We arrived at the small car park of our resort and were greeted by very helpful staff, and a very large tarantula. The mammoth spider was a small reminder that we were no longer in the safe confines of the mountains when it came to wildlife. Instead, we had descended to the very western edge of the hot, humid jungle that stretches 3,000 km to the east across an enormous swath of South America.
Cotococha Lodge sits right on the banks of the Rio Napo, part of the same riverine system that leads to the Amazon River. The water rushing past our cabana would eventually find its way into the Atlantic Ocean after flowing through some of the densest jungle and most biodiverse areas on earth. Sitting under the mosquito net with the lights out, there was nothing but bugs chirping, leaves rustling and the sound of rushing water. It was pristinely relaxing to walk amongst the stone paths and sit under the thatched roofs with a cold beer.
Of course one of the true reasons for venturing into the jungle to is to see wildlife – mostly on the smaller scale. We went for a walk the first evening with our local guide Samay and he showed us more different types of ants than you could possibly imagine could live in such a small space.
There were ants you can eat that taste a bit like citrus fruit, ants that you can use to stitch a wound, ants that you can rub on your skin to serve as insect repellant, leaf-cutter ants that ride atop the leaves like old sailors in sailing ships and of course bullet ants, the insect with the fiercest bite/sting in the animal kingdom. Then there were butterflies, stick bugs, the aforementioned tarantulas, scorpions and numerous others that we didn’t see. The variety and ability of these animals, and the people who live amongst them, to adapt and survive was truly stunning.
Of course it isn’t just the bugs that are amazingly diverse. Trees and plants grow in startling numbers and can be used for just about any purpose – hiding from enemies or prey, covering yourself from the rain, serving as a weapon or just adorning oneself for ceremonial purposes. Towering trees, prickly bushes and low-level ground cover all jostle for space and light, forming a layered environment that is all things to the local communities that rely on them for food, medicine and protection.
One of the true highlights of our trip was the community visit where we experienced many of the daily routines and traditions of the lowland Kichwa. We were greeted at the river’s edge by an elderly woman who showed us how they pan for gold. Once used more for traditional adornments, the communities now mostly take these small collections to Tena to sell to be made into jewellery in the larger markets of Quito. It was amazing to watch the skill and ease of effort this lady went through to unearth the gold flecks, but also how minimal the outcome was for such a task.
We were lucky to be able to witness a small ceremony in the community. Earlier that morning Cora’s mom received a rather vicious bite from an unseen insect. By the time we arrived at the community, she was still suffering and the ladies there sensed her bad energy. The bite had left parts of her hand and arm feeling numb and had brought about extensive pain to boot. The ladies took a handful of leaves and swept them through the smoke and over and around her head. The pain was still there, but she felt much better and more positive overall, and was thrilled to have experienced a truly local method.
The local drink of yuca cooked down into a frothy bowl of liquid sustains the population for much of the morning. It was a little sickly sweet for our liking, but Samay told us that two litres of it will see you through even the most punishing physical labour. I struggled to imagine how I would fit two litres of the drink into my stomach and then do anything other than take a nap. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see how they went through the steps of making it.
Being in the jungle, you are forced to think differently about how you obtain food. Here, they use a long pipe and blow a dart out the other end towards their target bird or other animal. Though seemingly simple, in reality it is extremely difficult to stabilise and aim the pipe, and then blow with sufficient power to actually puncture the target. Piper really liked the blow gun. Just 14 months old and ready to take out prey from fifty paces! I suspect that if we allowed her one, she would gladly play in the garden with the pipe, though Mosa would almost surely not be too happy with being a constant target!
Being close to the river means that the community has a ready supply of mud to make some stunning ceramics. You can see the finished example above of a bowl that we used for the local drink. The process to form and dry the bowl is fairly similar to any other type of ceramic, however they use an extremely hot fire and bits of water to make the final touches or flair to the bowls. The bowls are then painted using brushes of their own hair and the colours come from seed pods of local plants – especially reds and blacks. The finished products are rather clean, crisp designs that make for perfect little serving bowls.
Of course Piper couldn’t resist stealing peoples’ hearts and before too long Samay and his family had been painted her face with the same seed pods that they use on the dishes! She was very happy with the outcome!
The river is key to life in this area having long served as a means to move people and products through the thick jungle. We used the river a couple of times, once to the community and once to a wonderful waterfall hike. The heat of the jungle made the cool pool under the waterfall all the more refreshing. And the return trip allowed us the chance to float down the river at a gentle pace. It was amazingly tranquil to float down the middle of a jungle with the sun shining and the cool water lapping at our hands and feet.
All in all our few days at the edge of the jungle showed us the true diversity of this amazing ecosystem and whetted our appetite for the future prospect of a longer, more in depth exploration.