The rainforest canopy rustled overhead with the fragrant scent of an oncoming downpour. Glancing down at the sodden trail, we noticed a set of paw prints pressed into the detritus-flecked mud, each five inches across. They led in a slow procession of confident strides down the center of the jungle path. The hairs rose on the back of my neck.
A few days earlier, we had boarded a flight in the gleaming international terminal in Quito. We’d checked the soft luggage and strode aboard with about 40 pounds of densely packed camera equipment. The engines whirred as we glided east over the toothy, glacier-capped spine of the Andes, sparkling in the sun. Once over their shoulder, we descended into the thick, watery stew of bland gray clouds that covered the Amazon basin.
As we sunk beneath them, another world appeared. Sodden cotton balls hung in the sky over a tendril of river that slipped lazily into the misty distance where emerald forest, muddy river, and the leaden sky became one. Rain battered the aircraft windows as we touched down in the ramshackle, equatorial town of Puerto Francisco de Orellana, the last outpost on the border of a nearly sunless land of impenetrably dense foliage and endlessly flowing water. From there, we were to ferry down the massive Rio Napo via motorized canoe into a land that has been home to the Kichwa and Huaorani peoples for centuries.
Massive kapok trees loom over the southern bank of the river like airy fortresses as it traces the northern border of Yasuni National Park for almost a hundred miles. Two tribes of the Huaorani, the Tagaeri and the Taromenane, still remain uncontacted, within Yasuni, just a few days' walk south of the river. Think about that for a moment. And it would be within that park that we would find ourselves, a few days later, standing on a muddy jungle trail with the hairs rising on the backs of our necks.
Three hours downriver from El Coca, as Puerto Francisco de Orellana is also known, a scant clearing appeared on the northern bank of the river, the only opening along the bank for miles. The long canoe arced in, engines revved, pushing back upstream into an eddy. We climbed out beneath the pink petals of a tree in full bloom. An army of leaf cutter ants was marching back and forth from its trunk, ferrying bits of greenery into the forest. We shouldered our packs and headed off after them.
The trail paralleled the river for a few hundred yards then turned sharply away from it, heading directly into the jungle. A mile later, the final leg of our journey began at a small creek-side dock as we settled into the bottom of another canoe. Our guides’ hand-carved paddles slipped silently, rhythmically, into and out of the coffee-black, tannin-rich water. Birds called to one another in the canopy above. There were no other sounds. No engines thrumming on unseen highways. No electric hum of powerlines overhead. No whirring planes or honking horns. No voices. Just the all-enveloping immensity of the rain forest.
A half-hour paddle would bring us to a small, palm-fringed lake, the first time since leaving the river that we were able to glimpse a solid chunk of the sky. Across the lake, a channel overhung with vines would take us to the remote and exquisite jungle lodge known as Sacha.
That first evening, we lay on our backs in the womb-like darkness of our bungalow, a steamy equatorial downpour pounding on the tin roof overhead. Beyond the screen, walls dripped the hauntingly beautiful cacophony of the jungle night. Every insect and amphibian seemed to be calling raucously for a lover, a symphony of croaks and tweets and chirrups. There was one solemn call that permeated them all, haunting as an oboe. I have no idea what it was. Beneath us, beneath the starched white sheets pressed against our sweating backs, beneath the mattress and bed frame, beneath the wooden floor — rising through the log posts, one could just make out a low vibration, a resonant quivering of the black waters. It was there, ever so faintly, a muffled thumping, the very soul, the beating heart of the Earth. We were that close.
The Rainforest Canopy
A tiered platform rests in the cradle of a kapok tree 135 feet above the ground. We gained it a couple of mornings later with our guides, Pablo and Donaldo, just as a light rain was starting to fall. Pablo had gotten a degree in Quito before coming to the Amazon basin as a freelance guide six years earlier. Donaldo was a local Kichwa tribesman who had grown up in a village just a few minutes downriver from the lodge. The two of them were unfailingly knowledgeable about the rain forest, passionate about its conservation, always ready with a smile, and giving with their friendship. They would spend the next week with my wife and me, sharing their world and knowledge with us, typically from well before dawn each morning until 8:30 pm each night. They were indefatigable.
If you have the option to work with a private guide (or in this case, guides), we’ve found over and over again that it can be incredibly valuable. With groups, guides are always torn between the often-competing interests and concerns of a variety of guests. You might spend 90% of your time looking for lions rather than spotting birds (if that’s what you’re into), for example. Once you’ve paid to travel halfway around the world to some remote destination, the relatively small additional cost of working with a private guide can often increase what you take away from the trip dramatically.
To get to the kapok tree by sunrise, we’d gotten up in the still-dripping darkness at 4:30, breakfasted before 5:00, and by 5:30, were making our way down an inky, wet jungle trail by headlamp. Sunrise a half-hour later was little more than a gradual lightening of the gray pre-dawn, but the airy garden of epiphytes at the top of the kapok made for an enchanting welcome to the day.
