We recently spent five days in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Amazon, the one place in the world that I swore to myself I would never set foot in, ever! Why’s that? It’s for one reason only; I am absolutely terrified of spiders, especially large ones such as ugly, hairy Tarantulas.
We all know that many fears are totally irrational and Arachnophobia (the fear of spiders) certainly is. I mean, many spiders are totally harmless, especially Tarantulas. Yes, you can find some bad-arse spiders, especially in Australia where we’re from. That’s right, I live in a country with some of the most venomous spiders in the world but somehow I’m scared to visit the Amazon because I might see a harmless Tarantula! As I said, it’s totally irrational!
So when Simon put the Amazon on the table, I said no, I am not going to the Amazon. When he kept insisting, I started to think about it. Was I crazy to pass on visiting the most bio-diverse ecological zone on the planet because of my fear of Tarantulas? The Amazon is not just home to them, it’s home to a huge amount of other wildlife, and I love wildlife. The most irrational thing about my fear of the Amazon was that I was worried about the creature that was least likely to kill me there. Anacondas did not worry me, Piranhas did not worry me, Crocodiles did not worry me. Just the Tarantulas and other spiders. Crazy right?
To go or not to go
So I asked myself, would I regret it? I might not even see a Tarantula. To be honest, Mexico has Tarantulas and as scared as I was of them, it never stopped me from visiting my favourite country in the whole world.
So I caved in; ok, we would visit the Amazon. Sometimes in life, you just have to face your fears, lest they prevent you from realising your dreams or pushing yourself further in life. In this case, it would stop me from visiting one of the most beautiful parts of South America. Although I agreed to go, I’m not going to lie and say that I didn’t spend a fair amount of time stressing about it beforehand.
Arriving in Tena
After a lot of last minute worrying, we arrived in the small town of Tena after a 4-hour bus ride from Banos. Tena is Ecuador’s gateway to the Amazon and the climate there was totally different from what we’d experienced in our last two weeks in Ecuador. It was much more tropical and it was definitely warm. We needed to get the shorts out again and put away the winter coats. Some heat and sunshine were very welcome.
Tena grew on us after a few hours. It’s not big but it has a lot of shops and a lovely Malecon near the river Napo that you can walk along to check out the river. It also has the lovely Amazoonian botanic gardens.
When we visited the gardens, I spent so much time scanning every corner of the floor looking for Tarantulas, that I totally freaked out when I caught sight of a large animal out of the corner of my eye. A large Tapir was happily having his breakfast on the side of the wooden walkway. He seemed totally unconcerned about us and barely moved as we wandered past. This Tapir was our first sighting of Amazonian wildlife and boy was I excited to see him. It made me realise that there was so much other wildlife worth visiting the Amazon for. I was finally looking forward to our 5 days here.
Where did we stay in the Ecuadorian Amazon?
From Tena, we took a 50-minute local bus ride to Ahuano, where we crossed the river by canoe (really a covered outrigger boat), before boarding another local bus that dropped us off right outside the Gaia Amazon Lodge. The Gaia Amazon Lodge was to be our home for the next 5 days.
The lodge is not very deep into the jungle but it offers a great Amazon experience nonetheless. It is located amongst the rainforest, with lovely views of the river Napo from the common area where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served.
Our time at Gaia was divided between Spanish classes in the morning (we really needed those!) and activities in the afternoon. If you are planning on learning some Spanish while in Ecuador this is a great way to do it. You can combine learning a language with doing some sightseeing, killing two birds with one stone. The Montanita Spanish School offers a very popular travelling classroom program, where you study Spanish in four different locations throughout Ecuador. Gaia Amazon Lodge is one of the four, with the others being Quito, Manta and the party town of Montanita.
Gaia Amazon Lodge is a small eco-lodge. It has large, spacious cabanas made of wood, that have a really Amazonian feel to them, complete with a hammock on the porch. Glass windows are replaced by insect screens so that the fresh Amazonian air flows freely into your room. You fall asleep and wake up to the sounds of the jungle. It is such an incredible experience, similar to the time we slept under the stars in the South African savannah. However, this time there were no howling hyenas, but rather chattering birds, monkeys and other such critters.
Any stay at Gaia Amazon Lodge includes all your meals, all-day coffee and tea, fresh drinking water and a wide range of activities.
Which activities did we do at the Gaia Amazon Lodge?
We studied Spanish in the mornings and had a range of different activities in the afternoon. During our five days at the lodge, we had plenty of time to enjoy a range of activities in the Amazon.
A canoe tour of the Napo and Arajuno rivers
Our first activity, just after arriving, was a canoe ride on the two rivers nearby the lodge. This gave us our first taste of just how beautiful this part of the world is. We could really sit back and soak up the incredible atmosphere. Along the way, we looked out for birds and other wildlife. It was such a lovely way to spend our first afternoon in the Amazon.
Swimming in river Arajuno
What, swimming in the Amazon? That’s crazy stuff, right? Don’t worry, the staff from the Gaia Amazon Lodge took us to a river that was perfectly safe to swim in. “There are no Anacondas, Piranhas, Crocodiles or Caimans here”, said our guide. Still, I couldn’t help but be slightly concerned; it was still the Amazon after all. But as everyone else jumped off the boat for a refreshing swim, I followed along. I survived the swim unscathed and it was so nice to soak for a bit in the cool water on a hot and humid Amazonian day.
Go monkey spotting
The Amazon is heaven for monkeys and there are many different types of monkeys there. On our first day, we headed further down the river to check out a family of Woolly monkeys who live in the trees alongside the river. They were pretty cheeky, as monkeys usually are, and some were quite inquisitive. I really enjoyed watching them doing their monkey business in their natural habitat.
