Author: Delaney Nolin
As I rule, I try not to wake up before the sun has risen; it’s one of my least favorite things to do. But when I’m up before the sun to journey to the Amazon, I can make an exception.
At about 5:15 a.m. we all trudged on to a bus with sleep-filled eyes, heavy bags and rubber boots to go to the airport. But this is the Amazon we were headed to, so it was not going to be as easy as simply taking a plane to get to our final destination. After the flight, we all crammed into five taxis that took us to a ghostly hotel where we waited for a canoe.” Once the canoe got to the oil checkpoint, it was still another bus then boat ride until we finally made it to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station. For those counting, that was bus, plane, taxi, boat, bus, boat. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it allowed us witness many of the conflicting facets of the Amazon rainforest — the lush greenery harshly juxtaposed with abhorrent oil refineries spewing soot.
Arriving at Tiputini was like stepping into the beginning of an Indiana Jones movie: there is jungle everywhere and the sound of insect, monkeys, and other animals creates a cacophony in what one might expect to be a quiet place. All of the buildings are very open in hopes of letting in breezes that might momentarily alleviate the inescapable humidity. After dropping off our baggage into cabins, we still had time to hike to the observation tower, from which I was able to watch the sun set and pastels melt across the Amazonian sky. The observation tower is an incredible place about 50 meters above the canopy line. You can see dozens of birds, insects, sometimes even monkeys. Watching the sunset, however, may have been the best sight of all.
The rest of the week was full of hikes throughout the Tiputini research station. On our very first hike our group came upon another group stopped in the middle of the trail. With a finger to their lips and then to the tree, they showed us what had entranced them — a group of wooly monkeys just above us in the canopy. I could not believe that monkeys of all things were the first creatures we saw on our first full day. They were amazing, leaping unfathomable distances and using their tail as a fifth limb. These wooly monkeys would be a nearly constant companion for the entire week we spent in Tiputini. One afternoon, they even came into the camp, though they remained in the safety of the canopy.
Our first day of hiking seemed to be a wild adventure of putting random things in our mouths that our guide had recommended. The first such adventure occurred in the Jardin del Diablo or “Devil’s Garden.” This area was roomier than the rest of the forest, owing to the fact that it was dominated by only one species of plant. This is possible through the mutualistic help of the lemon ants, which live in specialized bubbles in the plants’ branches. In return for this shelter, the ants eject formic acid into the ground, which kills the saplings of any other species, reserving the area for one specific plant. The indigenous people believed that these relatively barren areas were haunted by evil spirits, hence the name “Devil’s Garden.”
Our guide informed us that when the indigenous people were out hunting and became hungry or thirsty, they would snap off a branch and eat the ants. Feeling adventurous, we all stuck our tongues in and tried them for ourselves. They tasted a bit salty and lemony (due to the formic acid, which is similar in structure to citric acid), hence the name lemon ants. It certainly felt a bit strange, the ants climbing on your tongue before swallowing. Soon after our first adventure with the lemon ants, our guide handed us each a piece of an onion-looking plant and told us to chew it for two minutes. Despite the rancid taste, we all survived, and were rewarded with vividly blue tongues. Due to its vibrant blue shade, the indigenous people use this plant to make dyes for painting and clothing. Luckily, for the rest of the day, the only thing we put in our mouths was the delicious dinner we had that night.
The rest of the trip was a whirlwind of hikes, where we spotted incredible animals like baby pygmy marmosets, one of the smallest monkeys in the world, peccaries, snakes, scorpion spiders, tarantulas, scarlet macaws and toucans. One of the most magical sightings was not of an animal, however, but of the sky on our final night. We walked down to the dock to look at the stars, and although I have seen some amazing stars living in Maine, I have never seen so many as that night. The milky way was so clear that, at first, I thought it was just a cloud. We stayed there for hours, just watching the sky as it changed, listening to the symphony of the forest, and talking about what an incredible chance we had to experience this.
Though very sad to leave, our trip back to Cumbaya was certainly exciting. I think we saw more animals on the boat ride back to the bus stop. We were first greeted by a pink river dolphin, then a huge river otter, a cayman and finally a family of capybaras. Tiputini was an incredible experience, but it also made me think about how much it took to get me there (e.g. diesel for planes, boats etc.) and made me wonder if it was all worth it in the end. Despite the cost, I think it is important to learn about and understand these ecosystems in order to save them, and I do not think I would give up this experience for the world.
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