Ecuador: the hothouse heart of the jungle
Stepping into Yasuni National Park isn't a toe-dip into wilderness. It's a full-on dive into the rainforest, where the air is heavy with the scent of wet leaves, and the darkness of night tightens around you like the coils of a python.
"What the Christ is that?" comes the cry from the compost toilet, before David makes a flapping exit through the blue sheet that serves for a door. Fredy interrupts what he's doing — namely, evicting a swarm of ants from my rucksack — to offer his expert opinion. "Wolf spider," he informs us, as we peer around the curtain at the hairy creature squatting robustly on the wooden seat. I barely have time to worry whether the wolf spider is so-called because it's the size of a wolf or because it hangs around in packs, when our attention is diverted once more. "Erm, Fredy?" calls Nick, his voice a touch brittle. "Could I borrow you? There's a scorpion on my tent."
Our camp for the night is basic: four small bell tents, a bucket shower behind a makeshift screen of woven leaves, and a hole-in-the-ground loo (currently occupied). We've only been here an hour, and already Ecuador's rainforest has laid down some markers, dispatched a few scuttling scouts to dismantle our comfort zone and shake us free of any complacency. Wonder at me, it seems to say, but don't let down your guard. This isn't a toe-dip into wilderness before retreat to the downy pillows of a luxury lodge. We're staying right in the prickly, hothouse heart of the jungle, and as dusk falls its darkness tightens slowly round us like the coils of a python.
Having de-anted my bag and de-scorpioned Nick's tent, Fredy wants to show us what else is out in the night, and so we line up behind him and thread our way through the foliage. "Don't touch anything!" Fredy warns, but it's hopeless because the jungle is intent on patting me down. A creeper's tendril caresses my shoulder, a web catches my hair; moths buffet my eyebrows as they fuss about the head torch.
The mew of a black-banded owl cleaves the air, which is humid, and heavy with the scent of wet leaves and the sound of cicadas. Cameo after cameo of jungle existence is captured in the white disc of Fredy's spotlight. A black-headed spider gorges on something with lacy wings, while a poisonous banana spider sits waiting in its web. We limbo beneath a striped caterpillar hanging from the leaves — "Be careful, its hairs can infect your skin!" — and watch a fishing spider lurking above a stream, biding its time. Somewhere, a tree frog makes a quacking noise, like a dog toy being chewed.
Scorpion spider. Tawny-bellied screech owl. 'Diablo' grasshopper, with the devil's face on it. In this real-life gothic drama, the characters even have names of the night, and everything that moves against the forest's blackened backdrop seems to play the part of either the hunter or the hunted. What's increasingly unclear is which of the roles we're filling — whether we're stalking nature or nature's stalking us — and it's while I ponder this blurred line that a flurry of jagged wings fills my torchlight and bursts past my ear, sending me flailing and ducking to the ground. "False vampire bat," says an amused Fredy, as I straighten up and fight to calm my breath. "It only eats fruit."
This is the Mandari Panga Jungle Experience, a new tourism project set up by Fredy and his wife in the remote rainforest of Yasuni National Park. It involves many of the local Mandari Panga community — a 150-strong group of indigenous Quichua people — in varying roles, with some employed as guides, others providing food. Most live several miles west of here, but one family is nearby, and before retiring to our tents in the undergrowth we'll cross the river to join them for a meal of chicken and rice, and to have our faces painted in the ceremonial patterns of a hunter (me), a fisherman (David) and — after earnest assurances it's a genuine job in these parts — a jungle man (Nick). Tomorrow we'll travel eastward along the Tiputini River, deeper and deeper into the rainforest, and further and further from any other souls.
For tourists, the project offers a rare taste of the Amazon at its remotest, but for Fredy it offers nothing less than the hope of salvation. Forget the army of predators prowling around them; the real threat to this fragile community lies beneath. Oil. The prospectors started circling Ecuador in the 1960s, persuading villages to sell drilling rights, and the pipeline is ever-present beside the road on the journey here from Quito, writhing through the landscape like a rust-brown anaconda. We'd passed an oil town shortly before reaching the national park, its greenery cleared for access roads, its people looking hard-faced and hollow-eyed. At the foot of four roaring gas flares, the bodies of burnt insects formed mounds a metre high. The Mandari Panga community have so far resisted the oil dollars. But for how much longer? Fredy knows tourism can provide an alternative future. "We have something special here," he says simply.
On the river
That special something unfurls before us early the following day. After a candlelit breakfast of fried eggs and mashed plantain, we clamber unsteadily into dugout canoes. I join Nick, a fellow guest from Northumberland, in one of the cedarwood boats; Fredy stepping sure-footed as a cat into the stern. David, an American who came to Quito 15 years ago and is the founder of local tour operator Eos Ecuador, takes the other boat, with a guide called Julio. "That's best for you guys — I seem to attract the bugs," David comments ruefully.
