Travel E-Logs: Amazon Rain Forest

Travel E-Logs #9: Trip to Playas de Cuyabeno

Dear Students,

Lilia, Teresa and I are back in Quito after an all-day bus ride from the rain forest. For the past two weeks, we’ve been visiting two communities way down the Agua Rico River: Cuyabeno and San Pablo. I’ll tell you about our trip to Cuyabeno in this report and our trip to San Pablo in the next one.

Playas de Cuyabeno (The Beaches of Cuyabeno) and Canoeing to School

Playas de Cuyabeno (Cuyabeno) is called that because it is located on a stretch of the Agua Rico River that features many large sand beaches. The beaches border the river on alternating sides for several miles north and south of the village. During the summer (now), a two month period of little rainfall, the beaches get bigger and bigger as the river gets lower and lower.

The Victor Davalos School is located in the center of Playas de Cuyabeno on the north side of the Agua Rico. The rest of the village consists of a row of houses that stretches for miles up and down the river from the center. The children who live close to the center walk to school along the riverside path. The children who live far from the center walk the beaches in the dry season when the water is low. A few have to walk for almost two hours one way. When the river rises and covers most of the beaches, those same children row small canoes to school. But when the water gets very high and fast, it is too powerful and dangerous for children to canoe in and some of the students just stay home and wait several days or even weeks for the river to go back down.

Rain Forest Desert

After school one day during our stay, Lilia, Teresa and I took a one and a half hour hike down the river to visit a family. We went with three teachers, Fredy and Verla, a couple, and Roman; and Fredy and Verla’s two children, Chayanne, a three year old boy, and Chayanne’s six-month old sister. (Chayanne’s sister, by the way, doesn’t have a name yet. Quichua people often wait till a baby is one or more years old before they give it a name.) To get to the family’s home, we walked along the giant beaches. Since it was the middle of the afternoon, the sun was very hot. One of the beaches stretched over a mile and a half long and, in parts, was over 200 yards across. Mostly the beaches were made of sand, but in one spot we found a large patch of dried mud criss-crossed with large cracks, making the ground look like a giant jigsaw puzzle. At times, walking through the massive expanse of sand, even though we were in the middle of the rain forest, it felt more like we were in a desert. But then we would come to little streams with warm water that led to deeper pools tucked away in a shady corner of the beach – or in a depression in the sand. When we reached them, Fredy and Verla told us these pools were favorite hang outs for anacondas, though we were unlikely to see any in the middle of the day.

Anaconda Stories

Of course, mention of the word ‘anaconda’ led to several stories featuring the famous fearful beast. According to widely held Quichua belief, the anaconda and its cousin the boa have the power to attract and hypnotize people who wander into their territory, making them become disoriented so they get lost and eventually perish in the rain forest. Fredy told the story of how he once fell under the spell of a giant auburn-colored anaconda while fishing along a rain forest lakeshore one day several years ago during the dry season.

After spotting the anaconda, wrapped four times around the base of a huge kapok tree, Fredy tried to walk away, but ended up circling back to the same spot. He tried to walk away again, but circled back to the same spot. He tried to walk away five times in all, but each time circled back to the same spot. Finally, he called for help and, quite luckily, an older man, who happened to be a shaman, was hunting in the same area. According to Fredy, the man was unaffected by the power of the anaconda because of his own shamanistic power, and led Fredy to safety. Since then, Fredy has never gone fishing alone when the water is low – and he says he never will again.

According to Verla, a boy from Cuyabeno was not so lucky: he was eaten. One day, fifteen years ago, the boy was swimming in the Agua Rico River with other children. All of a sudden, he went under water and did not come back up. A half a minute later, thousands of small bubbles rose to the top of the water in the same spot the boy went under. Though no one actually saw the anaconda, since the river water is muddy brown, everyone knew what the bubbles meant: an anaconda had twisted itself around the boy’s body at the bottom of the river.
No one in the village has been eaten by an anaconda since then, but the people are still very wary. One day this week, while swimming with a few families in front of the village center, I decided to swim across the river to the beaches on the other side. Since the water was low, the current slow and the river not very wide, I figured I would have no trouble. I didn’t know it as I was swimming, but the people in the village center were very worried for me. They all stopped what they were doing and watched me till I made it to the beaches and then swam back. I wasn’t very worried myself, since anaconda attacks are so rare and because I was swimming in broad daylight, but half way across the river I suddenly felt something large and slimy swipe across my foot. For a second, the thought of a giant man-eating water snake crossed my mind; but, I looked back and saw that it was just a large plant floating down the river.

Four years ago, when I first visited Cuyabeno, I went to go for a swim in the river with a bunch of people who were also visiting from Limoncocha. Just as we were about to jump in the water, people from Cuyabeno came rushing down to the river and told us not to swim there. The said the river was too high and the current was too strong (since it was the rainy season then) and they told us that there were 100 foot long anacondas in the river that hated people and would happily swallow them whole. According to the people of Cuyabeno, since anacondas don’t like the flavor of people, they would vomit them back up – dead – on the other side of the river. (I personally think the story was just a tad exaggerated.) To protect us from such a fate, the people from Cuyabeno took us all in a large motorized canoe up the Cuyabeno River, that flows into the Agua Rico a few miles north of the village center, to a place where we could swim more safely (relatively, given there were also anacondas and piranha and rays other dangerous water creatures in that river as well).

