I could write diaries and diaries about this place and, one day, I probably will. For now, my goal is to give you an overview of our trip. I won't lie to you, for my family, this was an expensive vacation. But by the end of four days, we felt that every penny was well spent. My youngest, the future wildlife biologist, wants to go back during the South American summertime. We missed the lizards, the snakes, and some of the insect life by visiting in winter. But we also escaped the mosquitos, the snakes, and the oppressive humidity. I don't like snakes.
Our adventure actually began in the town of Puerto Iquazú, where the staff of the lodge picked us up in a most interesting vehicle:
The windows around the sides and in the front of the truck gave us great views of the landscape around us. Normally, we would have driven through Iguazú National Park but the rain the night before made the road impassable. So we took the long way around - a big letter U - using a local highway and then smaller roads through local villages. We essentially swapped routes as that is the one they would normally use to come back on on the way out. Both take the same amount of time to travel. We learned a lot about the local economy during the drive - I have enough material for another diary so I will save it and the pictures for that one.
Our arrival was late afternoon and one of the guides caught my eye as we drove through the gate and parked in what looked like solid jungle. I looked at him and said, "I am as excited as a little kid on Christmas morning!" and he laughed and responded, "I can tell." The lodge is hidden among plants and flowers. It is designed to blend in with the landscape. Its architect definitely succeeded.
We were greeted with drinks and warm chipás, local, delicious rolls made from manioc flour and cheese. The inside of the lodge was warm and comfortable and my boys immediately felt at home. The shelves held books about nature, picture albums of the building of the lodge, finds from the jungle floor, magazines like National Geographic, and local art work from the indigenous Guaraní.
We were soon led outside the lodge to see our rooms. My family had our own small casita with separate entrances to each bedroom. My husband and I were on the back of the house, my kids in the front. They were close enough to hear if attacked by some strange jungle animal in the middle of the night but far enough away that we weren't concerned with the basic back and forth of a 12 and 15 year old. Ideal lodging for parents. Almost ideal for brothers. They did have twin beds and only had to share a bathroom!
Before dinner time, we met at an outdoor patio for a slide show about the lodge and to learn about our agenda for the next few days. Enrique, our main guide, had planned our hikes so that over the course of four days, we would see almost all the different stages of the jungle - in decline, in full growth, and in transition. We were also going to take night hikes and to kayak the streams and large river bordering the Nature Reserve. We would be joined by the Guaraní cacique (chief), Kuarahí, for many of our adventures.
We also had a better chance to meet the other guests. We were a very international group. My own family is American. We had a second family with us from France. There was a couple from Germany. Our guide, Enrique, has a German father and a mother from Paraguay but was born in Brazil. Our second guide, Nico, was the only one from Argentina and he was born in Cordoba - wine country! Two days later, when the French family left, we were joined by a woman from Australia. The staff spoke English, Portuguese, Spanish, and German. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that they may have spoken more and we just didn't hear them.
The following morning my family woke up earlier than need be. We wanted to hear the jungle sounds and catch any animals that might be returning home as dawn broke. But mornings here start very quietly. Slowly, as the sun begins to rise, the birds begin to sing, but not before. We never saw an animal this early nor heard one rustling in the bushes. They are probably there and we were probably to loud in our excitement to see them. In the far distance, we could sometimes hear the crowing of the rooster at the nearby farm. Once I heard a strange hooting sound but no one could tell me what I might have heard. Probably a bird but with such a deep, guttural note that I continue to hope it might have been some monkey. But otherwise we only heard the silence and that, after living 6 months in a large and always loud city, was a marvel in itself.
Our day truly got started at breakfast and our first picture of a small bird, a Surucua Trogon, from the window of the lodge.
Each morning, our hikes started off early in hopes to catch the wildlife waking up with the sun. Because it was wintertime and therefore cool and misty, the jungle was a little sleepy. Each morning, we found butterflies still resting in the trees. And the sunlight would just be peeking through the jungle canopy.
Our hikes were a combination of natural history lesson and searching for Waldo in the form of wildlife. Enrique taught us about the tallest of trees and smallest of birds. We learned that the orange flowers blooming in winter are named for the Fiesta de San Juan that takes place on Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. And that the fruit hanging from some trees are called Caraya Bola, or Howler Monkey Balls, much to the amusement of my sons. He showed us the tiny hole drilled at the base of a flower that does not open wide enough for the beak of the beekeeper bird so it has found a different way to get to its nectar. He pointed to animal tracks on the ground and was alert the moment he heard a different bird call in the sky. Basically, Enrique was an excellent guide because he was a part of the jungle - and we could tell the jungle was a part of him.
