In a village known as Infierno—that's right, Hell—our group of a dozen visitors descended a wooden staircase by the riverbank and stepped carefully into the vessels that would take us downriver. Long and narrow like a canoe, each had an outboard motor on the back, individual upright seats, and a tarp roof to keep out the sun and rain. Posada Amazonas, our first lodge, was a couple of hours away.
Much of a trip to the Amazon is spent in boats like these—there's no other route to the lodges. Along the way, the kids listened to their iPods, and guides plied us with plantain chips, passion fruit, and a delicious lunch of vegetable fried rice, each portion bundled in a bijao leaf and tied with a vine, a wrapping approved for disposal in the river. But mostly we all watched the primordial landscape drift by. It was a slowly unspooling movie of sandy beaches, high tree canopies, occasional glimpses of small farms—discernible by the top of a roof—and surprise creatures: ostentatious oropendolas (weaverbirds), with long, forked tails, their basket-shaped nests hanging from branches; black caracara raptors; and family pods of the world's largest rodent, the capybara, grazing casually among the grasses. The river water is so opaque that a submerged hand is not at all visible. The presence of parasites—as well as piranha, caiman (an alligator cousin), and unexpected currents—makes swimming ill-advised, though we couldn't resist getting a little wet.
Eco-conscious Posada Amazonas is announced by nothing more than a sturdier-than-usual staircase. The cane-lined main structure stands in a clearing; when approaching, you can see into the surprisingly monumental meeting area and the dining room. The roofs are churchlike in amplitude, high beams supporting traditional thatch. Everything is on stilts to keep it away from bugs and moisture. Walkways lead to the 30 guest rooms, each with one side wide open to the forest, beds under mosquito nets, bathrooms with cool running water (no need for hot water here), and so many candles and lanterns you almost don't notice that there's no electricity.
We stowed our bags and, though there was little time before dinner, donned rubber wellies from the lodge's large collection, applied insect repellent, and headed out for the first of many jungle walks. Hikes in the rain forest are an experience of enclosure. The dense canopy above means that you seldom get a direct view of the sky and may not even know when it's raining. The air is usually still and moist and hovers around 85 degrees. It smells of the carpet of damp leaves, of sweetness here and sourness there. The lack of sunlight limits plant growth, and the understory is relatively open. You're in a soft-light world of spaced-out trunks, low shrubs, and fallen branches. And though you get the feeling that there are plenty of animals around, the challenge, we discovered, is finding them.
Thanks to sharp-eyed Geraldine and Asa, we spotted titi monkeys, hidden by vines, and tracked a pair of toucans as we stood atop a beanstalk-like observation tower. The next day, we peered up at kapok trees, the giants of the rain forest (some grow to be 200 feet tall), and white-trunked Brazil nut trees (sales of the nuts constitute a big part of the local economy). Geraldine pressed the leaves of a small fern to Nell's forearm, resulting in a cool white tattoo, and pointed out the round spiky pods that give the monkey's hairbrush tree its name.
Slowly, we began to appreciate the radical mix of outsize and minuscule wonders. We crossed a path, only six inches wide, that intersected with ours—a superhighway of leaf-cutter ants, coming and going in prodigious numbers. Each ant was hoisting a polygon of green leaf over its body. These plant pieces, Geraldine explained, were being hauled to a vast underground nest, where they would serve as a growth medium for the fungus that feeds the colony. The freeway was guarded at its edges by soldier ants, five times the size of the workers, with massive jaws. We kept our distance.
Rainforest Expeditions has been deservedly praised for its partnership with the local community, largely made up of members of the Ese'eja tribe. Posada Amazonas is built on their land; community members make up the kitchen and other support staff and sometimes work as guides. The two groups share profits from the lodge operation. Another benefit we experienced the next morning: a tour of the Ese'eja's Centro Ñape, a medicinal-plant garden. The Amazon is famous as a source of medicines—25 percent of Western pharmaceuticals, including many cancer treatments, stimulants, and tranquilizers, are said to be derived from rain-forest ingredients (though only about one percent of its plants have been studied by scientists).
Our guide, Don Jorge Mishaja, sported a San Francisco Giants T-shirt and a necklace bearing jaguar and boar teeth. As Geraldine translated his Spanish, Don Jorge showed us plants that supply cures for maladies ranging from the common cold and fever to bad luck and sexual impotence.He passed around twigs from the cordoncillo plant and we touched the ends to our gums, which instantly felt numb; these, he explained, were used in dental procedures. He extolled the virtues of the uña de gato (cat's claw) vine, which a Japanese woman in our group said was the only cure she'd ever found for her intestinal troubles. He also described the powers of the ayahuasca vine, central to shamanic rituals and legendary among hallucinogen-seeking hippies of earlier days. Asa perked up when Don Jorge told us how the liquid center of an achiote pod could dye the skin a deep orange. Minutes later, our son, face thoroughly self-painted, was ready for any ceremony a medicine man might bring on.