This trip was not planned. KLM, the Royal Dutch Airlines, is the reason I find myself back in the jungle so soon. After all, it had only been a month since I had trekked through Peru’s Amazon Basin. But by October’s end, the airline was planning to cancel its daily Bonaire/Ecuador flight. I had always wanted to see the country that derived its name from the Equator, so this was the time to go. If I waited until after October, I would have to take a circuitous route from Bonaire to Curaçao to Colombia to Ecuador. It would cost over $600. Instead, I landed one of the last KLM flights for the slashed price of $288.
But perhaps the real reason I find myself back in the jungle is that I simple can’t resist returning. You would think that I would recognize the dangerous, persistent lure of the place after reading The Lost City of Z, a tale of deadly obsession in the jungles of South America. The book chronicles the futile attempts of Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British surveyor, who risked his life on repeated occasions looking for his El Dorado, the lost city of Z. He was a man possessed. On his last expedition in 1925, Fawcett and his son, Jack, disappeared into the Mato Grosso of Brazil and were never seen again. My friend, Tom Spahr who turned me onto the book, warned me tongue-in-cheek, “Pat, set aside all thoughts of El Dorado and Z. This could get serious. Don’t go looking for Percy, please.” I would never be so stupid. Besides, I know the only reason that I find myself back in the jungle so soon is because of KLM canceling its Bonaire/Ecuador route. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.In fact, this trip did not even start in the jungle. Rather, we began in the Ecuadorian highlands on the western slope of the Andes at a breath taking-away altitude of 11,000 feet. We then dropped down to 6000 feet to experience a cloud forest at a private nature reserve. Finally, I find myself at 3000-feet at another reserve called El Milpi, an ancient Indian word meaning the gathering place. Scientists and scholars classified this place as tropical rainforest, but I am not fooled. My old school sensibilities of sight, sound and smell tell me this is jungle—elemental, unforgiving and dense.Leading us through these three incredible environments is our Ecuadorian guide, Miguel Angel. The only English that Miguel speaks are the multi-word monikers of the over 150 bird species that we get to see in five incredible days. Miguel easily spills out terms like Purple-backed Thornbill, White-bellied Woodstar Hummingbird, and Black-tailed Trainbearer. But after that, todo es en Español—everything is in Spanish. And that is just fine. I realize quickly that my aging cerebral linguistic hard drive is still working. Words like mitar (the middle), izquierda (left) and hojas (leaves) and arbusto (bush) all come back. These directional and descriptive words are essential to understanding Miguel’s rapid-fire directions when he spots an exotic bird in the dense entanglement of jungle biota. As days pass by, we talk about our lives as well. Miguel use to be a cowboy. His wife, Patricia, harvests moras (blackberries) and tomate de árbol(an egg-shaped edible fruit). And they have three kids. But Miguel also explains how he became a guide. He was one of 50 chosen to study ornithology (the science of birds) on a special grant that had the goal of providing Ecuador competent nature guides for its budding eco-tourism industry. Miguel completed the five-year training with his brother. The other 48 grant recipients dropped out. I joke with Miguel about his name in English—Mike Angel. I tell him that it sounds like the name of a cunning detective. He likes that a lot.
Miguel Angel leads us through a maze of trails at El Milpi. The place boasts eleven, waterfalls that give it that Back-To-Eden ambiance. There are flashy black and yellow birds called Lemondrop Tanagers, blue Morpho butterflies the size of two of your hands, and according to Miguel, a snake that is an amphibian. For the record, snakes are supposed to be reptiles. El Milpi lives up to its rainforest reputation. One night I am wakened by pounding rain. The sound on the lodge’s metal roof is deafening. No thunder, no lightning, no wind—just a relentless cascade of vertical water falling straight down from the heavens. Just when I think the ferocity is maxed out, someone above amps up the deluge. Torrential doesn’t even start to describe the fury. The next morning the rain continues, but it is only a soft drizzle.Thus, we head back into the jungle following a wet, muddy trail. We stop to watch a Choco Toucan in a tree. This large tropical bird holds an unshelled nut in its oversized beak. In fact, the beak appears to be about 40% of the bird’s entire length. It looks like a cartoonist ‘s drawing for the Sunday comics. After about five minutes, the toucan casually flips the nut into the air, catches it in a heartbeat and crunches down. Meal complete, the bird breaks into a sweet, satisfying song. Later we see dozens of Bronze-winged Parrots screaming overhead. They are the outspoken extroverts of the jungle. Throughout the day there are more birds, mega-sized insects and the incredible plant life. El Milpi delivers big time.
Yes, once again the tropics tantalize. The jungle has paid off in spades otra vez. But as we fly home a few days later from Quito International Airport, I gaze below for one last look. I am already plotting my encore, but where? Maybe Brazil for a visit to the once-famous rubber baron empire of Manaus on the Amazon. Perhaps Colombia known for its steaming coastal tropics. Or possibly Suriname with its lush, untamed wilderness. Jungle obsession? No, not me. Now where can I find that next airfare deal?