The Mysteries of Life in the Amazon Jungle
Story and photos by Debi Goodwin

An Amazon Basin jungle lodge excursion tacked onto an Ecuador trip as an afterthought turns out to offer a visceral encounter with wildlife in its competitive, natural order form.

jungle roots

The Galapagos was everything it was supposed to be, a bucket-list destination with warm, clear seas full of tropical fish, rocky islands inhabited by lizards, red-throated frigate birds, penguins and boobies, beaches of playful sealions and fields of ancient giant tortoises moving languidly in the heat.

I had gone to Ecuador with my daughter just months after the death of my husband. It was to be a needed adventure for us, a place to celebrate his life. Secretly, I thought the Galapagos with its Darwinian history would give me some answers about life, death and change.

But it was a second trip we made in Ecuador, to the Amazon, that gave me a greater sense of the mystery and harsh realities of existence. Most travelers go to the larger Amazon regions of Peru or Brazil, but the smaller, less-traveled Ecuador region is home to an astounding diversity of wildlife and nine indigenous tribes, some who still live in isolation. I booked us into Sacha Lodge, a 5,000-acre nature reserve, thinking only that this would be a nice bonus, a second trip.

From Quito, we flew to the rustic town of Coco where we took a motorboat down the wide Napo River. Immediately, we saw the skill it took to live here. The boatman read the river like a map and weaved back and forth to avoid sandbars invisible to our eyes. When the rain began, as it inevitably does, a young man walked without hesitation along the thin edge of the speeding boat from front to back to get out the raincoats we’d need.

We also saw how easily this ecosystem could be ruined. The area is not only rich in wildlife, it is rich in oil desired by the United States, China, and others. Along the banks, we saw the flames from an oil refinery and on the river, trucks floating on rafts. Our guide, Daniel, talked about the tension in the country between those who want to preserve the region and those who want to profit from it. Later, we saw another example of that tension when we visited the famous parrot licks just outside of Yusuni National Park. The green parrots come each morning to eat the nutrients found in the cliff of red clay to help their digestive system. We sat in a boat at the required distance while park rangers circled us. They come because if they don’t poachers take advantage of the bird’s breakfast time to grab as many parrots as they can to sell.

Boots on for Jungle Exploration

At the lodge, we were issued Wellington boots for our forest hikes and for canoe rides through the small creeks. The boots became our most essential piece of clothing. Not only did they keep our feet dry, but also safe from any snakes and army ants we might step on. I wondered if anyone else saw the irony of wearing rubber boots in the Amazon where the demand for rubber in the last century led to an earlier period of exploitation.

rubber boots

Guests were quickly divided into groups. The Ecuadorian Amazon is home to about 1,600 species of birds, hundreds unique to the Amazon, so birders formed they largest group. Their members were out earlier each morning and up later in the evening sitting around in circles checking the names of birds off their lists. One day on a tower built around an ancient Kapok tree, my daughter and I were admiring the view above the canopy when one birder called out a bird’s name from one platform and another ran to catch the sighting, pushing my daughter aside on a narrow wooden walkway. With a 135-foot drop below her, my daughter found it hard to believe the woman had been so careless. Later, another visitor, not a birder, took a photograph of a rare species. The birders circled him to see his shot and one wondered aloud if she could now check it off her list.


“Shoot me,” I said to my daughter, “if I ever become a birder.”


There were others at the lodge who paid extra for private guides, but my daughter and I ended up in a small group of six who just wanted to experience what they could and that was fine with us. Every day of our four days, as we walked with Daniel, he taught us more about life in the forest and my daughter took notes. About how bats hung on a post according to their rank. About the shyness of anacondas and how electric eels save their electricity for prey. About how the stinky turkey got its name by vomiting up the plants its eats so it can eat them again in a more digestible form. About how the curia bush is good for snake bites, the dragon’s blood tree’s red sap was used as an antiseptic for cuts. Daniel showed us a tree with so many slashes it was in danger of dying.  

I wondered how long it must have taken for the people of the rainforests to acquire that knowledge and how critical for their survival that knowledge must have been. And I realized how none of us would last long here without it or without those who had it.

I’d brought along The River of Doubt, a book by Candice Miller about President Theodore Roosevelt’s ill-fated journey in the Amazon region. Difficult travel was how Roosevelt coped with life’s setbacks – an admirable philosophy, I thought – but after he was forced out of politics he chose an adventure beyond his reach: an expedition in 1913 to chart an unknown Amazonian river with ill-suited leaders and inappropriate gear. The expedition was unprepared for encounters with toxic plants and insects, and with hostile indigenous groups. The men slept in the open at the mercy of snakes and termites that ate their belongings. They washed in the river at their peril risking attacks from lurking piranha and crocodile-like caimans but fearing most the small candiru fish believed at the time to be attracted to urine and capable of jumping into a man’s urethra where it got stuck causing hideous damage.

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