Believe it or not, my jungle weekend began as a selfish drug operation, one in which I aimed to medicate with Dramamine any of the 7 other volunteers around me who might vom during our 6-hour windy bus trip to Tena. The ride was gorgeous, as we drove through wildly varying temps, endless mountain vistas, and enormous cascading waterfalls.
After pulling into Tena and paying a nickel to empty our dangerously overfilled bladders, we hoofed it to Atlantis, an Amazon tour company and hotel that came highly recommended by fellow volunteers. This company is essentially the love child of an Austrian woman and Ecuadorian native. Forty-five minutes and $45 later, our haggling was complete, and we had booked a caving expedition, a 2-hour night rainforest hike, 6-hour day rainforest hike, one night in the rainforest lodge, and two meals. $45? Yes please!
Because we were all so wretched starving and needed fuel for caving, we bounced over to the nearby Café Tortuga and gobbled some delicious hamburgers and plantain fries. Bellies full, we headed back to the Atlantis office and hopped into the bed of their truck for a ride to the Jumandy Caves.
Though we were told to wear suits because we'd probably get wet in the caves, we didn't anticipate the torrential downpour that began a bit before we arrived. Soaked and still quite excited, we hiked up a trail then dipped back down into the rainforest and quickly into the cave. Unfortunately the water was too high and the rapids far too strong to cross in the cave so we had to turn around. Round 1...ding!
Upon our return to the entrance, we noticed that we could no longer discern the pool, as the entire area was one massive flood. Even one of the owners of Atlantis said she had never seen the water that high. Lucky us! After a 45 minute wait or so, our guide took us back into the cave where the water seemed equally high and rapids equally strong. But, our guide seemed to think that it was passable so we each placed our lives in his hands and followed his directions. Holy crap.
With each traversal of the cave rapids, we fully understood that a misstep could sweep us into a cavernous waterslide, kind of like an underground washing machine that takes no prisoners. The most difficult part of traversing the rapids was that, with each step, the water would quickly wash away our feet so that they wouldn't have a chance to land on the rocks beneath. At one point, we were climbing along an 18-inch rock shelf next to rushing rapids. At another, we were told to dive into the water and swim toward a flashlight that our guide placed ahead of us. Needless to say, upon our exit from the caves and into the open air, my feelings of invincibility were tempered with a deep reverence for this powerful natural force.
Now it was time to hop back in the truck for a half-hour drive to the rainforest lodge where we would feast on a quick dinner and head back out the door for a night hike. We were first shown several spiders around the lodge, all of which were larger than most people like to acknowledge exist. Yes, I did choose to hold a tarantula-looking spider, fully equipped with 8 furry legs.
In the rainforest, we saw many odd-looking grasshoppers, stick bugs, and snakes. Yep, I held one of those too! On this hike, I learned of the vast abundance of cacao growing in the Amazon, and our guide happily chopped up some fresh cacao with his machete for us to taste. It was delish!
If the extreme caving wasn't enough to wipe us out, we were thoroughly exhausted following our hike, so we all retired to our bunks for the night. I've never had such a musical night of sleep (no, I'm not talking about the kind of music following a Mexican dinner). The sounds coming out of the rainforest were quite bizarre, and I couldn't wait to explore by day the areas producing all those curious noises.
When we awoke the next morning, the weather was a far cry from the previous day - the sun was shining brilliantly and it was already feeling a bit toasty. What began as a leisurely stroll along a gravel road quickly turned into an up-and-down grueling hike that left us drenched in sweat and smelling quite...um...natural.
Oh, but the beauty of El Amazon! While climbing and descending the ever-changing terrain of the rainforest, we learned of medicinal plants, 2500-year-old trees, and countless edible delicacies, such as the canela leaves we chewed as a mid-morning snack. The most impressive part of the rainforest is simply that it is seemingly infinitely lush. At the parting of trees sitting atop the crest of mountain, one can look for miles and observe nothing but the vast green that acts as a blanket for the natural intricacies that lie below.
Our return to the lodge was bitter sweet, knowing that the time had come to return to our over-developed, concrete lives, but also knowing that a shower would bestow much peace upon those within a mile radius of our nastiness. And with a final ride in the truck bed, we bid our Austrian and Ecuadorian friends goodbye. Until next time, Amazon. And there will be a next time. Adiós.