Thursday, April 14: Amazon Jungle

Clearing up in the morning
It rained hard most of Wednesday night but it had stopped raining and started to clear up when we got up Thursday morning. Our activity for the morning was a 90 minute hike through the jungle.
Selecting a pair of boots


So, after breakfast we all headed down to the boot room to select a pair of rubber boots to wear on our trek through the muddy wet jungle. Once we had a proper-fitting pair of boots, we grabbed a life jacket and headed down to the landing where we boarded the canoes for a ride to the starting point of our jungle walk. As we rode up-river we passed a woman washing her clothes in the river and a tree with many hanging nests of oropendola birds.

Boarding the canoes
Boarding the canoes
Doing the laundry
Doing the laundry
Nests of oropendola birds
Nests of oropendola birds

Clinker briefs us
When we reached the starting point of the jungle trail we clambered up the bank to a small hut where we left our life jackets and got our briefing about what was to come from our native guide, Clinker.

As we started our walk into the jungle, Jorge, our tour guide who was bringing up the rear pointed out a large centipede while Clinker, who was leading the group, pointed out some interesting flowers.

Large centipede
Large centipede
Inconspicuous flower
Inconspicuous flower
Flower of a ginger plant.
Flower of a ginger plant.

Near the start of our trek we walked across a narrow bridge over a stream. We encountered a wide variety of flowering plants. Clinker pointed out this pair of spiders with the large female spider and the much smaller male spider.

Crossing a stream on a narrow bridge
Crossing a stream on a narrow bridge
Many varieties of plants
Many varieties of plants
Large female & small male spider
Large female & small male spider

Clinker pointed out a variety of plants with medicinal properties and, in many cases, gave us all a piece and encouraged us to taste it. This was probably not a good idea because at least one person had a fairly bad allergic reaction to one of the plants. The aerial roots of this tree contain many tough, sharp spines. Natives cut a section of these roots and use it as a grater when preparing foods.

Plant with medicinal properties
Plant with medicinal properties
Spines on exposed root
Spines on exposed root of Palma andante - Socratea exorrhiza, Arecaceae
Spines form a natural grater
Spines form a natural grater

The traveling palm (Palma andante - Socratea exorrhiza, Arecaceae) is able to move its stem up to 2 meters to the side by growing new roots in the desired direction. This allows the palm to gather more sunlight through gaps in the canopy. We encountered many of these vertical tubes which are built by periodical cicadas. These insects (order Hemiptera) spend most of their lives in burrows up to 2 meters deep in the jungle floor feeding on sap from plant roots. Every few years the cicadas emerge en mass to mate and lay eggs to start the life cycle again. This tree produces “wild apples.” These small green fruits taste like an apple but have many more seeds than our more familiar varieties of apples or crab apples.

Travelling palm tree
Travelling palm tree
Burrow of a cicadea
Burrow of a cicadea
Wild apple tree
Wild apple tree

Occasionally we would see large masses in a tree. These are termite nests. Since termites do not attack living wood, these nests did not harm the tree. Often natives would cut off sections of the nest, take it home and burn it slowly. The smoke it gives off is a natural insect repellant. Clinker caught a frog (this one is non-toxic) and a grasshopper to show us the variety of animal life in the jungle. Mind you there wasn’t any grass around, so it probably should have been named a jungle hopper.

Termite nest
Termite nest
A small, non-toxic frog
A small, non-toxic frog
A grasshopper
A grasshopper

Towards the end of the walk there was a tree swing. Clinker demonstrated how to use it. Then we all took turns. Here is Nancy swinging through the trees.

Clinker demonstrates the swing
Clinker demonstrates the swing
Nancy takes a turn
Nancy takes a turn
Nan swings through the trees
Nan swings through the trees

These round, black spiny seed pods that looked like sea urchins were called monkey brush. This is a brightly colored frog that Clinker caught. It has bright yellow spots on its back and a blue belly. As with most brightly-colored jungle animals, it was toxic. This frog’s skin secretes a poison that natives put on the tips of their blowgun darts.

Monkey brush seed pods
Monkey brush seed pods
Yellow spotted frog
Yellow spotted frog
Frog's bright blue belly
Frog’s bright blue belly

As we hiked through the jungle we came across many Heliconia flowers and two species of cacao trees (red pods and green pods). The cacao seeds are removed from the pods, allowed to ferment for about a week and then dried and bagged. At a processing center the beans are roasted and the shells cracked and removed to leave the chocolate nibs.