Enrique also seemed to have the right tool on hand. Sometimes it was a book so that he could show us a the picture of a bird we could hear but couldn't see. He had a small microscope so that we could look at fallen butterfly wings. And he taught us how to use our binoculars as a type of magnifying glass so that we could look at the delicate fairy mushrooms growing on some of the trees.
Our best hikes in the morning were on days two and three. The weather warmed up slightly and the jungle was more active. I can't tell you how many times I heard the voice of my son, warm with emotion and fraught with excitement, "Enrique! Look what I found!" He learned to moderate his excitement to avoid scaring the wildlife, but he met every new discovery with such awe that the memory of it still brings tears to me eyes.
We were fortunate to see capuchin monkeys not just once, but twice, during these hikes. In the morning of day 2, they were sitting in the upper canopy eating breakfast, sometimes hopping from tree to tree. At first, I thought they were as curious about us as we were about them. But then I saw a set of really sharp teeth between pulled away lips and I realized that they really just wanted us to go away.
We saw a different troop later in the evening but it was too dark for good photos. The lead matriarch was calling her troop home for the night and we could see dark figures flying from tree branch to tree branch through the jungle dusk, barely silhouetted by the fading light. My little guy was hoping for one more troop of monkeys - he wanted to be able to say he had seen a brigade of monkeys!
We also saw tons of birds. Many escaped my camera lens! I have shots of bare branches to prove it. I almost gave up hope of getting a decent shot of any type of toucan. The first day after lunch, my husband and I went off exploring while my youngest hung out by the lodge. We had hoped to track down some hummingbirds in the small garden. In the meantime, Connor had sat by the pool, lounging in a deck chair, and saw eight toucans eating berries from a nearby tree. And he didn't have a single camera with him! We, on the other hand, saw nary a bird and had both cameras with us. Needless to say, I followed my son's example for the next two days!
I will be publishing a Dawn Chorus on 9/11 with more pictures of birds from our entire trip to Missiones Province.
I have to admit that my husband and I were taken with the fungi. I never expected to see mushrooms in the jungle. With the recent rains, there were mushrooms everywhere! Some were small and delicate and looked like swarms of fairy ballerinas, others were solitary and grand in stature. Some where low to the ground and others grew high up on the trees.
After a full morning of hiking, we always ended up back at the Lodge for lunch and some time for rest and recuperation! If we were a few minutes early, most of the group would plop down by the outdoor fire pit. The French father and son, my oldest son, and Nico took turns playing on the old acoustic guitar, slightly out of tune but it provided a modern method of communication between the international set. It really is amazing how American music brings people closer together. Good ol' Rock n' Roll.
After lunch, we could always head back to the room for a nap but it was much nicer to spend time in a hammock instead. The view of the sky through overhanging trees provided interesting shapes and shadows. Some afternoons, we could see vultures floating on the thermals high, high above. On the warmest days, we watched butterflies. Oh, the butterflies were just magical. They would pull me from the hammock out into the real world again and I could spend hours following them around. Their colors were gorgeous in the subtropical, afternoon sunlight and their meandering paths led me to discover more and more hidden corners of this unreal place.
We also managed to see a fair amount of wildlife in the early afternoons. The coati was hunting for food next to the lodge one day when we walked out after lunch. The agouti we saw from a raised platform trail nearby. He was our prize on the day my son saw all the toucans! And the squirrel, believe it or not, is a rare sighting for this part of the world. I had taken a picture not because I knew it was rare because I was taking pictures of everything. It was only later that Enrique and Nico both shared their surprise that we had seen one. They were very excited for us. We explained that squirrels are very standard fare in North America. I'm not sure they believed us!
By mid-afternoon, we were ready to hit the trail again. Two of the three days, we headed to the water. Nearby, there was the Arroyo San Francisco, a wide stream that feeds into the larger Rio Iguazú. With the recent rains, the water was so high on the first morning that Kuarahí didn't cross over to join us. But he made it for the afternoon kayaking.
The stream itself is a dark, murky red but that is not normal. Or, at least, it didn't used to be. Modern farming methods upstream have inundated the water with eroded soil and, as a consequence, the larger river is polluted as well. You can see pictures from my diary of the Cataratas del Iguazú. The damage to the ecosystem is still being ascertained but obviously river life suffers from this poor farming practice. One of the goals of Yacutinga is to plant more vegetation along roads that eventually lead to the river to help prevent heavy run-off and to educate neighboring farmers.
One of our funniest memories of the trip was Enrique warning us to hold our paddles correctly in the kayaks so that we would not wet our pants. My family laughed a little too loudly and had to explain the difference between getting your pants wet and wetting your pants to our guide, Nico. In truth, both of our guides spoke excellent English but idiom takes years to learn and if no one ever tells you, you never can improve. We only hope that we find enough local porteños to correct our own Spanish so that we make fewer of those kinds of mistakes!
Our kayak trip began on the Arroyo San Francisco which is the boundary between Yacutinga Lodge and the Guaraní reserve. The land on both sides of the river is sub-tropical jungle. The dividing line between the Guaraní reserve and farm land further down river was very easy to locate. The forest opened up and the mudbanks were more eroded even though it wasn't actually cultivated farmland next to the reserve. But the layers of jungle just were not there. Obviously, there is a serious need to save more of this land, both for the Guaraní and for our planet. This place cannot be easily replaced.
The afternoons in the jungle are relatively still. We could hear some birds singing but saw few of them, even though Kuarahí attempted to bring them out with his bird calls. We were lucky enough on our last day to see a Kingfisher. I love the beautiful little birds and there name in Spanish is as lovely as they are, Martin Pescador. I wasn't lucky enough to snap a photo but I won't forget the joy I felt when I saw him perched next to the water and then launch off his branch and fly away. Enrique says that the birdwatchers that come to Yacutinga have a saying for bird sitings that are exciting; they call them bird orgasms. He had to explain that one to me in English because my Spanish wasn't quite up to that vocabulary!
Our river voyage included the drinking of maté. One day soon, I will publish a diary about yerba maté and the art of drinking it with friends. For the moment, you need to know that this ritual has its roots in the native Guaraní culture and is practiced throughout South America. We see folks sipping maté on Sunday afternoons in the park, on the subway, while hiking, and on long drives. Everywhere. The first sips can be shocking. The tea tastes green and bitter. My husband and my oldest son love the stuff and drink it almost daily at home. I always drink when offered some by a friend - I love the ritual more than I love the taste, though the taste isn't bad, just strong. And drinking maté on the Iguazú River seemed so appropriate, with Argentina on the one side of us and Brazil on the far shore, that I would never have said no. My thanks go out to Enrique for sharing his maté with us!
After our maté, our river voyage soon came to an end. We docked at the farm that is a part of the Yacutinga Reserve. We saw the fruit orchards and tasted the local lemons, sweet, sour, and tart. I wished for the perfect accompaniment of some tonic and gin. We toured the site and saw the exotic species that had been planted years before and still remain on the property, perhaps as a reminder of what the Reserve is trying to change. The farm is now a scientific station for biologists working with Yacutinga and a home for some of the employees of the lodge. Volunteers also stay nearby in a beautiful building designed in a style similar to the main lodge.
The two different afternoons that we did this trip, we left the farm property just as the sun was beginning to set. We enjoyed watching the bright blue jungle sky fade to pale lavendar, to deep midnight blue, to dark black shot with thousands upon thousands of stars.
I have never seen stars so brilliant in my entire life, not from Yosemite National Park, not from the heart of Alaska in mid-winter. The Milky Way was more than white, strewn with the pale pastel colors. One evening, the staff had arranged for tea and a snack at the dry swamp, about halfway back to the Lodge. We sat on the benches, sipped our coffee or tea, and enjoyed the still evening. The fireflies came out and we watched their flashing lights overhead. Then my young biologist noticed flashes coming from the ground and went to investigate. He managed to discover a small insect in the dirt that emitted the flashing lights. He is definitely hooked on nature.
Taking pictures at night was a challenge, but we did manage a few. The best we found were two great birds, a Motmot and a hummingbird. They were both spectacular finds because their colors popped with the bright light of Enrique's headlamp. Neither of them were spooked by us, which surprised me even more.
Enrique and Nico both taught us how to use our headlamps to spot small creatures in the night. At first, we were sure they were pulling our leg. They would look ahead on the trail, their lights shining in the brush on the side and then announce a find. They would hike up ahead, kneel down and look in the undergrowth and always find a wolf spider or an insect of some kind. Every time. It took him a while, but once he figured out the knack, my youngest had one of the best finds of the night, a pinky-purple centipede.
Hiking back one night, we could hear the workers from a neighboring farm celebrating the latest yerba maté harvest, the strumming of guitars and singing of happy voices echoing across the distance in the still jungle night. My oldest son found a small deer, better called a brocket, hiding in the brush and was thrilled by the encounter. We all were finding our own piece of magic in this place.
Our last morning, we were invited to plant trees to help reforest the land that had once belonged to the farm. I felt like we each left a piece of ourselves with each small tree. I watered mine with a few tears. As a military wife, we move around a lot and we meet many people. Yacutinga Lodge is one of the most special places I have ever been and the people who have created it are people that I would like to know for a lifetime. I only wish we had enough money to take my youngest back every year from now until the end of time.
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