We had originally thought to visit Amazon in Ecuador but the plans changed when we added Brazil to our itinerary. After spending some time researching, we realised our original thoughts to visit Amazon in Ecuador would be the best thing to do. The two main reasons – cheaper and ecologically diverse and different. And so, we went ahead to shop for Amazon trip.
Shopping for Amazon Trip
While researching we also realised it was impossible to visit Amazon by yourself. We had to book a tour. So, we visited 3 tour agencies in Quito and received quotations between $290-$340 for similar 5 day itineraries. The price difference was usually due to the facilities within the lodges but the reviews consistently said that the quality of the guide would determine the success rate of the trip.
We read the reviews of the various lodges and decided on Guacamayo Lodge in the Cuyabano Reserve. It was comparatively cheaper and had great reviews. We paid $290 per person and $16.81 for a good torch for night walks, caiman spotting and walking around the lodge after 10pm.
Arriving in the Amazon
We took a bus from Quito for Lago Agrio for $12 per person. The bus ride was 7 hours and we slept most of the way on the night bus. There was an option of using a private bus from Mariscal area in Quito for $20 per person but we decided not take this as it was too expensive and we would have to wait in Mariscal till 11 pm.
The bus ride was comfortable except for the fact that the toilets in buses never work in Ecuador or are never open. Why have them in the first place? Also, it was our first experience seeing an Indian film on TV in the bus. Kites starring Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori was playing in Spanish. We had an early morning planned so we slept through it! We arrived at 6am sharp and left for the centre soon after.
Meeting the Guide
We had to get to Lago Agrio from Quito ourselves and were told that the lodge representative will meet us at Hotel D’mario. We arrived at the hotel at 7am for breakfast. After waiting for an hour, a uniformed guy approached us. Shruti spotted Guacamayo on his uniform and he introduced himself as Jairo. We were told we would wait till 9am for some others and eventually leave.
While waiting, Shruti spotted a stall making and selling a drink. We didn’t know what it was and were too shy to ask. Our guide also went up to have this drink and I decided to ask him. The drink wad made of Aloe Vera and Shruti and I both had one. Jairo joked that I should get some Amazonian herb put in as it would give me the libido for a great time in the jungle. We knew we had met a great guy!
Tripping to Amazon Reserve
The shuttle bus from Lago Agrio dropped us to the Cuyabeno bridge which was the starting point of our journey into the Amazon. Our luggage went in a motor boat while 8 of us went together in a different boat. On the boat we met our boatman for the trip, Fernando. He drove slow to give us a feel of the place. The river was brown and about 10-15 metres wide though it got narrower in places with fallen trees etc.
We saw our first wildlife within 10 minutes, a snake neck bird which dives in the water and pretends to be a snake when threatened. It was a beautiful bird and we were only getting started.
Jairo spotted something a few minutes later and it was a whole troop of squirrel monkeys. They were tiny things and were having a lunch of guaba fruit. They stay at the lowest end of the trees closer to the river and can sometimes become the lunch of anaconda’s and caiman’s. As we went along, we spotted flying monkeys, wooly monkeys and a lot of birds. The noise of wildlife was everywhere and we could feel that this was their home and we were the visitors. This was only day 1 OMG!
Our boat rider had seen an anaconda in the morning and decided to take us to the location to check if it was still there. After searching for about 5 mintues, Jairo spotted it on a low tree branch. It appeared to be fast asleep after a good meal from the previous night. Wow, this trip was just getting real!
Cuyabeno Reserve is about 600,000 hectares of protected Amazon Forest mostly on the River Cuyabeno. It contains the Igapo Eco System and is part of the headwaters of the Amazon river. The Cuyabeno River meets other rivers which eventually join the Amazon River. For 10 months of the year, the river is flooded and the width of the river can be in kilometers at certain points. This has led to the reserve having flora and fauna much different to the other parts of the Amazon.
