Now the reason this guide may seem so geographically specific is that in 1984 my wife and I began building a lodge. To get there I had to slog 6 hours through chest high swamp suddenly arriving at the edge of a magical lake, paddle a canoe with a hole in it the size of a papaya that sank as I spotted my promised land-and after many trials and tribulations led me to the foundation of La Selva Jungle Lodge, on Lake Garzacocha, now about a twenty minute walk from the Napo River and two and a half hours from the Amazon town of Coca in one of our launches.
It took me and my wife with trusty guides six months to find this spot that many have called paradise –each with his own reasons- and another two years to build the lodge with 50 men, 2 horses; one named Bitch and the other named Moan. An Ecuadorian Architect who was fired, a Colombian engineer who was fired, an absolutely Mad Belgian with construction skills who was also fired and through it all I learned a great deal about jungle flora, fauna and peoples.
What makes you comfortable and what works and what doesn’t in the forest, what are the truly great and attainable sights for the short time visitor, what our guests like from surveying some 60,000 of them and now with the perspective of just about 25 years , the majority of my adult life, I believe that while you will find a great bias for La Selva in this essay, the facts, practical ideas, and a sprinkling of philosophy you can take to any lodge, anywhere among the now abundant choice about which I will make no quality assessment. (Suffice it to say that I was the first alone on the river for many years and for many years it would take days for a motorized canoes to pass by our river dock. Now they seem almost hourly. River entrepreneurs of all stripes ply these waters and the oil industry is the major player.)
I have been taught volumes by our native Indian trackers who in some cases have worked for us 25 years, and much by visiting neotropical biologists who have carte blanche to visit and study and have published a great number of papers on our butterflies and other creatures and from everyone and everything, about life in general, La Selva attracts a great many wise people who care about our earth and are well informed about it and from them I have laughed and learned: what a luxury it is to have a place where bright caring people come to me and I do not have to seek them out.
The First Concern
For most people the first concern about visiting a place as remote as The Amazon Jungle and within it a lodge which has no resident health care professionals is daunting. They have seen and heard fact and more Hollywood fiction about tropical diseases, fatal snake bites, fish that swim up penises, piranhas that will reduce them to skeletons, anacondas that will swallow them whole and jaguars that will tear their heads off. I’m here to tell you that as La Selva reaches 70,000 guests over its near 25 year history none of those things have happened to anybody. The most serious things that have happened are three-fold: a sprained ankle, a cracked rib and a slight concussion to a man that was hit on the head by a falling tree limb.
Now we do have contingency plans for almost every kind of injury and our guides carry first aid kits, and the most extraordinary event week in and week out is that we ALWAYS have at least one and usually several doctors as guests (never called upon) but the injuries I mention above just don’t happen. I think I must have more raw data on the subject than anyone so I speak with authority when I tell you there is nothing to worry about.
As to tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever and the more exotic dengue and the horrible typhoid: We have never had a case of any of these but you are going to go to your family doctor or your tropical medicine clinic or wherever they puncture and provide pills for such things and the practitioners who have never been to La Selva and who are looking at outdated geographic information are going to give you shots and pills for all of these things and for this I am truly sorry.
BUT PLEASE NOTE: LA SELVA JUNGLE LODGE, NOR THE AUTHOR, NOR ANY OF THE AUTHOR’S REPRESENTATIVES, NOR ANY OF THE AUTHOR’S HEIRS MAKE ANY MEDICAL OPINION NOW OR AT ANYTIME EITHER IMPLIED OR DIRECT ABOUT MEDICAL PROPHYLACTICS OR POSSIBLE ILLNESS FROM THE LACK OF USE OF SAID MEDICINES. LA SELVA, THE AUTHOR, HIS HEIRS, SUGGEST ONLY THAT THE VISITOR TO THE AMAZON JUNGLE CONSULT HIS OR HER PHYSICIAN AND DECIDE WITH THAT QUALIFIED PRACTITIONER WHAT COURSE OF ACTION TO TAKE WITH RESPECT TO INOCULATIONS AND OTHER PROPHYLACTICS WHILE VISITING THE AMAZON. Do I Make Myself Clear?
The Second Concern
La Selva is located .2 degrees below the equator. It’s weather is effected more by the Humboldt current which comes from out in the pacific ocean and rolls over the Andes and makes up its mind whether or not to dump water on the Amazon. There are strange weather conditions called El Niño which can last for years with the Humboldt Current which effect the weather pattern in the Amazon.
