Written by Oswaldo Muñoz*
Ever since I was a child living in NYC, just the word “jungle” evoked a place so far from cities that movies only added to the enigma of what this type of ecosystem could entail. Sure enough, the popularization of Edgar Rice Burrows’ novel “Tarzan of the Apes” in 1914 brought on fantasies of what it would be like to swing from vines, fight off savage predators and be crowned by wild animals that would not necessarily consider you part of their menu, not to mention romance in the middle of nowhere. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899) floated you up the Congo River, nature being the only thing you could or should trust. This was Africa, of course. Then we had the Amazon, another generic world of mystery linked to adventure, danger and again, jungle, with accounts of naturalists placing some order by identifying and cataloguing its fauna and flora, stirring excitement in the scientific world. Eventually, “jungle” became synonymous with unexplored, impenetrable and remote. Sure enough, the South American continent was next as the new frontier, which would be first claimed and explored, followed by an endless inventory that to this day remains to be fully understood and appreciated. You could very well say that “jungle” was the antithesis of the polar ice caps, two extremes that united the rest of the planet.
With these aforementioned antecedents, visiting the Amazon jungle became my priority upon returning to Quito in the late 1960s – after all, Ecuador’s capital city was one of the traditional, if not most important, gateways into the Amazon since colonial times. Moreover, the first exploratory expedition to find “El Dorado”, where an indigenous king supposedly bathed in gold dust, left Quito in 1541, floating unexpectedly into the Napo River, which emptied into the Amazon to feed into the Atlantic! Images of anacondas, piranhas, jaguars, caimans and other creatures came to my mind as I prepared to embark on my intended “expedition”. I recall alternating between feelings of fear, excitement and intrepidness.
My first leg of the trip was riding down the Eastern Andes on a road that was mostly in blueprints. The descent was dramatic as the vegetation was ever-changing with the altitude varying from 14,000 feet at the continental divide down to under 1,000 at the floor of the basin. And much to my surprise, it was indeed “jungle” on the high Andean slopes where light hit the bottom as well as the top of the trees in a most rolling and precipitous topography, in contrast with the ambience at the bottom, with gigantic trees whose enormous canopies shadowed a rather sparse understory at the base. It was not the “jungle” I was headed for, but rather a number of ecosystems that spanned from “rain forest” to “flood forest” in the deep interior, as well as exuberant jungle that thrived on the edge of the rivers and streams where sunlight could make its way through. And something that immediately caught my attention was the fact that the local population did not walk around half naked or with just a G-string like in the movies, but with T-shirts, long pants and a hat to protect themselves from the unforgiving sun that pounded hard most of the time. Also, the wild animals where not to be seen in broad daylight, but at night when they either “went hunting” and/or hid from their predators. The exception were the birds that could be heard and seen just about everywhere, their colorful feathers breaking the monotonous greenery of everything else around.
The following day I “undressed” accordingly, believing that almost nude was the way to go in what I originally considered the “hot jungle”. The local boatman didn’t keep his eyes off of me, wondering why I did not protect my body, like everyone else, from the baking sun and entomological companions that would leave their “signature” on your bare skin. Furthermore, I was most obliged as almost every native on the shores of the river would enthusiastically wave to me as I made my way up and down this Amazon tributary. Almost one week passed until I discovered that the locals had mistaken me for their much-admired Christian father that lived at a nearby missionary post. Sure enough, from a distance it was hard to make out whether it was me or him riding up and down the river with hardly “a shirt on the back”. Later, I was formally taken to see my “twin”, Father Tarticio, at his Italian mission clinic just off the river. After a rather formal introduction, we were both with our mouths agape, surprised to see how much we looked alike and, hence, the confusion I had created among the locals who had thought the father had gone nuts and in so-doing had “kicked the habit”. In short, I was the unauthorized “extra” in my own movie! “Why not?”, I thought to myself? After all, my maternal grandfather had immigrated in the 1920s from Palermo, Italy, to Iquitos, Peru, transporting Venetian furniture and German player pianos across the Atlantic and up the Amazon to be sold in Guayaquil, Lima and Quito, the latter where he finally settled and married.
After some afternoon “guayusa” tea (the Amazonian version of Argentine “mate” believed to make you come back to where you first sipped it), my host filled me in on the survival techniques required to have a good time, regardless of my apprehensiveness, triggered by my ignorance and fear of the unknown, and counteracted by my need of acceptance in a society that rivaled with my wildest dreams. Soon enough, this new world became most familiar to me, or “user friendly”. As the years progressed, as well as my understanding of what I had come upon, the Amazon became my favorite “playground” where, if you followed the basic rules, there was nothing to harm you, but rather to surprise you at each curve of the river and trail leading into the interior of the forest. This was the “jungle” I had been looking for ever since my childhood days. And this was Ecuador, my Ecuador!
Today, the new millennium brings us excellent lodges, well-versed multilingual guides, reliable access roads and fluvial routes that penetrate the largest forest in the world and perhaps the least-known natural wonder that has remained for the most part unchanged for the past 5 million years. This is around the same time Galapagos rose above the sea and Panama, after 60 million years of isolation, finally surfaced to connect South America with the rest of the Americas. Furthermore, the Amazon provided a rich and safe refuge for wildlife during the last Ice Age (Pleistocene) that triggered an unrivaled biodiversity, most of which still remains to be revealed to the rest of the world, especially medicinal plants that harbor solutions to many of our modern-day ailments.
Indeed, travel to the Amazon from Quito is feasible either overland on an excellent road, past countless waterfalls, in one or two days, or via a mere 40-minute flight from Quito and you’re there. Now, what to see and what to expect? All we can say is that one of our American guests visited our Amazon with us eight consecutive years and could not get enough of what each trip revealed. So, why not follow your own footsteps in an adventure that can very well bring you back for more of Ecuador and make some of your childhood fantasies a reality?!
*Oswaldo is the founder and CEO of Nuevo Mundo Expeditions. This is the third post in the Anniversary series.