The photographic opportunities in the Amazon were nearly limitless. On average, we saw a couple of dozen new species of birds each day. Some of them were recorded as little more than partially shrouded, pixelated blobs perched in the canopy a half-mile away (though, some of the bigger eagles were still identifiable at 1-2 miles, albeit with a 60x spotting scope). Pablo and Donaldo’s ability to spot wildlife bordered on the magical. They could conjure magnificently camouflaged potoos from the branches a hundred feet up, or spot a pygmy marmoset, a 3.5 oz primate, on the trunk of a tree from thirty yards away in light so the low the camera couldn’t focus.
Many birds, though, were photographed when they briefly alighted within a few meters of us. In no case, however, did I wish that we had a lens with less reach and, in fact, was often thankful for every single one of the pixels on today’s high-resolution bodies. I’d certainly vote for bringing the longest, fastest lens that can be managed while remembering that it’s going to need to be carried all day and not in a pack, but in your hand. Almost nothing in the rain forest is inclined to sit still for very long, especially with something (or someone) glaring at it. The vast majority of the shots we got we had only seconds to take. The camera was largely an extension of my arms day and night (with a second wide-angle zoom around my neck).
In addition, to reach, a decently wide aperture can also be invaluable. Even at midday, there’s rarely an overabundance of light in the rain forest. And most of the fauna is loath to sit still such that a shutter speed of somewhere between 1/500 and 1/2,000 of a second is typically necessary.
We eventually settled on Nikon’s 500mm F/5.6E PF ED: enough reach to do the animals justice, enough aperture to manage the noise. Those two things are accomplished while being light enough (only 3.2 pounds) to make it almost enjoyable to carry. By comparison, Nikon’s 500mm f/4 is 6.8 pounds, and Canon’s clocks in at just over 7. Neither has anything on the PF in terms of sharpness. Both add six inches to the length. That extra stop of light would come at a high price, then, in terms of usability for travel and adventure photography.
We did bring a 1.4x teleconverter but rarely used it. The teleconverter upped the maximum aperture to f/8, and while the D810 we primarily used the long lens with was still able to focus at that point, it wouldn’t allow for 3D Focus Tracking. Tracking turned out to be far more important than the extra reach in terms of getting usable shots.
I’d also suggest a super wide-angle lens. The shot below was taken at 24mm with a 24-70mm zoom. I had left the 15-30mm behind that particular morning and have regretted it a bit ever since for the additional options it would have provided.
We spent seven and a half hours in the forest canopy that day, as equally mesmerized by the forest of epiphytes growing on the trees as we were by the technicolor assortment of birdlife and the frequent calls of howler monkeys, often audible from miles away.
And it turns out howler monkeys might just be most enjoyable when they are miles away.
A Maze of Narrow Waters
Pablo and Donaldo guided the canoe gently around a bend, their paddles entering and exiting the water with soft, rhythmic burbles. Fifty meters in front of us, a low tree hung out over the narrow creek, its leaves rustling, branches quaking. We occasionally glimpsed flecks of cinnamon fur moving amongst the green.
“Howler monkeys,” Pablo whispered. “Just there.”
When we glided to within about 15 yards of the tree, it erupted, an organic landmine going off. Urine rained down in impressive, well-hydrated streams. Poo bomblets landed just off the bow. I have action shots that aren’t appropriate for a family publication.
That was, though, precisely the point of the canoe. You were one with the environment, an intimate part of the action. We saw a pair of hauntingly beautiful, cream-colored woodpeckers from the canoe on two separate evenings, both times in light low enough that it strained the camera’s ability to focus. They clung to small trunks just a couple of feet above water level. Then there was the sloth, mottled brown and gray, barely visible only 20 yards away. That ability to move slowly and silently through the depths of the forest was incredibly valuable.
That said, canoes do have their downsides. They’re inherently unstable. My wife once gave us a refreshing dunk in the Galapagos. I had not, fortunately, brought a camera with us while paddling that day. But if you’re on the water with your gear, the potential is always there for things to go a bit pear-shaped.
At one point, I glanced over at a spindly sapling jutting from a bank that we were about to brush against. There, sitting atop one of the broad leaves closest to the canoe, was a bullet ant. Bullet ants are three-quarters of an inch long and have the most painful sting in the animal kingdom, feeling, apparently, just about like you’ve been shot. The searing pain lasts unabated for twenty-four hours. If he’d gotten into the canoe, I might well have gotten out. And then there was the fishing spider that we spotted hunting from an old log out over the creek, not so dangerous, but with a leg span large enough to grasp onto your face from one ear to the other, he was still a little imposing.
