I have to admit that when Danny told me about the tower, it aroused only moderate interest. Once I reached the platform at the top, I became its biggest fan. Not only did the platform offer inspiring vistas of rainforest stretching in all directions, it provided our most thrilling wildlife viewing of the trip. Some of the best birds actually foraged and hunted in the kapok tree itself, including woodcreepers, euphonias, becards, tanagers, and dacnis. Aracaris, toucans, woodpeckers, and parrots perched in neighboring trees while raptors such as Yellow-headed Vultures and Grey-headed Kites circled above the surrounding canopy. A couple from England arrived with their guides, and one of them spotted a distant lump on a tree top three kilometers away. He trained a spotting scope on the lump and it materialized into a legendary bird Braden and I never dreamed we'd see.
"Harpy Eagle," the guide told us.
We grinned, taking our turns at the scope.
Birding doesn't get better.
The following morning, after visiting a clay lick frequented by parrots, Danny and Jorge took us to a local Kichwa community center to give us a taste of the lives and challenges of the local people as they struggle to adapt to the modern world. I got the impression that the woman showing us around would have preferred spending her time on something more productive, but she took us to a lovely schoolhouse, showed us a "women's project" farm featuring yucca, coffee, bananas, and other crops, and pointed out a fish pond where they raise threatened baby yellow spotted turtles for release back into the wild.
After the tour, we followed her to a building that served as a kitchen and gift shop, where several others were preparing a delicious meal of fish and yucca cooked in leaves, roasted plantains, and roasted cacao nuts. Before sitting down to eat, however, Danny unwrapped a large leaf containing four squirming yellowish-white beetle grubs, each about five centimeters long. Our woman guide demonstrated how to eat one, and then Danny asked, "Grub, anyone?"
I looked at Amy and the kids. It may have been my imagination, but their faces seemed a bit paler than they had a minute before. For me, however, it was now or never.
"I will," I said, picking up a grub.
Following the woman's instructions, I bit down behind the grub's head, paralyzing it so it couldn't seize my tongue with its mandibles. Then, I placed the entire larva into my mouth and mashed down with my molars.
Other writers have described beetle grubs as having a zesty nutty flavor, but I felt like I was biting into a bag of snot. As its juices exploded in my mouth, I may have detected a bit of flavor that could be called nutty, but the overall sensation was warm, wet, and squishy. After swallowing the first gush of grub guts, I began chewing, expecting the body to be soft and delicate. Instead, it was more like chewing gum or jerky. Under the amused—and appalled—stares of those around me, I kept chewing and finally swallowed, gratefully accepting the bottle of water Amy handed to me.
"Good job," she said.
Then, we all sat down to our meal, a six-foot-long boa constrictor perched peacefully in the rafters above us.
Two mornings later, after a third full day of adventure, we woke in the dark and ate a final breakfast as an orange glow spread above the tree line to the east. We bid farewell to the staff that had treated us so kindly. Tessa gave Apasha the Gray-winged Trumpeter a final pat. Then we set off back to the boat that would take us upriver to Coca.
At first a heavy mist covered the Rio Napo, but an hour upstream it began to burn away under the tropical sun. I paid special attention to the boat traffic on the river, the Rio Napo's role as a major highway becoming even more apparent than on our trip down. Numerous smaller launches such as ours shuttled people and goods up, down, and across the muddy expanse. A luxury three-story ferry, apparently from Manaus, made its way upstream. Several barges carried factory-new cars and trucks and one hauled a load of heavy earth-moving tractors.
Probably destined for the oil companies, I thought.
It was good to pay attention. As much as I wanted to cling to a romantic view of the Amazon as a pristine wilderness filled with exotic wildlife and indigenous people living in harmony with the land, the reality is much more complex. In truth, the Amazon is a bustling, rapidly changing place and will continue to be. The same forces that utterly transformed America are at work in the world's greatest rainforest ecosystem and will continue to shape it.
As we once again reached the huge new suspension bridge below Coca, I worried about what those changes would bring to the rainforest and its indigenous people, but I also felt glad that I'd been able to bring my family to this far-away place—and not just to see wildlife. I retained faith that many of the key qualities of this unique, incredible region could be maintained against the onslaught of oil companies, gold miners, cattle ranchers, and corrupt politicians, but for that to happen would require the knowledge, awareness, and action of as many people as possible—even in our distant home of Montana. In our five days here, we had barely scratched the surface of the Amazon and its people, but looking at my kids, I felt confident that the trip would imprint a concern for this place and inspire them to take actions—even little ones—to help protect it. Someday, maybe they would be able to return here with their own families and experience the same sense of adventure, wonder, and excitement that we had.
Before submitting this article, I contacted Sani Lodge to see how they are faring. As expected, the covid pandemic forced them to shut their doors, but they are now welcoming guests once again. A bigger concern for indigenous communities, my contact explained, was an oil spill caused by two broken pipelines in April, 2020. Massive erosion, likely caused by a newly constructed hydroelectric dam and power plant, led to the pipeline breaks, and as a result, crude oil contaminated hundreds of miles of the Rio Napo system. The spill has largely been cleaned up, but it barely made a blip in international news and is part of an appalling track record of oil spills and toxic waste contamination by oil companies in Ecuador's Amazon region. The latest spill robbed communities—already struggling because of Covid—access to clean water for many months and did untold damage to the river. The spill also highlights the importance of supporting indigenous communities through responsible ecotourism, direct action, and donations to organizations working to protect the Amazon and its peoples. Here are a few organizations with good track records: The Rainforest Trust, Rainforest Alliance, The Amazon Conservation Team, and Amazon Watch.
Although visiting the Amazon as a family is eminently doable, it requires careful planning and a reasonable budget. Risk of malaria and dengue fever are low on the Rio Napo, but you should still make sure you get vital vaccinations and any medicines you might need.
Sneed B. Collard III is the award-winning author of more than eighty-five children's books and the adult travel memoir Warblers & Woodpeckers: A Father-Son Big Year of Birding. He is a popular speaker and his travel and nature articles have appeared in Islands, BirdWatching, Big Sky Journal, and more than a dozen other magazines. Learn more about Sneed at his website www.sneedbcollardiii.com and follow the birding adventures of him and his son at fathersonbirding.com.
Finding My Ghost of the Future in the Amazon Jungle - Laura Resau
Travels with Tarzan in the Amazon Jungle - James Michael Dorsey
The Mysteries of Life in the Amazon Jungle - Debi Goodwin
Humble in the Jungle: Exploring Guyana's Rainforest - Laurie Gough
See other South America travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: