Species Research in the Ecuadorian Amazon

A digression of a life changing experience. A Readers Digest version of course..

A HUGE thank you to the company that made everything possible; Global Vision International

Also, I apologize for misspellings..I never was very good at Spanish!

In the summer of my college sophomore year I went on a life changing excursion into the Amazon Rain forest. Having always lusted to see the Amazon since I could pronounce its name, I spent a lot of time looking up adventures for fun. One day, over the winter of 2010 while surfing the net, I stumbled upon a link to an “Amazonian research project.” I obviously clicked the link and I was redirected to Global Vision Internationals website.

I browsed the site, read up on the company and what their goals…and more importantly…prices were. The amazon project talked about how you would go deep into the rain forest and work to identify key species to help a near by reserve keep its protected status. It also entailed teaching English to the neighboring town of Puerto Salazar. After reading everything I could, I applied.

I didn’t tell my mother for a little while because I feared she would be on my case about the dangers of traveling over seas alone or give me grief about spending my money. A few days later I received a phone call from an English man named Olly. He asked me why I wanted to participate in the program, and If i knew what jungle living was going to be like. Of course I didn’t  but I put on a good front and was accepted into the program. Once accepted the payments began, and I was forced to tell my mother. Surprisingly enough, she didn’t seem to mind my ridiculous plans. She helped me make the first payment, and helped me sort out how to pay the next few.

The funniest memory I have from the planning is from right after I booked my non-refundable 900$ flight. I have a habit of checking things not once, not twice, but 30 something times to ensure it was done correctly and THANK GOODNESS I did that. Like an idiot I have booked my travel to the Amazon for 2011 and my plane ticket for 2010. After a MAJOR panic attack and a few shed tears my mother got on the phone with GVI and they sorted everything out. Thank the lord for customer service!

The next few months I collected the gear I was going to need. Thanks to working in a ski shop, I was able to get affordable gear. Things I purchased were such as; mountaineering bag, Gortex hiking shoes, hiking pants (mult. pairs), binoculars, compass, water bottles…the list goes on. I stuck with North Face gear because of its reputation and later learned that “water-proof” and “rain forest proof” are two very different things.

Before I knew it, it was time to leave for the Jungle. I had tried to learn Spanish before going, but was unsuccessful in being able to enroll in a level one Spanish class at my college (roster was full). Armed with two backpacks loaded with gear, my passport, and a translation book in hand, I headed off to Boston to catch my international flight.

The flight I booked had several LONG layovers that gave me plenty of time to purchase a book, check out the Georgia airport intimately  and grab my last meal on USA soils. While on the plane from Georgia to Ecuador…panic set in. The language barrier was really starting to sink in, I was arriving at night and I didn’t know where the heck in Ecuador my hostel was located and i was relentlessness worried about the drinking water. The first think that calmed me was the view of Quito as we flew in. It was huge… LA huge and it was nestled so nicely in mountains.

Once we departed our flight, we went straight to customs. I again had another nervous breakdown when I thought I might have the wrong visa. Fortunately as I approached the Air port service agent, she gave me a warm smile, took my passport and stamped it. Moving on, I realized there was very little English in the airport. German and French signs hung, but almost none in a language I understood. I moved along with the crowd to the area where people come to pick you up and bring you where you need to go. Fortunately  GVIs in-country representative set up a ride for me from the airport to the hostel. The young man awaiting me, “Stephanie” written on his little white sign, was both charming and better yet..BILINGUAL. He had spent some time in Miami and was able to converse with me enough to tell me about his hostel and the city he was from.

Driving to the hostel involved moving at a high rate of speed, recklessly weaving in and around traffic. If I had been a NYC native, I would have felt right at home. We whizzed by shops with big metal bars in the doors and windows and all I could think of was “great, I booked a hostel in the ghetto.”

Once arriving at the Hostel, I hit my next huge  barrier…the owners did not speak even a lick of English  Fortunately  my little travel translator helped me out enough to pay for my room. I went upstairs  and for the first time, really felt culture shocked. I thought that perhaps it was a bad idea to have traveled alone to a country where I did not understand the language. Ill admit it… I was a little scared.

