During the third week of my program, my group traveled to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The station is located nearly 180 miles outside of Quito on the bank of the Tiputini River and is part of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve. We flew to El Coca, the city that serves as the gateway to this remote land. From there, we took a boat ride down the Napo River, a bus ride in a wood-framed “chiva,”and a second boat ride down the Tiputini River. While traveling down the river, our driver spotted a large, black anaconda in some branches and maneuvered the boat toward the riverbank so we could snap some close-up photos.
The station has cabins for sleeping, an air-conditioned library and research labs, an outdoor dining area, and a dock for swimming. When we first arrived, my friends and I saw a tarantula the size of a human hand resting above our cabin’s screen door. Thankfully, it remained outside for the entirety of our trip. There’s no hot water at the station, and the electricity only runs for certain hours of the day, but with the humidity and frequent activities I barely noticed these minor inconveniences. Each meal prepared by the station staff was delicious, and we always enjoyed the ample supply of coffee, tea, fresh fruit, natural peanut butter, and chocolate bars made with Ecuadorian cocoa.
Each day, our schedule included a morning hike followed by an afternoon activity or swim in the river, and an evening talk with a researcher. In our first talk, we learned about a project on primate behavior conducted at the station. Researchers spend their days tracking and observing specific monkeys to better understand their cognitive abilities and cooperation; it strikes me as difficult work. The second lecture—my favorite—focused on a photography project funded by National Geographic. Hidden cameras are positioned in the jungle to capture images of animals that often elude human observers, such as jaguars, giant anteaters, and several species of wild dog. The theme of the last chat was the complicated battle between supporters of oil drilling and opponents who urge the Ecuadorian government to rigorously enforce its environmental protection laws.
I was told there would be plenty of mosquitoes in the jungle, but to my pleasant surprise there seemed to be very few (or my extra strength bug spray did the trick). We wore short-sleeved shirts, multicolor linen drawstring pants purchased in the Otavalo market, wool hiking socks, and tall rubber boots. On our second morning hike, our guide led my group through intermittent downpours to what is called “la torre” or the tower: a metal, winding staircase that leads to a tree-house-type lookout at the canopy level. We scaled the stairs and spent an hour looking through the telescope at the spectacular view. I didn’t see as many monkeys and birds as I did from the ground, but experiencing the jungle from this different viewpoint was worth the somewhat nerve-wracking climb.
While walking, we would stop when we spotted a group of monkeys sharing a meal or swinging from tree to tree or insects crawling in the mud at our feet. Occasionally we would see a butterfly pass by, sometimes the large blue species only found in this part of the world. We were also introduced to several medicinal plants, one of which we chewed until it turned our tongues bright blue. One afternoon, we took a four-person canoe out onto a somewhat eerie lake filled with caimans, close relatives of alligators that are (thankfully) nocturnal. Potential danger aside, I felt very fortunate to visit Tiputini and to spend a few days experiencing first hand the beauty and the biodiversity of the Amazon.