local Shamans about the healing plants here.
Can you spot the little frog?
A cute bug, but be careful. It’s a stinkbug!
Craig (and several other members of our group) swung from a vine, Tarzan-style.
This vine starts life as a seed in a bird or monkey dropping (I don’t remember which) in the treetop and grows down the trunk to the ground, holding on with branches. It will eventually be larger than the trunk and, over the course of 30 years, will kill the host tree. Remember the face-huggers from Alien? It reminded me of them!
David explains that, even when the forest is soaked from rain, this tree bark gives dry fuzzy kindling to make fires. The forest, he says, is kind. I can see that…when it’s not trying to kill you!
Walking on a log across the swamp. I HATE walking on logs, it triggers my fear of heights terribly for some reason. Craig helped me onto the log and as I trembled there, gathering my courage, I heard a splashing sound. Francesco had waded over to me, in knee-deep water, to assist me for a few more steps. How very Italian of him! He is truly the nicest, most charming man.
This is a palm tree that can walk! See how the trunk stops several feet above the ground, and the roots grow down and out? If the tree isn’t getting enough sunlight, it will grow more roots on one side and let them die on the other. It can move one to one-and-a-half meters from it’s birthplace over its lifetime.
Just wanted to share the joy of walking in the rainforest during the wet season. Yuk.
The sap of this tree forms amber! We got to see some of it in a gel state.
This is the swamp we crossed on fallen trees and waded through.
Me walking on the log. I do not enjoy this part!
A tiny mantis hitched a ride on David’s hat!
Craig in the canoe. He often looks this relaxed & happy these days. I’m so glad he’s enjoying his birthday adventure!
We saw pink dolphins! (and a grey one). Just their heads, when they came up to breathe. I never got a good photo, though, just pictures of the ripples where they had been. Sorry.
This shaman is wearing his ritual garb because he’s leading a tour group through the forest.
Closeup of the shaman’s amazing clothing.
We saw bats the night before. This is a bat hawk, eating a bat. See the bat’s wings in it’s talon?
After dinner, we went searching for caiman (alligators!)
Baby caiman. It’s mama was close by, watching our every move.
And then David suggested we all get OUT OF THE BOAT to watch the baby swim off. Are you serious? It’s nighttime in the jungle, and a mama caiman is watching us. We trust David, so we went. We all survived.
Baby caiman swimming back to its mama.
We found another caiman. This one is four meters long!
Did I mention there’s no electricity in our lodge? Dinner was by candlelight every night, and we used candles to light our room as well. In the morning, they turn on a generator for an hour so we can all charge our cameras.
On our way to the nearby community, two baby monkeys peering at us from a tree trunk, can you see them?
David, along with Olga from the Siona people, answers our questions about life in the indigenous community. The Siona are one of five indigenous groups that have been given land within the wildlife preserve of Cuyabena. Their way of life has already been forever changed by the oil companies who have encroached on this part of the forest, and to a lesser extent by tourism. Some of their ways are being forever lost.
After patiently answering our questions, Olga quitely grabs a machete and a collecting bag and heads to the field. Olga is going to show us how she makes casabe bread from the yucca root, and we get to help!
The houses and children of Olga’s community.
Olga cuts away the yucca plant from the root. This looks very different from the yucca we grow at home, I don’t know if the species are related or not.
This crazy, lopsided puppy was getting picked on by the other dogs. Dogs here are not exactly pets. They are expected to find their own food in the forest, and many are quite skinny.
Even though the ground is soft and muddy, pulling the huge yucca root out isn’t easy. You can’t wiggle it or it will break, it has to be pulled straight up. Craig did a great job.
Olga expertly opens the skin with her machete and hands us the roots to peel. Showing us all this is Olga’s job, and we will each pay her $3 (there are 11 of us). Money is necessary to survive now, these people can no longer support themselves from the forest alone. Oil companies have brought money to this part of the world, and continue to offer good pay for canoe drivers, etc. Tourism is seen as the lesser of the two evils that will perhaps destroy the indigenous way of life.
In Olga’s field, we saw chile pepper, pineapple, bananas and cacao (chocolate) growing.
Olga washes the roots…
…then grates them on a perforated piece of metal. This is the only part of the process that’s been modernized — tree bark was traditionally used for the grating.
We all take turns helping to grate the yucca root.
Olga wraps the grated roots in a sort of long hammock made of woven plant fibers.
She rolls it up inside the woven mat.
Then she hangs one end of the mat on a post, inserts a piece of wood, and twists powerfully to extract all the water from the grated yucca. The yucca water can be used for soup, or boiled down with fresh chile peppers to make a hot sauce. (we tried the hot sauce, it is delicious!)
The grated, pressed yucca root comes out soft and dry. Olga presses it through this basket to sift it.
The resulting flour is fine and dry.
Olga pours a bowlful of the flour into an earthen dish over the fire. No other ingredients have been added, not even water!
She presses the flour evenly around the pot.
She uses a wooden bowl to tap the flour into shape, and a wooden tool to make a nice edge.
Soon, the flour magically becomes casabe bread, like a tortilla! Olga flips it and cooks the other side. The entire process took maybe 30 minutes, from the ground to the table. And one ingredient!
The finished bread! We all tear off pieces to try. David has mixed some fresh tuna with the hot sauce and we wrap it in the bread. It is absolutely delicious. He has also brewed tea for us from fresh lemongrass from Olga’s garden, and he brought some chicken and rice for our lunch. Two young girls (one is Olga’s daughter) are curious enough to come in and meet us. They are thrilled that David has brought enough rice to share with them.
Next, we travel by canoe to meet Tomas, the shaman. Tomas studied from the age of 8 until the age of 40 before he graduated. His brain holds the collective knowledge of many generations of shaman Thirty two years of knowledge about the medicinal plants of the rainforest, including cures for many diseases the West doesn’t know about yet. Pharmaceutical companies have learned a lot from men like Tomas. He is one of the few shamans left with this much knowledge. If his way of life is wiped out, the cures for countless human ailments could remain hidden in the forest forever. Tomas demonstrates some of his diagnostic rituals with Craig as his pretend patient.
Tomas patiently answered all our questions, then fed a leaf to a turtle. We left a man behind who had arranged to spend some time with the shaman as part of his spiritual journey.
Leaving Tomas’s house, we realized we had all walked under this mega-spiderweb on our way in without seeing it.
Later that night, we went on a night hike in the forest. This scorpion spider was on a tree just a few paces behind our room.
And this rainbow boa has a home very close to ours, as well.
Adorable tree frog.
The staff loaded the canoe with lifejackets and gear to take us back to the bus and meet the next group. We spotted a tarantula on the life vests he was putting in the back of the canoe. He didn’t seem too upset by it and left it there! So the next hour was divided between enjoying the scenery and watching for a tarantula to come creeping up from the back of the boat!
One last shot of the gorgeous rainforest on the way back. It’s one thing to hear about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, but something else to see firsthand. Land right up to the edge of the Cuyabeno wildlife preserve has been cleared by oil companies and others – and yet, I used planes, busses, and motorboats to get here. We want oil, in unlimited quantities, but what is the cost? People pumping gas back home have an impact here, and the destruction of the rainforest and its people will have a massive impact there, as well.
You can arrange your own adventure to
Jamu Lodge through Ecuador Verde País in Quito if you speak Spanish, or through Barefoot Expeditions if you need an English-speaking contact. (English is spoken at the lodge, no worries!) I’ve personally worked with both and can recommend them highly.