If I close my eyes, I can still feel the warm, tropical breeze blowing across my face as our cigar-shaped motorboat purrs down the brownish, silt-laden Cuyabeno River, heading for the remote Siona Lodge in Ecuador's Amazon region. Our two-hour boat ride into the heart of the 2,300 square-mile Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve exposes our small group of adventurers to the wonders of a tropical rainforest: brilliant blue, iridescent morpho butterflies flash across the open space ahead of us; monkeys dart effortlessly through the branches of an overhanging tree; a toucan calls noisily as it flies from one towering treetop to another. We are spellbound. Can this be real?
I was fortunate to share this four-day trip, arranged weekly by the lodge, with just five other Americans and Europeans. Frankly, I didn't know what to expect, but I figured that a trip involving Amazon-style tropical plants, exotic creatures and river-based travel should be a fun adventure, but it proved to be an experience of a lifetime.
Let me back up a step and explain how I got there. From my home base in Quito, Ecuador, I took a 50-minute flight to Lago Agrio, a forgettable little town named for the bitter waters produced by its surrounding oil industry. The next morning our group piled into a Siona Lodge van that careened down a curving, bumpy road for two hours through a landscape once teeming with jungle and wildlife, now cleared and converted to homesteads by poor farmers who didn't realize that nutrient-poor rainforest soil produces meager crops.
Eventually we arrived at a ramshackle restaurant across from the Cuyabeno Reserve headquarters, adjacent to the river's entry point where a procession of motorboats transported visitors to and from the reserve's five lodges. While others enjoyed ice-cold beers or fast-melting ice cream, my new photo buddy, Kyle from Manhattan, and I excitedly photographed a pair of the world's most beautiful, day-flying Uranus moths, languidly sipping minerals from the mud and showing off their large, jet-black wings embossed with iridescent green and blue stripes.
Anxious to experience whatever adventures awaited us, we headed down the gangplank to our slender 40-foot boat, and after we secured our gear and seated ourselves, the engine roared to life and we set forth into the great unknown.
All we knew initially was that our Siona Lodge package included a nature guide, transportation to and from the lodge, and all meals, excursions, rain gear and a private room. As we progressed through the rainforest, our eagle-eye guide, Neiser, proved to be invaluable as he spotted and explained details about otherwise invisible birds, monkeys, lizards, tree sloths and even a group of rare river dolphins. By the end of the trip, he figured we had seen all 10 species of monkeys.
As much as I delighted in seeing such spellbinding exotic creatures, I found myself mesmerized by the infinitely varied sizes, shapes, textures and colors of the tropical plants passing before my eyes. Calling the vegetation "thick and impenetrable" was an understatement.
But there was one final touch that made this scene so surreal – the sounds of the jungle. As we cruised down the river, the sound of our boat's motor was interrupted at unpredictable intervals by the sudden pulsating, shrill sounds of a hidden army of cicadas serenading their patch of the jungle in a stereophonic blast. At other times we craned our necks to follow the high-pitched chirping of toucans perched in the tallest trees.
Eventually we emerged from the confines of the river and glided across a moderately sized lake sprinkled with 20- to 40-foot high trees that appeared to float on the water's stillness. Large and small bromeliads, with striking red, curved leaves, stood out from the surrounding orchids, delicate ferns, stringy mosses and philodendrons that blanketed the branches of these semi-submerged trees. Lime green parrots screeched at us while snow-white egrets gazed indifferently as we passed by.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, hidden amid the leafy foliage, an oval, wood sign proclaimed "Siona Lodge" and our boat halted alongside a small wood dock. In the midst of an open clearing stood our lodge, with a covered, wooden walkway connecting all five duplex bungalows and a combo kitchen/dining area/sitting room. Each wood structure sported a palm frond roof that blended perfectly with the jungle's ambiance. At the farthest end of the compound sat a small hut at the edge of the lake from which we gazed at the sunset, chatted or just sat in meditative contemplation. My room, aptly named Caiman, was sparsely furnished but clean, with a double bed covered by mosquito netting and a private bathroom with hot water. The only drawback was that the high, partially open ceiling transmitted any sounds from the occupants next door.