It's 5.45am, no longer night but not quite morning either. The air is washed with a sunless light, and mist rests like a sagging net on the crown of the forest. Julio and Fredy paddle stealthily, loose-limbed, each taking a few gentle strokes on one side before flicking the oar up in an elegant arc to take a few strokes on the other. The river oozes, flat and dense and silent. Alongside us, the rainforest is immense and stock-still, not a leaf trembling, the trees silhouetted flat against the grey. I'm struck by a sense of the theatrical, of a stage set ready for the play of life.
And as we wait, the orchestra builds the atmosphere. Cicadas lay down the bassline with their enduring electric hum. Next, a woodpecker taps out a tempo, supported by a dove that repeats its single note, luxurious, haunting, and as regular as a metronome. On top of this comes the melody — piping whistles and echoing chimes, a huffy burst like someone working a bicycle pump, the ratcheting noise of a clock being wound, the bubbling of a cuckoo, its call like boiling water, and the sound of an oropendola bird, like a pebble dropped in a pool of liquid gold.
With a sort of guttural drum roll, the first members of the cast enter stage left. "Howler monkeys!" Fredy says, pointing to four red-furred figures emerging from the dry-ice haze at the top of a fig tree. "The males growl like that to mark their territory." We drift on, and birds start coming thick and fast. A pair of blue-headed parrots make a dash overhead — strangely front-heavy with their stunted tails, and protesting loudly about some outrage or other. We look in on an animated debate between cobalt-winged parakeets, who squawk among the acacia branches. An aloof, Guinness-beaked toucan stares into the distance, pretending not to hear.
Fredy and Julio direct the action, moving our gaze from one scene to the next. My eyes ache — genuinely ache! — from the effort of picking shapes from the knotted jumble of green and brown. "Spider monkey," they say, and I look straight at it but see nothing until the animal scratches a leg and reveals itself, as though spirited there by magic. Golden-mantled tamarind monkeys walk headfirst down a trunk, white markings around their mouths like a toddler's milk moustache. Julio makes a chesty hissing noise at them, and they make a chesty hissing noise back.
We pass a snakebird on a log, red-capped cardinals on a twig, and then — at some hidden cue — the star turns appear, breaking along the bank with a clatter of slapping paws and splashing their way into the water. Three giant river otters — adults and a juvenile; beautiful animals but slightly eerie too, with something of the pitbull about their snouts and the reptile in their eyes. They rest chins on the surface, tracking us unblinkingly, and once more I'm conscious of roles reversed as the watchers become the watched.
By 10am, the mist has turned to wispy cloud and the heat of the sun is at our necks. Nick and I enjoy the sight of a huge owl butterfly lolloping in front of our boat, and of David battling to free himself from a persistent bee that has buzzed around him for the past 10 minutes. "I should give it a name," he calls across to us, swatting at his hair, and we nod sympathetically and try to keep straight faces. But shortly afterwards, the atmosphere tautens as we pull into a channel where the sun can't follow, and Julio helps us out of the boats and into a swamp.
Places don't get more primeval and threatening than this. The ground tries to fold us into itself, mud sucking as high as the middle of our thighs as we walk jerkily like robots and fight to hold onto our boots. Finally, thankfully, we find relief in a track of sorts. Julio moves lithely ahead of us, hacking with his machete. "Mind these," Fredy says, protectively, stepping high-kneed over a bobbing line of leaf-cutter ants. "They can carry their leaves four kilometres," he adds with evident fondness. (Later, I'll reflect on the lottery of life as Fredy eats lemon ants by the dozen off a coffee tree. "They taste great if you're thirsty!")
Anaconda Lagoon greets us with the eggy stink of decay. It's a blackwater ecosystem very different from the Tiputini River, and a further reminder of Yasuni's biodiversity. The national park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, its 1.2 million acres making room for everything from giant kapok trees with crowns like mushroom clouds to ants tiny enough to hitchhike on the leaves carried by the leaf-cutter ants we've just left behind. Not far to the south of us is the Intangible Zone, an area home to two 'uncontacted' tribes who hunt with spears and blowpipes, and live in total isolation from the outside world. This had seemed extraordinary when considered in advance, but out on this festering oxbow lake I could easily believe we're the only people on Earth.
We've joined another dugout; Fredy standing at the front, the better to scan the ragged vegetation spilling over the lake's edges. The water is inky and smooth, but occasionally it pulses as something invisible moves beneath like a muscle under skin. "I don't recommend swimming here," says Fredy, entirely unnecessarily. "There are big electric eels that can give you a shock of 600 volts."
And, as the lake's name suggests, there are anacondas too, which like to bask on logs. For once, though, Fredy's radar is off-beam. Instead, he finds a blood-red bird-eating snake, swirling shoals of tadpoles, a row of roosting long-nosed bats. A ribbed nest of warrior wasps, which, when we clap our hands, vibrate to a sound like marching soldiers — pherlunk, pherlunk, pherlunk — as thousands of wings beat a warning from within. Julio trails a fishing line, and pulls in a piranha with a hunched back and jagged underbite. But no anacondas.
"Last week, I saw one here seven metres long," Fredy says, clearly frustrated. "An anaconda will hypnotise you if you look it in the eye," he adds. I keep my head fixed firmly forward until we're safely out of the lagoon.
