Palabra del día: loros
A knock at the door comes at 5:30, but we are already awake. We see sunrise as we eat breakfast, then hop in the canoe to cross Lake Pilchicocha. We walk to the dock on the Rio Napo and step into a motorized canoe for the trip to the parrot clay lick. The day is overcast and somewhat foggy, giving the shoreline an eery aura. All we can see at first are the skeletal branches of a few dead trees before we are finally able to make out the details of kapok and cycad trees.
The boat arrives at a barren red clay bluff; blue-grey tanagers, drab water tyrants, and social flycatchers noisily inhabit the brush at the base. We quietly wait near another boat for about 15 minutes before the first parrot arrives in a flurry of blue-on-green feathers. Clay licks serve as an important source of minerals for avifauna in tropical areas, with some attracting thousands of birds representing dozens of psittacine species. The clay lick at Yasuni National Park is known for its congregations of dusky parakeets, which are rarely seen, and the more common yellow-crowned amazon parrots.
We watch patiently as a few more birds fly down, though no more than a dozen arrive while we are watching. Instead, our attention is drawn by the guide behind us to a particularly thick “branch” to the left of the lick. A 2-meter long red-tailed boa quietly sits in the tree, awaiting the troupe of squirrel monkeys we can hear approaching. One brave monkey almost steps on the snake before instead poking it and, seeing a response, quickly maneuvering away from the threat.
After it becomes apparent that we have seen the extent of the fauna visiting the clay lick, we are transferred to a Sani women’s community for the remainder of the morning. A three-sided structure facing a wooden porch greets us, with several wooden tables hiding from the continuous rainy drizzle. A few dozen women and adolescent girls are busy at an assembly line production of jewelry. They are not terribly talkative, and I am immediately distracted by a large toad outside the compound entrance. I pick it up to determine what it is, eliciting gasps from the people around me. The toad is darkly pigmented, with large parotid glands, consistent with a cane toad. The local superstition on not touching them is based on their propensity to exude bufotoxin, a poisonous substance, when they are stressed. Admittedly, it’s a good superstition to have.
We are finally met by a quiet woman who offers to show us around the community. We walk by ponds stocked with trout and turtle, fruit-bearing trees interspersed with cultivated fields, and a small schoolhouse at which the women teach their children. When we arrive back at the covered porch, we are shown the women’s wares as well as the snack they are preparing for us: yucca and piranha wrapped in palm leaves and steamed, roasted white cacao, grilled plantains, and a local palm weevil grub which has been freshly fried. The palm leaves open, and we compare who got heads or tails of the piranha, which have not been gutted before cooking. We all grab a grub and count to three before closing our eyes and trying it. It tastes like juicy pork cracklings, crisp on the outside with fatty juices inside. I have to tell myself the whole time that I’m eating a chicken nugget, because my mind can’t wrap around eating something I’m more likely to feed to my gecko. We are also offered a fermented coconut drink called chicha which is traditionally served in a communal bowl, but most of us politely decline.
On our return to the lodge, we are treated to lunch before an afternoon walk. On our way back to our rooms to change our shoes, we run into several black agoutis eating under the boardwalk. When they are surprised, the long, smooth ha irs of their body stand up, making them look reminiscent of the offspring of a guinea pig and a porcupine. Agoutis actually have a characteristic hair coat: each individual hair has multiple colors (usually some combination of white, tan/brown, and black) which gives them a ticked appearance. ‘Agouti’ also describes the hair coat of other animals when the hairs are multipigmented.
We begin our outing with a canoe ride through some of the flooded channels. I am continuously amazed that our guides struggle with our priorities, and I constantly slow us down to ask about lizards, ants, and other insects we see as we walk. I have to remind myself that I, too, can be dismissive of things I see every day, especially if I don’t realize how novel they are to others. This is even more apparent when I ask how often the guides find ticks in the area. Their response is that there aren’t ticks in the Amazon. I skeptically hold out the tick I just picked off my poncho, and they are flabbergasted. I, too, am flabbergasted, if for a different reason: the tick is huge, with a scutum measuring almost a centimeter long.
On our way back to the lodge, I initiate a conversation about how awesome bats are (because let’s be honest, they’re the best). We stop at an outdoor kitchen to see some of the bats (possibly Leptonycteris sp.) which roost on a plank just across from the lodge’s swimming platform. How many bats are on the plank becomes a running gag between our small group after all four of us come up with different numbers. We eventually realize that a few of the bats keep jumping on and off of the plank and hanging in the shadows.
Dinner is once again a large affair, consisting of chicken, pork sausage, pork and beef chops, potatoes, yucca, tres leches, apple streudel, chocolate mousse, watermelon, corn salad, and cucumber and tomato salad. After dinner, we go tarantula-hunting before returning to our room to rest and recover before getting up early again the next morning.