The Coca airport consists of one large room with a filthy concrete slab serving as baggage claim. Outside the airport (that would be about 30 feet away) was a scattering of rough-looking men waiting for passengers to exit. Insects buzzed in and out of the open doors while the two bored security guards rolled sweaty fingers over their Smartphones.
Behind me as I collected our luggage with the help of the cruise representative was a perfumed woman dressed in very tall heels, very short white shorts and a wide-brimmed sun hat. I wondered where in the jungle she was going in that getup and was later told she was a Colombian prostitute.
Thus begun our luxury Ecuadorian Amazon cruise.
Earlier that day, we were met at the Quito airport by representatives from the cruise company with passes and plane tickets. They explained that our luxury ship, the Anakonda, was stuck on a sandbar but that they had rooms for us on their other ship, the Manatee. They assured us we’d still be doing all the promised activities.
After a short bus ride from the airport to the banks of the Napo River (part of the Amazon River Basin), we boarded a long covered canoe for a 2 ½ hour ride to meet our ship. As we buzzed along, we were greeted by two rainbows, bridging the wide river. Soon it began to rain; a hard relentless tropical downpour. As night fell, I clutched six-year-old Jeremy a little closer to me as we plunged forward into the wet darkness. Every once in a while, on the river banks, we saw the tall burning flames of oil fires.
The two crew members accompanying us pointed to what looked like a beacon in the dark distance. This was the doomed Anakonda, stuck on its sandbar for the past three days but with lights blazing in the moist darkness. “Just one more hour to go,” said our tour guide.
The odd couple boards the Manatee
When we finally boarded Manatee, we were drenched and exhausted. The only river boat operating on the Napo River, Manatee is a cheerful, slightly weather-beaten river boat. The cabins can only be described as miniscule. The dining room turned out surprisingly delicious, artfully displayed meals.
We quickly changed for dinner before joining other passengers (there were five in our doomed Anakonda group) and our guides for dinner. As we waited for our food, disgruntled mumblings escaped from some of the other passengers, one in particular, Mike from McLean.
Mike from McLean is a very tall and lean tennis-playing looking man in his early 60s. As we got to chatting, he relayed that he had never been on an adventure like this before. Indeed, for as long as he could remember his annual vacations have been spent with his wife on a ship off St. Barth where the crew outnumbers the guests and where dressing for dinner is de rigueur. Let’s just say he was not too happy about the turn of events. Not only was he not aboard the luxury ship he had booked, he now had to share a room with a stranger since the boat was otherwise full.
As we were having pre-dinner drinks, we found him talking with the ship captain in hushed tones about just needing to rebook his flight and trying to leave the next day.
As if to provide contrast, we shared a dinner table with Mike’s new roommate, Mr. Adventure himself—an American journalist and explorer who lives in Australia and offers tours to Antarctica when he’s not climbing some of the world’s greatest peaks. Howard became an instant friend to the boys, especially Jacques, who generally would rather die than have an actual conversation with an adult. Needless to say, Howard had a roll-with-it attitude—Oscar to Mike’s Felix.
The buzz of the jungle
The Ecuadorian Amazon basin (known as the Oriente) is one of the most biodiverse region in the world. Its main river, the Napo, and tributaries are full of piranhas and caymans, pink Amazonian dolphins, and even the elusive Amazonian manatee. It is also home to 50% of the country’s mammals.
Yasuni National Park is a 9,620 sq km area of wetlands, marshes, swamps, lakes, rivers and tropical rainforest. Over 600 bird species, 150 species of amphibians, 121 species of reptiles, 100,000 different species of insects, and 117 bat species make their home there. In 1989, it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which is defined by the U.N. as, “An area of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems promoting solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.”
For the next two days, we toured the jungle on foot, canoed down tributaries, visited a native indigenous village interpretation center, and took night hikes.
Our favorite sightings were probably the monkeys, and we got to see several species in just a few days, including squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys, duski titi monkeys, and a species endemic only to Yasuni, the golden mantled tamarind.
One of the highlights was a visit to the parrot clay lick, which is located inside Yasuni national park. The clay lick contains rich nutrients which help the birds’ digestion and is a natural feeding trough for parrots and Macaws. After a short hike, we waited quietly for over an hour on wooden benches—a bit trying for Jeremy and a couple of younger kids. All of sudden, we heard the sounds of hundreds and hundreds of flapping wings swooping in en masse from the top of the tree canopy. Among them were spectacular blue, yellow, and scarlet macaws, and dusty-headed and cobalt-winged parrots.
We also saw more large hairy spiders than you can shake a stick at. I should know, I shook a lot of sticks on our night hikes, where we not only saw armies of ants hard at work seemingly moving one side of the jungle to the other, but a veritable who’s who of creepy spiders, including tarantulas, scorpion spiders, banana spiders, jumping spiders, and wolf spiders. Walking along to the sounds of the nightly jungle insect cacophony and trying not to cling to our guides’ sleeves (too much), it became clear that this environment is not exactly conducive to human life.