Scientists will tell you it's a myth, of course, and that a snake is no more capable of hypnosis than it is of persuading Eve to eat an apple. But the jungle isn't a place of science, whatever the textbooks say. It's a place of potions and dream prophecies and tales passed from parent to child; a parallel, otherworldly kingdom where different laws apply.
Nature's power can be something to fear, like the danger in the anaconda's eye. It can be something to harness: those white onions growing by the path are used to treat burns, Julio says; the juice from this mushroom stalk can heal ear infections; these berries rubbed around a baby's head will cure its fever. It can even be downright bizarre. "Don't stare at that bird or your pants will break," Fredy cautions as we look up at a swallow-tailed kite.
That evening, Fredy reveals he's the son of a yachak — a wise man. We're sitting cross-legged in a circle, shelling cocoa beans still hot from roasting in the fire. "My father speaks with spirits of the forest and rivers, and guards people from bad energies," he says, and we just nod, unsurprised, and ask some practical questions — how long do his ceremonies last? How do the spirits communicate? Because out here, it seems entirely plausible that things might be plucked from thin air.
When it comes to food, there's no greater magician than Alicia, Fredy's smiley mother-in-law. It's her stilted house we're in now, the sides open to the forest, and we'll spend our remaining nights in tents on thatched platforms Fredy has built a few metres away overlooking the river. While we work at the cocoa beans, Alicia chews on boiled chontaduros, spitting pieces of the orange palm fruit into a wooden bowl, and mashing them with a pestle. She's making chicha, a mildly alcoholic drink. "Chewing makes the chicha less slimy," Fredy explains.
Alicia helps us to grind cocoa beans and sugar into a glossy paste, from which she concocts a frothy hot chocolate, the sweetest of endings to a meal of Julio's piranha, served on banana leaves with local avocado and tomatoes. UNESCO has recognised Alicia's work in preserving traditional Amazonian cuisine. She teaches the village schoolchildren ancestral recipes, how to make chocolate and grow their own food sustainably. These are key lessons for the community to learn if the Mandari Panga project is to succeed. "So many lodges in Ecuador bring all their food in from Quito. We want to do things differently," Fredy says, rapping his knuckles on the floor.
Can pigs fly?
It's the next morning, and we're halfway up a tree, hiding from wild pigs. White-lipped peccaries, to be exact; a hairy species that can weigh up to 100lbs. We can't see them, but they're close, hundreds of them, their fusty scent on the leaves, their prints in the earth; bruised fruit skins littering the ground. The grunts of so many truffling snouts creates a low vibration through the forest, an almost man-made sound, like the thrum of a generator.
Peccary herds of this size are dangerous. The males can be aggressive, and if the group panics it will stampede blindly, flattening anything in its way. Julio had sensed them first, putting a finger to his lips with an urgency I'd not seen before, the stakes raised in the blink of an eye. Fredy had ushered us to a fallen tree, propped against another at 45 degrees, and we'd shuffled awkwardly up the trunk as high as we dared. Satisfied we're safely stored, Julio and Fredy remove their T-shirts to ensure they're better camouflaged, and melt away to scout the situation.
Straddling this tree is the very definition of a stress position. My thighs cramp, ants bite, and a twig keeps steady pressure on a part of me that shouldn't be pressured. Whenever Nick adjusts himself above, I receive a shower of bark and lichen. Fifteen minutes pass, then 20. The thrumming rises and falls as the herd moves below us. All we can do is wait.
From here, wrapped in its spiky embrace, corralled by its barrelling foot-soldiers, the rainforest seems invincible. On the river, it had felt infinite, the trees at the bank just the frontline in an organic mass. It's difficult to believe this mass is a sum of parts, that its things can be counted, that at this moment there's a precise number of howler monkeys, of tarantulas, of white-eyed parakeets. That somewhere, the uncontacted tribespeople can hear the same rumble of thunder I can. That if you lose a tree, that's one lost from the total. That the jungle is half the size it was before the oil companies arrived.
Thirty minutes pass; there are squeals and a clacking of teeth. Another long roll of thunder, and above us the canopy crackles with rain. All we can do is wait. For all its sorcery and stagecraft, the rainforest is powerless against the anaconda pipeline. This is a modern threat that requires a human solution, and Fredy's family are training guides and teaching the community about tourism, preparing their forest guardians. Every villager recruited is one added to the total.
"These are good people," Fredy had told me earlier. "I'm desperate to make this project succeed." Only time will tell if Fredy can work his magic. All we can do is wait. Meanwhile, I'll cling to this tree, push Nick's boot off my head, and cross fingers the pigs here can't fly.
Getting there & around: Avianca flies daily from London Heathrow to Bogota, with regular flights onward to Quito. Several other airlines, including KLM and Iberia, serve Quito with one connection. Average flight time: 14h15m. From Quito, travel by bus or internal flight to Coca, then by private transport to Yasuni National Park.
Where to go: The Amazon has no distinct seasons and rain is a feature all year. Yasuni National Park is great to visit year-round, while rafting is best from late August-March. The Yasuni region is relatively cool with higher rainfall in May and June.
Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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