Thursday, October 31, 2013

Save the Rainforest!

We recently returned from a visit to the Cuyabeno Reserve, one of the deep Amazon rainforest areas that is accessible to tourists.  Ecuador continues to amaze me in how incredibly diverse one small country (about the size of Colorado) can be.  We boarded a flight in cold, dry Quito and stepped off the plane 30 minutes later in what felt like a steam room.  I've never been anywhere so humid (and I'm from the midwest/worked in Houston).

To help illustrate, let me explain that we were visiting the Amazon in the middle of the "dry season", although that's a complete misnomer, and maybe they should have gone with "slightly less wet season".  It poured - absolutely poured - every single day we were there.  We hiked in knee-high rubber boots which *almost* always protected our lower bodies from the enormous puddles of mud and water pooling everywhere.  One area we hiked through for several hours is apparently a "flooded forest" that is actually underwater six months of the year. 

Having hiked the entire Appalachian Trail for five and a half months, weathering tornadoes, snow, wind, ran, hail, and a storm that killed two people in Virginia, I like to think that we have a pretty solid level of familiarity with the awesome power of mother nature.  Hearing the thunder in the Amazon, however, was a new and amazing experience.  I'm embarrassed to say that I actually said the words "It sounds like the Rainforest Cafe!".

A short plane ride, a two hour bus ride, and a two hour canoe ride later, we arrived at our rustic lodge on "Laguna Grande", or the big lake.  From there, we spent four days exploring the rainforest by foot and canoe.  We spotted caiman (like alligators), six different species of monkeys, a sloth, Amazonian pink river dolphins, and toucans (and countless wacky bugs and frogs).  One couple in our group had the thrill of seeing a giant anaconda soaking up sun on a tree branch, which we missed out on, although there's still no way I was going swimming in that lake.  

We visited the rainforest at a controversial time in Ecuador, as oil drilling has recently started in the Yasuni Reserve, one of the most unique and biodiverse places on this plant.  There are more species of insects in one hectare of land in Yasuni than exists in the entire continent of North America.  There are also indigenous tribes living there that voluntarily have no contact with the outside world and have killed missionaries and other indigenous people who try to contact them or inadvertently get too close.  

In our two months of sitting around dinner tables at hostels and lodges with Ecuadorians, we've gotten a taste of how passionate people are about the Yasuni issue and the current President Rafael Correa's handling of it.  Correa started his presidency with huge improvements to the country's poverty rates, healthcare systems, education, and crime rates.  He also put forward what many considered a groundbreaking proposal surround the Yasuni Reserve, which sits atop billions of dollars worth of crude oil.  For a poor but quickly developing country like Ecuador, where oil accounts for more than a third of public revenues, tapping into these oil reserves is almost irresistible.  

In 2007, Correa proposed to international leaders that if he could raise $3.6B (about half of what Ecuador stands to make by drilling for oil in Yasuni), Ecuador would refrain from allowing drilling.  The money raised would go into research and development of sustainable energy sources.  Since then, only a fraction of the money has been pledged, and meanwhile, the drilling starts.  More than one Ecuadorian has told us they cried when they heard the news that the oil companies were moving forward.  Many others have criticized that the initial proposal was meant to garner support for Correa, and never meant to succeed.  

Since Correa took office in 2006, he has taken drastic steps to increase his power, and some Ecuadorians fear that he is creeping steadily toward dictatorship.  He has changed the constitution several times to oust opposition in congress and increase the number of terms he can serve (he's now in his third).  In a series of battles with the press, he has ejected editors, closed newspapers, and filed lawsuits for crimes like "spreading false information" for criticism of his administration.  Some Ecuadorians have told us that recently, they are most upset that he has prohibited peaceful protests through his control of the police and military.  

So, unfortunately, you and I may never live to see the Yasuni reserve, a sad fact over which many Ecuadorians are understandably highly emotionally-charged.  There are probably unknown species of birds, frogs, and insects there today that will never be discovered.  And after witnessing the beauty and life of the Cuyabeno reserve last weekend, that makes me really, really sad.  If I could have planned our time here over again, I would have sacrificed some sanity and squeezed in a trip to Yasuni.  I feel your pain, Ecuador. 

And now on a brighter note, I'll leave you with some pictures of this stunning place - enjoy!


PS: If you're interested in learning more, here's a great National Geographic article (credit for finding it to my Dad!) on the Yasuni crisis.

PPS: If you're interested in donating to help protect the rainforest, Rainforest Trust ( is a wonderful organization and Brian and I will be donating our Honeyfund charity gifts from our wedding there, in honor of our love of all things outdoors.

Miles and miles of this in all directions

Tree frog hanging out on one of our hikes

The knee-high rubber boots in action. One couple in our group fell off the submerged log that Brian is standing on and got sucked into mud up to their knees.  

Awesome sunsets every night are just one of the many bonuses of all the clouds and rain

Saki monkey (one of six species we saw from our canoe)

Grating yucca as we learned how to make yucca bread from scratch with one of the indigenous tribes along the Cuyabeno River

All smiles grilling the yucca bread

Squirrel monkeys were the most common species of primates we saw

Can you tell that we're birding in this picture?

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