Heliconia flower
Heliconia flower
Colored cacao pods
Colored cacao pods
Green cacao pods
Green cacao pods

At the end of the jungle trek our guides lashed together several balsa logs to make a raft. Those in the group who wanted to then rode the raft down the river to the lodge. Nan and I chose to pass on riding the raft for two reasons: you were guaranteed to get wet (we hadn’t brought our bathing suits) and it would be at least a half-hour ride in the very hot tropical sun with no shade.

Building the balsa-log raft
Building the balsa raft.
Loading the raft
Loading the raft
Floating downstream
Floating downstream

After lunch we set out for a visit to an animal rescue center. On the canoe ride to the center we passed a howler monkey up in a tree. When we reached our destination we climbed a long set of steps to get to the center. We went into the gift shop area to get our admission tickets. The gift shop sold a wide variety of local handicraft items.

Howler monkey
Howler monkey
Long climb to the center
Long climb to the center
The gift shop
The gift shop

Our guide for our visit to the center was a volunteer from Germany. She had been working as a volunteer for about 6 months and had about 4 more months to go. Unless they are put in an administrative position, most volunteers leave after 6 to 10 months because the work becomes boring and repetitious. The first pen we visited contained two toucans. The next contained several brightly-colored macaws.

German volunteer guide
German volunteer guide
Toucan
Toucan
Colorful macaws
Colorful macaws

The next cage contained a capybara, the largest rodent in the world. Next was a caiman stretched out on the banks of a pond. The final photo was of a wooly monkey.

A Capybara
A Capybara
A caiman
A caiman
Wooly monkey
Wooly monkey

The next two cages contained several varieties of parrots. I encountered a tortoise wandering across the premises.

A green parrot
A green parrot
Other parrots
Other parrots
A tortoise
A tortoise

I turned right while the others turned left and I saw the pen containing a peccary. When we got back to the canoe we had to chase a monkey out of it. Our next stop was a trek to a native family’s dwelling.

A peccary
A peccary
Monkey in canoe
Monkey in canoe
Trek to native dwelling
Trek to native dwelling

Along the path to the dwelling we encountered some beautiful white flowers and a tree with rather nasty spines on its trunk. The dwelling had a thatched roof and was raised off the ground so that flood waters could pass below it. The thatching of the roof is done with the same material that is used to make Panama hats.

White flowers
White flowers
Thorns on trunk
Thorns on trunk
Traditional Quechua dwelling
Traditional Quechua dwelling

A traditional Quechua dwelling consists of a large kitchen and common meeting area and a smaller sleeping area. The floor is made from the wood of an especially hard palm. The kitchen hearth is filled with river sand so that the heat from the cooking fire will not burn the wooden floor. Traditionally, the Quechua day begins about 3 am with a cup of “tea” brewed from these leaves. The drink seems to provide energy throughout the day. A chunk of termite nest is smoldering in the metal pot to provide smoke to keep the insects away.

Common area/kitchen
Common area/kitchen
Leaves used to brew tea
Leaves used to brew tea
Smoldering termite nest
Smoldering termite nest

The woman of the house showed us how chicha is made by mashing boiled cassava root, adding some water and grated sweet potato, and allowing the mash to ferment for three days. We were given some chicha to taste.

Mashing cooked cassava root
Mashing cooked cassava root
Grating sweet potato
Grating sweet potato
Sampling some chicha
Sampling some chicha

Our last activity at the native dwelling was trying our hand at using a traditional blowgun. The darts were slivers of banboo wrapped with some fiber from a kapok tree to fill the bore. The mandible of a piranha fish was used to partially cut through the shaft of the dart near the tip so that the main shaft would break off leaving the poisoned tip in the animal. One of the main advantages of using a blow gun is its silence. One gunshot scares away most animals. A miss with a blow gun doesn’t scare the animals away. Some people were pretty accurate with the blow gun but I tended to be too low. As we left in our canoes, several of the family’s children were cooling off in the river water.

Trying out the blow gun
Trying out the blow gun
I shot too low
I shot too low
Children cooling off
Children cooling off

As we returned from the visit to the native family, the clouds were piling up in the sky. After our group meeting and our dinner we headed for bed. Just in time too because before long the rains came with a real vengeance. Lightning struck the camp’s electrical service and they had to restore power using a diesel generator. Power had not been restored when we left the next day.