You may think why we didn’t go to see the Amazon in Brazil? Well, we didn’t need to as the Amazon jungle is spread out over countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. Though Brazil has more of it, no country can claim to be the real Amazon as without the other countries, there wouldn’t be any Amazon!
Another plus about Cuyabeno Reserve was the Laguna Grande. This lake is formed by the rivers flowing and is a common path for boat transport. As such, there isn’t much vegetation around the center of the lake. Most evenings during sun down, Jairo would take us to the lake for swimming. Initially we thought he was just joking, but when he jumped in the water, we believed him. He convinced us that the caimans, anaconda, snakes and even piranhaes stick to the shallow water where there is enough vegetation. All we could hear was, we will be swimming with them! Definitely a story to tell.
Amazon is a mecca for birds. The mammals, i.e., jaguar, and big rodents like the capybara live deep inside the forest and is tough to spot them when the river is flooded. However, birds fly around by the hundreds every morning. This is also great for waking up in the morning to the most soothing natural sounds I have ever heard. What’s more amazing is that the Guacamayo Lodge has a 6 story bird watching tower. Every morning we would wake up between 6 and 7 to watch the birds flying past.
We regularly saw the macaws, tulcans, heron, woodpecker, arakara falcon, parrots, heron, oropendelo and many more. It was also mind blowing seeing Jairo and other guides in the lodge just tell us so many different birds sometimes without even using binoculars. Mind blasted!
Caiman Search at Night
This was by far the scariest thing we did in the Amazon. We had heard stories from Jairo about caiman attacking boats, people or taking limbs but as soon as the night fell upon the Amazon, Jairo would turn on his torch and started imitating caiman sounds around the shallow area of the lake. He managed to spot caiman’s eyes from distance away!
One time he spotted a young caiman. What did he decide to do? He leaned over the front of the boat, made caiman noises and eventually picked up the caiman right out of the water. We got some good shots but we were hoping he wouldn’t drop the caiman in the boat lest he tries to bite us.
Another time, we went looking for Caiman in an abandoned lodge. In the pitch black, an abandoned building and a bunch of tourists, it was a horror movie in the making. Finally, we saw a full grown caiman one night which another group was watching. Not to be left behind, Jairo made caiman sounds as we approached it. The caiman must have thought it was a friend and got closer to our boat! Its red eyes were scary and as it was fully grown, at least 3 meters long, it could easily kill a human being. Its nostrils were above water, as though it was ready to attack, and Jairo took this opportunity to wave his hand at him so he would jump. Errr, no thanks please! Un hombre loco – a crazy guy!
Walk in Jungle
One of the day’s itinerary was day trip to the jungle. We prepared by putting on a lots of insect repellent as well as wore rubber boots. Our journey on the boat had only started when Fernando our boatman spotted a sloth hanging on a tree. It was pretty clear viewing though the sloth was high up on the canopy and all we could see was a black blob! It was an incredible sight seeing another famous Amazon animal.
We entered the forest from the caiman’s territory right under the trees next to the water. Our first stop was the quinine tree. It is used to make the medicine for malaria saving millions of people all over the world. Jairo was as knowledgeable about the trees and shrubs in the jungle as he was about the animals and birds.
We saw a leaf whose sap oxidises when marked upon. This leaf could be used to write messages which would last a week. Similarly, we saw a variant of the rubber tree still used by the native community in the forest. We stopped every 5 minutes for Jairo to show us something incredible.
At one point, Jairo asked us to look for small red frog near some small trees. We couldn’t spot any though a member of the group thought he saw it – turns out it was a green frog. Eventually, Jairo returned with the small red frog on a leaf. It is one of the smallest creatures in the jungle, smaller than a human thumb, but had the capacity to kill a person in a few hours. An attractive cute beast – Red Ruby Poisonous Frog!
