The Lure of the
Story & Photos by Richard Frisbie
ne of my all-time favorite books is At Play In The Fields of the
Lord by Peter Mathessian. In it, two soldiers of fortune bounce
around the Amazon Basin in a small plane with the slogan on it (I hope
I remember this correctly) Small Wars and Demolitions, getting
into barely legal (and worse) trouble. One of the antiheroes was an
American Indian who eventually went native in the wilds
of the jungle. The authors ability to vividly describe the settings,
and his superb story-telling skills brought the Amazon alive to me as
a young reader. Reading it created the need to visit the Amazon; a need
which only grew, unnurtured, through the decades since.
Until, that is, the subject line of a recent email caught
my eye: Andean / Amazon / Galapagos Tour Invitation. There, in my Inbox
was a description of a trip exploring the wonders of Ecuador; the natural,
historical and architectural world that straddles the equator, and goes
from the shores of the Pacific, over the heights of the Andes, down
into the Amazon Basin. I was hooked! My reply said it all: Sign Me Up!
The Amazon leg of the journey was a five hour drive
from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. With an altitude of 9300 feet, Quito
is the 3rd highest capital in the world. Our route climbed the Andean
peaks towering over Quito and descended nearly two miles in elevation
into the Napo River Valley far below. The Napo River is the last unbridled
tributary of the great Amazon River. Our Destination: Cotococha Amazon
Lodge on the Napo River, outside the city of Tena.
Cotococha is an ecological lodge that sits very lightly
on the edge of the Sumaco, Cayambe and Cuyabeno Reserves. The 21 otherwise
comfortable guest cabins have no electricity, and the running water
is barely filtered river water. The flush toilets empty into modern
drainfields, and the soap and shampoo are completely biodegradable.
Fresh drinking water is provided daily, as are all meals. Every tendril
of the waste stream is planned, monitored, and managed to insure the
most ecological and environmentally sound sojourn in the jungle. So
much care is taken not to interfere with the flora & fauna that,
should an insect (or worse) get into the screen-walled cabin, guests
are asked not to kill it, but to release it back outside.
The lodge is located at an elevation of about 1600 feet,
really the high end of the Amazon Basin. That ensures a lessened danger
of Yellow fever and malaria. I was advisedly covered with insect repellent
(Deet) and sunscreen (60 SPF) during my visit, and received neither
bites nor burns the entire time. Whether you take the prudent precaution
of injections and balms is entirely up to you. I did not deem it necessary
to pay as much as $300 for the vaccinations and medication others might
desire. I did see one mosquito, but I see more than that any evening
at home in New Yorks Hudson Valley.
Of the many excursions the knowledgeable staff at Cotococha
Lodge offer, the boat ride downstream to the Wildlife Rehabilitation
Center appealed most to me. Others preferred the jungle hikes, and tubing
or rafting the Class four rapids upstream. Fortunately, the boat ride
included a visit to the Quichua (indigenous peoples) settlement closely
associated with the Lodge. On my brief overnight stay I was able to
see diverse wild animals and learn about the culture of the mainly highland
Indians who share the Quichua language. Both were accomplished after
a thrilling motorboat traverse of the Napo River rapids.
The Quichua village, more a neutral-ground community
structure outside both the lodge and the village, was reached after
climbing up a slippery, muddy path from the river. As I passed a lone
flip-flop stuck in the quagmire I remarked yet again upon what inappropriate
footwear it was.
The women of the village showed us their craftsmanship,
making the popular local drink chichi de yucca, and
ceramic pottery from local materials. We sat on long benches, passing
bowls to taste and admire, as 2 campfires smoldered at either end of
the open-air, thatch-roofed shelter. Some pubescent youths returned
from a river swim to warm themselves by the fire. Others helped the
women display the finished pottery, which was for sale. I purchased
a small, unfired bowl, for $2. It was decorated with the Jungle Woman
design using a feather paintbrush, and glazed with the resin
of a tree. It is air-dried, fragile, and a beautiful addition to a collection
of bowls Ive acquired from all over the world.
At the wildlife sanctuary, a Quichua shaman walked us
through the jungle explaining the medicinal properties and uses of the
shrubs and trees we encountered. He described compounds such as curare,
(a paralyzing drug used on arrow tips to immobilize prey), the date-rape
drug, (a handful of twigs boiled in three liters of water will reduce
to a compound that when slipped into a drink makes a slave of the recipient.
Contrary to the drugs popular name, unscrupulous people primarily
use it to get you to willingly drain your ATM account.) and dragons
blood, (the red sap from a tree which can be used as a salve to
rub on insect bites and scratches.) There were also plants with hallucinogenic
properties, and others that were downright poisonous. It is estimated
that only a tiny percentage of the plants with beneficial properties
in the Amazon Basin have been identified by modern science. I got the
impression that the native shaman knew many more.
The wildlife was another matter. As excited as I was
to actually see the birds, snakes, and mammals on display, I was sad
to realize that they were too acclimated to human presence to be released
back into the wild. Once the animals are returned to good health they
are basically inhabitants of a petting zoo.
The most thrilling part of the visit was when a young
native slipped into a muddy pond and wrestled a 12 ft Anaconda to shore.
The sight of the magnificently patterned snakes skin wrapped tightly
around his naked torso had me reliving all the vivid nightmares of my
youth, but with a morbid fascination. Later when I asked him how many
times a day he performed that feat, he showed me his many scars from
snake bites as he held up three fingers. As I said, I am ambivalent
about the nature of the sanctuary, but aware of the realities
of the costs associated with running it. For the price of admission
($2.50) I saw more in one day than I could hope to see if I had weeks
to spend in the Jungle. It was a small price to pay to help further
the rehabilitative efforts of the center.
I would have been content if that had been my only brush
with Amazonian wildlife. Our cabins, basically thatch-roofed,
screened platforms, were spacious and comfortable. We sat on my porch
drinking wine and listening to the river and the night sounds close
in after a simple, but hearty dinner. I bid my companions goodnight,
took a shower and went to bed. Later, half-asleep, I felt my bed move,
and then my pillow. I imagined, dreamed perhaps, that I was home in
my own bed and my cat had just joined me as she does every morning.
She tries to wake me so I will feed her, but, if ignored, shell
curl up and go to sleep. I was waiting for her to do just that when
two things happened. I felt my hair move just as I remembered where
I was, or wasnt. Because Immediately I was out of bed, standing
naked in the middle of the darkened cabin, screaming like a little girl.
When I finally found my flashlight there was nothing
to be seen. Trust me I looked everywhere. It was pitch black
outside and pouring rain. There was nothing to do but imagine my strange
bedfellow smaller and smaller until it was gone, and I felt safe enough
to climb back under the carefully examined and re-examined covers to
wait out the night. At first light I dressed in my still-wet clothes
and fled to the electrified kitchen area. Our driver came after breakfast
for the return trip over the mountains back to Quito.
The meals at Cotococha Amazon Lodge were well-prepared
and presented buffets of good food. (This was not the culinary leg of
the tour.) The staff was friendly and solicitous of everyones
well-being. The facility was charmingly attractive in a rustic, handcrafted,
environmentally correct kind of way. The guests were an interesting
mix of singles, couples and groups representing all nationalities and
ages. The downpour never stopped, leading me to finally realize why
the Amazon is called a rain forest. All-in-all, I was as glad to be
there as I was happy to leave. The experience was amazing, including
my nightmare bedfellow! The Amazon is something I should
have conquered long ago.
If You Go:
Ecuador & Galapagos Tourism
Comments and/or questions can be directed to Mr. Frisbie at firstname.lastname@example.org