Cuyabeno Reserve, Ecuador
By Helen Bolton
Following a recommendation from our Quito hostel, The Secret Garden, Joanne and I tracked down Neotropic Turis to book a trip to the Ecuadorian rainforest. The owner and agent, Luis Hernandez, was a very helpful, friendly guy who has lived in London and used to be a colonel in the Ecuadorian army. Over lunch he told us his military stories including fighting the Peruvians and rescuing tortoises from a volcanic eruption on a Galapagos Island. We secured a last minute deal for a 5-day trip to the Cuyabeno Lodge east of Quito on the Lagunas de Cuyabeno, close to the Columbian border.
It was an expedition in itself to reach the lodge, involving an overnight bus on a potholed road to the oil town of Lago Agrio, where we had breakfast with three French and a German also heading for the lodge. Our next bus took us on the 3-hour journey on even bumpier roads to the edge of the reserve. Along the dusty road we passed one-room timber houses on stilts and followed an oil pipeline that snaked from the oil fields back towards Lago Agrio. At the entrance to the Cuyabeno national park we paid our park fee and piled into a motorized dugout canoe for the two hour journey up the Cuyabeno River to the lodge. Along the way we got our first taster of the rainforest wildlife spotting beautiful butterflies, Saki monkeys, a toucan and a black-collared hawk.
The lodge is on the edge of a huge black water lagoon, tea-stained from the natural tannins from the forest plants. Around the edges of the lakes is terra firma forest (hard earth) with a maze of flooded forest and floating islands of trees. The lodge itself it made up of several open-sided thatched timber huts and a main dining hut with hammocks. In each room the beds had mosquito nets and resident spiders on the walls for company. After dumping our gear we headed straight out again in the canoe to the middle of the lake for a sunset swim. Absolutely stunning. Apparently we didn’t have to worry about piranhas, caiman or anacondas in the middle of the lake, as they prefer the edges.
At dinner back at the lodge, we met our guide Paulo, a tall Ecuadorian (quite a rarity) hugely knowledgeable about the rainforest and its inhabitants. Whilst we ate, various creatures joined us including a frog, a morpheous butterfly (massive blue iridescent ones), a moth the size of a saucer and a grasshopper that fell from the ceiling into our dinner. The rainforest felt a very magical place, thriving with life. Each night an orchestra of music from the birds, insects, frogs and monkeys would send you to sleep and each morning I would be woken by another choir of creatures encouraging me out from under my mossie net. The closest equivalent in England would be to sit in the Palm House at Kew Gardens, it was about the same warm temperature and humidity and smells similar but you need to add several chattering and whooping monkeys, several squawking, whistling birds, some hooting, croaking tree frogs and a handful of massive dragonflies and butterflies buzzing like helicopters around you. Amazingly, I slept very well although I wasn’t brave enough to make the trip to the toilet block in the dark on my own.
Paulo woke up us early the next day, saying the forest was active so we should go out in the canoe before breakfast. We were lucky and saw a troop of squirrel monkeys and plenty of birds including kingfishers, woodpeckers and flycatchers. Later we went on a jungle walk into the terra firma amongst the vines, aerial roots, bromeliads, epiphytes, palms, ferns and trees with massive buttress roots. Every shade of green was covered, like a paint chart. Joanne ate a termite and we kept our distance from some huge bullet ants. Apparently they have the worst, most painful bite of all animals in the forest.
Interesting facts: The Cuyabeno Reserve is 604,000 hectares of primary rainforest, of which the black water part that we were in makes up 2% of this. There are 500 species of birds in the reserve alone, which is the same number as the total number of species of birds in Europe and the USA added together, plus 80-90 species of mammals. It would take 8 days to cross the reserve.
After lunch we went out in the canoe again and this time saw even more birds, different species each time such as the scarlet macaw, black caracara, bare-necked fruit crow and a Muscovy duck. We also canoed up to a submerged tree to see three small owl-eyed monkeys. They are one of the only nocturnal monkeys in the world and have huge brown eyes. Another sunset swim, then Joanne and I went on a night walk into the forest. We prepped ourselves with waterproof trousers tucked into socks, tucked into our welly boots and I kept my hood up so nothing would fall down the back of my neck. It was excellent. The sky was lit up with millions of stars so clear that you could see the domed shape of the earth. Caiman eyes shined red in the torch light as we searched for creatures. We were rewarded with several massive wolf spiders, a couple of tarantulas, and several tree frogs, including the jeweled tree frog that I spotted under a leaf. Paulo was incredibly informative and able to give us a small zoology lesson with every animal we found.
The next three days followed a very similar pattern of a canoe trip and a jungle walk each day with a mid-afternoon siesta, which was spent swinging in the hammocks or looking up all the species we’d seen in the reference books. We went to visit a local indigenous community of Siona people who have lived in the forests for centuries. It was very different to when my grandma made a similar visit to a community in the Amazon rainforest 30 years ago. The Siona have a small school house, a social shop and bar, some electricity, a football pitch (sort of) and they grow and sell bananas and other crops. Some villagers work for the tourist reserves handling the canoes. Paulo said that they don’t need the money that they earn as they are totally self-sufficient and do not actually want for much so about once a month, the men all go into Lago Agrio for the night, staying in the best hotel and drinking the most expensive alcohol with their mates. Not like the tribe my grandma met with grass skirts, lip extensions and intrigued by her gifts of soap and a comb.
Over the five day trip we saw hundreds of different animals, amongst my favourite were the blue and yellow macaw, a bright yellow poison tree frog, a crimson crested woodpecker (just like Woody the Woodpecker), the capuchin monkeys, the river dolphins (freshwater, never go in the sea, adults are pinky coloured) and the leaf-cutter ant colony that we watched trooping along their ‘highway’. I was also impressed by a piranha that we caught (and then ate), their teeth are razor sharp and they can survive out of water for at least an hour. The worst animal encounter of the trip was when I got a swarm of stingless bees caught in my hair â€” they may not sting but they do bite!
Our journey back wasn’t event free and about half an hour from the edge of the reserve, we got caught in a massive downpour. It certainly is the rainforest, the rain came down like a waterfall pouring into our little canoe and completely drenching us all to the skin. Luckily, we’d all opted for the plane back to Quito rather than the 8 hour bus, but our taxi from the reserve to Lago Agrio airport (3 hours) hit a particularly bumpy bit of road and something broke, so our inventive cabbie used a piece of string threaded out of the window into the engine to pump the accelerator by hand. We made it to the airport just in time with only one string-change required. Unfortunately I didn’t find Tarzan, but I did come back with a head full of memories and enough bird names to impress an ornithologist at a party.