In a sudden decision we kissed off our budget and headed straight to the Native Life tour offices. A moment later, we walked out with a new lease on life.
Two days later we stood in a thatched hut on the cusp of the Cuyabeno Faunistic Reserve. Our guide, Lincoln, stood before an enlarged map of the Reserve, tracing our itinerary for the next five days. Rubber boots and rain ponchos were handed out while we munched on ham-and-white-bread sandwiches. A short distance down the trail our 60-foot dugout bobbed, orange life jackets flashing in the jungle sun. As Lincoln introduced our cook and motorist, Nancy and I exchanged a look. We were a long way from the Bolivian jungle — this was actually organized.
Our crew embarked and we began a four-hour trip up the Aguarico River. The river here was wide, and small huts dotted openings in the curtain of trees. These were the homes of Quechua settlers drawn by government promises of free land. Unlike the coast, however, the jungle soil is thin and growing crops challenging. Most families subsist on bananas, potatoes, and fish; occasionally they travel five hours to the nearby town of Lago Agrio to barter coffee beans for hardware.
Eventually we reached a small settlement where we beached the boat to pick up our native guide. Groups of palm-roofed buildings stretched across the plain. In front of one, a group of young school children stood with an Ecuadorean soldier. He was teaching them how to salute the flag.
A small boy of indeterminate age and slender build walked through the clearing toward our boat. Lincoln introduced him as Dario, our native guide. Although tour groups aren't required to hire a native guide, most do, feeling the cross-cultural exchange enables natives to understand the value in maintaining their habitat as well as providing income and motivation for young people to learn the ways of the jungle.
With Dario aboard, we turned off the Aguarico and headed up the Cuyabeno — our home for the next two nights. In contrast to the Aguarico which flows from the Andes, the Cuyabeno is a narrow "black water" river originating in the jungle itself. Towering Cieba trees and twisting vines form tight ranks along the rivers edge. The murky waters bend and twist through narrow openings; screeching golden macaws and the tell-tale silhouettes of toucans arch across the water. A thousand noises erupt from the hidden depths beyond the bank. This is the jungle.
In the early morning I cajole the others out from under their mesh canopies. We board the dugout in the mists of morning and set off down river. As sun breaks through the canopy, the air fills with the cacophony of the jungle stirring to life. The rippling calls of the aeropendula sound out like golden waterfalls, snowy egrets beat the air with their expansive wings, howler monkeys claim the day's hunting grounds by filling the world with primordial screeching. Eyes closed, we drift with the current.
Later in the day we fish for piranha by dangling chopped meat off the end of cut branches. Some of the mystique is lost when Lincoln goes diving among the ravenous beasts to free a snagged line.
"Piranhas are primarily vegetarians," he explains. The dangers of the water are better represented by electric eels, sting rays, caiman, and other mysterious beasts that lurk in the muddy river bottom.
"Last month a tourist died while swimming. No one is sure what happened. Perhaps an eel got him."
I try in vain to peer through the opaque surface of the river. I'll never again swim without my heart in my throat.
We wind up our stay with a jungle trek. After motoring an hour up river, we disembark and begin a meandering trek designed to take us back into camp. Three hours later we are undoubtedly lost. Despite Dario's assurances, no one believes he has any clue to our whereabouts. The novelty of the changing jungle has been lost and we curse as we wiggle our way through stands of spiky palm. A thinning of trees ahead hints at an exit and we excitedly press onward. We are back at the river — 500 meters above where we started.
Lincoln pulls off his boots, explaining that he will swim back to camp to summon a boat. He casually invites anyone to join him, but his description of the murky depths is too fresh in my mind. Undaunted, he dives in and soon swims out of sight. An embarrassed Dario darts back into the jungle determined to be the first to summon salvation. Our group reclines on the muddy bank as the jungle sounds close in. Perhaps Bolivia is not so far away after all.