On a daily basis warm humid air rises from the ground and if cloud conditions are correct the heavy particles in the clouds made full of water by the humidity from the earth. The clouds then produce what is called convection storms which cool the earth down again in the form of rain and so regulate our tropical temperature so that all living things will survive to see another day. A ten year weather chart of my area looks like the peaks and valleys of the Swiss Alps which is to say there is no distinct pattern. A lot of people like to say that January is the driest month and June is the wettest month but I have seen many wet Januaries and many dry Junes.
What does all of this mean beside the fact that global warming may be gumming up the works for everybody everywhere is that there is no absolute pattern of weather in the Ecuadorian rainforest and in is after all a RAIN forest. So whenever you come you will experience some glorious rain and it is one of life’s great pleasures to be out in the forest in the rain and while on that day you may not see any primate activity you will see other amazing things that our trackers and naturalists can only point out to you when it rains. We have guests year round and January and June are equally busy so come at least to the rainforest in the upper Napo anytime of the year. In Peru and Brazil where the rivers rise 40 feet or more in their rainy season (inquire) I know some of them continue to operate but it is no longer a land based experience.
What to wear
I wear high quality light colored running shorts and short sleeve running shirt. On my feet if it is muddy I wear rubber boots (provided at the lodge) with soccer socks that come up above the height of the boot. For good measure I give the rubber boots one turn down to form a cuff so they never rise above the soccer socks (if I have to cross a stream I flip the rubber back up).
Now I have a woman CEO who probably spends more time out in the jungle than I do who wears long pants and long sleeve shirts and sometimes a good dose of deet bug spray and we will go out together and she will come back loaded with bug bites. None of our native staff uses any protective clothing or bug juice.
My theory is that I have become impervious to the things that sting in the forest just like my staff and that unless it is swarming sand flies which are rare and seasonal and biting flies which are enormous, I think my skin has become immune to the allergic reaction of a mosquito or insect bite.
It is also based on the notion that most lodge trails are well defined and although we rotate our trails at La Selva, having a very large expanse of land, you do not bump up against much that would do you harm.
That Said I would start you off with lightweight long sleeved shirts and pants, the rubber boats and a hat. If you have these items in a light color so much the better so that you can immediately see if there is a critter of any sort on your person. Don’t bathe in your insect repellent but put in on strategically and carry the bottle so that you can be prepared with more to allay your fears. A bandanna or a handkerchief might be useful if you are prone to heavy sweating.
A brief note on Bluejeans. If you are taking La Selva’s survival package where some bushwhacking will be involved blue jeans or other heavy pants are recommended because they will keep thorns and thistles from scratching your lower extremities, but for lodge hikes they are NOT recommended because once wet they do not dry out (unless sent to the lodge laundry and if you are in the middle of t a day hike and they get wet you will be especially uncomfortable dragging yourself around for the rest of the day.
Clothing to wear around the lodge can be as casual as you want I find that people dress up a little and by that I mean nothing more than a new-looking shirt and pants or shorts.
One strategy you might want to use at least for the bottom half of your attire is to have what you will call “field pants” pants that are muddy but have remained dry, old pants, that you can make last for maybe two days or even your whole trip and another set of clothing that is your lodge clothes, the squeaky clean clothes that you will wear to every meal and to hang out in the bar.
For foot wear around the lodge most guests wear sandals or flip flops (there are elevated boardwalks going most everywhere) and nearly all having realized the lack of menace opt for shorts and short sleeved shirts. If it looks like rain, grab the huge umbrella that sits in its bamboo cone outside your bungalow and take it to the bar or the restaurant or the hammock house or wherever you’re headed. Usually a nice breeze kicks up off the lake right into the bar where Pepe, our Barman since ancient times, can whip up any cocktail you can think of.
You leave your boots which are provided free of charge outside the cabin and at La Selva if they have been clung by a great deal of that wonderful Amazon mud, most of it will be dry by morning and will easily kick off- or ask your guide to direct you to the boot washing station near the butterfly farm.
Sleep wear should be light, but surprisingly many jungle nights require a light blanket which you will find in your night stand.
Finally, to show that some organizations are all-encompassing, if you have kids, check to see if the lodge is kid-friendly. And by that I mean that they are able to cater to children from special menus if necessary, to, like La Selva (sometimes one family or two families together for private tours). We have board games and play dough in the bar for downtime when parents can rest assured that our staff will keep a keen eye on them or join in the fun. I recommend the age of four as being a reasonable first time age because I have seen it work again and again. Of course, you know your own child and their expected adventure travel reactions, but since there are almost always other kids at the lodge you just might be surprised. At La Selva we have even taken infants, using native women as nannies for the new parents and it has worked out just fine.