Visiting the Amazoonico Wildlife Refuge
Amazoonico is a refuge for wild animals that are victims of the wildlife trade. Sadly, many animals are stolen from the Amazon to be sold as exotic pets. It’s pretty upsetting to think that some people would deprive them of their natural environment but it’s more common than we think.
At the Amazoonico Wildlife Refuge, they rescue such animals and try their best to get them back on their feet and released back into the wild, where possible. However, some of them have become too habituated to humans and would not survive in the jungle. Living in captivity destroys their natural instincts and they would risk starvation if released. If they are too used to humans, they also risk being re-captured by poachers. The sanctuary needs to reteach these animals that humans are not their friends and that they should be scared of them. It’s sad, because most of us truly care for them but, once again, a few people ruin it for everyone.
On our tour of Amazoonico, we saw many of their resident birds. Some of them were really colourful and pretty. We also saw many monkeys, a Tapir, some Caimans and some super cute Coatis. We even saw a female Anaconda who was too scared to kill her own prey! She would only eat dead animals and would not fair at all well in the wild. The staff are slowly trying to teach her to hunt and kill her own prey.
A visit to the local indigenous villages
Next, we visited the island of Anaconda. Don’t worry, that’s just its name. No Anacondas actually live there. On the island, we visited a local Kwichua family. We learned about their way of life, how they build their houses and how they make Chicha, a homemade alcoholic beverage, made from Yuca. We had a little sip of it and let’s just say that Chicha is a rather acquired taste! Another thing we learnt was how the families hunt using a blow-gun and we even got to try our hand at it (not with real animals!). Needless to say, we weren’t very good at it!
A visit to a local ceramic workshop
After visiting the Kwicua village, we visited a native family from Pueblo de Ahuano. This Kwichu family has been crafting ceramics for many years, passing down their skills from generation to generation. They gave us a demonstration of how they make ceramic pots as well as how they make blow-guns for hunting.
Chocolate making demonstration
Chocolate is one of our favourite things in life and knowing where it comes from and how it is made is always handy! Here in the Amazon, they also happen to have one of the most expensive chocolates in the world, one that costs $350 for a small bar! You chocolate lovers better start saving!
At the Gaia Lodge, we tasted the fruit and were given a demonstration of how to prepare the chocolate. Then, finally the moment we had all been waiting for, the tasting. Yum!
A visit to the butterfly garden
Four kilometres from the lodge, there is a small butterfly garden. When we visited the garden, we learned all about how butterflies go through their metamorphosis from eggs through to adulthood. We also saw many different types of butterflies. Some were quite stunning but very hard to photograph! For some reason, the butterflies seemed to love Simon. They kept repeatedly landing on him but not on anyone else. He must smell like a banana!
Tubing down the river
Once we overcame the rapids on the first couple of corners, tubing down the river was such a relaxing experience! It was a great way to spend an afternoon, lazing around on the water while enjoying our stunning surroundings. We saw many birds flying by, as well as more monkeys playing in the trees along the banks of the river.
A visit to the local karaoke bar/disco in gumboots!
One afternoon after our daily activities, our guide found us a taxi, and off we went for afternoon drinks at the local karaoke bar in the small town of Ahuano. That’s right, even the smallest Amazonian town has a karaoke bar!
Getting there was part of the fun because the taxi was a utility and we all sat outside in the tray at the back. It’s the Ecuadorian way!
When we arrived at the karaoke bar we all were still wearing our gumboots that we’d worn to walk around in the forest, to avoid bites from nasties and also to give us some grip on the very muddy ground. Would they let us into a Karaoke bar with gumboots on? Of course, they would, it’s the Amazon, anything goes! We had great fun dancing in our gumboots!
That’s a quick summary of our action-packed five days in the Amazon. I’m now so glad that we spend some time in the Amazon. It was an incredible experience.
So, did I even see a Tarantula?
Yes, I did and on our first night! I first saw a large spider (not a Tarantula) on my way to the toilet. Then we were laughing about my spider phobia with Andrew, the lodge manager and he said: “If you want to see a Tarantula, go upstairs; there is one on the couch”. I panicked, I wasn’t sure if he was serious. It turned out that he wasn’t kidding but the Tarantula was just a tiny baby one. It was so fluffy and cute that it was barely scary!
Our other sighting of a Tarantula was on our second night and every night thereafter. I first noticed “Tim” (that’s right, we nicknamed him) after a tiny frog crossed my path, right next to our cabana, on our way back to the room after dinner. As I used the flashlight to check out the frog, I checked for critters under our cabana. There just happened to be a medium-sized black Tarantula sitting there.
I felt really uneasy. It was not moving, just sitting there, waiting for its next prey. I tried not to panic. Hopefully, it would not climb up the stairs and enter our room! The next morning when we went for breakfast I checked the same area and it had gone. I did, however, notice a small hole, which I thought might be his burrow.
The next night, I checked the spot again and there he was again! Next morning he was gone again. We found him there every night of our stay. We almost got used to having him around and I have to say it has helped me a lot with my fear of spiders. I wouldn’t have approached him any closer (so sorry, no pictures for you!). I certainly would have had a heart attack if I’d found him in my bed. But being able to observe him from afar was actually good for my phobia.
Facing your fears is the best way to get rid of them. That’s probably why the best way to fight Arachnophobia is to hold a spider. However, I’m still not quite ready for that. Baby steps!