What if your tourism dollars could help save the Amazon rainforests and wildlife? What if your trip budget could go towards alleviating severe unemployment (60-70%) and conserving traditional culture on an Amerindian reservation? Vickie Lillo shares highlights from her family’s stay in Northern Amazonia, Guyana (think anacondas, waterfalls, and Amerindian Philosophy) as well as information on how to follow in her footsteps and delve deeper into the Amazon on your next vacation.
Field-Herping in Reservation Territory at Pakuri, Northern Amazonia
The winding road into the Lokono-Arawak Reservation has dried out slightly after last night’s torrential rains. Pools of shallow running water course alongside the shallow embankments, churning the sand into a soft greyish loam. Shloop, shloop, the muck suctions around the soles of our waders. The three of us – my husband Gustavo, 17-year old son Nicolas and I – are ‘field herping’ with our indigenous guides, on a quest for reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates, here in northern Guyana, on the outskirts of the Amazon River Basin.
Just up ahead, past a towering breadfruit palm, our Amerindian guide, ‘Ducky’ Simon, scrambles up a mound of soil, silt, and clumps of weeds. Open savanna pans out in front of us. Dakama trees—used for BBQ coals—and monkey cutlass saplings dot the landscape, alternating between ground-level vegetation and sporadic patches of tall green grass. Interspersed with brown stalks the color of hay, the verdure grows haphazardly. Occasionally, a purple blossom, tousled by a whisper of wind, dances across the savanna plains.
“Frequently, the sun hides her face behind billowing wisps of nebula, only to materialize again without warning. She smiles so brightly I’m convinced her grin will burn through my broad-brimmed hat like a laser.”
We trek for an hour or so, one moment in blistering heat, the next under cover of clouds. Frequently, the sun hides her face behind billowing wisps of nebula, only to materialize again without warning. She smiles so brightly I’m convinced her grin will burn through my broad-brimmed hat like a laser. Tecumseh, our host’s son, dodges under a cashew tree. “Let’s take a break.” So, six of us huddle in the shade of the lofty evergreen; leathery leaves and clusters of pink flowers gather round the strange kidney-shaped drupes.
‘Buddy’ Tecumseh plucks a pair of orange fruits and hacks the nut from its shell with his machete. “And this is called the cashew apple,” he says, handing me the succulent part. “It’ll quench your thirst. It’s very sweet.” I suck on the refreshing nectar until my teeth are stained a nice yellow tincture and there’s not another drop of juice left. Re-invigorated, we set off toward the kokorite palms at the forest’s edge. Squawking green-rumped parrotlets fly overhead, lost in chatter.
In the wake of the overnight deluge, the soggy trail, which began as a path of decomposing leaves winding between ferns and strangler figs, has disappeared underwater. A trio of playful lizards skitter among the liana vines.
Amerindian Philosophy 101 at Ayonto Hororo Eco-Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary
Back at our all-inclusive Eco-lodge, Damon, our host and heir to the Hereditary Chieftancy of the Eagle Clan of the Lokono-Arawak nation, brings out the real ‘herps‘- a red-tailed boa constrictor caught on the savanna a couple of days before our visit and two land tortoises from the enclave out back. “You see how its jaws unhinge?” His hand is securely clamped at the back of the boas’ neck, to disable the head, as he shows off the constrictor’s fangs and mouth. “That’s so it can swallow an animal whole. It has spandex-like skin.”
“‘You see how its jaws unhinge?’ His hand is securely clamped at the back of the boas’ neck, to disable the head, as he shows off the constrictor’s fangs and mouth. “That’s so it can swallow an animal whole.”
“Some tribes consider snakes and crocodilians to be representative of negative spirits when seen in visions and dreams…for Lokono-Arawaks, the Anaconda is the animal representation of the supreme negative entity, as the Eagle represents the supreme positive entity.
“Eagles soar high above the storm clouds, so we teach our kids to act like Eagles and soar above the dangerous storms of life – hatreds, jealousies…petty quarrels of men.” Damon plunks the red-footed land tortoise at my feet. “Peaceful animals like the Tortoise, on the other hand, who harm no-one, are to be emulated and are viewed as representations of positive entities and positive qualities like taking time to enjoy life and living in peace.”
As for me, I can’t decide which enthralls me most – Arawak spirituality or the terrestrial turtle with the bright red speckles on his front and hind legs, and the fluorescent yellow stipples atop his head. The tortoise looks as if someone has gotten ahold of him with a bedazzler from the 80s.