The next morning when I woke, the sun was shining  it was warm, and the complimentary breakfast was AMAZING. I strolled outside to see that all of the metal bared shops were now opening and bursting at the seems with fruit and other goods. I felt a total calmness sweep over and I knew it would be OK.

The next week was filled with arrivals of other GVI volunteers, meetings, and trips to “Gringo- Landia” a spoof of the area that attracted the most white folk due to its bar scene and American like restaurants  I tried falafala for the first time, tobacco hookah, and took a shot at bartering in a local market.

Soon the time came when it was time for us to load all of our gear on top of a bus and head down into the jungle. The trip was a long one and included an overnight stay in a jungle town called Tena. Quito is at a significantly higher altitude than the jungle, so it took a little while to acclimatize. Some found themselves a bit sick, and others unaffected. The trip down the mountains included driving through “cloud forest” and through Sherpa villages. It was unbelievably gorgeous…so much so that I found it impossible to pry my head from the window. The buses were clearly the vehicle to be feared by other travelers. We ripped through the highways and dirt roads like a rally car, swerving around objects in our paths. I defiantly think south american bus drivers should try out for NASCAR.

Once we arrived in Tena, we had a group meal (it was incredible) and some drinks. We stayed in a hotel named “cafe Tortuga” and once again, the breakfast was unbelievable. Locally grown eggs, homemade bread, and fresh fruit juice. On our Journey home from the jungle, we would stay here again and have the best time out drinking and being wild and free… really living.

The next day as our buss pulled up, a gentleman threw his bag of live chickens off the top onto the ground. To any animal lover, it was kind of traumatic to watch (esp. to the vegetarians on the trip) but after the third of fourth time we watched something similar happened, it became a norm. After loading our hear once again, we headed off into the jungle to another port where we would then take motorized canoes to our camp.

The journey was uneventful and most of us were ready to scream if we had to head “ring my bell” come over the radio one more time. The road went from kind of paved to completely dirt, something I would question my Jeeps ability to get down. You could heard the suspension on the bus creaking as we pulled up to the port. We all gratefully got off the bus into the hot sun and humid air. All around the sounds were buzzing and trees were the only thing you could see for miles. There was a hut there that sold crackers, coca cola, and some chocolate, so we all stocked up.

Once the canoe came, we all timidly got on…worrying about its ability to stay afloat with so many passengers. Of course it did, and man could that thing rip! We spent between 20-30 min taking the canoe up river to out camp. Once we arrived at the port, we were greeted by the staff members and 267 steep wet steps.

Once we got all of gear and food up to the camp, a feat comparable to that of a challenge in a tough mudder race, we were shown around. All of the girls fit in one room in bunk beds  and the boys were dispersed into other rooms with bunk beds  There were flush toilets, and very VERY cold showers. There was a main area which held the kitchen and a hangout area including picnic tables, and hammocks with bananas hanging from the rafters. A building existed for the staff members, as well as another building for students from the reserve.The living structures were all made of wood, had screened in windows, clothed doors, and tin roofs. The kitchen was fenced in from floor to ceiling with screen and wire to keep animals and insects out. The pantry included potatoes, chickpeas  ingredients for pourrage, plantains, and an assortment of vegetables, rice and pastas.

After we set up out bunks, we learned about all the projects we would be partaking on. We were tested on on species identification(all species we would work with, Ie; 30+ birds & their sounds, 10+ frogs, 10+butterflies and 10+plants) There was a white board with a list of the projects, the people going out on them and what time they would go out. The duties included;

“Mist-netting” ; You would hike to an assigned part on one of the trails and set up a netting system to catch birds. Once the birds were caught you would record their age, wingspan, species, and gender while working with a resident bird specialist.

“Pit-fall traps” This was to catch amphibs  There were 12 sites in roughly 7 Km of trails. We had one site for each type of Forrest and our goal was to look for and monitor “key species”; a species that indicates environmental change. The actual “pit fall” was a bucket that would trap the frogs inside until we could get there. After donning gloves to protect the frogs from a  killer fungus, we would measure the length of the frogs, try to get their weight, and identify their species.

