Adventure in the Amazon aboard a floating hotel
Amazon Basin, Ecuador
WE cast off into the dark night and head out onto Limoncocha Lake -- a body of water that is filled with 500 hungry caymen (South America's alligator) and an abundance of piranha, and is surrounded by jungle. Our guide, Maurizcio, shines a powerful spotlight around the perimeter of tall grass. Suddenly, two eyes glow red about 100 feet ahead. Our first cayman has given himself away. We edge over to within 15 feet of him. The spotlight now reveals seven feet of prehistoric reptile arched into attack position with a foot-and-a-half of wide-open jaw showing rows of sharp, jagged teeth.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Disdainful of this invasion of privacy, the cayman gives a tail thrash to the water and instantly vanishes into the depths of the lake, where he can remain for as long as three hours.
The guide turns off the boat engine, and under a star-filled sky we sit quietly and listen to the jungle work its magic. Parrots, thrushes, herons, flycatchers, and kingfishers -- just a few of the area's 464 species of birds -- join monkeys, crickets, and cicadas in a primeval improvisa-tion of caw-caws, cries, clicks, hoots, and hollers.
Earth has few frontiers left in 1985, but the Amazon jungle remains one of them. This giant salad of vegetation spreads across nine South American countries in a land mass 10 times the size of Texas. From it comes one-third of the earth's oxygen, and -- I was amazed to learn -- half the world's bird species, 18,000 plant species, 3,000 kinds of fish, and one-fifth of the earth's fresh river water.
It was in Ecuador's portion of the Amazon, called Oriente, that I spent four days exploring. Aboard the Flotel Orellana, a comfortable triple-deck floating hotel, our tour cruised down the Napo River, the headwaters of the Amazon. The four-day, three-night program (another runs five days and four nights) is put together by Metropolitan Touring of Quito, Ecuador.
From its home port of Francisco de Orellana, the Flotel travels about 12 miles up the Napo River to the edge of the rain forest. Here groups leave the ``mother ship'' via two motorized dugout canoes for an overnight excursion to Limoncocha Lodge, where we encountered the caymens.
Our dugout canoes glided down the Napo River, threading their way into the opening of the tiny Jivino River and passing deeper and deeper into Amazonia's interior. Thick exotic vegetation, banana trees, and palms flanked the river, as we passed an occasional Indian hut with a dugout canoe parked ouside the front door.
We stopped to visit Isla Pompeya, an Indian village with a Roman Catholic mission. This isolated island houses a small church with walls of bamboo and a roof of thick thatch. Seating is on backless benches. The church is an interesting mix of orthodoxy and village make-do: The colorful dugout canoe is used for an altar, and the church bell -- outside the front door -- is an old oxygen tank that is banged with a rock to make it sound.
The island also houses a small anthropological museum of Napo era (1188-1480) artifacts, including Indian pottery, bows, arrows, spears, and knives. Three 7-foot long blowguns are displayed with their deadly darts dipped in curare, a poison made from 16 plants. Indian tribes living in the Oriente still use these today for hunting game.
About an hour later we arrived at Limoncocha Lodge, our home for the next two days. Situated in a tiny Indian village of a few native huts, the two dormitory-style thatched roof lodges stand a few hundred feet from caymen-filled Limoncocha Lake. In view out the front door is a dramatic hanging bridge that spans a 100-foot ravine.
Our first jungle adventure begins as a passenger steps out of the boat and onto a semi-submerged tree, kicking up a cloud of mosquitos. Since most of us are wearing a heavy dose of insect repellent, we walk through them un-scathed.
A thermometer would tell you it's 85 or 90 degrees F., but this is deceiving. In a tropical rain forest, the temperature is only a tiny part of the story. The other is humidity, which feels like 200 percent here. It makes the jungle seem to sweat. Our group moves under the tall green canopy of forest through a maze of vines and leaves on a trail cleared by Indians, but still requiring an occasional hack of a machete from our guide (especially, I noticed, when the cameras are clicking).