When you do need a bus to be late, you can be sure that the said bus is going to be either right on time or even earlier than planned. We left Quito at 10:45 pm in the hope to arrive early morning in Lago Agrio – still at stupid o’clock but better than middle of the night, we thought. We didn’t have to meet our guide until 9 am and we were not quite sure that the meeting point hotel would let us in at a ridiculous hour. Of course, since we counted on a delay, we arrived an hour earlier and stepped out of the bus at 4:30 am. Seriously, 4:30 in a town that was described to us as a sh**t hole? Great! After a light breakfast, we jumped in a taxi and were welcomed by the hotel manager who generously offered us to rest in hammocks until our guide arrives. We definitely had worse starts! Our guide, Rom, came over with two adventurers were already in the van. It seemed that we were to start our rain forest exploration as a small committee: a Swiss, a French, a kiwi and an Australian. The rest of the explorers would join us the day after. We drove to Puente where we boarded our canoe and met our captain, Camillo. We were getting very excited, especially after we suited up with our giant rain ponchos. We were ready for the rain forest, ready for the rain!
The boat ride to the Samona lodge took a little over two hours as both Rom and our captain kept spotting beautiful animals. One active sloth, a few shy pink dolphins, many cheeky and loud monkeys and colorful birds had seemed to have gathered to welcome us in this very special part of the world. It started to rain heavily but it was so warm, we felt bizarrely happy to be rained on. It somehow made our Amazonian adventure very real as if the rain forest wanted to say let’s get this party started. Rain didn’t last long and sun was shining again when we reached our lodge. It was warm and our bungalows looked very welcoming. After a delicious lunch, we went for a well deserved nap in hammocks! Our evening program was wonderful as it involved a swim in a lagoon with piranhas (as you do!) and a serene sunset on our canoe, followed by a flavorful meal prepared by Alfonso, our cook!
On our second day in this peaceful heaven (heaven if you agreed that your room could be a playground and a shelter for cockroaches, tarantulas, frogs and potentially snakes), we were dropped in the rain forest to hike and learn about plants and trees, or the way to survive this forest, shall we ever get lost. And after a few minutes, it became clear that Shannen and I would die of a painful death, torn into pieces by a jaguar as the boys easily climbed the necessary 7 meters on a liane to escape this predator. Don’t get me started on how I failed to recognize the comestible plants and mushrooms and kept pointing out at the wrong leaves (lethal to humans. Oops!). Our guide was a wonderful source of knowledge, experienced by spending some time with a shaman and we learnt a lot. I actually thought that I slightly raised my chances of survival to an impressive 1%, which was, you would agree, much better than none! Boom! This optimism wasn’t, of course, involving any night time in the jungle when predators were on the move. Touché! Camillo had left us a canoe to paddle back home and after a very interesting two-hour hike in the rain forest, we started paddling under a scorching sun through the lagoon. Gosh rain forest, we sure love you!
We stopped after 15 minutes for another (well deserved) dip in the wonderfully cool water. It felt weird to think that we were sharing the same water than piranhas and caimans. But they were surely all too busy, playing nicely to be interested in us.After that break, we paddled again for a long (well to us it seemed verrrrrrry long) time and we started to wonder how on earth Rom expected us to paddle all the way back to the lodge. Well he didn’t. He had a plan and we were saved by a charitable soul who trucked us back to the lodge. Cheaters? Guilty! After another delicious lunch and another well deserved nap (ah we could get used to it), we met the rest of our group: a French family of 4, 3 Americans and 1 Dutch. We headed all together to the lagoon to look at the sunset and take a walk in the rain forest after dark. Now… After stepping in the dark jungle where you could only rely on your hearing as your sight was useless (the flashlight didn’t count really), I estimated my survival chances at 0.5%. If luck was on my side, Rom’s advice “after dark, stay where you are. Don’t attempt to walk around” would work for me and no hungry big cat, no venomous snake, sneaky scorpion nor deadly spider would venture near me. What a wonderful wishful thinking. We spotted so many of them tho around us: they were frighteningly beautiful. They were also way too close to us when Rom asked us to turn off our flashlights and listen. Just listen. Once you are blind, the sounds become overwhelming. Did we hear a branch cracking? Was something coming towards us? What if a snake is sneaking close to our faces? My palms started to sweat, my heart beat slightly increased and I found myself both petrified and fascinated, unable of any movement. Didn’t I just describe a jaguar’s perfect prey?!
It was a relief when the flashlights were turned on again. We slowly made our way back to our canoe, grateful for this unique experience. On the way home, we looked for caimans but failed, being however rewarded by the presence of a dwarf boa on a tree, such a beauty! Back “home”, we decided to pay a visit to the tarantula, living with Shannen and Tim. We were excited to see this special guest but didn’t expect the two more that were hanging out even closer to our heads and they did cause some panic. The lodge guests had gathered around, fascinated and scared. Rom took one on his arm and tried to convince the crowd that tarantulas were not dangerous unless provoked or frightened. M and I decided to hold one because why not… We only (only?! Easier said than done) needed to calm down not to stress her. What an experience: the fear leaves your body while a tarantula is walking on you and it’s replaced by admiration and respect. The tarantula was so light and fluffy, it looked almost inoffensive! We went back to our private zoo: cockroaches and frogs waiting for us in our bungalow.
I couldn’t wait for the next day as we were about to meet the Siona community and learn how to prepare some yuca bread, shoot some (not so deadly) arrows with blowpipes and climb (another day, another fail for me) a giant Samona tree using lianes and the strength in the arms I don’t have. Spending time with Maria, our Siona host was very interesting. We took part of the process of making yuca bread from the beginning. We went to their garden and selected a few roots to be harvested, peeled them, washed them. They were ready to be grated, producing a wet paste that needed to be dried. Once dried, it was seeving and baking time. It might sound quick but it took us a good half hour to start baking. The baking operation was impressive as it was made directly on an opened fire, using a plate made of clay from the lagoon. Maria didn’t add any ingredient to the dough / flour so the bread could be kept for up to two months. It obviously didn’t last long enough to be kept as we literally devoured every single piece of bread prepared by Maria. It tasted so fresh, how to resist? When the time came for us to bake our own bread, it suddenly didn’t look that easy and my two little French helpers were pretty tough on me. “Have you listened to Maria? That’s not what she did! This is definitely too thick!”. Everybody started to laugh as those two teasing yuca bread experts were beyond cute!
After challenging each other at the local blowpipe and since the local shaman was busy, we headed back to our lodge. After resting for a while (read: the two little French and I stuffed ourselves with popcorn prepared by our lovely cook), we were caught in a massive storm but it didn’t stop us from going for another swim in the lagoon. It was a surreal time, the rain was so strong that it almost hurt our poorly covered bodies but it was one of the best experiences I was given to live. The ride to the lodge was hilarious: half of our boat was hiding under rain ponchos and half was soaked and shivering still in their bikini. We had never been so happy to get dry towels and jump in warm dry clothes. Priceless!
It was hard to believe that day # 4 (and our last) had come by so quickly. We had a very early start for our last canoe exploration, helping our driver to get fish for his lunch. This was how we encountered our first piranhas. Thinking that we were swimming in the same water than those aggressive beauties was scarily thrilling. After a last boat ride, looking for dolphins, monkeys and birds, we arrived right on time for our last breakfast with everybody. We were feeling sad to eave our temporary family and we wished we could have stayed longer with those fun explorers but we were short of time. We had so much more to discover, experience, explore and marvel before we leave this continent! Unreal! Next stop: Baños and its thermal baths!
Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!