” Point Counts” There were 6 points to go to each morning. The group left at the same time (4:30am). The points were also set up in different parts of the Forrest (primary,secondary..etc) You would hike to a point and then sit there for 15 minuets and identify bird calls you heard. Every call heard was recorded and the bird specialist would go through and make sure our data was correct.

Veg Mapping” This was by far my favorite.  I had just finished a Botany course previous to my trip and I found everything about plants fascinating  Veg mapping was done in several different fashions. One was the box method where we would measure a 10×10 meter square and count the numbers of each species we were looking for, take the circumference of any tree over 60 cm and record canopy heights for several boxes. The second method was called the “shotgun” method where we would put a point into a GPS, walk out 100 feet into the jungle in a straight line, one person on the left and another on the right taking in the circumference of the trees and another person on each side recording the plant species. This particular method took us deep into both types of jungle, and very much so off trail.

“Butterflies” The butterflies were similar to the birds where we would use a mist net type material. There were six sites in primary Forrest  two nets at each site filled with “bait”. If there were caught butterflies when you arrived on site, you would catch them gently and VERY carefully with a plastic bag, use the ID plates to get a species, record a gender, and if possible, mark the very tip of the wing with a gold pen so they would be known if recaptured.

“Night Hikes” Twice a week a group would go out on a night hike. The point of the night hike was to ID nocturnal species (mainly amphibs) Let me tell you, in the jungle…ALL the creepies come out at night. The path was not wide, it resembled more of an animal trail than a paved path, and it was full of plants that were full of spiders. Every kind you can imagine  River spiders, Bird eating spiders, tarantulas ..it was terrifying. I should say, I am not so much afraid of spiders as I am of them climbing into my boots or up my pants. We would hike up the streams in the jungle and we say plenty of sleeping birds, amphibs, and snakes. If you wanted to see a snake, night hikes were when it would happen. We saw several Fur De Lance (one of the Amazons deadliest), Coral Snakes, and one Rainbow Boa. I was fortunate enough to have a camp leader think he was a funny guy and put a Whip tailed scorpion on my face. At least I got a picture, right? Night Hikes were my favorite.

Peuerto Salazar: There would be one group a week who was dedicated to coming up with a lesson plan for the children in the neighboring village. After spending an hour or so learning  we would play games with the kids and then depart. The village was a long walk (say 40 min give or take) on a dirt road in the HOT HOT sun. There was a small shop, owned by presumably the wealthiest man in the area, that sold chocolate, cola, batteries, and other things he new us volunteers would need. Thanks to him I become obsessed with a chocolate bar called “Mani Cero”..to this day I still wish i could get my hands on some!

“Camp Life” There were two people every day assigned to camp duty. This included cooking all three meals for the day, cleaning the restrooms and dorms, and bringing compost to the compost pile. During camp life you learned quick who could cook and who could not. After 5 weeks in the jungle, eating only starch and vegetables, we were all ravenous for some meat. Every Friday night we would have a game night. The staff came up with the most clever games to play that really brought the group together and produced many, many laughs. I would digress, but I could write forever on those games. We were each allowed to have one beer or one glass of wine (if of age). In the morning we were treated to pancakes instead of pourrage, and we had the opportunity to take a canoe to a near by village where we would eat some funky food, gander and malnourished animals and people, and purchase unnecessary items such as clothes with funny sayings, or bracelets.

Every week there was a schedule.  Every day started off with pourrage, bananas and coffee. Every day ended with pure exhaustion. Every weekend there would be a satellite camp where an assigned group would bring their sleeping gear, hammocks and food and hike to a select location, usually far away. That night they would do a night hike to ID nocturnal species and then the next morning they would set up a mist net.