Lessons from a remote childhood
Leading our expeditions were our two expert guides, Raul and Juan. Juan is from the Shiwiar Community, an extremely remote group of about 1,500 people near the Peruvian border. He shared stories about his upbringing using blow darts to catch the day’s meal and making toys out of leaves and sticks.
One afternoon, while the boys were getting restless waiting for a canoe deep in the jungle, Juan ripped off a long leaf, peeled it into four strips and, a few knots later, had fashioned a whistling helicopter toy, the type he used to make and play with as a kid. He then (geniusly) told them to be as quiet as they could to see how loud a whistle they could produce and how far a distance they could make it travel.
Juan learned to hunt when he was about five years old (he thinks, his community does not record ages), shooting monkeys and birds with his hand-made blowgun. He still has five of them in his village. In his family, the forest is a source of food and entertainment, and also a classroom for some pretty harsh lessons. One day, he was fooling around with his machete, throwing it at logs, when his hand slipped and he cut his brother’s foot badly. As punishment, his father crushed a chili pepper into paste and smeared it into his eyes. They burned for days and he learned his lesson.
Fifteen distinct communities make their home around the Napo River. While some are in frequent contact with outsiders, others have little or no contact with anyone, including other communities.
We visited several different territories on our brief tour, including Nueva Providencia, Limon Cocha, members of the Kichwa group who ran an indigenous interpretation center, and the Sani Isla Community. Our outfit, Advantage Travel, has been running tours for years and has built careful relationships with the groups. Fifty percent of their crew is indigenous, a fact that they are clearly proud of and that no doubt greatly improves their rapport and gives them entrée into the different territories.
The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, initiated in 2010 with the United Nations Development Programme, stipulated that if the international community donated $3.3 billion, the government of Ecuador would not drill for oil in Yasuni National Park or the nearby areas of Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT). Preserving this fragile and critical ecosystem would become the work of the world at large, and not lie on the shoulders of a developing country.
I’d heard of the Yasuni Initiative months before we left. It sounded like a radical plan to protect a fragile pristine environment. Yet it was clear from the moment we arrived in Coca and on our cruise down the river that the oil industry was already entrenched in the area. Wells were burning, roads were being built, and trucks and supply crates were being carried up and down river on huge barges. Just how much of the deep jungle had already been affected by oil exploitation wasn’t entirely clear.
The Yasuni Initiative was front-page news during our visit to Ecuador. The story was reaching a fevered climax as President Correa was going to make an announcement on August 15th. The verdict was in. “The world has failed us,” he said. World governments had not delivered the funds Correa had demanded to curb drilling. Oil exploration was going to begin. Sadly, to us, it was clear that it would not “begin” but merely continue.
I speak for the trees.
We spent our last night in the Amazon basin aboard the luxury ship Anakonda. The river had risen and the crew had spent all night getting the ship off the sand barge. It’s a beautiful ship, like a floating boutique hotel with spacious modern rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows framing views of the river.
We assembled in the chic lounge for drinks before our final dinner, toasting the Anakonda’s inaugural sailing, the crew for getting the boat back on the water, and ourselves for generally going with the flow. I raised my glass and cast a sideways glance at Mike from McLean.
He was chatting and laughing with our old sea-dog bearded captain, Fausto. I raised my glass to them and couldn’t help but notice Mike’s clothes were a little wrinkled. The humidity and close quarters hadn’t been kind to his jungle wardrobe. But he was happy, and he was still here.
On our last outing, I sat next to Mike from McLean on the canoe ride. I was looking out at the river, contemplating the trip. I thought about how lucky we were to explore one of the world’s most bio-diverse habitats with such knowledgeable guides, about the realities of growing up in one of the most remote areas, and about just how much is at stake when we depend so much on oil.
Mike turned to me and said, “I want to ask you something a bit weird. You know the trees Raul was showing us in the forest, the ones that attach themselves to a host and strangle it. I’ve been thinking a lot about them. And this is going to sound strange but…do you think trees have spirits? I mean, do you think they can feel pain?”
Like Mike, I feel transformed by my experience in the Amazon and was left with a lot of questions at the end of the trip (though maybe none quite as existential and trippy as his).
Our trip was far from the laid back luxury cruise I’d envisioned. It challenged us to consider just what our responsibility is in conserving the earth’s resources and biodiversity and the effects of our actions on native communities.
When we got back to Quito, its narrow cobblestoned streets and grand plazas were teeming with students and activists protesting Correa’s decision to proceed with oil exploration in the Yasuni. Also present were hundreds of policemen and women in riot gear. According to Raul, these are people who, for the most part, have never been to the Oriente and who naively believe, like I did, that it’s a pristine bubble of biodiversity, untouched by oil drills, supply barges, and shady characters in gritty oil towns.
So Mike, since you seem to think that I speak for the trees (and I am more flattered than you will ever know), I will borrow a line from one of our family’s favorite characters, the Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot. Nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”