Rain Forest

My trip to the rain forest (in the area of Ecuador known as the "Oriente") began with a short flight from Quito to Puerto Francisco de Orellana (also known as El Coca), a decrepit-looking oil town on the Rio Napo (which is a tributary of the Amazon River). The flight itself was spectacular, offering views down the "Avenue of the Volcanoes," parallel strings of active volcanoes that make up the backbone of Ecuador. Also from the air it was easy to see how vast the rain forest is. It seems like an endless carpet of lush green vegetation. It is also easy to see the inroads made by civilization. Oil is a major export for Ecuador and the oil is in the rain forest.

After landing in Puerto Francisco de Orellana and a short bus ride through town, our group of six boarded a long dugout canoe with two outboard motors and a thatched roof. We traveled for three-and-a-half hours down the Rio Napo. After the river trip, we walked about a mile through the forest, boarded small dugout canoes and were paddled across a lake to La Selva Lodge. All in all, I would have to say that the process of getting there was an important part of the experience.

From the Lodge, we did a morning and afternoon hike each day into the forest, guided by Carolina, an American whose knowledge of the jungle was excellent, and Silvario, a native of the area whose knowledge was even better, though unfortunately he didn't speak English. It is very difficult to see any animals in the forest except for insects and the occasional bird or monkey in the distance. Stealth is an important survival skill here and the animals that have succeeded have a highly-evolved ability to disappear. We did, however, see a great number of fabulous birds, and both howler and spider monkeys. One particular bird that was easy to see was the bizarre looking hoatzin. Rather than relying on stealth or speed, this bird has a different defense strategy. According to our guide, the bird tastes so bad that no other animal will eat it!

Some highlights: Spending the morning in a ten-story tower built into the forest canopy watching macaws, parrots, toucans and myriad other birds; traveling across the Rio Napo to a "salt lick" where thousands of parrots come each morning to feed on certain minerals (their morning vitamins, perhaps); swimming in the lake where piranha were later caught (and where, I was told, a 25 foot anaconda had been seen the previous month). Biggest surprise: I don't think I saw or felt a single mosquito the entire time I was in the rain forest. Maybe I was just lucky.

Photography is very difficult in the rain forest. The forest itself is muddy and water drips from the trees even during those rare moments when it is not raining. Also, the dense foliage tends to filter out much of the light. The fact that the animals are usually moving and at a distance adds to the challenge. If you plan to take photographs, bring fast lenses. My equipment was not up to the task and therefore the photos here capture only a small portion of the sights I actually saw. Everyone should plan to take a pair of binoculars (and a waterproof bag to carry them in).