Ecuador: Hiking the Amazon Forest

A journey through the Amazon Forest through all different species homes- including this squirrel monkey. Coen Wubbels Photos

Hiking the Amazon Forest of La Selva Jungle Lodge in Ecuador

By Karin-Marijke Vis

Bromeliad plant along the trails.
Bromeliad plant along the trails.

I am looking up at the trees in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador and conclude they are all humungous. Yet there is one type of tree that sticks out above the canopy: the ceiba. The kapok tree is one specific species of the ceiba tree.

When young, it has spines on its trunk, minimizing the risk of animals crawling up its trunk carrying seeds of for instance the strangler fig that could kill the tree. The one I am looking at is about 300 years old (kapok trees can grow as old as 800 to 900 years).

Many indigenous tribes in the Amazon Rainforest have created myths surrounding these trees. Andrés, my naturalist guide, explains that some indigenous people here in Ecuador believe that the tree is home to bad spirits. When they clear an area of the forest to build a village they make sure not to cut the ceiba tree. As long as it remains standing, the bad spirits will live there. If they cut the tree, the spirits may move into their homes.

Early Morning Exercise

I am about to climb one of these trees in the forest surrounding La Selva Jungle Lodge to be exact, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The people of the lodge have come up with a great way of experiencing the size of the tree: climbing it. Well, you don't actually have to climb the tree itself but dozens of steps that make up the stairs built around the 37-meter-tall tree.

Walking past a snake in its natural habitat.
Walking past a snake in its natural habitat.

It provides a good morning exercise at 7.30 am.

The stairs are made of wood and were constructed two years ago. They didn't fell trees for the project but used only fallen ones. Some parts have already had to be replaced as the humidity of the rainforest rapidly destroys everything. Since they will need a lot of wood to maintain the structure, just depending on fallen trees is not going to work. And so a new project is in progress: a construction made of metal.

Being here is majestic. From a bare, straight trunk the tree suddenly branches off in all directions and in the canopy an observation platform was built. The canopy of the tree itself provides us with lots of shade, protecting us from the sun that even at 8am is already beating down.

RELATED  Chile: Tour the Southernmost Inhabited Location in the World

Birdwatching

The guides are busy with binoculars and telescope in search of birds. My partner Coen is focusing on insects inhabiting this structure: beetles, ants, termites. I stand at the railing and simply marvel at being here.

Right in front of me are two beautiful hawks. It is only minutes before Enrique calls me over to direct my eyes to a white-throated toucan, which is so common here that it has pretty much become an icon of the area.

Simple yet beautiful floras along the way.
Simple yet beautiful floras along the way.

Something looking like pouches is hanging from the branches of this tree. These are nests of a weaverbird called the russet-backed oropendola. The same kind of nest is built by the yellow-rumped cacique, which we see a lot around the lodge.

The guides play with the telescope and I can see they are up to something. "Here, take a look if you see something." Smart-ass Coen concludes he sees branches and leaves, but obviously there is more. Nothing is moving at all within the frame of the telescope. I focus on the trunk – something there must be well camouflaged. I see a kind of triangular black something sticking out, a form that doesn't match the trunk.

"Yes, that's part of the tail," Andrés responds.

Appreciating nature in the Amazon Forest.
Appreciating nature in the Amazon Forest.

So I am looking at a bird and it is hard to see its contours, so well camouflaged is it. I am perplexed. It turns out to be an owl called a great potoo.

On one of the big branches, a two-centimeter-long ant at a run catches Coen's attention. Coen's eyes are always drawn to ants. He is intrigued by them: the size, the color, their behavior.

"A hormiga bala (bullet ant) or as we call it here, hormiga conga," Enrique says. It stings with its tail, which is painful and the spot will swell and remain painful for some 24 hrs.

The forest quiets down. The birds have eaten their breakfast and sung their morning songs. It is now time for their nap. Not for us though. We will go down the stairs and explore one of the many trails that traverse this rainforest.

