The farther we got out of Lay, the bumpier, the muddier and the more scenic the road became. Large swatches of thick, lush, and verdant jungle surrounded us as we climbed toward the reserve. The road shook us as we stood on the back of the 4X4 hired truck, bouncing up and down like we were children jumping on a trampoline. The engine back fired every two or three minutes sending a shrill through our bodies as we laughed and the wind blew through our hair and we held tightly to the metal bars. The truck crested a mountain and we could see miles and miles of mountainous farms and interspersed jungle.
The car stuck to the mud and the overweight driver stepped out of the car, looked at the tires and climbed back in. I guess he just needed to look at it to fix it. We were flying again down the road; the driver kept trying to hit donkeys and dogs. On top of the crest, I thought , this must be the reason that I travel. But maybe not, maybe it's the drinking.
We stopped. He jumped out and told us we were there. We asked him to wait for us.
"Claro." He said. We told him we would be an hour.
We walked down the muddy road and into the rain forest. Giant palm-like trees surrounded us in this Jurassic world. I just stared at the foliage hoping to catch a glimpse of a howler monkey or some sort of tree-jumping primate. I really wanted to impress everyone with my monkey-spotting abilities.
We walked twenty minutes in and looked down a hill to see a middle-aged woman sharpening a machete in front of a concrete structure. We walked toward the woman. She introduced herself as Julieta. Carlos then appeared and shook all our hands and offered us a fresh banana and freshly squeezed lemonade. He then offered us a fruit that grows only in this part of the jungle. The outside looked like a round, brown strawberry, but after a peel a small pear/apple like fruit appeared. It tasted like a pear/pineapple/apple/sugarcane.
Carlos asked us how much time we had. He then rushed to put on his galoshes, and we were off down the trail. Immediately, we came upon a sloth in a tree. He told us, in a clear, slow Spanish, that a sloth sleeps eighty percent of his life.
Carlos and Julieta have been reforesting and taking care of the reserve for fifteen years. In demeanor alone, we felt the passion that they both felt for the work they do. Every five meters Carlos would stop and show us something new, from centipedes to seeds that numb your mouth when you bite them to 200 hundred year old trees, that yield a hallucinogenic leaf 150 feet above your head. He showed us a spider that walked across the water, numerous frogs, the devil´s penis and the devil´s house.
When we arrived at the devil´s house he told us to stand around a red, twenty foot in diameter, five foot high ant pile, and stomp our feet. The seven us stomped and stomped. "Twenty seconds," he said. Then after twenty seconds, the ants began to file out. He picked one up and asked who had strong hands. Nick put one on his hand and then curious Alex had to put one on his hand. The ant put two fangs to the side and then moved them in to pinch Alex´s skin tightly. He bled profusely.
Carlos knew the forest well. He must have walked down those trails, smelling and eating shit so many times to know that one seed does this and this leaf tastes like that. The reserve was home to researchers from different universities across the world. One doctor had been there for seven years. Carlos and Julieta were the most altruistic people I had met on any trip. They genuinely wanted to share their enthusiasm and knowledge of the forest with us. Unlike most people we have interacted with, they wanted nothing in return, no money or donations; they just wanted to be nice to us. People would pay a lot of money to go on a tour with a trained biologist through the rain forest, but we just gypsied our way into an out of the way place because we could because we have bus.