Visiting the Amazon is something I’ve been dreaming of since I took Portuguese language classes and learned all about Brazil in college. As the majority of the Amazon lies in Brazil, I always imagined that’s where I’d go to swim with pink river dolphins, watch monkeys jump from tree to tree, and escape attacking piranhas. I had this image of what I believed the Amazon to be and what I would gain from being able to experience it. Little did I know then that it is even more incredible than I would have dreamed of but in turn, it would also leave me helpless and angry.
Although I always thought I’d visit the Brazilian Amazon, Dan and I decided to go from the Ecuador side due to timing and accessibility. In order to access the deepest parts of the rainforest (at least in Ecuador) you need to book a tour and stay in a lodge. We researched many, many different lodges in order to find the one that would be right for us. Dan and I were very concerned about staying in a lodge that wasn’t eco-friendly and was very commercialized. Therefore, after our research we came to the conclusion that Shiripuno Lodge in Yasuni National Park would be the best choice for us. We booked it through Jungal Tour as we had such a great experience with this company booking our Galapagos cruise.
Our room was behind the yellow hammock.
We choose Shiripuno and Yasuni National Park over many lodges in Cuyabeno National Park for various reasons. First and most importantly, Shiripuno is the deepest rainforest lodge in Ecuador. It required us to take a 7 hour bus ride from Baños to Coca (the absolute bus ride from hell I might mention), a 2 hour taxi ride from Coca, and then a 4 hour motorized canoe ride down the Shiripuno River. Being so far from civilization, this lodge was serene, not commercial, doesn’t attract as many tourists, and easily blends in with the environment surrounding it (not harmful). Second, we wanted to visit Yasuni because it is the most diverse area that has been studied IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. It has the largest amount of plants, animals, and insects of anywhere on this planet. We paid a little more to visit this lodge but we figured, why would we choose anything else?
View from our 4 hour canoe ride.
We stayed for 3 nights at Shiripuno and felt like this was the perfect amount of time. The rainforest is exactly what you’d expect in the way that it’s extremely hot and humid, full of huge insects (see cover photo), muddy, loud (you’d be surprised how much noise comes out of these animals!) and there’s no real way to take a proper shower (the water for the shower and toilets comes from the brown river) so we smelled like a sweaty foot for 4 days. Despite the basic accommodations, they were clean, comfortable, and the food was surprisingly amazing for being in such a remote location. We were accompanied by an English speaking guide also named Dan who is originally from England, and has been giving tours in the Amazon for 10 years. He was extremely knowledgeable about everything even remotely related to the Amazon, plants, animals, and Ecuador in general. We also had local Huaorani guides who are native to Yasuni.
Our time at Shiripuno was spent going on 5-6 hour hikes through the rainforest during the day looking for animals, plants, insects, whatever interesting things we could find and Dan explaining what they were, what their habits are, etc. After dark we took a hike (which brings about a whole new set of sounds and creatures) and took a canoe ride looking for caiman and other nocturnal aquatic creatures. It was hard to capture pictures many of the animals (even though Dan did a fantastic job with our camera) because they are very evasive and would move away from us very quickly. We did get to see beautiful blue/gold and scarlet macaws, many other types of birds, big blue butterflies, frogs, snakes, wooly and spider monkeys, caiman, turtles, scorpions, preying mantis, and as I mentioned HUGE insects such as spiders, crickets, centipedes (the stuff nightmares are made of).
Reptiles and amphibians.
It seemed like every step we took in the jungle, there was something new to explore, learn about or admire. Even the trees, plants, and seeds that we found were breathtaking, interesting, and all had their own story of why they are important to the rainforest. I can’t even remember everything we saw or learned about because there was so much.
Besides finding plants, animals and understanding more about them, Dan our guide also went into deep explanations of the complex political and environmental situation. The majority of people know that the rainforest is diminishing and being sacrificed to corporations, farming, cities, roads, etc. but I didn’t originally understand to what degree. I ignorantly figured that everyone cared about this problem and the government was doing what they could to protect the environment. I also unknowingly figured that Ecuador would definitely protect their rainforest since they put so much time and effort conserving the Galapagos. It’s tragically quite the opposite for Yasuni National Park.
Foreign oil companies came to the Ecuadorian rainforest in the 1980’s and drew some of the native tribes out making unfair deals with them to sell their land including the Huaorani (there are currently still 2 tribes that have not been contacted living in Yasuni but that’s another story). Today, these oil companies are Ecuadorian and are sold the land by guess who? THE GOVERNMENT. The oil companies are sold land and blatantly given permission to enter the rainforest and install hideous pipes, drill, and build roads which completely destroy the eco-system. This pushes the animals and native tribes into difficult and dire situations into smaller areas and deeper into the rainforest.
It was shocking for me to see how close SO many people live to the rainforest, how deep the roads go, and even worse, all of the oil wells and pipes sticking out everywhere. It’s truly heartbreaking especially after seeing how unique, diverse, and special a place Yasuni is. I have almost never felt so helpless and defeated. How can I stop this?
Behold the hideousness.
Dan and I brought this question to our guide. How can we help? What can we do? Can we buy land to preserve it? Drive less? Bomb the oil companies?! His answer: visit lodges such as Shiripuno and encourage your friends and family to visit. This seemed counter productive to me as I always believed that tourism can deeply impact an eco-system negatively. However as he explained, tourism is the lesser of all the evils. First, not only does it promote understanding and awareness, but the more money the rainforest drives in from tourism, the more the government will try to protect it. For example, the Galapagos would not be what it is today if it wasn’t such a popular destination for foreigners to visit. It brings in so much money that it is very well protected. Second, tourism in the rainforest gives the locals a more sustainable job so they do not have to work for the oil companies.
My closing thoughts on our visit to the rainforest are complicated. On one hand, I feel so glad that Dan and I were able to experience such an incredible place and see the animals currently living in their natural environment. We absolutely enjoyed our time there. On the other hand, it was painful to see firsthand what is happening and I left the rainforest disturbed.
Although it would be nice to live in peaceful ignorance, I’ve realized that this ignorance is what makes us as a society careless and wasteful. I honestly had no idea how many daily products that I use are made from oil and I’m sure most other people don’t either. Since we don’t know, we can’t care. I want to be mad at the oil companies and place all the blame on them, and I do for drilling in the Amazon specifically. But at the same time, they are fueling our society’s demands. I now see that we are all part of the problem and it makes me feel sick. So now that I have this knowledge, it’s going to be impossible to ignore. I’m left with the conflict of what else can I personally do (besides continuously visiting) to help save the one and only Amazon?