Each day brought a new set of adventures as we set off on a sunrise bird-watching expedition, a nighttime search for caimans whose eyes glowed in the flashlight beam, two jungle hikes and a refreshing, daily sunset swim in "our" lake. The first of our two terrestrial outings involved a three-hour daytime hike in the nearby jungle; thankfully the lodge provided rubber boots which were oh-so-necessary as we slogged through stretches of foot-deep mud. Our perspicacious guide spotted tiny but colorful poison arrow frogs, medicinal plants and most striking of all, a three-foot long earthworm! "The Siona Indians use these earthworms for fishing because they are the best bait," he explained.
I eagerly awaited our night hike through the nearby trails, because my past experience told me that the phantoms of the rainforest only reveal themselves after dark. Nonetheless, I marveled at how dramatically the inky darkness had transformed the landscape into a foreboding place. Peering ahead into our headlamps' pale circle of light, we stepped cautiously over rocks and roots, making sure not to confuse the shadowy objects with vipers. Call me crazy, but I was sorry that we failed to find any snakes, though I was delighted to find a harmless but wicked-looking tailless whip scorpion (aka amblypygid), a large owl butterfly and a green, leaf-shaped katydid waving a pair of delicate, 10-inch antennae.
Our final excursion, a visit to a Siona Indian village, proved to be my favorite. Another two-hour boat ride took us through a maze of twisting tributaries until we reached our destination, a jungle clearing sprinkled with the Siona Indian's wood homes. The billowing gray clouds overhead produced a light sprinkle of rain that soon grew into a monsoon-like torrent as we strolled through the village's grassy pathways. Machete in hand, our guide cut large banana leaves for us to use as disposable umbrellas. We met a local woman who demonstrated her machete skills by unearthing and preparing a bulbous yucca root that, when cooked over a set of hot stones, produced savory, tortilla-like bread.
After a brief rest and lunch, we were greeted by the village's diminutive head man who was also the region's main shaman, or spiritual healer. He led us to a spacious communal hut with a hard-packed dirt floor, a series of evenly spaced sticks forming the chest-high walls and a high arching roof made of branches and woven palm fronds. We sat on log stools and watched as the man mysteriously disappeared. A few minutes later he reappeared, transformed by his shaman-best regalia: standing barefoot before us, he wore an emerald green tunic adorned with a bandolier of crisscrossed strings of tawny nuts; encircling his neck were two dozen sharp, white boar tusks, and a jaguar claw hidden among the dozens of fine strands of green, red, blue and white beads. But most striking of all, above his red-streaked cheeks and forehead sat a resplendent headdress glowing with hues of light yellow, mustard yellow, crimson red, orange and turquoise feathers.
A translator enabled us to ask him about his life in the village and his shamanic duties. After patiently answering our questions, he proceeded to demonstrate one of his healing rituals on me. This time there were none of the hallucinogenic herbs that a shaman normally ingests for special, multi-day healings, but he did chant while gently striking me with a bundle of medicinal leaves. I kept my eyes dutifully closed and felt open to whatever aid the jungle spirits might invoke to keep me from harm.
Our four-day stay at Siona Lodge ended in the most perfect way – as we prepared to leave, a seven-foot caiman crawled ashore by our pier, impressively close to where we stood. A cook rushed to fetch pieces of meat, which we took turns tossing into the fearsome creature's snapping jaws. We departed with a deep sense of awe and gratitude for our brief but profound exposure to the rainforest's unique ecosystem. I nodded as Celine, my young German friend, remarked, "I loved everything we saw, it was so magical, and I think the jungle reflects the diversity of this world perfectly with so many species living together in one place. We desperately need to save the Amazon's rainforest."
In our travels we seek those places and events that change us and leave a lasting spell, and my four unforgettable days at the Siona Lodge in the mystic heart of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve did just that.
IF YOU GO
Lodging: Siona Lodge, email: email@example.com; www.sionalodge.com
(Hansen is a travel writer and photographer based in Carlsbad, Calif.. See more of his photos and articles at www.HansenTravel.org or Instagram @doug(underscore)hansentravel.