Another, interesting things were the vines and roots in the Amazon. Every tree is fighting for sunlight in a sea of trees. Therefore, vines rap around trees and try to reach for sunlight. In many cases, they get so strong that they kill the host tree. There were many fallen trees in the forest. To combat the struggle, some trees developed defense mechanism. There was a tree which covered itself in white coating to stop fungus from taking it over. While another plant called the devil’s tree killed everything around it making small clearings – a violent way to get more sunlight. Another type of tree literally walks towards sunlight! It moves about 10 cm per year in the direction of light.
Almost at the end of the walk, we had to cross a swamp. It was disgusting and tough pulling out our boots as they sunk in the mud. It was hard work but after 15 minutes we were clear and walked back to the water where Fernando was waiting for us.
Jungle Exploration at Night
We had another trip to the jungle at night looking for spiders and other creepy crawlies. We entered the jungle from the same location where we had in the morning. We hadn’t gone more than a few metres when Jairo began poking a dead tree trunk and out came a tarantula trying to attack the stick. It was one of the many scary moments that night.
A little while later, Jairo showed us a hybrid between a scorpion and a spider. It was not venomous and had very long legs. He asked for a volunteer from the group to have it put on their face and a German guy from the group agreed. It was a respite for us that it wasn’t us.
We saw a bird eating spider and an Amazonian lobster. It wasn’t related to the ocean lobster but looked a little similar.
At one point, Jairo asked us all to turn off our torches to feel the darkness. The darkness and the jungle noise was simply outstanding. It was so dark that I couldn’t even see Shruti who was less than an arm ahead. He even showed us a tree leaf which illuminates in the dark.
Before we left the jungle, we had a few more amazing things to see. A grasshopper had landed on a spider’s web and we all knew what was going to happen! It looked like a BBC or Discovery documentary. The grasshopper was hoping the spider would not notice it and played dead while 8 humans shined their light on it. Within seconds, the spider noticed the prey and had it wrapped up in web like lightning. Watch the video below for the footage!
As we walked forward, we heard some sounds from people ahead. It was a jungle rat, a rodent as big as a small pig. Shruti and I never saw it but it must have been a sight. We survived the jungle at night!
Interaction with the Native Community
Our Amazon trip involved interacting with the local Siona tribe who live in the Cuyabeno Reserve. We got on our boat early and Fernando drove the raft to the village. The community still lived traditionally though their outfits were modernised and sometimes their religion changed. As we got near the village, we realised that the houses were still the traditonal thatched roofs with fowls, dogs and kids running around. Jairo told us about the community, their customs and how things have changed for them.
Our main purpose of being there was working with the lady of the house to make a yuca bread for lunch. She was tiny, had 8 kids and was missing many teeth but she wasn’t soft and could use a machete like a butter knife. We went out to her garden where she could tell which flowering bud was a male or a female! She asked us to pull Yuca from the ground and it was my turn to do so. I squatted down and tried to pull it out like lifting a kettlebell. It took all my strength and some encouragement to pull it out clean from the ground.
Next, she used her machete to peel the yuca and wash them. Her kitchen had a earthen floor, some kitchen utensils made of wood or natural fibers and a corner for the open fire and stove. We helped grate the yuca which was tough and sticky like taro. After the grating, it was time to sift the grated yuca to remove any ungrated yuca or foreign objects.
The next step was to remove all the water from the yuca. For this, the lady had a traditional object made from natural fibers. It was like a manual juicer and she had to twist the fibres with yuca in it like twisting a towel. Finally, when all the juice was out, she started making the bread on metal plate with the fire. It reminded me of my grandmother.
We ate the bread with chancho (wild boar) and pescado (fish) and it was incredible. The bread was flat like roti but it’s texture was like millet bread. We thanked her for the food and gave her a few dollars which would hopefully go towards the well-being of her children.
Meeting a Shaman
Jairo knew lots of shamans in the reserve but took us to meet the best one. Olmedo was around his late thirties, wore a feather hat and a long green gown. After we were introduced to him, Jairo had a go at Olmedo’s blow gun and then each of us had a go at it as a healthy competition. The trick was to rap your mouth inside the blowing ring, aim and then blow out quite strongly. Shruti and I were so-so but one of the local ladies managed to get the feather aim on the ground.
