Our last adventure of the trip, and the only one we planned before leaving home — 4 nights in the Amazon. We left our homey hotel in Quito after one night, at 6:30 a.m. for our 9:15 flight to Lago Agria on the edge of the enormous (60,000 hectares) Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. After a 45 minute flight we landed in the steamy, down at heels jungle town established in the early 1970′s by the oil industry. The entire Amazon area from north to south, what Ecuador calls the Oriente has been severely impacted by the unscrupulous practices of Texaco (now Chevron). Though the oil industry has been taken over by Ecuador itself, a legal battle over reparations has been playing out for 18 years, as you can imagine hotly contested by Texaco/Chevron in spite of numerous rulings that they must pay 18 billion dollars to cover some of the costs of the cleanup.
We were met at the airport by the young guide from Cuyabeno Lodge, Diego, and also met the two young Irish Canadian biologists, Barry and Irene, with whom we were to share our Amazon adventure for 5 days. I am sure their hearts fell just a little when they saw their geriatric travel companions, but they hid it well, and as Diego pointed out we were extraordinarily lucky to be part of such a small group rather than having joined the group of 12 who left as we arrived.
We traveled by road in a small bus for 2 hours, through typically seedy tropical towns, past miles and miles of pipeline running alongside the roads and storage vats of oil. Finally we reached a bridge over the Rio Cuyabeno where me met our indigenous boatman Luis, who was waiting in a motorized dugout canoe accompanied by his wife and 1 year old daughter. The river journey took 3 hours during which time Diego pointed out a stupendous variety of wildlife as Luis negotiated the twists and turns of the meandering river with numerous hidden deadheads and partially submerged branches. The level of the river rises and falls tremendously between the rainy and dry seasons, with daily fluctuations according to rainfall, so the route taken by the boats depends on the current level. November is the ideal month to visit as the river is high enough to negotiate but not so high as to be dangerous.
Diego had spooky hawk eyes like Andrew, spotting birds and animals in the canopy overhead, flora on the river bank, even evidence of fish and reptiles in the water. On this first trip we saw four species of monkeys, ranging in size from tiny squirrel monkeys travelling in large groups behind smaller groups of capuchin monkeys with their oddly white capped square faces. The wooly monkeys were indeed wooly, looking like large fluffy cats as they prowled the branches of the overhead trees. Woolier still, with rather evil looking frowning faces the saki monkeys (aka devil monkeys) are the only ones with no prehensile tail and are aggressive and prone to attack if challenged. They were easy to spot as they are able to eat unripe fruit but have to spend a lot of time lying around digesting as a result! We also heard a fifth group, the red howlers, whose booming cries resounded through the jungle — no wonder the early explorers were sure there were huge roaring lions just beyond their range of vision. They did not show themselves and are rarely seen, unlike the black howlers we saw and heard on the coast. From the lodge we saw two more species of the nine species resident in the reserve — the cute tiny tamarinds that try to steal fruit from the lodge, and the even smaller but extraordinarily vocal titis whose wiry black bodies belied their ability to growl and howl at a deafening pitch which they liked to do early each morning. So we saw 7 of the 9 species in the reserve, not bad considering one of the remaining ones is smaller than a man’s hand and lives 40 meters up in the canopy so is rarely seen.
Doug and Irene went crazy trying to snap all the species of birds we were seeing. One quite prehistoric looking one, the Hoatzin, about the size of a large slender chicken, had a spiked crown on its head, a rather mad looking blue ringed eye, with feathers in a herringbone pattern of brown, orange, gold and white, spent its time snorting in an explosive sound rather like the brakes of our buses as they went down hill while sitting on low branches over the water, suddenly taking flight in the most ungainly fashion, seemingly completely incompetent, but judging by their numbers not so.
We were fascinated by the enormous hanging nests we saw everywhere, and the photographers were frustrated by the difficulty of snapping the eye catching male birds with their glossy black and brilliant yellow feathers as they dipped in and out of the nests, ululating with a kind of glottal click, apparently in an effort to attract the females who had built the nests to mate. Diego told them not to worry — “You will see many, many of these Oro pendula nests in the trees around the lodge and at 5 a.m. you will not enjoy their sound…” and he was right, but we never stopped being transfixed watching them. At the lodge they shared their trees with the similarly vivid but smaller Casiques, whose nests were like smaller versions of the Oro pendulas, but who were much more restrained in their vocalizations.
After 3 hours and many more bird sightings, we left the cafe au lait waters of the river and arrived at the glossy black waters on the Laguna Grande where our lodge was situated. It was sheer good fortune that I chose one of the 3 lodges on the lagoon, as the setting was much nicer and the activities better than being on the river. For instance, we were able to paddle ourselves rather than taking the motor out into the middle of the lagoon each evening for a swim before the gorgeous daily sunset. Diego told us about all the dangerous things in the lagoon on our last morning at breakfast (though we did see the massive anaconda in the tree near the lodge on the second day) as he said guests get put off swimming if they know too much. We saw baby caimans near the shore one evening on one of our night paddles, but no large vicious black ones, and we didn’t need to know about the pirañas, the high voltage electric eels, the manta rays… As Diego said, we never swam near the shore, just in the very midpoint of the lagoon!