Damon’s love and respect for wildlife doesn’t just extend to reptiles. In 2003, Damon helped pen the Nancy Lewis Cullity Parrot Protection Act, so that all parrots/macaws on the 240-square miles of the reservation would be safe from being hunted and sold off to the pet trade markets. Because of the law, you can meet Laura, from the Eco-Lodge, an orange-winged amazon, and Ashton, a yellow-crowned parrot living with Ducky along the Mahaica River. There’s even a scarlet macaw from the village you can salute. All of them must be allowed (by law) to roam the woodlands at will by day.
Anacondas, a Jon Boat and a Machete: The Mahaica River, northern Guyana
The aluminum jon boat eases amongst the buttonwood trees and mukka mukka bushes alongside the river. Buddy has his machete at the ready – to cleave leaf fronds and thorn-riddled kongo-pong trees out of our way. Or deftly re-route swaying cobwebs encrusted with hundreds of baby spiders.
We’re on the watch for the Guyanese national bird, the hoatzin. A dozen photographs later, we return to the main current of the black-tinted waters and pass an Amerindian family cruising the river, in a hand-hewn dugout canoe – they’re off to buy goods in the village.
“The home-made piragua sits so low, I’m afraid that a marauding water camoudi (anaconda) could potentially slither in, cross over, and exit the other side without even breaking its rhythm.”
We continue upstream, to try our hand at catfish and cichlid fishing, despite the swelling of the river to 5-6 feet above flood stage. A Lokono teenager paddles effortlessly, without a ripple, as he ferries his sister to the trail leading to the local school. The home-made piragua sits so low, I’m afraid that a marauding water camoudi (anaconda) could potentially slither in, cross over, and exit the other side without even breaking its rhythm. I feel safer in our metal jon boat especially since Buddy carries that machete everywhere we go.
30,000 Gallons of Water Per Second and Carnivorous Plants at Kaiteur Falls
Mist rises from the thundering Potaro River Gorge, ascending from the base of Kaiteur Falls, to the plateau above the cascade. Thirty-thousand gallons of water per second, during the rainy season, overflow into the chasm below…roaring, reverberating. White-collared swifts bandy through the veil of deafening water, ever on the prowl for insects.
“’ There are no mosquitos.’ The Reason: not just birds rummage for bugs….so do the plants… ”
According to our Amerindian guide, Thomas Williams, insect repellant isn’t needed here in the only National Park of Guyana. “There are no mosquitos.” The reason: not just birds rummage for bugs…so do the plants, with yellow bladderworts and red sundews (a moss with sticky hairs to trap its prey) being the most common. The endemic golden frog, only ½ inch long, lives here from tadpole to maturity.
Tribal Barbecue, Temporary Tatoos and Archery Experiments at the Econo-Lodge
In spite of the limited income on the reservation, here, no-one goes hungry. Or without meat. A few of the tribesmen still hunt the traditional way, with bows and arrows, for pacas, (Old World hogs), marudies (wild turkeys) and tapirs (another pig-like animal). But they only hunt for food. “If you need to consume another life form in order to prolong your own life, you must first ask the Creator…then you must thank the animal for allowing you to use its body to feed the bodies of yourself and your loved ones.”
Tonight’s barbecue is to be chicken, enough to feed an army, grilled over the savory-smelling Dakama wood. While we wait – we experiment with archery with hand-made indigenous weapons. I’ve been temporarily ‘tattooed’ in traditional tribal designs by Damon and his recruits. Our host is actively trying to re-teach some forgotten arts and learn the Lokono language, currently only spoken by tribal elders.
“While we wait – we experiment with archery with hand-made indigenous weapons. I’ve been temporarily ‘tattooed’ in traditional tribal designs by Damon and his recruits.”
For the tribe, the eco-lodge isn’t just a business. It has three very important functions. First, to educate tourists from all around the globe about the importance of disappearing rainforests. Secondly, to preserve the Lokono-Arawak culture, and thirdly, to provide financial support to the tribe members so they don’t have to contract out for 3-4 months at a time with the mining and lumber companies
How to Get There:
Flights via Copa Airlines, Caribbean Air, and Fly Jamaica, Insel Air, Surinam Airways, etc. to Georgetown, Guyana, Cheddi Jagan airport. Get the best price on flights from Miami.
Where to Stay:
Ayonto Hororo Eco-Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary, Upper Mahaica River, Region 4, Guyana, South America
Accommodations, laundry, three meals per day plus bottled water, transportation round-trip to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, English speaking guides, all tours customized to your interests (birding, jungle trekking, fishing, field herping for reptiles, traditional Lokono craft-making and village visits, etc), domestic flight to Kaiteur Falls on 12-seater Cessna airplane.
$1000/person for 6 nights, 7 days – 4 person minimum. Groups will not be combined, so you’ll have a ‘private tour’ with the Amerindians of the Reservation.