By Tim Johnson
November 4, 2011
It was my first night in the Amazon, and I was looking for just a bit of reassurance—something that I wasn’t exactly getting from my guide, Andreas. So, the mosquitoes in this area of the rainforest, do they carry malaria? “Not really,” said Andreas, his facial expression difficult to read in the long gloaming of a jungle twilight. Ok, well then, those caiman and piranhas and electric eels that live beneath the black waters of the lagoon, do they ever bother the people who use the swimming platform I saw over there? “Not really,” he said again, this time explaining that here at Sacha Lodge, their only possible bite was probably just a combination of a brush with a sharp twig and an overreaction on the part of the wounded.” With his white WWF panda shirt and curly locks pulled into a pony tail, Andreas looked straight out of central casting for nature guides. As the nocturnal sounds of the rainforest came up all around us, Andreas continued in his Spanish-accented English, “People have this idea when they come to the jungle—they think that there will be piranhas biting their toes, malaria bugs all over them, snakes falling from the trees. It’s not like that.”
But as it turns out, that statement is only partially true. In actuality my time in Ecuador, one of the most bio-diverse nations on earth, yielded an amazing number of close encounters with wildlife—including snakes, piranhas, caiman, tortoises, sharks, and blue-footed boobies. The numbers are impressive—Ecuador is home to 46 different ecosystems containing more than 1,600 types of birds, almost 500 species of amphibian (50 percent more than in all of the United States), 4,500 types of butterfly and 25,000 plant species (10 percent of the world’s total). With more than half the country covered in rainforest and the storied Galapagos Islands in its possession, Ecuador is close to a fantasyland for nature lovers.
It was in the Galapagos that my adventure began, sailing for eight days aboard the M/Y Grace, a ship that has seen more than its own fair share of adventures. After chasing U-boats and rescuing soldiers at Dunkirk during the Second World War, the Grace (then known as the Rion) was purchased by Aristotle Onassis and given as a wedding gift to Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, who used it to cruise along the shores of Corsica and Sardinia on their honeymoon. The ship has been upgraded in various ways since then. Now owned by a small Ecuadorian company called Quasar Expeditions (which owns and operates two small ships in the Galapagos, the Grace and the M/V Evolution, and is represented in North America by California-based AdventureSmith Explorations); the Grace sails exclusively on eight-day Galapagos itineraries out of the island of San Christobal.
Staffed by a crew of eight (which, on our voyage, included an excellent chef and a very diligent bartender), life aboard the Grace was comfortable for our group of 16, which was comprised mostly of American couples representing a range of ages, but also a young honeymooning couplefrom Switzerland and a solo traveler from Chile. While she has declined a bit since the days of royal honeymoons (room décor, for example, could use some updating from the current wood-grain motif), the ship has retained some elegant elements from her luxurious past. Stateroom size was larger than expected, with large, comfortable beds, plenty of storage space—including full-size armoires— and relatively roomy bathrooms. While entertainment options are few (the four premium staterooms and five stateroom suites do not contain a television or any other similar diversions), the small size of the vessel—and limited number of guests—was conducive to conversation, especially in the hot tub on the main deck, a more recent addition. And three well-appointed, open-air lounge areas provided ample opportunities for indulging in a relaxing break—the cushy couches on the second deck were a favorite for afternoon naps, and the small sun area on the top deck proved to be a preferred spot for stargazing.
But those opportunities for relaxation were often few and far between. At our first nightly briefing, Jorge, our naturalist guide, a deeply tanned, Galapagosborn Ecuadorian who tags sharks in his spare time, warned of the early-morning wakeup calls that awaited us. “You don’t come to the Galapagos for a relaxing vacation,” he said, shattering any illusions of long, sunny afternoons of snoozing on a deck chair. “Get ready for some busy days.”
He wasn’t kidding. Arising in the cool of the morning, our group of 16 boarded Zodiacs—known here as “pangas”—and cruised each day to a different, new and exciting encounter with wildlife. In each case, one stunning reality remained true: these animals, it seemed, couldn’t care less about our presence, an outgrowth of being fortunate enough to have few natural predators and limited contact with humans. An astounding 97 percent of the flora on the Galapagos is unique, and a number of the animal species here are found nowhere else in the world, having (in one theory) floated across then slowly changed to suit their local environment in a great example of the evolutionary adaptation Darwin himself famously observed when he visited these islands aboard the Beagle.
Every day, it seemed, a new natural wonder was revealed. On Genovesa Island, home to more than one million birds, we observed red-footed and naska boobies, frigate birds with their blood-red pouches puffed out in order to attract mates, swarms of storm petrels circling above. On Fernandina, a barren island black with volcanic rock, we visited “Iguana City,” where thousands of marine iguanas—a species found nowhere else—warm their cold blood by piling on top of one another, and swim in the ocean to gather seaweed. On Santa Cruz and Isabela, we observed tropical penguins and the famous Galapagos giant tortoises, while along the shores of Bartolomé, an island which resembles the surface of the moon, we swam with nine-foot, white tipped reef sharks—Jorge going so far as to dive down within inches of the gray monsters to photograph them, causing them to hurriedly swim away. And on Espanola, we watched as blue-footed boobies danced a mating dance for one another. “Isn’t it amazing? Nature is perfect,” said Jorge, flashing his winsome, toothy smile.
But my adventures extended past the islands. After a short stay in Quito, I headed to Sacha Lodge, a remote place set on a black lagoon deep in the Amazon basin. Upon arrival I met Andreas, who recounted legendary stories of early conquistadors disappearing into these jungles, as well as a present-day tribe further upstream (the Huaoronis) that has managed to avoid almost all contact with the outside world. Covering more than half the country but with less than five percent of its population, it’s not difficult to understand how this land of dense, untamed vegetation and close humidity has been able to keep its secrets.
And while it lacks much in the way of human life, the Ecuadorian Amazon abounds in a vast array of fascinating animals. After settling into my thatch-roofed hut, complete with hammock, dry box (to keep electronics from breaking in the extreme moistness) and screened windows, designed to let in the sounds of the forest, we took a nighttime canoe ride on the lagoon. Searching with a high-powered flashlight for the red eyes of caimans, we locked on to one near the weeds and brush at the side, paddling over to a giant nine-foot specimen, whose head rested silently, partially submerged just inches from the side of the boat. After a couple of thrilling moments of observation, the beast slowly sunk beneath the surface and swam away.
This encounter set the pace for the days that followed. All around, squirrel monkeys played and swung from vine to vine, while daytime hikes to Sacha’s giant observation tower (built around a huge Kapok tree) and a soaring canopy walk revealed toucans, flycatchers, hummingbirds and colorful butterflies. We fished for (and caught) piranha with bamboo poles in the lagoon and adjacent stream, and took night walks through the jungle that revealed a surfeit of creepy crawlies, from grasshoppers the size of small mice to a vast array of spiders and even a lime-green, non-poisonous snake. And while we didn’t see any, Andreas, who turned out to be an excellent guide, told me that out there, somewhere, anacondas as long as 25-feet slithered through the water and thick undergrowth. As I sat in the canoe, crossing the lagoon to begin the journey back to Coco, then Quito, then Canada, I reflected on my time in Ecuador. No, snakes did not fall from overhead nor did piranhas nibble my toes, but these two weeks contained more up-close experiences with amazing wildlife than most people will experience in a lifetime.