Cuyabeno Travel Blog

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I know you´re skeptical about the term Ecuadorian Amazon. Prior to this trip, I too thought that the Amazon was in Brazil. Turns out half of the Amazon basin is in Brazil, and the other half is shared by Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela. Who knew.

We booked our trip –- four days, three nights -- in Quito through a company called Neotropic Turis; it was a bit more expensive than the others, but it advertised its eco-friendliness. Among other things, this means that they didn´t cut down trees in the jungle to build their camp and they don´t do their laundry there. We felt a little guilty about being tourists in the jungle (though we told ourselves that some amount of tourism is keeping it from being used for more consumptive purposes), so we happily paid an eco-premium.

We visited a part of the jungle called the Cuyabeno Reserve. All tours of the Reserve leave from the town of Lago Agrio, 170 miles east of Quito. One of our guidebooks describes some jungle frontier town as a “dusty oil town” -– I think this actually referred to a different town, and while Lago Agrio is not particularly dusty (too humid), if you picture it as a dusty oil town you get the right idea. Lago Agrio means Sour Lake in Spanish; it’s named after the original Texas headquarters of Texaco. The town´s official name is actually Nueva Loja, but even the bus schedules say Lago Agrio.

There are two ways to get to Lago Agrio from Quito -– bus (7-8 hours) or plane (1/2 hour). We decided on the bus. Maybe this sounds like a waste of a day, but I like long bus rides in foreign countries. It´s a good way to see more. Plus it was $52 cheaper than the plane.

We arrived at the bus station in the morning ahead of time, so we took the opportunity to brush our teeth by a trash can. (We´d run out of bottled water the night before and had only just bought some more). A few minutes later I went look around. I returned to find Nick being interrogated by two uniformed armed men. Oh no, I thought, what if it´s a crime Ecuador to brush your teeth at a trash can? I was sure we were going to be carted off to jail. Actually the armed men were employees/security guards of the bus company (many businesses in Ecuador have their own armed security guards), and they were just trying to figure out what bus Nick was supposed to be on. The bus to Lago Agrio had been cancelled. The official reason was mechanical problems, but as there was no one else in line for a refund, we deduced that it was because we were the only people on it.

We stood around fretting for a few minutes (was it too late to catch a flight? would we have to take the sketchy night bus?), until one of the security guards told us there was another bus to Lago Agrio leaving from the main station. He hailed us a taxi and gave the driver instructions to take us to that bus. As we arrived, the bus was pulling out, but our driver shouted at it and they found us two seats together.

I spent most of the bus ride looking out the window and paying half attention to the movies being shown (first, an awful American action film called Half Past Dead that involved Russian thugs, the FBI, and prison riots –-possibly a big hit in Ecuador? -- and then Ocean´s Eleven, dubbed in Spanish). It was a pretty drive through a green, mountainous region with a river and several waterfalls. Up to this point, we hadn´t planned how we were going to get back to Quito, but we decided the number of narrow cliff passes, lack of guardrails, and daredevil passing habits of Ecuadorian drivers ruled out a nighttime return on the bus. We stopped once, at lunchtime –- the local specialty was trout any way you want it, but we´d brought our own PBJs, assembled after a trip to an amazingly nice Ecuadorian grocery store called the SuperMaxi. Seriously, if SuperMaxi decided to expand operations to America, I would shop there. They might be wise to change their name though.

We got to Lago Agrio, a town of 34,000 people, with the whole night before us. There is nothing –- nothing –- to see or do in Lago Agrio, so we stuck to our hotel´s restaurant for dinner (name: D´Mario Hotel Pizza Restaurant) and went to bed early.

Our guide was supposed to pick us up the next morning at 7. Suffice it to say that no one showed up until 10, after I called the office in Quito to find out what was going on. (The phone cabin store where I made the call was two businesses in one –- telecommunications provider and underwear vendor. So the next time you´re in Lago Agrio and you need both to make a call and buy underwear, you should definitely save time and go to this place). There had been a miscommunication between the Quito office and the local operation, so they arranged for us to take a truck-taxi for the approximately two hour ride from Lago Agrio to the Cuyabeno river.

