Coca, the gateway to the Amazon (2013)

If you like tinny, tiny planes and even tinier airports where no security detail gropes you and your suitcase does not disappear down a hurtling belt into a yawning hole, Coca is the place for you.  Jomsom and Lukla in Nepal or Murghab in Tajikistan pale in comparison to Coca situated in the bowels of the Amazon jungle.  As I step out of the plane and walk towards the one-room terminal, a dozen or so people seem to be straining at the rope thrown haphazardly across the gate.  These are departing passengers waiting to board. The arriving passengers enter through the other gate and wait for their bags.

That’s when I notice them. Dozens of young men sporting Halliburton T-shirts and Timberland boots.  Even the flight landing in Coca had brought bus-loads of them, similarly attired. These are oil industry workers who will be carted deep into the jungle to wreak havoc.  Just a handful of us arriving to see the pristine jungle before it disappears watch with awe as the Halliburtons shuffle purposefully towards the 14-seater aircraft.

Coca is short for Puerta Fransisco de Orellana, after the Spanish adventurer who went in search of the origins of the Amazon river. But that was incidental to Fransisco de Orellana’s main quest—of finding the cinnamon forest, which was believed to be somewhere east of the Andes. So he built himself a raft, enlisted a few hundred able-bodied men, both Spaniards and local people, and set sail downstream of the Coca river. He lost almost all his men and suffered huge setbacks, but never wavered in his quest, which first took him down the Coca to the Napo, one of the major tributaries of the Amazon, and thence downstream into Iquitos in today’s Peru. Fransisco never found his cinnamon forest, but the world is richer for the knowledge it gained of the course of the Amazon. No wonder then that Coca is named after him although the local people and the airline companies simply refer to the town as Coca.

Coca sits at the confluence of the Napo and the Coca, both of which originate somewhere in the highlands of the Andes. Coca town, an unremarkable, oil-stained urban conglomeration bang in the middle of the virgin rainforest, is the landfall point for all the resources taken out of the forest. Oil brought to Coca in barges from the rigs installed in the jungles is transported through a pipeline to the Pacific port of Balao from where it is shipped to refineries in Colombia and Venezuela. Logging is also big business in this region, where every year some 300,000 hectares of rainforest disappears under the gigantic mechanical timber harvesters. Logs are floated down the Napo to reach Coca from where they are shipped to sawmills. I am reminded of a similar sight in another pristine rainforest on the other side of the planet, Borneo, where the Kapuas river was clogged with millions of logs floating downstream to the sea for export to sawmills in Malaysia and elsewhere.

Our jungle lodge has sent a pickup from the airport and we are escorted to the boat jetty a few kilometres away. From here, we board a small motorised speedboat that will take us into the jungle and to our lodge in about six hours. We sail upstream of the Napo. The river, at least a kilometre wide here, is abuzz with boats and barges, and the banks are a beehive of activity. Our boat speeds like an arrow through the river, raking up a fine spray in its wake. Frequent sandbanks require our pilot to zigzag through the waters, keeping close to the coast.

And then it unfolds – the destruction. Gas flares appear with regular frequency along the route where they are left to incinerate insect life send thick black plumes into the jungle to choke birds and other canopy dwellers. Where land-clearing equipment and oil platforms have ravished the fecund forest, there are unseemly tell-tale bald patches, harbingers of further destruction to come.

After five hours on our jetboat, we reach our lodge nestling on tiny floating piece of land. Capyberas graze on the banks, an alligator’s protruding eye pops out of the murky water to take in the boat and its passengers. Red rumped casiques are noisily quarrelling with their neighbours, their yellow beaks protruding from their pendulous woven nests. A lone sloth eyes us warily from its perch on top of a tall tree. Stinky birds also known as hoatzin take flight in fright.

We will spend the next five days deep in the Amazon forest, exploring its slushy hidden mysteries and communing with its weird and wonderful creatures.