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A full day in the forest

Helen on Panecillo
Helen on Panecillo
A full day in the Amazon means we use every last ray of daylight. Because we're so close to the equator the sun comes up at 6 a.m. (plus or minus a couple of minutes) and sets at 6 p.m. Today we got a wake-up knock at 5:30 and we were in the canoe by 6:30. Our first destination was the parrot clay lick a couple of miles downstream in the Yasuni National Park. As we were crossing to the lick we learned just how shallow the Napo River is. Our boatsman turned a little too soon and we ran aground. The guides tried to wiggle us off the bar for a few minutes. Finally the rest of the men in the boat eased over the side (the water was up to mid-calf on me) and together we rocked it loose.\\

As we approached the lick there were no parrots, but a lot of screeching in the trees on the bluff above. In a few minutes a couple of brave pioneers flew down to the lick, followed by a few more, then a few more until there were 60-70 parrots - four different species - chipping off chunks of clay with their beaks. We learned that the parrots' normal diet contains a particular toxin, and something in the clay acts as an antidote to the toxin. Somehow the parrots evolved this behavior and they come from miles around like an over-eater looking for a Tums.

As we watched the parrots our indigenous guide, Macaco, spotted a pair of ladder-backed nightjars just downstream. We were maneuvered into position just a few feet away from where they perched at the water's edge. They are tiny birds, perfectly matched to the dull gray-brown of the reeds where they sat. It was an uncanny demonstration of how in tune with the natural world the indigenous folk are, to be able to see a creature that was effectively invisible to the rest of us.

We then visited the Kichwa village of Anangu, where a shaman performed a purification ceremony over our fellow tourist Denise and we bought souvenirs benefiting a fund that promotes gender equality.

Back upriver I cooled off with a quick dip in the black water of Lake Pilchicocha before lunch. It's called a blackwater lake because decaying vegetation turns the water dark. The experience is like swimming in a vat of very strong tea. We were told that the lake is home to piranha, electric eels, and we had seen the caimans, but we were assured that they didn't bother swimmers, and I emerged with not even a nibbled toe.

We had a sumptuous lunch at the lodge and then paid a visit to Sacha's butterfly house. They raise at least a dozen varieties of butterfly as well as the specific plants that make up the diet of each variety. Photo ops are endless among the hundreds of red, orange, yellow, and blue insects and I shot until my camera battery ran low.

Our last activity of the day started with a hike to Sacha's canopy walk. Built over several years, it rises 150 feet and stretches 275 yards above the jungle canopy. We were able to see a family of howler monkeys in the treetops far off as well as a three-toed sloth; there were parrots flying below us, and a toucan. We stayed to watch the sunset then descended into the darkening jungle as the rumble of thunder moved closer. Hiking by flashlight we saw a toad, a giant cockroach, and a tarantula. As we walked, the approaching thunder raised the question: not ''if'' but ''when'' would the rain let loose.

Fortunately it held off until we were hosing our boots off at the edge of the lodge compound and we avoided a drenching.

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