Disaster in the Jungle struck during a routine satellite camp. The trails were crazy with their incredible steepness at times, ability to be permanatly soaked (which lead to loose footing and big tumbles) nasty spiked/barbed/thorn-ed plant coverage…and lets not forget all the insects that give you the heebie geebies. One group was a midst their night hike on the trail “Cascada”– one of the more difficult trails when a member slipped on the trail and ended up plunging off a 50 foot waterfall. Those of us back at the base camp heard the call come over the radio, but the radio signal was always so terrible it took a few minuets to understand the depth of the situation. The fittest men at base took off running with a back board ( we were all trained in Outdoor first aid the first week) to the location. I ran up to the satellite (up those blasted steps again!) to call the in-country rep, another phoned for transport to a local hospital. Where we were, helicopters could not fly in at night, and it was a long walk to the nearest soccer field so our transport came in the form of a pick up truck. While one team was working diligently to get our injured friend out of the jungle, another team worked to bring a mattress up to the road to make his very long ride in the bed of a pick-up on a wooden backboard somewhat tolerable. While trying to get our friend out, the group awoke a bee hive and many were stung (mind you they were carrying a person up an incredibly steep and wet trail while he was on a backboard) One of the other volunteers just so happened to be allergic to bees and did not have an epi pen- so one had to be rushed out to him. Fortunately,  due to hard labor and team work, the injured volunteer was brought up to the road, and whisked off to a hospital with another volunteer and a staff member. He ended up being just fine and even returned to the camp. We to this day, after going back to the waterfall during the day, know how he was not seriously injured.

Once we were nearing the end of the journey  it was time for a trip to Sumak Alpa which was a haven for monkies who were being threatened by the animal trade industry. We once again loaded all of our stuff atop a bus, went for a crazy off road drive, and arrived in a bustling city. The city was the last one before you went into the mouth of the ever amazing Amazon. We purchased some items we missed, candy, pastries, fruit, watched men pedal buy with carries full of puppies or chicks, trying to sell them ( hard to watch). Here we had internet for the first time in a long time and I was able to call my mother and tell her what an  amazing time I had been having.

Sumak Alpa We took yet another canoe to the island. It was amazing!! We hiked the trails with the islands owner, Hector. We helped him plant trees, and carve paths in return for food. We had chicken for the first time in weeks and boy was it good! For the first time we got to swim in the Amazon. The tributary base camp was on was far too fast flowing to swim in. I had fish nibble my toes and heard stories from the volunteers stationed there that an anaconda had swam by not a few days before. We got to make and shoot blow darts as well as throw spears at a target, like the ways of the old amazonian hunter. I am proud to say I was the only one who hit the target with the spear, I thank my javelin throwing experience. We played soccer with locals on black sand, enjoyed each others company. We learned a lot about the ways of the Shaman, and got a tour through Hectors medicinal garden. I was reunited with two friends I had met in Quito that were on their way to Sumak Alpa to extend their volunteer experience and wanted to stay with them.We were only there a few days, but none of us wanted to leave.

Upon arrival back to base camp, we had only two days left. Those days were filled with taking down traps, or setting traps up for the next group. We got CD’s with pictures taken by the staff and a presentation of all the findings we recorded. It was amazing to see how many new species we had found, and how many we had recorded all together.

3500 words later and I could still blab on and on. I skipped a lot of stories including personal experiences with life long friends, experiences in the cities, when my group got lost in the jungle, jumping off waterfalls, run in’s with bullet ants..I  could go on and on. What I hope anyone who bothered to read this takes from it is that volunteering can be life changing. I was able to make a difference in a cause that meant a lot to me while living in a area I had dreamed about seeing my whole life.

If something means a lot to you, and there is anything you can do to protect it, DO IT! For me, there is still so much the world doesn’t know about the Amazon, species being discovered every day, and millions that are yet to be found. Parts of that jungle have yet to be explored and many people have lost their life in attempt. Never let fear keep you from exploring. Don’t let small barriers keep you in your house. Always push past your comfort level.

There is a world out there waiting, GO EXPLORE!

Also if anyone would like information on species we researched, in depth description of the methods, or anything of the like, feel free to comment. I’m more than happy to share anything I can!

The program no longer exists due to lower volunteer numbers and a finished research project. Should you like to read a closing statement that outlines the achievements in the programs 6 year venture, click on the two links below!



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