The Amazon jungle, the bridge and the howling monkey

By: Belén Guerrero

A five hour trip downriver on the Napo was the perfect introduction to my jungle adventure. It took three hours to arrive in Coca, a regional capital, and then two more until we disembarked on a small pier. At the end of a one and half mile hike down a small path that headed into the Amazon jungle, we arrived at a clearing with a house, really more of a pier than a house, where we boarded a canoe. Unlike the Napo river boats, our canoe didn´t have a motor. This turned out to be an important fact, as we discovered later. Our canoe got underway through a narrow channel and, a few minutes later, we found ourselves inside a huge lagoon that mirrored the clear sky. Everywhere I looked, there was only jungle, forwards and back and on both sides.

We were cruising on Pilchicocha lagoon. Before we even got close to our destination, Sacha (forest or wilderness) Lodge, the silence overwhelmed us. Without motor noise, without people speaking, without cell phone signal, the only sounds we could hear were rushing water, flying insects and the peculiar birdsongs of over five hundred species. Only about two hours from Quito by plane, as the crow flies, we were in the middle of a jungle paradise. For Ecuadoreans, we were just a step away. For our German, French, English and Spanish tour companions, several days and thousands of dollars away from their homes.

A narrative of one day´s activities is enough to show how much this place has to offer. But, before we start, I must introduce our local guide, Wilson. He´s a key player because, without him, we wouldn´t have learned what I am about to share, those unique jungle facts that could be read, or seen on television, but which pale in comparison with actually experiencing them face to face.

We were awakened at 5 a.m. sharp and, still sleepy, quickly ate our breakfast and departed on our canoe. With Wilson steering, we headed back to the same lagoon which branches into several narrow water paths. As we entered one, we saw an otter swimming from one shore to the other. In a few minutes, it was swimming circles around us. Suddenly we had left behind the broad vistas of the lagoon and advanced along the narrow canal with swamps on both sides. Here, the birdsongs and other jungle noises were even louder, as if amplified by the jungle itself. Huge electric blue butterflies floated near us. Nobody spoke. Our joy was to just sit back and listen.

We arrived at another pier and began our hike into the jungle. Wilson amazed us by seeing different animals far away. He could even point out small ants, the famous congas, no larger than a one cent coin. They are not famous for their size but for their bite, which causes unbearable pain. We saw frogs, all kinds, from tiny venomous ones to others that camouflage themselves with the surrounding leaves. We found mushrooms, many varieties, the more colorful ones also the most poisonous. Wilson pointed out several tarantulas. Termite honeycombs were everywhere. Strangely enough, termites are an excellent natural repellent. It works by rubbing some termites on your skin or you can drag the honeycomb into your cabin and light it. The smoke will scare away all types of insects.

Along our path we came up to a five hundred year old ceibo tree. A wooden tree house has been built around it, its highest point about 120 feet off the ground. Absolutely the best treehouse I have ever seen! From its top we could see the Napo river and, thanks to Wilson´s patient guidance and our field glasses, we were able to recognize several of the species of birds whose songs we had heard ever since we entered the jungle. Among others, tucanos (toucans), carpinteros (woodpeckers), mieleros (honeycreepers) and oropéndolas (crested orioles). The males sport vivid colors and therefore are easier to find, while the females are harder to detect because they blend better into the foliage.

We returned to the Lodge for lunch, as if our dawn tiredness had never existed. The “we” is due to my friend Chris, our photographer, who is also the best company for a jungle tour or similar adventure. Chris decided to swim in the lagoon. My job was to be the lookout for otters or caimans (a type of alligator) in case they decided to join Chris. None showed up. Maybe they had already eaten their own lunch…

Our afternoon hike took us to three towers connected by an eight hundred foot hanging bridge that loomed some ninety feet above the ground. The splendid view made us walk quite slowly. Unlike our earlier hike, we could now appreciate the jungle from the top, gazing towards an infinite horizon and feeling the true scale of the jungle. Birdsongs were our constant background noise, particularly the melodious oropéndolas.

Time flew. As the sun came down, we found ourselves in the middle of this hanging bridge, with the jungle canopy some ninety feet below us, while we admired a red color palette in the sky with the Sumaco volcano in the background. We tried to capture this magical moment in our lenses. Even if our magazine´s cover portrays this place, a photograph will never be even close to the real experience.

As if that spectacle had not been enough, we heard once again the rushing of the wind. That sound had been present, off and on, since we arrived. It seemed as if this sound echoed among the trees and became ever louder. However, there was no wind. Not even a breeze. Wilson let us listen for a while without saying a word. Eventually he explained it was a howling monkey. Not a large creature, but its shrieks were as intimidating as a very strong gust of wind.