Week four complete and what a week it has been. From white water rafting, to landing in a jungle lodge deep in the Amazon rainforest, this week was packed with high-pitched shrieks and full body laughter. It’s hard to believe we fit in as much as we did in just seven days. We already miss our guides, Vladimir and Jerson, who cared for us with thoughtful attention and shared their abundant knowledge of this unique biome.

White water rafting was the first day. We met Vladimir and set the tone for our adventurous week ahead. Split between two boats, all students and teachers paddled their way down class three rapids. Many students opted into upping the adrenaline level by riding the front of the boat, bucking bronco style. We all continue to laugh at the memory of Camden making it her personal mission to hoist students back up on the front when a wave pushed them to the bottom of the boat. As Camden explains, “it’s a waste of a bronco turn to spend it stuck inside the raft, may as well make the most of it.”

Kate and Ryan also get a shoutout for collaborative effort. I will forever have the following image ingrained into my memory: Ryan is seated directly in front of Kate, shielding her as they get repeatedly pummeled by water. Ryan is immobilized by both laughter and the gallons of water pouring into their lap and smacking them in the face. Our guide Vlad continues to yell “Forward! Forward!” Kated is head down, charging ahead, and all she can see is Ryan not paddling. She has no sympathy for her drenched classmate taking the brunt of the rapids. “PADDLE RYAN, PADDLE!” …which only made Ryan laugh harder. Who would’ve thought this was Kate’s first time rafting? She might as well have been leading the charge.

On a more serious note, our rafting experience also exposed us to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon. Throughout our float, we witnessed several illegal mining sites that have expanded in the region over the last year and a half. In addition to clearcutting sections of delicate land along the riverbank, this type of mining also surfaces mercury and other toxic chemicals. Ultimately, these toxins are washed back into the river posing a dangerous threat to wildlife, communities downstream, and the entire ecosystem. This first-hand experience connects directly to the discussions and topics students are exploring in Science and Global Studies.

On Wednesday, the excitement of the week continued, reuniting with Vlad, meeting Jerson, and making our way to the jungle lodge. However, rather than heading straight for the lodge, Vlad and Jerson demonstrated the importance of slowing down, seizing opportunity to witness beauty along the way. Below, Claire recounts our hike to a waterfall as our first stop of the day:

One of the best parts of the last week in the Amazon was a beautiful hike and you won’t believe it… a WATERFALL!! Many of us were nervous for an hour long hike up hill in rain boots. Our fears were not eased when in the first five minutes we had to navigate a herd of extremely poisonous rain ants. Apparently one bite is excruciating. We carefully avoided them, thankfully no one was stung. I thought I felt phantom ants crawling on my legs for minutes after. Our guides Vladimir and Jerson made the hike so much fun. While we walked, we learned about a flower that looked exactly like a rooster comb that helps babies sleep. We saw centipedes and vibrant blue butterflies walking through the jungle. I felt like an explorer searching for ancient ruins. When we stepped out of the thick forest, catching sight of the waterfall, I knew we had finally found our treasure. It was stunning. We raced up boulders trying to reach it. Water cascaded down 35 feet into a glassy pool. We quickly changed and jumped in and, WOWZA it felt good! Cool water and sweaty, sticky skin, absolute bliss. Fifty minutes passed climbing up to a small ledge and jumping in… swimming under the waterfall, looking out at the other blurry swimmers… simply laying on the rock, soaking up the warmth of the sun, staring at the canopy above. This alone was beautiful. It made the hour hike completely worth it. I still can’t believe we were able to experience it.

Eventually we made our way to the river port where we boarded 20 foot long motorized canoes. We raced downstream and soaked in the lush landscape surrounding us on either side. After about twenty minutes we docked and climbed a mysterious staircase through the jungle and landed at our home in the rainforest for the next three days. Our adventures continued with a two-hour tromp through the forest to learn about the medicinal plant life in the area. Students experienced firsthand the powerful effects of certain flora and fauna. The following day, we boated to the property of a neighboring family who taught us the customs and traditions of Kichwa culture and a few of the crafts, artistry, and recipes that are staples of their community practices. Rather than returning to the lodge by boat, we instead traveled by innertube, once again howling with laughter the entire way. We pulled over at a beach and spent over an hour finding our inner kid: playing games, cartwheeling, skipping rocks, and tackling each other into the water. As we made our way back to the lodge, Vladimir stared down river and said, “This is paradise, this is my country.” After the day we had, we all gained a new understanding and appreciation for his words.

Our final day in the Amazon was made up entirely of activities and outings. Below, Chloe reflects on our visit to an animal rehabilitation center focusing on native Amazonian species and their hopeful reintroduction into the wild:

Hello from the Amazon! Today we took a boat ride through the river to visit a wildlife rehabilitation center called AmaZOOnica. Right after we arrived it started raining buckets and it was so loud against the metal roofs that we couldn’t hear anything. Naturally, we spent this time teaching our guides dance moves to the new Beyonce song! When the rain slowed, we began our tour, hiking past enclosures of tapirs, white-necked toucans (the loudest birds in the Amazon and I felt horrible for the other birds in the cage), and week-old baby spider monkeys clinging to their mothers. We learned all their stories – some had been kept in bars, hotel lobbies, or used in university experiments (all illegal, yet all common). They also told us about the smuggling industry. Each Amazonian parrot can be worth more than $10,000 USD – equivalent to a year’s salary for some. As well as smuggling birds across international borders, some are hidden in car exhaust pipes. It was an amazing experience and *note to our parents* many of us are already plotting to come back and volunteer!

We spent this week in a magical biome that exudes life and vibrancy. Jerson and Vladimir were essential to our experience and generously shared el espiritu de la selva with each of us. Although our time in the Amazon is now over, we carry these experiences and lessons into our next destination. Onward we go!

– Mabel