The roaring sounds like a distant interstate highway, trucks raging lonely through the night. But as I lie sweating on top of my sheet, I know that in this steamy South American rainforest, that kind of traffic is thousands of miles away. At 4 a.m. it's 90 degrees, but it isn't the heat that keeps me awake, nor the thought of the lurking jaguar that someone spotted by the river last night. It's the roaring—just one roar at first, an eerie rhythmic howling of something surely in pain, a last dying gasp crying out to the world, but soon other howls begin echoing back until the whole jungle is a haunt of howling roaring trees.
I know these are the red howler monkeys, but how can something so unearthly come from a monkey? The night has taken on the dimensions of a dream, yet beneath my mosquito net, I feel more awake than ever. I revel in the first slight breeze I've felt on my skin in days, and listen for whatever else might be outside my hut's window in the jungled interior of Guyana.
"Do you think we'll see the jaguar today?" I ask our Amerindian guide Egbert the next morning as myself and five others in our group start our hike up Turtle Mountain in the Iwokrama Rainforest in central Guyana.
"Probably not. But he'll see you," says Egbert, as he whacks a vine with his machete.
Egbert is a Makushi Amerindian and he's built like a small refrigerator, his muscled compact stature perfect for negotiating a dense rugged forest. The Iwokrama Rainforest is the homeland of the Makushi people, who've lived here for thousands of years. For the few travelers who make it to Guyana, the journey into the country's tropical canopied interior usually begins at the Iwokrama River Lodge, an international conservation center run mainly by the Makushi. The surrounding rainforest, all one million intact pristine acres of it, is a living laboratory, proving that tropical forests can be conserved and used sustainably to provide ecological, social and economic benefits.
After three hours of hiking we reach the mountaintop above the canopy, where we look out at nothing but trees in more shades of green than I knew existed and as far as the curvature of the Earth allows us to see. In some tree tops, what at first look like wiry black branches turn out to be limbs of spider monkeys. Above, a flock of macaws rainbows the sky while giant blue morpho butterflies flutter by like electric-blue tissues in a breeze. What amazes me most are the sounds rising up from the jungle, a near-deafening cacophony of bird calls, cricket whines and screeching mammals all going about their daily business—asserting their territory or searching for mates, food or friends.
Although 90% of the Guyanese population live on its narrow coastal strip, travel inland and you find nothing but untouched jungle in an area the size of Britain. Scientists have only recently discovered how pristine this rainforest north of the Amazon actually is—one of only four such rainforests left on Earth. By studying the forest's astounding biodiversity, ecologists have been trying to prove that the country's rainforest is worth more alive than it could be razed to the ground in favor of agriculture and timber.
Guyana's president, Bharrat Jagdeo, wants Guyana—the poorest country in South America—to become an example for sustainable, low-carbon development and is hoping for carbon credits in exchange for not logging Guyana's rainforest. Eco-tourism and research stations such as this are part of Guyana's emerging green wave. Although the term "eco-tourism" gets thrown around a lot these days, often misleadingly so, in Guyana it's for real. Impressed with Iwokrama, I wanted to see how else the country was keeping itself green.
"Most people think we're in Africa," says Archer, our Amerindian guide at the Atta Rainforest Lodge south of the Iwokrama field station. "They confuse Guyana for Ghana. Once, someone in the U.S. was supposed to send us a box of binoculars. The binoculars wound up in Africa. Our problem is nobody knows where we are. The few tourists we get are birders from Britain. North Americans don't know us."
Except for that unfortunate Kool-Aid incident, I think, as we hike toward the Canopy Walkway, where, on the way, Archer points out vines that collect pure water to drink, bark that relieves fevers, leaves to treat diabetes, tree sap to cure coughs, a root that's a natural contraceptive, and the capadula tree, the bark of which is a natural Viagra.
"Watch out for the bullet ants on the path," says Archer. "Their bite is so strong that we use them to test our manhood when we turn 15. We sit on them and try not to scream."
When we reach the canopy walk, we traverse a series of swinging footbridges 100 feet high that connect to tree platforms. Within seconds of arriving at the first platform, Asaph, our Amerindian bird guide, points out a red-necked woodpecker flying just below us, almost close enough to touch. The birders in our group are over the top with excitement. I myself feel a little queasy.
Cock-of-the-rock and Edible Grubs
The next day we're happily bumping along the main dirt road with a breeze on our faces in an open safari truck. We're on our way to a certain stop along the road, where, if we hike up a mountain, we might spot a cock-of-the-rock that's known to nest on a cave ceiling. A cock-of-the-rock, the birders tell me, is a huge brilliant-orange bird with a massive crest. At least, the male is orange. The female is muddy brown. I wonder if the whole affair is worth a hike up a mountain in a climate where even standing still makes you sweat. In fact, it's so hot here that cicadas start screeching at 6 a.m.
About 30 minutes into the hike our guide shushes us to stop chatting. We tiptoe through a refreshingly cool cave, and, when we exit on the cave's other side, we see what we've come for.
I hadn't expected this. I hear the breath rush sharply into my lungs. Hopping along a tree branch, and completely oblivious to the group of nearby gawkers, is an extraordinarily flamboyant fluorescent-orange creature—the male cock-of-the-rock—so hidden in the depths of the jungle, so far removed from civilization, that it feels as if we've crossed over into a paradise where no humans have ever been, a paradise where the magnificent animals around us have no idea humans even exist. I no longer mind the heat. In fact, up here, the forest feels like a caressing sauna filled with the sweet aroma of orchids. I could just melt right in.
But there's more to see of other-worldly Guyana. We spend the night in another Makushi village further south, where the rainforest meets the savannah, at Surama Ecolodge. Our local Indian guide points out giant coconut grubs eating the inside of an old coconut. He asks if we want to try one and we eye each other warily, shaking our heads. Clearly, we're all wimps. He shrugs, plucks out the fattest grub, and plops it in his mouth. "Yum," he says, smiling. "Tastes just like coconut. And it hardly moves around in my mouth at all."
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