An Amazon Oasis

Back on dry land… after traversing the beaches and wading through the streams that intersected them, Lilia, Teresa, Fredy, Verla, Chayanne, Chayanne’s nameless sister (carried by Verla in a sling) and I reached a stilted wooden house with a palm leaf thatched roof on a small hill overlooking the beach and a long bend in the river. Inside, the family served us chicha, watermelon and a spiky green fruit called guanabana that has a very refreshing white fleshy inside. We talked and laughed and then went for a swim in the river with all of the children from the family, as the sun set over the forest. The fruit and the swim really hit the spot and the walk back was much more pleasant under a half moon.

Up the Cuyabeno

Another day that week, the same group plus six ninth grade students and the president of Cuyabeno, who acted as our motorist, went for a canoe ride up the Cuyabeno River (which flows into the Agua Rico) to a place called Amarun Posa. (Amarun means anaconda in Quichua and posa means well or pond in Spanish.) We made a video as we traveled.

It was an excellent trip. We saw several pink river dolphins; a salt lick where hundreds of parakeets, parrots and macaws congregate daily in the early morning and late afternoon; several scarlet and blue and yellow macaws noisily flying overhead; several paichi (or pirarucu in English), the largest freshwater fish in the world, rising to the surface of the water; and lots of other birds, butterflies and fish.

While we actually saw several animals, we saw the signs of many more – including footprints of agoutis, caiman, tapir and capybara and the imprint of a sting ray’s body in the sand, covered by water not long ago. In the middle of the ray imprint, a snail had made a curly design with several intertwining loops, giving this pair of animal signs an artistic flare. We also climbed a giant nine story tower that wrapped its way around a kapok tree. The view from the top was as breathtaking as the hike up, featuring a wide variety of rain forest trees, cananbo, cedro, ceiba, piton, chambira and morete to name just a few. While we climbed the tower, Roman and a few boys went fishing with a net and hooks and in a short while had caught about 40 corbina, tucunari, vieja, sabalo, mota and a few other kinds of fish – plenty to feed all of the families who went on the trip.

An Amazon Tattoo

Back in Cuyabeno, a few days later, Lilia had her own run-in with an Amazon fish, the carnero. According to the descriptions we heard, since we never actually saw one, it’s a cross between a miniature bloodsucking catfish and a giant leech. Lilia was playing tag one day with several children in the Agua Rico. At one point, she dove to avoid an approaching tagger and OUCH!, she felt a sharp pain just below her bellybutton. At first she thought the girl trying to tag her scratched her by mistake; but when she stood up, there was no girl near her. She looked down and noticed she was bleeding. Cleaning away the blood, she saw a small red ring with teeth-puncture marks in the middle. In a few minutes two of the other children had been bitten and everyone cleared out of the water.

Later, Rita, the owner of the house where we stayed in Cuyabeno, told us carneros bite when the river is rising. Most people in the village, she explained, including her, have carnero scars. She welcomed Lilia to the club, laughing and telling her she would have an authentic Amazon tattoo just under belly for the rest of her life.

A Brand New Computer and Movies!

This year thanks to teacher Phy Chauveau of Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania and the fundraising efforts of her fifth grade students and their parents, the Victor Davalos School hosts Cuyabeno’s first ever computer. Lilia and I bought the computer in Quito and Fredy, the Director of the school, traveled all the way up the Agua Rico River and all the way up the Andes Mountains to pick it up, then traveled all the way down the Andes Mountains and all the way down the Agua Rico to deliver it to Cuyabeno. Lilia, Teresa and I trained teachers (so they could later teach students), community leaders and older students how to use the computer while we visited. (In the photo, I’m training Jesus, the village president.) The community was very excited to have their first computer – and very thankful. On the day before we left, they held a big festival in our honor – and to thank the fifth graders at Germantown. They presented many crafts – palm-fiber purses, balsa carvings and seed necklaces, for example – and asked us to forward them to the classes that donated the computer. They even gave Lilia and Teresa traditional Quichua dresses (as you can see in this photo).


By the way, the answer to the last report's guess-who poem was also the tree frog.

Here's a fun tree frog puzzler (taken from 'The Song of the Harpy Eagle,' a musical adventure to the Amazon rain forest ):

How many peeps could three tree frogs peep if three tree frogs could peep without sleep from three P.M. to three P.M again, at three peeps per second each? Peep-peep- peep. Have fun fee-guring it out peeper-keepers! And, just for fun, what's the smallest positive number you could add to the answer to make a number that is made of all the same digit?

We’ll put the answers in the next report.

Here's another guess-who poem. Guess who!