Every day was filled from morning til night. The first morning was a jungle hike for 3 hours to see medicinal and other plants, insects, reptiles, spectacular spiders (thought of you Rachel) dozing bats, and many more birds. Fortunately the lodge supplied gumboots and we brought the DEET, though we sweated it all off before the hike was over. A short rest after lunch and then off in the canoe for bird spotting, the evenings were swimming, sunset viewing, and then after dinner paddling or hiking in the dark with our headlamps to see nocturnal animals and insects. Plenty of bats, including in the lodge, we chose a slightly higher priced room in a tower for the views and ours was at least all screened so we didn’t have bats in the room, but Barry & Irene’s cabin certainly did.
One morning we went to a Siona village (there are 5 indigenous groups in the park, the Siona are the most welcoming to strangers) up another river. The indigenous generally do not group together in settlements, but this group of 100 people had decided to do so to avail themselves of solar power that a European foundation had installed. The village was as neat as a pin, something we have observed in many countries in indigenous villages, and they had already built a lighted futbol (soccer) pitch, though they were still in need of a school and a health clinic…there are priorities after all! A village woman showed us how they harvest yucca tubers, and prepare them by grating them and squeezing out the liquid to make flatbread on a fire. We have been eating yucca in many forms so it was interesting to see how she did the flatbread. She was a wonder with a machete, after we counted her fingers, Diego laughed and asked her when she learned to prepare the yucca this way, she said all little girls learn from early childhood and 8 year olds can use machetes. Razor sharp it was too. The flatbread is their dietary staple.
It is impossible to list (well I could but you don’t want me to) all the species of birds, and plants we saw. Diego provided so much interesting information on how the plant species have adapted to the extreme fluctuations in the height of the water in the lagoon. At the height of the rainy season, only the topmost branches of the large ceiba trees poke above the water, they have a system whereby their roots stretch 1 kilometre inland so they can survive. For a week at the height of the dry season, the lagoon is completely devoid of water, and the guests take their hikes through waving grasses on the lagoon bottom. They find scores of pairs of sunglasses, binoculars, cameras, and so on at that time, and can’t use the boats to bring in supplies, an enormous inconvenience needless to say. As the water starts to come up, the lagoon is full of sea cows and other animals feeding on the grasses. Dolphins breed in the lagoon — we just saw them jumping — and at that time they take on a pink colour, a sight to behold I guess!
At any rate we were sorry to see the end of our adventure and especially to say good-bye to Diego. The national park guides we have had in this country have been extremely well trained and comprehensive in their knowledge. It is very impressive the way Ecuador’s park system is managed, for such a small country they have set aside a very large amount of land as nature preserves, and the parks are very well protected. People here take great pride in them too. We have never been anywhere in our travels with cleaner parks and natural attractions.
We returned happily to our “home in Quito”, the quaint and friendly Hostel de Rabida. A lovely way to end our holiday with a roaring fire each evening, and such helpful owners and staff. We have spent a couple of days buying a few presents for Christmas (we did no shopping en route as carrying things is too difficult) and spent a last morning roaming the Old City with its magnificent churches and picturesque heritage building. Our plane leaves at 1 a.m. for the tedious home journey.
For anyone thinking of a South American trip we heartily recommend Ecuador. The diversity of terrain and peoples we have experienced is huge. Apart from the chill, we loved the Andean highlands with the multiplicity of indigenous groups. The historic cities of Quito and Cuenca were super interesting and very user friendly. The seedy coastline towns with their beautiful beaches were so in contrast to the highland ares. The cloud forest around Mindo is like a different world, and then the true jungle of the Amazonia area…and we never took more than a 4 hour bus ride to access all this variety.
Such easy travelling too, with cheap, relatively comfortable buses, good guesthouses, very adequate food, and good hygiene standards. But most important, we have never in 10 weeks had a hotel where the owners and staff didn’t go out of their way to be helpful and make us comfortable. Ecuadorians are extremely courteous, exchanging greetings with everyone they meet even on the street that they even slightly know, often stopping in their cars to hail an acquaintance on the sidewalk. You never enter a shop with hearing “buenas dias”, and I love their habit of exchanging a peck on the cheek whenever they meet someone they know wherever they are. And no other country besides our own apologizes to people for bumping into them when it is the other person’s fault! Made us feel right at home. Learning more Spanish has been a bonus and has enhanced the experience so much. All in all, a wonderful country and a great trip for us. See you all soon.