Friends were curious: “Why Ecuador?” and “Why the Amazon rainforest?” To me, it was simple. The Andes and Amazon River are bucket list items, and traveling in Ecuador with other photographers would be adventure, education, and vacation all rolled into one. True I had second thoughts: the vaccinations, my aversion to bugs and dirt, and an innate need for basic creature comforts (warm showers, comfortable beds, good food, fresh dry clothes, and a clean bathroom). But the trip was irresistible after seeing Doug Henderson’s photos and talking to several Tulsans who had taken the trip with Doug before.
That’s how I found myself headed to the Amazon River basin in a silver Mercedes van loaded with six U.S. photographers, a Spanish-speaking driver, and a guide with U.S./Ecuador dual nationality. As the condor flies, the Arajuno Jungle Lodge (AJL) is only about three hours from Quito. But it was our last stop and on the way we stayed one night at the Posada de Tigua, a hacienda in the Andean mountains, and one night in Banos, the sleepy little town that sits in the shadow of the great Tungurahua volcano.
From Banos, the silver van drove along the Anzu and Napo Rivers and then down the unpaved road from Tena to the bridge spanning the Arajuno River, where a motorized canoe waited to take us upriver. Five minutes later our canoe was met at the muddy landing below the Lodge by Tom Larson, who resembled a bespectled, serious Robin Williams wearing a ball cap, yellow rubber boots, and a white AJL t-shirt.
Tom and his wife, Charo, operate the AJL which is located on 200 acres of rainforest which Tom purchased in 2000. A former Peace Corps volunteer who grew up in Nebraska, Tom has lived in Ecuador since he worked for the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands. During our stay, we saw examples of Tom’s and Charo’s efforts to preserve the environment and support the indigenous cultures. They provide a number of Quichua communities with school and medical supplies and teach Quichuas ways to support themselves as licensed ecotourism guides and hospitality service workers.
With grant funding, Tom has built fish ponds in four rainforest communities as an alternative to the Quichua Indian practice of fishing with dynamite, and he’s involved in increasing the population of the endangered Yellow Spotted Turtle. An accomplished chef and hostess, Charo teaches her kitchen workers the culinary skills for preparing and serving sustainably raised food.
Our stay began with Charo’s homemade cookies and fresh lemonade and a brief tour as Tom dropped us at bungalows that were dotted around the main building. Three of us shared a bungalow with three sets of bunk beds draped with heavy mosquito netting, a bathroom with a hot water shower, and a solar electric lighting system. Even though we discovered we were sharing the bungalow with a gecko the first night, by the last night I could sleep without being mummy-wrapped in mosquito netting.
All our meals at AJL were exceptionally prepared and presented. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners included traditional Ecuadoran aji, fruit juices, soups, baked breads, and always a sweet dessert. Most ingredients were from AJL’s self-sustaining supplies — native fish from Tom’s ponds, brood hens raised on the compound, and vegetables, fruits and herbs grown in their garden. One day we had a Maito lunch of cachama fish wrapped in bijao leaf (typical food of Amazon rainforest) and for dessert, banana upside-down cake.
Our second day in the jungle, we went upriver to El Mirador, one of the Amazon communities supported by Tom’s and Charo’s efforts. Tom had arranged for us to photograph the children and to visit one of the homes. After we gave the children some treats from the United States, the kids and the moms posed easily, happily and patiently. A smiling little girl came into the covered schoolyard, cuddling like a teddy bear a baby anteater, which was passed around for everyone to hold. Before we left Mirador, Tom led us along an overgrown footpath to one family’s home. The grandmother proudly showed us the interior of her house on stilts. In the kitchen a large rodent hung roasting in an open fire pit; one corner of the living area was a corn crib. Walking back to the river, we passed three men playing volleyball on a grass court next to the school, while others were building a new wing for the school.
We started the next day at Amazoonico, an animal rescue and rehabilitation center on the Arajuno River. The dense canopy of trees in the animal preserve shielded us from the morning rain as a Danish volunteer guided us through the reserve, describing the animals and how they came to Amazoonico. We saw some of the hundreds of different species of mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians that are native to Ecuador: parrots, a toucan, a baby tapir, turtles, caiman, jaguars, guanta, termites, and a variety of monkeys. Some animals were being rehabilitated for possible return to the wild; others were pets whose owners could no longer care for them. A jaguarondi, a small brown cat that paced incessantly at the far perimeter of its enclosure, had been found in a hotel room in Tena after its owner checked out, abandoning it.
While at AJL, we were treated to an afternoon float trip on the Arajuno: the brave in inner tubes, the rest of us in the drifting dugout. One evening Tom led us single file on a night walk through the rainforest surrounding the Lodge. On the walk we saw tree frogs mating on the fence, a column of leaf cutter ants shouldering bits of leaves along their well-worn path, and AJL’s garden of herbs, flowers, vegetables, pineapple plants, and banana trees. Most days ended with stories and laughter and wine on the Lodge’s candlelit deck; one ended with Tom ringing the dinner bell and announcing to the moonless jungle night, “Obama won!”
Our last day we packed, enjoyed one of Charo’s yummy breakfasts, and photographed Tom demonstrating a blowgun. Then the water taxi took us to the bridge, where the Mercedes van waited to take us to Quito for our midnight flight home. Three hours from Quito to Miami. Three hours from Miami to DFW. An hour to Tulsa, armed with photos to answer “Why Ecuador?” and “Why the rainforest?” Adventure. Danger. Andes. Amazon. Mystery. History. Jungle. Indigenous children who also have photos to remember our visit.