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Tracking the lemon ants of the Amazon

[Photo: Stan Sinberg]
Part of the hunt for the lemon ants included walking through a swamp on this path of planks made from palm trees.

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

After slogging and canoeing through a section of Ecuadorian jungle, the travelers were ready to sample the refreshing ants with the citrus tang. But where were they hiding?

Trish and I are hot on the trail of the wild and ferocious lemon ants of the Amazon. We're in the Ecuadorian jungle, and while we could have opted to look for jaguars instead, my "bargain" travel insurance covers me for injuries incurred only from animals at least 25,000 times smaller than I.

We are at La Selva (which translates as "the jungle") Jungle Lodge. Thus far, in search of the ants, we have paddled a canoe for a half hour across a lake, marched a mile through jungle swamp on a chonta (palm) boardwalk and ridden a motorized canoe.

From there we tromped to a lookout where we watched hundreds of mealy parrots and macaws descend from trees to feast on a clay lick. The parrots lick clay because they eat fruit that is not quite ripe, which gives them toxic indigestion, and the clay breaks down the seeds in the parrots' tummies.

After the parrots, it is time 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 lemons. This is one of those claims that make you wonder who has the job of sampling jungle bugs for flavor, how much they get paid and how good their health plan is.

So we slog over muddy hill and dale (or the Ecuadorian equivalent of a dale), while every few steps Effy, our guide, holds up his hand in the "halt" position and then points out edible roots, mushrooms and plants. (This causes me to worry that any second now he is planning to abandon us.)

Suddenly Effy grows excited, motions to a tree branch and points to a bird called the long-tailed patoo, which is not only extremely rare, but also has a name that is fun to say.

Several other times Effy points to a toucan or hawk in the trees, only to lament, "Ah, it has 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.

This bird imitates the call of up to 30 species of his flying neighbors, in an apparent attempt to fool the other birds and thus expand his territory. To do this, he reels off a whole repertoire of Other Birds' Greatest Hits, for up to 30 minutes.

Continuing our quest for the tart and tangy lemon ants of the Amazon, we pass through an amazing variety of vegetation. Effy tells us that during our journey we will see, if not recognize, about 500 species of tree and even more species of vines.

And law of the jungle aside, we do 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 have not seen yet are the ants.

"All you need to survive in the jungle is a machete," notes Effy. Because of high winds the night before, we keep encountering branches and downed trees criss-crossing the trail and blocking our way. Clearing our path 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, because we are in the rain forest, but when it rains, all the animals seem to disappear. You can neither see nor hear them. Even the normally dependable cicadas, who serve as the "white noise" of the jungle, go silent.

But then, before the rain actually begins, we come to a clearing and there they are -- the nutritious lemon ants of the Amazon!

They are . . . minuscule, and they look a lot like the ants you saw on last summer's picnic. But these ants have flavor, so that after they eat your food, you can eat them back. We watch them climb up and down a tree for about three minutes, we shrug, and then without tasting any of them, we head back to the lodge.

That night for dessert, in our lodge in the thick of the jungle, our waiter serves us -- honest -- lemon meringue pie.

At least, I prefer to think that it was lemon meringue pie.

- Freelance writer Stan Sinberg lives in Mill Valley, Calif.

If you go

GETTING THERE: La Selva Jungle Lodge is situated on Lake Garzacocha, in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle. Flights leave from Quito, Ecuador, to the town of Coca (the roundtrip fare is about $120), and this is followed by a two-hour, motorized canoe trip on the Napo River.

La Selva offers three-night and four-night excursions. The rates are $547 and $684, respectively, and are per person, based on double occupancy. The price includes accommodations with private bath, all meals, guides, jungle tours, transfers, taxes and rubber boots for jungle strolls.

A passport is needed to enter Ecuador but not a visa.

There have been no recorded cases of malaria or other tropical diseases at La Selva, but you might want to check with a physician before going on a jungle trip.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: For bookings and reservations, go to or call 593 2 550995 or 554686. Check with a travel agent for other information on the trips or on Ecuador.

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