It’s not easy to get to the Yasuní National Park in northeastern Ecuador. Usually it takes ~8 hours to drive from Quito to Pompeya, take a water taxi across the Napo River, and drive the final hour and a half down a mostly unpaved road to the Estación Científica Yasuní. There are times though, like during my recent visit, where this trip takes two days. Three routes link Ecuador’s capital city with one of the world’s most diverse natural treasures. When I was traveling to the Yasuní, two of the three were closed due to landslides, causing our long detour. Just a few days after my arrival there, all three routes would be blocked, leaving air travel as the only way to get from one to the other.
While my trip was long and tiring, it seemed appropriate. Shouldn’t the jungle that is the most biologically diverse place on our planet and the home of several untouched tribes be a challenge to access? Isn’t its remoteness why it is still as rich in resources as it is, for now?
Tourism has been a reality in parts of the Yasuní for years, but that is not the area that I was going to. The road we traveled on was cut through undeveloped forest in the 1990’s. While it’s primarily an active oilfield road (a complicated topic for another day), it also links a small number of Waorani villages and provides access to a few research stations, including where we stayed. The other travelers that I met were an international mix of researchers either working with the Waorani communities or on biological studies in the jungle.
I was traveling with Megan Westervelt, a fellow photographer that I met in 2008 at the beginning of her photographic journey. Since then she has blossomed as a photographer and fallen in love with Ecuadorian culture. Last year she earned a Fulbright Grant to investigate conservation efforts in the Yasuní. As she spent more time in the area her focus shifted toward the people that she met living there. Her current project, and the reason for my visit, involves teaching interested Waorani communities photography so that they can tell their stories, and preserve their heritage, while modernization works its quick magic on their culture right before their eyes. My experience with this project will be featured in an upcoming post. For now, the jungle.
There’s nothing like the sounds of a tropical rainforest. By day the air is filled with insect- and birdsong. Night sweeps in, and a crescendo is reached as the symphony of insects and frogs take center stage. I could have laid in a hammock and soaked up those sounds for days.
Even though I was there to work on a specific project, I was able to make it out into the jungle on a few outings. Early one morning I met a local Waorani guide, Gabo, to hike up to an observation tower to watch the sunrise. The world was dark and quiet as we ascended God-only-knows how many rungs up a metal ladder to the top of the canopy. There we waited, and the jungle, like clockwork, came alive. Gabo named off the bird, sapo and monkey calls as they chimed in. Being an active hunter for his family (with a blowgun for monkeys and a lance for larger animals), Gabo began to call the monkeys, to which they immediately responded. So when he asked if I wanted to go looking for them, of course I said yes. Within minutes we were bushwhacking through the jungle. It didn’t take long for him to come to a tree where nocturnal monkeys were asleep at the top, and which he woke up to make sure I’d seen them. We had to look a little more for the others. Something would cause Gabo to stop, listen, and sometimes make a call, before deciding which direction to walk. Before we made it back to the main road, we had found three different species of monkeys. Our last stop was under a tree where hundreds of squirrel monkeys scurried overhead.
A few days later, a small group of us went out for a day on the Tiputini River. Any visit to this area of Ecuador should be seen from a boat. And there’s no substitute for having the expert eyes of locals on board with you. I still have no idea how Nonge and German saw some of what they spotted during our trip on the river. The biggest surprise was the well-hidden sleeping green anaconda that German spotted as we were speeding upriver. In order to get a good look, we tied our very long and narrow boat to a tree upriver and drifted back. Nonge, in the back, held on to the limb the snake was coiled around. I had lean out of the boat a bit on the opposite side because we were too close for my lens to focus. Needless to say, this was much closer than I’d ever expected to be near one of these large snakes in the wild! Watching it gracefully wrapped around the tree limb naturally birthed questions about where the head was. In response, Nonge began to shake the limb and splash water on the snake to try to give us an answer. As much as I would have loved to have seen the face of that snake, I was relieved that it kept sleeping. The torrential rains that came every day unleashed on us as we made our final stretch back to the research station.
Being that close to one of the world’s longest snakes, hearing stories about researchers being struck by vipers and swarmed by insects while sampling, and seeing an hours-old jaguar print the size of a man’s hand as we walked through the dense forest, were just some of the reminders of how dangerous tropical rainforests can be. Thankfully just like any other wild place, for those willing to venture out into them, the beauty of it all is powerful enough to transform any fear into a deep, raw, and intoxicating respect.