The motorized-canoe ride down the river was incredible. It was just like the jungle boat ride at Disneyland -– or at least that´s the closest thing either of us had experienced before. The river was maybe 25 feet at its narrowest, 50 at the widest, and smooth. It was surrounded by the jungle on both sides; at the narrow parts of the river, the jungle formed a canopy over us. I´ll post pictures of it, but they won´t be any good. First, the visual experience was all in the details –- colourful butterflies, snarled roots, flowers, mosses, nests, vines, jumping fish. Then there was the soundtrack –- a constant buzz of insects and calls of birds, and occasionally what we thought might have been monkey chatter. The smell was earthy and sweet. Because the boat was moving fast, we kept getting pelted by large flying insects.  It really stung when they hit our faces.  Well, sometimes you´re the windshield, sometimes you´re the bug...

It was surprisingly sunny during our boatride. We had been led to expect constant rain, but it never once rained during the day while we were in the jungle (disappointing -– we kind of wanted to see rain in the rainforest). It was a good thing though that we were resigned to the idea of being wet for four days straight, because everything dry turns damp in the jungle. Even when it doesn´t rain, the humidity hovers around 99 percent.

We arrived at the camp after a couple hours on the river. We met our guide, Marcelo, who is 24 years old and has a wife and a month-old baby in Quito. He had been in the jungle for the last fifteen days and was looking forward to getting back to Quito after another five. Later we found out that his fifteen days comprised his entire tenure as a Cuyabeno guide, but he such a sweet guy that we couldn’t be irritated with any lack of expertise. Marcelo learned English in college, and while his English is definitely better than my Spanish, at least as far as jungle vocabulary is concerned, I fear we lost much in translation. On our first afternoon there, I was trying to figure out how many times we had crossed the Equator during our journey from Quito to the jungle. “Marcelo, are we north or south of the Equator here?” I asked. “We are north,” he replied.  He paused and added, “Northeast.”

We settled into our cabana, which had a palm roof, open sides, two beds with mosquito nets, and a bathroom with flush toilet and hot shower -- not bad digs for the jungle -– and headed up to the lodge for some hammock time. There we met the only two other tourists at the camp, which at peak holds 50 guests. Ian and Shannon are New Zealanders who’ve been living in London for years. He’s an economist; she’s an investment banker. They were at the start of an eight month vacation. We were glad to have them there –- they were unfailingly pleasant, and they also provided most of the amusement.

Our campground was located off a large lagoon; each night around sunset, we took the canoe out to the middle and went for a swim. The lagoon is a popular spot for the jungle tours, so we’d usually see another canoe or two of tourists. It was shallow enough in most places to stand on the bottom, and it had weirdly abrupt cold and warm pockets. Once in a while you´d feel something brush you.  Piranhas, most likely. Piranhas don´t attack people unless they are starving, which only happens during the dry months, so we were okay.

Or, perhaps I should say that piranhas do not attack people unless they are starving or you provoke them. When we first met Ian, he had a scab on the middle of his bottom lip and his t-shirt was spattered with what appeared to be blood. The injury, we learned, was a piranha bite. The group had gone piranha fishing a couple days earlier, and Ian was put in charge of releasing all the piranhas that were too small to keep. A little girl caught a small one; she gave it to Ian to remove the hook. Ian decided to give it a quick kiss before he tossed it back; the piranha decided to take a quick bite of Ian’s lip.

I should mention here that in addition to their day jobs, Ian is a sketch artist and Shannon is an amateur videographer. They are putting together a video of their travel adventures, which they intend to shop around when they get back to London. The series is called the Traveling Artist; it will feature Ian and his sketchbook in various exotic locations. If this sounds boring, you have to understand that Ian pictures himself the new Crocodile Hunter with an artistic Kiwi twist.

Shannon did not catch Ian´s piranha bite on film, but the incident alerted them to the entertainment potential of piranha infested waters. A couple days later, Ian obtained a slab of raw meat from the lodge kitchen, tied it to a string, tied the other end of the string to his leg, and went for a swim. This time Shannon was ready with the camera, though Ian escaped unscathed. The guides had taken him to an area where they thought there would be few piranhas, but you never know. For dramatic effect, they then took the meat to a piranha-heavy area, dangled it in the water, and showed the bite marks on tape.

After the evening swim, we gathered in the lodge for dinner. The cook, Celia, has perfected the art of cooking for up to fifty people without electricity. With only the four of us plus staff, it must have been like vacation for her. The food was always good, simple and healthy, and we felt comfortable eating her ceviche.

