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Under The Emerald Canopy
Exploring Ecuador’s Amazon

Heliconia flower, Ecuador Amazon - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyAs the plane rolls to a stop on the small airstrip, the door swings open and steaming heat blasts through the opening. Outside, a complex perfume of lush growth, ripe fruit, and moist decay saturates the hothouse air. It’s an odor we will grow accustomed to. This is the bouquet of the Amazon.

A five minute jeep ride brings us to the banks of the broad Rio Napo, Ecuador’s largest river, where we board a long wooden boat for the three-hour journey downstream.

The captain steers around shallow sandbars and snags that could capsize the narrow craft in mid-river. As the miles flow past, chatter fades and passengers stare at the hypnotic tangle of towering trees, vines, and bamboo that form a living wall above the riverbank.

I’m with a group traveling to La Selva Jungle Lodge, a remote station deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest. The region covers half the country, starting at the base of the Andes and spilling eastward into Peru. Unscathed by oil rigs or chainsaws, it remains one of the world’s pristine tropical forests.

Stopping at a weathered dock, we take an easy twenty-minute walk through rainforest to Garzacocha Lake. A peaceful paddle in dugout canoes brings us to the lodge on the far shore, situated on a hill overlooking the water. Small bungalows sit in a grassy clearing, connected by raised boardwalks to the lodge and open-air dining hall. The jungle lies beyond.

Thirty of us, mostly Americans with a few Europeans, will call this secluded setting home for the next five days. I meet my guide, Holger, a native of the area. It will soon become painfully clear just how essential a good guide can be to survival here.

The lodge area rings with the calls of creatures seen and hidden. Screaming piha birds shriek like sirens. Overhead a howler monkey roars, and another answers. Frogs bellow and bark. The electric hum of insect life charges the air.

After lunch six of us leave the groomed lodge grounds and step into virgin forest. Within 30 seconds the jungle swallows us in the murky half-light of a primeval world. Immense ceiba and banyan trees rise toward a milky sky. Fallen giants litter the forest floor, their decaying trunks host to colorful mushrooms and fungi. Luminous blue morpho butterflies bigger than my hand flutter slowly through the dusky light.

Holger stops suddenly. Kneeling, he picks up a tiny blue frog and displays its patterned underbelly. “Poison dart frog,” he tells us. Local tribes use a potent secretion from its skin on the tip of their blowgun darts to bring down monkeys from the trees for food.

Walking the woods with Holger opens a secret world. He entices dozens of bird species into view by imitating their calls. Spotting jaguar and ocelot tracks, Holger describes each cat’s size and how recently it crossed our trail. Moving with the grace of a deer, he is clearly at home here.

Stopping at a tree, he snaps open a branch, exposing dozens of tiny insects. “Lemon ants, taste one.” I pop several of the squirming bugs into my mouth and chew. Unmistakably lemon. The ants make their home only in hollow chambers of this particular tree. In return, they clear the area around the tree of competing plants, and attack any creature that tries to feed on the leaves.

We return at midday for a lunch of grilled fish, fresh vegetables, and tropical fruit. Afterward a group walks to the nearby butterfly farm to photograph the winged beauties. Several couples head to their bungalows for a siesta. I decide to swim with the piranhas.

Amazonian river fish, Rio Napo, Ecuador - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyJoining a few daring souls on the dock, we listen as Gus, one of the guides, insists that we’ll be safe. “They won’t attack unless you’re bleeding,” he tells us. “None of our guests has ever been bitten.”

Despite lurid visions of tiny, dagger-like teeth ripping my flesh, I ease into the murky green water. Nothing nibbles me, but after a minute of nervous dog-paddling, the thought of gaping razorblade mouths is too much. I hoist myself back onto dry land where at least I can see what’s biting me.

In the morning we get a bird’s-eye view of the forest canopy. A forty-five minute trail from the lodge leads to an observation tower, where a broad platform sits 135 feet high atop a massive kapok tree. A sturdy staircase winds around the trunk, climbing through various layers of rainforest and finally emerging at the top into a silvery sky.

An undulating sea of treetops, vines, and flowers stretches uninterrupted in every direction. A troop of capuchin monkeys crashes through the canopy. Golden tanangers and blue parakeets flash like jewels among the leaves. A tiny green tree frog falls onto the platform from a nearby branch and poses for photos.

That evening after dinner we climb into canoes and paddle the lake in search of caiman, South American crocodiles. Armed with a powerful searchlight, we scan the surface for pairs of glinting red eyes. Large bats swoop through the beam, snatching insects attracted to the light. Several times we spot bright crimson dots staring at us, but as we approach they sink into the lake.

The last day our small team sets out at dawn, and by mid-morning we are far from the lodge. We’re learning to look beyond the animals and discover the rooted residents of the jungle. Mushrooms spring up in plump bursts of purple and orange. Tiny forests of fleshy fungi cling to decaying logs. Translucent jelly mushrooms glisten in the gloom.

Stopping to photograph a column of leaf cutter ants, I tell the crew not to wait. They disappear around a bend and I’m alone for the first time. The forest here is silent. I flop down and watch the ants hauling leaf scraps like tiny green sails across the earth.

Something crawls across my neck and I jump up, cursing and slapping at my head. The ants have mistaken me for a log and are streaming over my shoulder. Shuddering, I brush them away and jog off to catch the others.

Amazon rainforest along Rio Napo, Ecuador - © Eric Lindberg PhotographyThe trail forks and I hurry down the heavily trampled right side. It quickly narrows, crowded on each side by dense green jungle. Ten minutes later, heart racing and drenched in sweat, I blunder into a sticky spider web strung across the trail. Clearly no one has walked this way recently. Panic creeps in. I am lost.

Fighting the urge to run, I search in vain for familiar landmarks. Thick vines dangle like hungry snakes. Hulking trees cast menacing shadows where crouched animals could lie waiting. I remember the leopard tracks, and despite the heat I shiver.

Head bent to the ground, I search grimly for my footprints when a movement flickers through the brush ahead. Holger has followed my tracks and is approaching. Relieved but humbled, I follow him back to the group and vow to stay close.

From my bed that night I listen to the swelling jungle chorus: crackling cicadas, hooting frogs, urgent cries in the dark. Large moths thump against the flickering kerosene lantern. The morning’s mishap has faded into memory, and once again the rainforest buzzes with life. But it’s clear I am not a part of it. I am only passing through.