Mystery Animal #7: No Place Like Home
I once paid a visit to my Asian kin
I felt right at home in their habitat
But they slept in the day and bulldozed at night
And I just couldn't adjust to that

So I paid a visit to my African kin
Famous for their facial warts
But I didn't really care for their neighbors
They were sinewy and toothy and made me feel out of sorts

So I paid a visit to my European kin
Named for their rowdiness and ability to bore
But I didn't care for their constant grunting
And couldn't sleep through their rumbling snores

So I paid a visit to my North American kin
A tame curly-tailed crew without any tusks
But I couldn't handle their cramped, stark residence
Nor, between you and me, their peculiar musk

So now that I've returned to the Amazon
I've learned that wherever you roam
While the world is a very interesting place
There really is no place like home.
Guess who.


We’ve also included a guess-who photo at the top. Can you figure out which animal it is? Other photos in this report show Rolanda, a first grader, about to eat mayon, an edible – and delicious I might add – grub from the chonta palm tree (Lilia, Teresa and I all ate them – cooked); families watching videos from Africa, China and the US; a sixth grade girl showing a plant called hortiga, which is used for shamanic healing; a baby wooly monkey named Popis; third and fourth graders performing a traditional dance; and Rita making a palm-fiber and seed purse.


These answers were provided by a group of 40 students in grades 1-6 at the Amazon River Elementary School in Limoncocha in a previous year.

Are you afraid of snakes? Of 40, 39 said 'yes' and 1 said 'no' (but most didn't believe the one who said no).

Has anyone in your class been to Quito (the capital of Ecuador)? Yes, 10 of 40.
Do you have turtles in your lakes? Yes, black turtles and small ones that we call charapas. We like to eat charapa lulu (turtle eggs).

Do you speak a bit of English? A few of us speak a bit.

How do you cook your food? In boiling water, fried, smoked, grilled or in maito (rolled up in a special leaf and cooked on an open fire).

Do snakes get in your houses? 17 of 40 have had snakes in their homes (as far as they know).

Do you have VCR's and videos? 10 of 40 do.

Do you have video games? No. A few students in the high school do.

Do you have telephones in your homes? 3 of 40 students have cell phones in their homes.

What do you use to fish? Mostly fishing poles with lines and hooks, and fishing nets.
Sometimes adults use spears. When we fish with nets, we also use long poles to place the nets on. We usually take a machete with us when we go fishing. We either go along the lakeshore or we go with a canoe and an oar. For bait we use worms, grubs, ripe plantains, snails, meat (for piranha) or pieces of fish. We use a shigra (a string bag) to carry the fish we catch.

What kinds of toys do you play with? Dolls, cars, marbles, airplanes, stuffed animals and balls are the most popular.

What kinds of chores do you do? Mostly collecting water, working with the machete or harvesting crops in the garden/farm, watching younger brothers and sisters, making chicha or other food, fishing, hunting, sweeping the floor, making a fire, washing and hanging clothes, washing dishes and collecting fruit from trees.

Is it hard to live in the rain forest? No, it's not hard. We like it.

Is it cool and fun to live in the rain forest? It's chevere (cool) but not frio (cool) and we think it's very fun to live here.

Do you sleep on the floor and does that hurt? We sleep on beds.

Have you ever heard of Chicago? No, we hadn't. But, now we have!

We know in Panama they use coconuts for bowls. What kind of bowls do you use in the rain forest? What are your bowls made out of? We mostly have bowls made of plastic and glass that we buy at the market or in a larger town about an hour away. Sometimes we use bowls made from a large fruit that comes from a tree called a calabash tree. We clean out the fruit, which is not edible, and cut the hard outer shell in half to make the bowls. Sometimes we carve designs in the bowls to decorate them. Sometimes we also make bowls out of clay that we get from nearby rivers.

My classmates and I looked in a book and we saw people with paint on their bodies. Why do they put paint on their bodies? Does everyone in the rain forest do this? Most people who live around our part of the rain forest do not put paint on their bodies. But, almost all of the different rain forest nationalities that live in our region used to paint their bodies. We mainly used to use a red dye from the seeds of the achiote flower, but sometimes we would use clay and other natural dyes or colors. People put dye on their bodies for different reasons: for decoration, to protect them from spirits, to frighten their enemies, for good luck (when hunting, fishing or planting crops) and to repel insects. Nowadays, most people in our area only paint their bodies when we have a festival or a dance that celebrates our traditional culture. We have learned that in other parts of the Amazon, some people still paint their bodies.

That’s All for Now

Well, that's it for this report. The next one will be our last one. In it, I’ll tell you about our trip to San Pablo, a Secoya village along the Agua Rico. Samashun. (Goodbye.)

Paul, Lilia and Teresa


E-Travel Log #1: Introduction to the Project and the Adventure Team
E-Travel Log #2: Quito, Banos and Flashbacks of Christmas Celebrations in Limoncocha
E-Travel Log #3: Banos - Where the Rain Forest Begins
E-Travel Log #4: Limoncocha - A Quichua Community
E-Travel Log #5: Limoncocha and Communities Around - Traditions and Cultures
E-Travel Log #6: Getting Ready to Leave for Cuyabeno
E-Travel Log #7: Rain Forest Animals
E-Travel Log #8: Rain Forest Stories and the Mysterious Black Lake
E-Travel Log #9: Trip to Playas de Cuyabeno
E-Travel Log #10: Trip to San Pablo - a Secoya Community


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