If the caimans don’t get you, the scorpion spiders will.

Since leaving Costa Rica I have been surprised at how little wildlife is left (or at least visible) in this part of the world (no offense Colombia) so I had my doubts about what we’d see from our slender canoe hammering through well-traveled waterways with a roaring two-stroke outboard engine.

Spider monkey, Cuyabeno, Ecuador, Amazon

Spider monkey

The first half hour or so bore this hesitation out. Great plant life…but no fauna to speak of. Then came the monkeys. Spider monkeys, capuchins, woolly monkeys, and another one whose Spanish name I can‘t remember and can‘t find anywhere, all swinging, climbing, eating, and just being monkeys. Man I love that phylum!

(Yes Mr. Ellis, my 7th grade science teacher, I know that should say “order” but phylum is just a more interesting word. See Ms. Sublett, the English teacher across the hall about Creative License.)

Then there was a juvenile anaconda, just taking a nap on top of the bushes a handsbreadth away from my face after eating somebody. There’s snakes out der dis big?

Jairo (right) and Wilson (left) spotting stuff.

Blue morpho butterflies flashed past with colors positively giddy in their brilliance, but which only show up in flight, when they land they’re just brown owing to the fact that it’s not a pigment, but iridescent scales reflecting the light, so they also change in intensity and texture with different angles and light conditions.

The birds! My god, the birds. Where to start? Brilliant yellow comes to mind first, but that only narrows it down to a half a dozen species. Herons, egrets, falcons, and an owl with the delicious audacity to be…say it with me…yellow! Who knew?

Blue and yellow macaws! I knew better, but still kind of suspected they were just something from advertising and cartoons, but no, that’s a group of four flying overhead. They made the brilliant green parrots across the river look positively plain. The weaver birds in their elegant hanging nests just laughed at our gawking.

Weaver bird nests in Cuyabeno National Park, Ecuador

Weaver bird nests in Cuyabeno National Park, Ecuador

Toucans! Great murderous beaks looking like they must unbalance the little flying chromatic festivals. (Did you know they also use them honkers to dig into other birds’ nests to eat their babies? When the Fruit Loop trees aren‘t blooming of course.)Pink river dolphins for crying out loud! I felt like it was a five-day excursion into a Dr. Seuss book. Romp in Swamp.

Laguna Grande, Cuyabeno National Park, Ecuador, Amazon

Laguna Grande, Cuyabeno National Park, Ecuador

After watching the sunset from the Laguna Grande, where pink dolphins blew mist around us and majestic birds winged overhead while we swam in the same water as caiman and anacondas (did I mention that?), we would cruise along the waterline looking for beasties. Jairo, our expert guide, would stand heroically in the bow with a good strong flashlight at eye level, watching for the red reflections of eyes.

We found a snake in the trees, maybe four feet long, pulled up close and the guide pulled the branch down so we could see it clearly…as it hung, on the jerking branch, directly over our heads. Predator stillness, reptilian patience.

We found a nest of caimans. (Did I just say that?!?) We pulled in among the plants, small spiders and miscellany raining down on our shoulders, and saw the little red glints of several sets of slitted eyes. We had an older man from the community with us that time, and he got out, barefoot, while our guide said “he’s going to go get one, but if they start making a sound like this ‘eeuuwmp’ he has to come back, because they’re calling to the mom, and she’d be aggressive.”

The local man, Wilson, came back a minute later with this in his hand.

Cuyabeno, Amazon, Ecuador, caiman
Then we crossed the laguna and found this one.

Cuyabeno, Amazon, Ecuador

Jairo estimated him at about 2.5 meters, which is larger than I thought caimans grew. We all stayed in the boat for that one. Seeing its silent stalking, unblinking movement without a ripple, prehistoric potency, spoke to a primordial part of my brain. My limbs froze in fascination while my cerebral cortex voted to run back to the cave and hide behind the fire.

It wasn’t until dinner that night that Jairo told us about the time a few months ago that one like that jumped into the canoe.

Cuyabeno, Amazon, Ecuador, scorpion spider

Scorpion spider on a night walk.

And the spiders, oh lordie, the spiders. Our dining hall had a few resident tarantulas creeping around overhead in hairy potency (and we‘re pretty sure one crapped next to K‘s plate one night). Our night walks revealed scorpion spiders with spiky crablike appendages held close to ravenous mouths, diving spiders who laugh at prey who think they’re safe underwater, and the banana spider, who even the clinically insane guide admitted he was scared of. None of them fled the vibrations of seven clumsy humans approaching. Arachnid confidence.

Sally, the family’s mother, as Jairo hung the scorpion spider on her face.

Real quick aside. When I was a kid I went to a summer camp that had a fuzzy tarantula. They would let it crawl around on your arm, and I remember feeling bad for its hairless rump where it had kicked off its hair in a futile defensive measure against brats tapping on its terrarium. I remember it as something of a goofy uncle. Definitely not a serious predator.It wasn’t until this week that I realized they never fed the thing in front of us.

Have you ever seen a tarantula hunt? Or strike? The perfect choreography of fangs, furry limbs, and merciless hunger?

Ignore that tickling on the back of your neck.

Sleep tight tonight.