The watchtower along the trail.
The watchtower along the trail.

Forest Hike

Quick-dry long pants and a long-sleeved shirt are perfect for walks in the Amazon rainforest as they protect you from being bitten. Malaria doesn't exist here, and there are not that many insects, but enough to give me an itch when I roll up my sleeves for a while. We are wearing rubber boots, provided by the lodge (do bring socks!) because large parts of the trail are muddy.

RELATED  Cuernavaca, Mexico: The Perfect Place to Study Spanish

For an hour or two we meander along a foot-wide trail through a world of green. One way not to be disappointed on jungle hikes is to have no expectations.

Don't expect to see tamanduas, snakes, monkeys, let alone cat-like creatures such as ocelots. The foliage is so dense that the chance of spotting them is minimal. The magic of the rainforest for us lies in spotting exotic-looking mushrooms, insects, and flowers. We are in for a lovely walk.

Coen is photographing a colony of orange/brown ants with white eggs underneath their belly running up and down the trunk of a tree. Enrique stands next to him and appears to be playing with his hands. When I get closer I see he is trying to get one of the ants off his thumb, where the creature had firmly planted its claws: a soldier ant. In the forest, people use the ant to stitch wounds, but Enrique says that here they don't use it for manhood ceremonies, like some tribes in Brazil do.

A small plant, the Devils Cup, hidden among the tremendous trees in the forest.
A small plant, the Devils Cup, hidden among the tremendous trees in the forest.

We spot a magical-looking, red translucent mushroom on the ground: a devil's cup. Andrés explains it is harvested and crushed to treat ear infections e.g. of kids. The spores of the mushroom heal the infection.

We come across lots of beautiful mushrooms and intriguing insects and among the butterflies we spot are a bright-blue morpho and an owl-eye butterfly.

Animal Life

Enrique is rummaging around, again. This guy is not not seeing for one second. Over the course of the three days that we're exploring the forest and the waterways around the lodge we never cease to be amazed about all the animals he manages to spot from afar. This time he is clearing leaves from the ground, as if he is making a path.

The walking stick -- not the one you may be used to.
The walking stick -- not the one you may be used to.

In fact, he is, but along the side of the trail, where he spotted a young whip snake, which is now hiding underneath the foliage. Enrique hopes to get it going on his improvised trail, which will help Coen take a photo. Nothing moves so we figure the snake has escaped. But Enrique knows what he saw and doesn't give up.

RELATED  Lake of the Woods, Canada

He carefully removes leaf by leaf, minimizing the patch where the snake might hide. And suddenly, there it is! Tiny, narrow, with grayish and some greenish tinges.

Now that it is without protection, it plays possum in the hope it will not be noticed. Coen takes his photo, we leave the snake in peace and continue our walk.

We don't spot any big animals, but are having the time of our life enjoying the small creatures and Enrique's explanations about how indigenous people use plants and trees of the forest. So we're a content group of people when we return to the lodge around 11 am. And we get a bonus, or so it feels: all of a sudden trees are moving and a group of squirrel monkeys are flying from tree to tree right above our heads!

Further Information

- La Selva Jungle Lodge can be reached by boat from Coca, one of the gateways to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Between Quito and Coca are regular flights, or you can take a bus.

- Most common are 4 day / 3 nights or 5 days / 5 nights packages that include your luxurious accommodation, all meals, high-end service, provision of rubber boots, and all activities with a naturalist as well as a native guide. Among the activities are forest hikes (day and evening), birdwatching, kayaking on the lagoon of the lodge, visiting a parrot clay lick, and visiting a native community.

- You can also opt for special programs, e.g. focused on birdwatching or family activities.

- For more information, check out La Selva Jungle Lodge's website.

Karin-Marijke Vis

Karin Vis and her partner Coen Wubbels, photographer, have been overlanding in Asia and South America since 2003. They have been assigned the Overlanders of the Year Award 2013. Their work has been published in 4WD/car monthlies and in travel magazines.