As a result, we backed images up daily. Sometimes, multiple times a day, each time making copies onto multiple external hard drives, rugged ones. One of the drives additionally allowed backups to be performed without the need for a computer, as there’s no reason the laptop couldn’t fail, too. When we’re in cities or towns, areas where the risk of theft may be a little higher, we carry the hard drives in separate bags, one in a daypack that’s always strapped to me, the other in a piece of luggage that’s more likely to remain in a hotel room during the day.
A Walk Into the Most Biodiverse Forest in the World
In addition to being home to two uncontacted tribes, Yasuni National Park is perhaps the most biodiverse place on Earth. It’s home to one third of all amphibian and reptile species in the entire Amazon basin, as well as a third of all bird species. A single hectare of the forest there can contain 100,000 different insect species, about the same number as found across the entirety of North America.
All that exuberant growth does pose some interesting possibilities and challenges, however. Having spent just a tiny bit of time there, I now understand how people get lost. Pushing just a couple of meters off from even a well-worn trail can render it completely invisible. Get confused, turned around, take a few more steps in the wrong direction, and you very quickly have less than a one in four chance of ever finding the path again unless you have the presence of mind to think through the next few moments of your life very, very carefully.
Paths are the easiest way to move through the forest for many creatures, not just humans. We’d gone to Yasuni in search of a clay lick and parrots. When the birds didn’t appear that day, we all grew a bit impatient, standing in the stagnant heat dense with sour sweat and feasting mosquitos. Donaldo knew of a ridgeline where he’d spotted a golden-headed manakin once or twice before, a small black and yellow bird that flits between branches in the mid-story of the forest. The trail was only used a few times a year, but an attempt had recently been made to reclaim it via machete. It might be passable, he thought.
The first few steps nearly extracted the boots from our feet, so deep was the mud. But it would be that very mud that would soon open our minds, a kind of blind-sight, to a different dimension in the world around us. It would allow us to see back in time. It was while pulling ourselves up a steep bit of trail onto a low ridge that we would spot the prints of a jaguar, deep and sharply delineated in the soft mud. It’s unlikely such prints would survive even a single rain in that pristine condition. We were following the path a jaguar had taken not more than a few hours ago. We would see his prints many more times along the trail, in addition to the prints of many peccaries and of one tapir (a rare and threatened species with the hind end of a hippo, the forequarters of a mule, and the nose of a stubby elephant).
Other marks had been left on the forest that alluded to their own stories. As we neared a flat, comparatively airy stretch where the trail ran out along a low ridge, Donaldo remarked that he had fond memories of the area. As a boy, he had helped the village men fell a tree there. Indeed, there amongst the vines on one side of the path was a massive stump. The five-foot diameter trunk had been felled at chest height. Twenty yards down the trail, the upper portion of the trunk could still be seen where it just disappeared into the undergrowth. The missing section had become a dugout canoe, fashioned only with hand tools and fire, then drug by the men through two miles of rainforest back to the river’s edge. And Donaldo had been there. That was the world he had grown up in.
If your gear is going to fail, this is the place. Heat, humidity, sweat, pasty grit, and long, drenching downpours. It was always either raining, had just rained, or was about to rain. The humidity was a constant 100%.
Professional-grade bodies and lenses provide a number of advantages in this type of environment. A full-frame body (I know, not every professional body is full-frame) captures twice the light of a crop frame body, and more recent models often come with valuable improvements in noise reduction (such as backside-illuminated sensors). This can be useful when working in the stunted light of the jungle floor, trying to capture moving critters, or attempting to do both at once. Lenses targeted toward professionals also tend to have wider apertures and sharper reproduction, reducing noise and perhaps providing a bit of additional effective reach.
This is on top of what may be their most valuable asset: sturdier, better weather-sealed, tropicalized designs meant to keep all that grit, rain, and humidity out. Our gear got soaked multiple times, was toweled off, then soaked again. We met multiple people who had cameras fail on them while we were in Ecuador. If coming back with pictures is important to you, taking gear that’s meant to be abused a bit can definitely improve your chances. If you don’t already own such equipment, renting can be a great, cost-effective option (just make sure it’s insured for both theft and damage).
We took Nikon’s Z 7 and D810 bodies with an assortment of lenses, including Nikon’s Z 24-70mm f/4 S and 500mm f/5.6 PF. They all stood up to constant use, a lot of abuse, and a lot of water. We also were conscientious about putting all of it, including the laptop and hard drives, into the dry box in our room whenever it wasn’t in use. This was basically a wooden cabinet with a lightbulb inside meant to lower the relative humidity slightly. One hard drive was getting a little cranky toward the end, but that was the only casualty (and a good reminder to back up to multiple hard drives).
Note that this trip was taken last year, before the outbreak of COVID-19. As far as I am aware, the lodge is temporarily closed, and Ecuador, in general, is trying to cope with an epidemic that's taking a tragic toll on South America, as it is elsewhere. When the world regains its footing, however, Ecuador is a magical travel destination.