Now for those of you who envision yourself in a group with boisterous children not seeing anything and generally getting a pain in the neck. It won’t happen. The moment you are bothered for any reason you are free to go to another group, just ask your guide. If we can see it when they arrive we try to pair off boisterous children (and boisterous adults) with a separate guide immediately. Sometimes we can make an all children group. So for those expecting tranquility in the forest,let it be known that we always have enough guides and enough contingency plans to give you that tranquility. Exuberant child or tranquil transcendentalist make sure the lodge you choose can address these issues.
A note about our Ecotourism Standards
As near as we can tell we are the only lodge in the Amazon that consistently practices zero tolerance ecotourism and we have the awards on our website to prove it. We continue to win global competitions for our ecotourism projects which you can also find in great detail on our site. If this is an issue in choosing your lodge you should enquirer of the lodge other than La Selva what ecotourism activities they are involved in and compare their efforts with ours.
Additionally, we have formed a foundation to help the indigenous people of our area and although still in its infancy we have made great strides already. Read further about it on our website. Again we believe we are the only lodge in Primary forest who has taken on such charitable responsibilities.
An Excursion in the Rainforest
OK. You’ve got your shiny boots on. They make you feel ready to go. The binoculars are hung around your neck, close at hand. Camera’s on your hip, maybe. You’ve been introduced to your native tracker who, at La Selva is a kich-wa Indian who probably lives in the neighborhood and has walked the forest you are about to step into all of his life. He knows all the birds , all the tree sounds that indicate which kind of monkey, all the tracks that tell us where the jaguar has been. He has a P.H.D. in jungle craft. He knows the names of all the things you are going to see in English and he will help you to find them.
He even has a little secret instrument that he uses that I am not going to reveal here that we’ve discovered that helps you see what he sees. And with him is the Naturalist, A man or women of great learning usually with a masters or P.H.D. in neotropical science who is there to help point things out and explain as much or as little of the rainforest and its flora and fauna as you care to hear. He or she is a walking encyclopedia . Can produce the Latin names if you want and tell you which plants are medicinal which are hallucinogenic and which are just simply beautiful.
On your first excursion you will see maybe 25 species of birds with names like the screaming piha, the paradise tanager, the long tailed potoo, you can try to write them down if you want but sometimes things will happen very fast in the jungle and the cuviers toucan sighting will lead you to a troop of squirrel monkeys and capuchin monkeys traveling together their babies holding on for dear life to their stomachs.
Then a violaceous jay calls as the monkeys swing from sight and next an oropendala makes its famous drop-of-water call and the next thing you know your native tracker appears with a frog in his hands the exact color and complexion of the leaf litter on the forest floor and he’s about the size of your thumbnail so for sure if you brought that magnifying glass…
Not all things in the forest happen in split seconds but it is the hunt; being in a primary Amazon forest where everything that should be here is here at one moment or another that is so exciting and that will fill you with the marvel and wonder you had when you were children, perhaps a sense about the world that has long since atrophied. Many of our Guests visit the Galapagos Islands either before or after a trip to La Selva and almost all of them note the difference in the two experiences.
More than a few favor La Selva. In Galapagos, they say, if I may paraphrase them, certainly, there are wondrous creatures to behold, but you must stay on designated trails take your turn at designated times and always are in contact with people on other tour boats. It is understandably, one of the prices you pay for going to one of the most unique bio diverse locations on earth. But, they say, in the rainforest, if it is rich like La Selva and not all lodges have rich forest, there is always the anticipation that you will see and by seeing experience something extraordinary in wild nature. A feeling that is lacking for many in a Galapagos Islands trip.
As You have read, I have highlighted La Selva Jungle lodge because I built and know its forest and peoples the best. There are many lodges in Ecuador , some on the same Napo river as my own and while I do not wish to cast aspersions on any of them let me just say the experience is different in everyone of them. So between the facts here I have tried to give you a little insight to the La Selva experience because having no experience an average traveler may end up at a perfectly bad lodge and think it was as good as they get and that they therefore had a good time. Accept nothing but the best and wonder why no other lodge has put together a document like this, in good faith, to help you get ready for and experience THE AMAZON RAINFOREST.
I hope you make it down river to see some truly primary forest and have some experiences like the one I describe because like we say at La Selva: “It just might change your life.”
Sincerely and on Behalf of the Wonderful People Who Work With Me,
Copyright Eric Schwartz 2009 (All public use must be cleared with the author.)