FEATURE ARTICLES: TRAVEL: In Search of Edible Ants
Tasty crawling treats await in Ecuador's jungle;
[Chicagoland Final Edition]
by STAN SINBERG
We're at La Selva ("The Jungle") Jungle Lodge, and thus far, in search of the ants, we have paddle-canoed a half hour through a freshwater lake, marched a mile through jungle swamp on a bamboo boardwalk, motor-canoed to a landing area, and tromped to a lookout where we watched hundreds of mealy parrots and macaws descend from trees to feast on a clay lick.The reason the parrots lick clay is because they eat fruit that isn't quite ripe, which gives them toxic indigestion, and the clay breaks down the seeds in the parrots' tummies. The next time someone waxes poetic to you about how marvelously efficient nature is, point to parrots' chomping clay because they don't have the sense to eat ripe fruit as an effective retort.
Hot on the trail
After the parrots, it is time once again to search for the tasty and refreshing lemon ants of the Amazon. They are so-named because, supposedly, if you put three or four in your mouth, they taste like a bad car. No, they taste like lemons, although this is one of those things that cause you to wonder who has the job of sampling jungle bugs for flavor, how much they get paid and how good is their health plan.
So we tromp over muddy hill and dale (or the Ecuadorean equivalent of a "dale") while every few steps Effy, our guide, holds up his hand in the "halt" position to point out edible roots, mushrooms and plants (which leads us to worry that any second now he is planning to abandon us).Suddenly, Effy gets excited, motions to a tree branch and points to a bird called the long-tailed patoo, which is not only extremely rare, but fun to say. (Afterwards Effy kept sighing about how if he only could nail the patoo to that spot, he could make a lot of money bringing tourists in to see it).
Several other times Effy points to a toucan or hawk in the trees, only to lament "Ah, it's flown" by the time we scramble to see it. Effy invokes the Law of the Jungle--two seconds and it's gone," but Trish and I suspect Effy is just claiming to see the birds to impress us.We do, however, hear a great variety of birds, and that's when Effy tells us about the famed Lawrence's thrush, the Rich Little of the jungle.
Lawrence's thrush imitates the call of up to 30 species of its aviary neighbors in an apparent attempt to fool the other birds and expand his territory. To do this, he reels off a whole repertoire of Other Birds' Greatest Hits for up to 30 minutes, and the only way you know it's the thrush and not the original is that Lawrence's is like a bad vaudevillian who doesn't know when to get off the stage, and after awhile, you go, "Hey waitaminnit! There's no way that 17 different species of bird who wouldn't be caught dead together are all gonna be singing from the same branch."
But enough with the birds and bird imitators. It was time to continue in quest of the tart and tangy lemon ants of the Amazon.Along the way, we pass through an amazing variety of vegetation. Effy tells us that for this to be classified as a park, which it is, there have to be two different species of tree per foot, and that in the course of our journey, we'll see, if not recognize, about 500 species of tree. And even more species of vines! And here, Law of the Jungle aside, we spot squirrel monkeys, white-faced monkeys, manicques, caciques, vultures, poisonous frogs and hoatzins, otherwise known as the "stinky turkey" bird. About the only thing we haven't seen yet are the ants."
All you need to survive in the jungle is a machete," notes Effy. Due to high winds the night before, we keep encountering branches, limbs and even trees criss-crossing the trail and blocking our way. This is a job for Andreas, our angel-faced 16-year-old machete wielder. In four days of hacking, slashing and thwacking, Andreas never utters a word.
Suddenly, we hear thunder. This is not unusual of course--we are in the rain forest--but it's bad because when it rains, all the animals in the jungle almost magically disappear. Not only can't you see them, but they go silent as well. Even the normally dependable cicadas--cricket-like creatures who serve as the "white noise" of the jungle--go silent.
But then, before the rains begin, we come to a clearing--and there they are, the nutritious and citrusy lemon ants of the Amazon.
They are . . . minuscule and look a lot like the ants you saw on last year's summer picnic. But they're not, because these ants have flavor! After they eat your food, you can eat them back! We watch them climb up and down a tree for about three minutes, shrug, and head back to the lodge.
That night for dessert, in our lodge in the thick of the jungle, our waiter serves us--no lie--lemon meringue pie. At least I prefer to think that it was lemon meringue pie.
IF YOU GO - THE LODGE
La Selva Jungle Lodge is situated on Lake Garzacocha, in the Ecuadorean Amazon jungle.Flights leave from Quito to the town of Coca, followed by a two- hour motorized canoe trip on the Napo River; the cost from Quito is $120 round trip.La Selva offers three- ($547) and four-night ($684) excursions. Rates are per person, double occupancy and include accommodations with private bath, all meals, guides, jungle tours, transfers, taxes and rubber boots for jungle strolls.Booking & reservations:
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