We then had a Q & A session with the shaman. We asked him about his work, his accomplishments and also Ayahuasca. He could see our curiosity and gave us a sip to try. It tasted fowl at first but the aftertaste was good.
Following on, It was then the turn for the cleansing ritual. Jairo had brought a prickly branch from the Siona community for the shaman. First to go was Kirk, the shaman chanted some mantras in his language and rubbed Kirk’s naked back with a leafy branch and then the prickly branch. His back was full of little boils and we could tell he was hurting. At this point, I thought what the hell I am in the Amazon what better way to remember it by than a cleansing ceremony by a shaman. I had to take my shirt off and go through the same ritual. The prickly branch felt like a metal carpet brush being softly rubbed on my back. It was painful, I survived and I am not sure of any cleansing but I had a perfectly straight back for 2 days. We then said our goodbyes to Olmedo and headed back to the lodge.
Jairo promised us that he would fish for Piranha to show us the mighty fish. True to his word, he got some meat ready at the lodge pier to fish early in the morning. He tried for 15 minutes but to no avail. We all then got into the boat in our pajamas. Fernando steered the boat to the lake and then under trees for a second round.
After a few moments of wiggling the line, we had our piranha. To show us its sharp teeth, Jairo took a branch from the tree and waved it near the Piranha’s mouth. He took a bite and the rest of the branch fell off. Wow! It’s eyes were blood red and it was angry. We kept it out for 5-10 minutes but that was no problem as they can survive outside water for 25-30 minutes. Impressive!
While most of the group members left on 4th day, we had an extra day in the lodge. Jairo decided to take us canoeing to caiman lake which the local community is scared of as fishermen had been killed by the caimans or lost their limbs. An uplifting start! As the rest of the members left, we tagged along with our canoes tied to the boat and then split off closer to the lake. Shruti was in a canoe with Jairo and Christina while I was with Ben who could steer the canoe.
We spent the first 15 minutes going through a small narrow channel of the river. Ben and I weren’t the best yet and spent some time ducking and avoiding branches low trees. We then arrived at the infamous lake and saw little bats sleeping on the tree. Jairo knew the danger below us and we got out the lake as fast as we could. Eventually, I learnt the art of steering and sitting in the front, started alerting Ben when we had to steer away from branches. Definitely a good team!
As we were going back through another channel, Jairo noticed a troop of flying monkeys hanging on trees above. We spent some time just watching them. At one point, the monkeys started crossing the river using close tree branches. A baby with the troop was too scared to cross and his mummy came back and helped him cross. It was a real awwww moment – don’t forget to watch the footage in the video below. The rest of the journey was exciting but at the same time monotonous and hard. On one hand, we could literally feel the Amazon around us with its animals and noises but on the other hand, canoeing is hard work and we can’t imagine how it must have been like for the natives 50 years ago. A learning experience!
It is impossible to write how many animals we saw in the Amazon. There were some amazing animals like Pink Dolphin! One time we saw a mum and baby swimming together. Alas, no swimming with the dolphins but we still felt lucky.
The hoatzin was another amazing bird we saw regularly, it is meant to be related to dinosaurs and eats leaves. It’s name in Spanish translates to ‘stinky turkey’ as its stomach smells if you kill and try to eat it.
However, none of this would be possible without Jairo and Fernando who were absolutely amazing and knowledgeable at their jobs. They simply blew our mind and we will never forget this visit to Amazon.
As an epilogue, we were sitting at the Lago Agrio bus station waiting for a bus to Quito. It was hot, people were yelling all sorts of place names for buses and there was traffic noise. This is when it occurred to me what we had in the Amazon! The peace of the jungle with a flowing river, animal sounds and birds flying over despite the heat from the sun. Just peaceful and simple life – it is a must do for all!