After dinner, we returned to our cabana for bed. It was only 9 o’clock, but there isn´t a lot of nightlife in the jungle. When we stepped into the cabana with our flashlights, several dark things scurried across the floor. Investigation revealed these to be humongous jungle cockroaches. We discovered at least one source of their attraction -- lemonade glasses that we had stupidly left out on the bedside table. The roaches were crawling all over them. I was ready to run back to the lodge and spend the night in the hammocks, but Nick bravely picked up the glasses and hurried them outside. The obvious hazard disposed of, I lifted up the mosquito net and climbed into bed. I shined the flashlight around the edges, hoping to reassure myself that what my mom said about your bed being a safe-zone from bugs was true. That’s when I saw the huge roach clinging to the bottom of the mosquito net. I shrieked (duh). It started climbing up the net. And then, somehow, it was ON OUR BED. I was unable to summon the courage to do anything other than continue to direct my flashlight at it. It ran all the way across the bed before miraculously falling off the edge. I don’t think I need to tell you that we slept uneasily.

The next morning we went for a hike in the jungle with Marcelo and Julio, our native guide, who has lived in the Cuyabeno his whole life and knows everything about it.  Julio didn’t speak any English, but I could understand him fairly well, and Marcelo could translate a lot of the jungle
vocab.  Julio led us along a very muddy path (they had provided us with rubber boots), pointing out notable flora and fauna and occassionally whacking at something with his machete.  It seemed like we saw one of everything –- one frog, one spider, one snake, one of each kind of bird, one monkey (though later we saw many more).  Oh, and we saw a whole stream of ants crawling up a tree.  Julio suggested that we might have a few for a snack -– apparently they taste like lemon, but I suppose we´ll never know for sure.

On the way back to our cabana to rest, we noticed Ian in his “traveling artist” uniform, a long-sleeved sweater with broad black and white stripes.  This meant they were filming.  We were lucky enough to overhear the following scene from our cabana (but sadly missed the visual).  Ian: “This is the life! Palm roof. No electricity. A mosquito net to keep the mozzies out. Think I’ll grab my sketchbook and head down to the lagoon.”  Then he repeated this monologue fifteen times -- or, almost repeated it fifteen times.  Each time he would flub a different line. Shannon, a woman of infinite patience, never showed any annoyance. “That one was really good babe, really good,” she’d say. “One more for good measure.”

If you´re not familiar with the term “mozzies,” you are not alone.  Nick first heard “the mozzies” as “them Aussies” and thought it a weak attempt at Down Under humor.  Later on we heard Shannon say she’d just been bitten by a mozzie; there being no Australians around, the ambiguity was resolved.

That night, we went piranha fishing.  The piranhas have learned to swipe the bait from the hook without getting hooked themselves.  I had to replace my bait ten times.  Scratch that -- the bait being raw meat, Julio had to replace my bait ten times.  I didn´t catch any piranhas, which I can´t say disappointed me terribly.


The next morning, we got up at 6:30 to go birdwatching with Marcelo in the canoe.  We hardly felt the need to go out looking for birds as we had a lively bunch of them in the tree right outside our cabana.  They were black and yellow birds called caciques, and they make a racket like I´ve never heard before.  They imitate the calls of other birds (the jungle´s mockingbird, I guess), but they also make a sound that sounds exactly like a video game machine gun.  At any rate, it was not very hard to get up at that hour, because our caciques were already at it.  We saw a lot of other birds on our trip, which I´m going to list, not because all the names will mean much to you, not that they mean much to me either, but if I become a more experienced birder someday I´ll want to remember.  We saw a woodpecker, some pigeons, some vultures, yellow-rumped caciques, a striated heron, a white-winged swallow, a tirano, crested-head hoatzins (look like a turkey), russet backed oropendolas (hang from trees in nests that look like socks; make a sound like water dripping from the bathtub faucet), lots of anis (make a sound like water boiling), some ringed kingfishers, a black capped donocobius, a red capped cardinal, a screaming pika, a quetzal, and a tucan. 


On our last night in the jungle, Marcelo offered to take us on a night walk.  The main attraction of the night walk being insects, we decided against it (plenty of those in our cabana, thanks).  We did go along for the caiman spotting trip later in the motorized canoe.  We took our flashlights, and we saw seven caimans.  Or rather, we saw seven pairs of orange eyes glowing in the dark.


On Monday morning, we took the boat back up the river.  After a very dusty and rattly bus ride back to Lago Agrio, we luckily found seats on the plane to Quito, saving us from the equally unappealing options of taking the night bus back to Quito or another night in Lago Agrio.

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photo by: saskiahaering