One of our goals for our trip through South America was to explore a part of the Amazon rainforest. After lots of research we chose to visit the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in Ecuador. It has been a national park since 1979 and is an enormous 6000 square kilometers of extremely diverse forest near the borders of Colombia and Peru. Cuyabeno is home to many famous Amazon species including jaguars and pumas, dolphins and giant river otters, anacondas and piranhas as well as 10 species of monkeys, not to mention over 500 species of birds and countless species of fish, frogs and insects.
To get to the rainforest we made our way to the gateway town of Lago Agrio (also called Nueva Loja) where we took a bus two hours down a small highway to the Cuyabeno River and the entrance to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. Here we met our guide Ivan who has been operating tours in Cuyabeno for over 40 years and is the owner of Hotspots Lodge. He led us two hours down the river in a motorized canoe to the lodge where we would spend the next 4 nights.
We were immediately in awe by the thick encroaching jungle that seemed to be over-taking the river. It felt truly special to be in such a pristine environment. The wildlife spotting began almost immediately as Ivan pointed out various troops of howler monkeys and macaques swinging in the trees that hung over the river banks. Arriving at our lodge ready for adventure we met our other guide, 28 year old Freddie who has grown up in the amazon.
After a quick lunch we set out in the canoe again to see more of the reserve. Our first stop was alongside a dense bamboo thicket to hear a unique colony of ants. Freddie got us all to shout and make noise, then wait quietly and listen. To our amazement we could hear the sound of marching. The ants inside the bamboo all work in unison to make the marching sound to imitate a large animal when they are disturbed!
From here we boated further down the river to a wide stretch where our guide noticed a disturbance in the water. We shut off the small engine of the canoe and drifted silently, scanning the surface of the black water. Then we saw it. The back of a pink river dolphin arch out of the water, exhale then sip another breath of air before diving again. We sat for 20 or 30 minutes watching as not one, but two dolphins continued to surface and dive while searching for food. We then made our way to Laguna Grande (large lagoon). The water was high, swamping many of the trees and the remoteness gave us a real sense of adventure. The setting was absolutely beautiful.
As it was getting dark we headed back to the lodge. Along the way hundreds of bats came out of the trees and were swirling around our boat, skimming the water and gobbling up all the insects, which made for a pretty surreal experience. When we got back to the lodge we had a terrific dinner and soon after crawled under our mosquito net to fall asleep to the chorus of chirping insects and frogs.
We woke up slowly on our second day, trying to really appreciate the experience of sleeping in the Amazon rainforest. The sounds are different in the morning. The buzz of insects dies down and a melody of bird song takes over with the resonant groan of howler monkeys in the distance. We ate our breakfast then prepared for a hike through the Cuyabeno jungle.
Donning rubber boots, we followed Freddie down a trail that led away from our lodge. He pointed out some of the 60 varieties of medicinal plants he knows and we kept our eyes peeled for any movement. It’s very tough to spot wildlife while walking in the jungle because it’s so dense that you can only see a few meters off the trails.
We came across a fallen tree that Freddie immediately recognized as a favourite home for a type of fat white grub that is used medicinally. He hacked away at the tree with his machete and in no time we had a banana leaf full of plump wriggling grubs that he somehow convinced us to eat (they weren’t bad once you got past the look of them!). After a few hours of exploration we headed back to the lodge and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a group of tamarinds (a type of small monkey) climbing through the canopy.
In the afternoon we climbed back in the canoe and headed to the lagoon, this time bravely deciding to go for a swim with the assurance from our guide that it was completely safe (we weren’t entirely convinced though as this is part of the same water that has anacondas, caimans and piranhas… but what the heck, you only live once!). The water was warm and refreshing and with the sun was setting over the steamy jungle horizon it made for a magical experience.
After waking up on our third day we canoed to a different and less explored part of the reserve to go on another hike. It wasn’t too far down the trail that Freddie had to expertly swing his machete to clear space for us to fit through the tangle of vines and plants. Along the little used trails we followed the tracks of a bull and some boar as well as an armadillo, but unfortunately (or maybe for the better) we didn’t get to see them as they were well hidden. We also learned how to climb and swing with vines, which looked much easier than actually doing it, but was a great Tarzan experience nonetheless.
In the afternoon we were back in the canoe, this time with Ivan, for some more wildlife spotting. We saw tons of birds including hoatzins, anhingas, kingfishers, herons, toucans, macaws and parrots. We also found a few snakes including a small anaconda and a vine snake eating a frog. Out in the lagoon we got to see the pink river dolphins as well as a curious troop of squirrel monkeys watching us from the trees. The diversity of life around Cuyabeno was absolutely incredible! To top it off we were treated with another spectacular sunset.
After dinner we decided to go for a walk through the pitch black jungle. Freddie warned us to be careful not to touch anything as all kinds of dangerous insects, spiders, scorpions and frogs come out an night. It was a pretty creepy experience walking through the jungle with only a flash light, having no idea what we would find. Not to be let down, we did find many strange insects including a huge poisonous tarantula than can jump up to 1 meter! At one point Freddie had us turn off all our lights and stand for a few minutes in the total darkness listening to the symphony of insects. Luckily we survived to make it back to the lodge to try and get some sleep with a new appreciation for what is in the jungle just outside our hut.
On our fourth day we had a different type of adventure. In the morning we climbed into a smaller canoe, this time leaving the motor behind, and set off on a three hour paddle down a new section of river to visit a small community. The village was a settlement of the Siona people, a small indigenous group that live in Cuyabeno. The Siona have embraced eco-tourism as a source of income and way to protect their lands from further oil exploration. In the village we met their shaman, Delio Payaguaje, who is a very well respected shaman throughout Ecuador and Colombia. He explained to us about different aspects of their culture, especially the use of ayahuasca and other hallucinatory medicines that are frequently used by their people to cleanse them and connect with the spirit world.
Afterwords we experienced a traditional ceremony where the shaman recited prayers and rid us of evil energies. Following that we met a woman named Maria who showed us how to harvest yucca, a staple food of the Siona. We ground the yucca into flower and cooked it into bread over an open fire. It was great to get such a hands on experience with the Siona people.
That night we set out in the canoe armed with flashlights for some more wildlife spotting. It can be easier to find animals at night as the light from the flashlights will reflect off their eyes. While travelling slowly down the river we were able to spot a few caiman, as well as snakes and a capybara. Again the jungle at night was very creepy as we occasionally brushed into trees that could have snakes, spiders and ants on them. However, once again we all made it back unharmed.
For our fifth and final day, we woke up at 5 am for another unique experience. We paddled our canoe down the river just as the sun was coming up. The sounds of the awakening jungle set amongst the first rays of sun was absolutely incredible. To make it even more interesting we brought some fishing poles and chunks of raw beef to do a little piranha fishing. After churning the water around our canoe to simulate a struggling animal we tossed our lines in the water and the action started right away. Piranhas are voracious predators and they would often tear the bait off our hooks before we could pull them into our boat. We were rapidly going through our bait and Rebecca was proudly the only one (aside from Freddie) to successfully hook a piranha and land it in the canoe. Back at the lodge, after one last delicious meal we climbed back in the canoe for the ride back to the park entrance.
We were so impressed by the beauty and diversity of the Amazon and the way that people live in harmony with it. It was definitely an experience we will remember for the rest of our lives.