Things got wild this week, in the truest sense of the word.
Obviously, the weekdays were spent in Quito as usual. A highlight included hanging out with my friends Caylee and Adrien after class on Thursday. We ran a few errands, got to see Adrien’s apartment (it was the first apartment other than my own that I’ve been in the entire time I’ve been here!), and went to dinner with two new Ecuadorian friends. The dinner location was an awesome find: it was essentially a bunch of food trucks parked in a nice covered area with very trendy vibes, cool lighting, and a killer music playlist. We got amazing burgers from Inca Burger and it was so fun to hang at this place. Definitely had a downtown Grand Rapids feel- honestly someone could’ve told me I was there and I would’ve believed it.
On Friday morning, we began our journey into the Amazon Rainforest. The trip began when I left my house at 4:50am and ended around 3:30pm. I have never been so off the grid in my entire life: we rode one hour on a bus to the airport, took a 30 minute plane ride to the city of Coca, took a 2 hour boat ride down Rio Napo into a security checkpoint for the petroleum industry and protected indigenous land, took a 2 hour chiva ride (just to clarify- chivas outside of Quito are open air wooden buses), and finally took a 2-3 hour boat ride down Rio Tiputini before we arrived at our final destination.
We stayed at Tiputini Biodiversity Research Center, which is a research site associated with Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Upon arriving, we were told that this was not a hotel- it was a serious place for researchers and learners. It was pretty hardcore. We were told that if we were falling in the forest, we should absolutely not grab onto anything- any tree or plant could be poisonous and harm us. We were also told not to disturb the investigadores, or the 15ish researchers who were living at the site. This may have turned into a joke, because we started calling them The Investigators (not a good translation job from Spanish to English on our part) and secretly believe that they all may have hated us. We had 6 hours of electricity a day- 3 in the afternoon and 3 at night, and no Wifi. Honestly though, I truly believe that we thrived in this environment. It was wonderful to not have to worry about my email or social media for the weekend.
We got to sleep in screened-in cabanas and ate delicious meals at the comedor, which was the dining hall about a five minute hike through the rainforest from our cabanas. One night we had garlic bread, which has been the food I’ve missed the most, and I may have shed a tear of joy.
What was truly incredible was the rainforest itself. Tiputini is virtually built into the natural landscape of the area and strives to be as camouflage as possible. You can sense the deep connection with nature upon arriving. One afternoon there were even monkeys jumping in the trees above our cabanas!
We were put into three groups and given hiking guides for the weekend. My guide was named Santiago and he was the kindest man I’ve ever met. He was soft spoken but hilarious, and he thought we were all so funny. Anytime I could make Santiago laugh during our hikes felt like the biggest confidence booster. He had the eyes of a hawk- Santiago could spot the smallest insects that blended right in with the surrounding trees and leaves. He was also very gracious to me after I almost pulled him into a muddy river with me as I almost fell off a tree trunk crossing during one of the hikes. Gracias Santiago.
We took four hikes total: a longer hike, a hike to a laguna + canoe ride, a hike up to a large lookout tower, and the notorious night hike.
Each one was unique and fun in its own way. We saw so many animals: macaws, toucans, two different types of monkeys, banana spiders (v deadly AND they jump!), scorpion spiders, giant grasshoppers, giant ants, cicadas, cucarachas, a tortoise, frogs, millipedes, and the list goes on. We also got to look at different plants: we ate the leaves of ajo de la moñtana (mountain garlic), used fruit to give ourselves temporary tattoos, and hugged a natural tree that is always cold in contrast to the humid rainforest (the indigenous use it as a source of energy). Only regret is that we didn’t get to see the elusive jaguar.
Of the flora and fauna we witnessed, I have three main highlights. 1) Eating ants. I know it sounds insane, but these ants taste like lemons and the indigenous populations use them to combat thirst. We virtually just licked our fingers and then stuck them to a tree before popping a few of the ants into our mouths. They were so good I ended up having seconds. It was awesome. 2) SEEING PINK DOLPHINS! Dolphins are my favorite animal and I have been dreaming of this since the Amazon unit in like 2nd grade. Pink dolphins only live in the Amazon region and we got to see some right next to our boat on one of our canoe rides. I can’t even explain the joy I felt- it was absolutely surreal. 3) Seeing a poison dart frog. I can thank my brother Jacob for this one. After he went through a frog-love phase for over 10 years of his life, it rubbed off on me. Finding a poison dart frog in the wild was awesome, and I gave a little shoutout to my brother as I watched it sit on a leaf.
The night hike was also noteworthy. Armed with our flashlights and bug spray, we were ready to take on the Amazon after dark. We were in for a quick wakeup call: literally not even 6 steps into the hike we were attacked by a giant, extremely loud, flying cicada. We were all screaming as Santiago stood to the side cracking up. I was a little shook after that, but it was the perfect amount of scary and fun to be in the rainforest. We saw some extremely large insects (like a grasshopper as big as my head, ants that can kill with one bite, and the notorious banana spider, which I don’t even want to think about right now). I walked in the back with my amigos Frank and Antonio, where they kept me on my toes by using leaves to brush against me, and I messed with them by telling them I saw animals that I absolutely did not come even close to seeing (example: “Oh my gosh! I see a family of monkeys sleeping over there!”). It helped keep things light in the dark forest. At one point, Santiago made us turn off our flashlights for a few minutes and just listen to the sounds of the rainforest. It was incredible- so many insects and animals out there living life and making noises, and we got to witness that.
My other favorite moment of the trip was getting to float down Rio Tiputini. Our hiking guides took us out in a boat about 20 minutes down the river, and then we all put on life jackets, jumped in, and got to float all the way back to the Tiputini Research Center. The current was so strong that we didn’t even have to do anything besides sit there. It was a bit of a thrill, because piranhas and other scary fish live in the river (and I may have watched too many episodes of River Monsters with my dad and brother). It is absolutely forbidden to pee in this river, because there is a microscopic fish that will use this as an entrance to the body, which added a little scare factor. However, the really dangerous fish don’t hang out where there are currents, and it was safe and totally fun (so don’t worry Mom!).
We had a blast in that river: Juan Carlos tried to lead us in a group game, Frank kept pretending that he was a pink dolphin, Caylee and I tried to rap, Antonio kept brushing people with a piece of algae, the entire group made a train at one point, and Adrien got lots of laughs with some insane accents, to name a few of the float-trip incidents. All in all, such a fun time and so amazing to be a part of the river as it took its course.
One more notable thing was how much I loved sleeping at Tiputini. We were alone in the middle of the rainforest without electricity, so it was pitch black, especially the nights when it was raining. This darkness is so ideal for my sleep that I actually think I fell asleep smiling every night. It was also wonderful to listen to the sounds of all of the frogs and insects or the sound of the rain on some nights. It brought back memories of childhood camping trips. Honestly, the best, most peaceful sleep I’ve gotten since I’ve been in Ecuador.
The Amazon was one of the coolest experiences of my life. I will never forget the things I saw and the amazing feeling of being so far from “civilization.” I learned so much and it was reinstated in my mind how important of us to take care of the planet we live on. Creation is a beautiful thing, and living for a few days in the most biodiverse place on earth reinforced that a thousand times in my mind. We have one earth- one beautiful and unique and diverse earth- and we as humans have a duty to care for it.
Thank you, Tiputini, for these beautiful lessons and reminders, and for the joy of being in nature.