The Stairway To Heaven
The Amazon jungle is a tangled mass of living biota that gets in your face, and perhaps more importantly, takes over your mind. There were times in the Tambopato that I would momentarily place my hand on a tree trunk for balance as I passed by. Within that tiny slice of time, some living being would land on my hand and occupy it. Once it was a venomous beetle, no damage done. During another, it was a curious, chroma-saturated butterfly. In the jungle, there are surprises with each step. Comforting, huh?
For someone trying to see birds, the jungle presents a formidable visual barrier. Plus, the vegetative density of the maze prohibits even some of the magnificent feathery fliers from penetrating the towering canopy. They are simply denied entrance. That is where my trusted guide, Joelson ‘Fino’ Teixeira Toledo, came to the rescue.
“Let’s hike down the trail,” suggests Fino. “In twenty minutes, we will be there.”
Our guide is referring to Posada Amazona’s, our current eco-lodge’s, stairway to heaven. It is an observational tower rises 110-feet above the jungle floor, perhaps 20-30 feet above the dense, tree canopy. It is only 5 am and while the sun struggles to make its encore above, all that remains below is darkness. We walk with flashlights bobbing along the leafy, narrow path. After about 10 minutes, we kill the lights. There is enough illumination filtering down to barely negotiate the path. My mind wanders to the day before when I foolishly asked Fino if there were Fer-de-Lance in the neighborhood. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. This aggressive serpent is a venomous pit viper that inhabits the tropical lowlands east of the Andes. At times, the Fer-de-Lance hunts in pairs where one gets the attention of the victim while the other strikes from behind. They are so intent on the kill that they will continue their attack even if sliced in half. Local knowledge tells to pin the snake down with two forked staffs, slice the middle with a machete, and then hold fast until the life of the deadly beast shivers out. One man that ignored this technique had the severed head of the snake chase him for twenty feet before its adrenaline pulsed out. Now that is bad ass.
So the Fer-de-Lance is on my mind as I stumble through the darkness. Finally, we reach a clearing with early daylight. The tower stands before us. Fino leads the charge up the single file staircase. Even though the structure is heavily cabled on all sides to the ground, it vibrates and sways as we ascend. Five minutes later we are awarded the payoff—the beginning of a new day over the Amazona. As the steam of the jungle rises above the Tambopata, the birds begin to fly.Fino wastes no time setting up the spotting scope. All three of us have binoculars too. In the next hour we witness the wonders in the air. A half dozen Blue & Yellow Macaws swoop down. Not to be outdone, Scarlet Macaws, Chestnut-fronted Macaws and Red-And-Green Macaws cruise by. We enjoy White-throated and Channel-billed toucans, plus four species of smaller toucans called Acaris—Lettered, Ivory-billed, Curl-crested and Chestnut-eared. It is an amazing spectacle, a rainbow of plumage.
By now, sweat bees are in our faces. These persistent insects seek moist places like ear canals, nose nostrils, inside of the mouth. It is not pleasant. Plus, the tower begins to sway again. I look to down see that another group of birdwatchers has arrived. We continue to scan the tree canopy until they arrive on the landing below. The moment we move 10 feet below, the sweat bees disappear. Unseen territorial lines.
We return to the tower the next afternoon to watch the sun go down, and days later, visit another tower further up river at a place called Refugio Amazona. On the top of that platform we also watch day’s end. But what is most memorable is a small flock of Paradise Tanagers we spot across the way. They are brilliantly multicolored, medium-sized songbirds with light green heads, sky blue under parts, black upper body plumage, and yellow and red backsides. The bird truly lives up to its name. We watch them prepare for the night in the waning light at the top of a 90-foot kapok tree. As the red ball of a sun slips below, so do the birds, one by one, deep into the shadows of the leaves. That is our cue to also depart. As we head down hundreds of stairs to the jungle below, I can only smile. The stairway to heaven has paid off in spades. Now if I can only make it home through the jungle without meeting a Fer-de-Lance…