A short half-hour flight on Monday morning took me from Quito to the town of Lago Agrio, which exists as a base for oil exploration of the Ecuadorian Amazon. There were only a few tourists on board the plane, the rest were oil men with a few jungle commandos. At the airport, myself and the rest of our group (an American professor, four French, and four Dutch) were met by the Lodge staff, including our guide Rodrigo, and we boarded a minibus for a two hour drive to the Cuyabeno Reserve Office. A rusty oil pipeline ran along the entire length of the road, a reminder of how much destruction the oil business had wreaked on the Ecuadorian Amazon. We also passed refineries and saw a massive flame caused by flaring of the associated gas from oil production.
At the Office, we boarded a motorised canoe, complete with our luggage and provisions, for the trip along the Cuyabeno River to Jamu Lodge. The water was a murky brown and the river was flanked on both sides by dense jungle. Green was the predominant colour but was punctuated by brilliant flashes of color produced by the many exotic flowers, birds and insects. The trip took about three hours and we stopped along the way when Rodrigo spotted something of interest - we saw several different bird species and a few types monkey, although it was sometimes difficult to spot them even when we were told where they were and trying to take photographs of distant wildlife from a moving boat was infuriating at times to say the least. The water darkened as we neared the Lodge due to the tannins from surrounding vegetation washing into the river. Rodrigo explained that as a result, mosquitoes couldn't lay eggs so there were hardly any around. Unfortunately, I found this to be not strictly true judging by the number of insect bites I had by the end of the 5 day trip. It didn't help that I had forgotten to bring my insect repellent with me and they didn't sell any at the Lodge.
We arrived at the Lodge late afternoon and were shown to our cabins - I was in a shared cabin with Pierre and Richard, a couple of the French tourists. The Lodge was built on wooden platforms for times of flooding and the cabins were wood and thatch. They were open to the jungle, presumably to keep cool during the night, with a mosquito net providing the only barrier between you and the jungle. There was no electricity so all lighting was provided by candles, although a generator was run for a couple of hours in the morning to charge electrical equipment. Bathrooms were open-air too, but we did have showers and flush toilets. There was no hot water but the water was tepid which was okay in the hot and humid jungle.
In the evening, we went for a cruise to the nearby Laguna Grande. This freshwater lake was about 4m deep and formed mainly from rainwater - it was virtually dry in the dry season. It was dotted with outcrops of vegetation which were actually the tops of trees poking above the water. We were all thrilled to see pink river dolphins frolicking in the water, and there were also plenty of bats swooping over the water. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy to catch a sunset. Back at the lodge, I also saw my first tarantula, the excitement of which was akin to seeing my first lion or elephant on a game safari. The evening meal, and all meals as it would turn out, was excellent. A three course meal with a laid-out table. A combination of a long travelling day and an early start meant that everyone retired early for the night. Having spent time in the rainforest in Borneo, I didn't find the noise of the rainforest at night as loud as I expected. There were the usual sounds of insects, birds and frogs during the night which provided quite a soothing sound to fall asleep to. Also, it was not as hot as I thought it would be, and although the humidity was supposedly above 90%, everyone thought it was a very pleasant atmosphere, certainly not hot and sticky.
I generally wake at first light, which was at about 6am here. I was also being waken up early by the sound of something scarpering around the side or roof of my cabin in the morning, maybe a bird or small monkey, or maybe something worse. It was probably best not to find out. Breakfast wasn't until 8am but after waking up, I went for a wander as it would be a good time to see any birds.
At 9am, we went to visit a local Siona tribe village. We saw how they lived, got to use their toilet (this was optional but I had to go; fortunately, they had a flush toilet), and had a look at the plants they grew for food and medicine. We were then given a demonstration of the preparation of casabe, a traditional bread made solely from Yucca (Manioc), a tuber like a potato. The plants were pulled from the ground and a stalk re-planted. The tubers were peeled, washed, and then grated to form a mush. This was then squeezed to remove excess water, resulting in a powder. The powder was then spread onto a hot plate and compacted, and after turning a couple of times, ended up as a surprisingly tasty large pancake-like bread. The village also kept two abandoned monkeys, a Pygmy Marmoset (the smallest monkey in the world) and a cheeky Woolly Monkey which was continually trying to steal our food. We paid a visit to the village Shaman, Don Alberto, a wizened old man (some said an ageing hippie) garbed in a necklace of jaguar teeth, a headdress of toucan feathers and a nasal feather. He explained his shamanic practice and how he had started taking hallucinogenic concoctions from the age of five (particularly ayahuasca) - these allowed him to "see" the causes of illnesses and effect a cure. He performed a mock ritual on me demonstrating how he cleansed spirits (the "evil" type, not the alcoholic ones).
In the evening, we went on a night walk through the pitch-black jungle, torches cutting through the darkness, looking for insects, spiders (we found lots of those), scorpions, giant cockroaches as big as your hand, and frogs.
On Wednesday morning, we went for a 2-3 hour hike through a section of the rainforest. Rodrigo explained the many uses of the trees and plants; they provide everything you need to survive in the rainforest - food, water, shelter, medicine, tools, utensils, fire, rope, and clothes. We saw rubber trees, ate lemon ants (surprisingly tasty!), and saw how ants provide natural insect repellent (I didn't volunteer for that part!). We even had to negotiate a swamp using a series of precariously balanced logs - my sense of balance wasn't great but I managed to avoid ending up in the murky swamp water. We didn't see many birds or monkeys as they tend to be most active at dawn or dusk. Back at the Lodge, Pierre and Richard found what been making the noise in our cabin early in the morning, a giant Amazon rat. Judging by the amount of noise, there was probably a family of them. I'd rather not have known. I'd be tucking my mosquito net even tighter under my bed from now on.
In the afternoon, we went piranha fishing. A piece of raw meat on the hook and the line was cast. There were small, black piranha near the surface of the water and as you lowered your bait into the water, you could see loads of them pecking furiously at the meat, just like in the horror movies. The larger, white piranha were deeper down, but only a couple of us caught one. I appeared to be getting the biggest catch of the day as I snagged something which bowed the rod tremendously as I pulled it up but everyone's excitement soon vanished when a large branch appeared! We saw a beautiful sunset in the Laguna Grande after this.
After dinner, we headed out for some night-time caiman spotting. As the motorised canoe sped along the river, Rodrigo shone his high-powered torch along the river banks, hoping to catch the reflection of caiman eyes. He was amazingly adept at spotting two spectacled caiman - even though he spotted them at speed, we had trouble seeing them until we were virtually on top of them.
On Thursday, everyone who had booked the 4 day trip left, leaving me and Dale, the American professor, as the only ones left doing the five day trip. A torrential thunderstorm meant our 6am bird-watching trip was cancelled. Actually, we had been very lucky with the weather before then considering this was the rainy season, with only the odd short, isolated shower.
Me, Dale and Rodrigo would be spending the morning paddling a wooden canoe round a laguna which was off-limits to motorised boats. The whole group got into a motorised canoe headed back to the Reserve Office. We pulled our wooden canoe behind us and were dropped off at the entrance to the laguna. We then spent the next 4-5 hours paddling round the laguna and back to the Lodge. It was still raining most of the time but we were suitably attired for the weather - it just meant that it would not be possible to take many photos. It was a bum-aching canoe ride, sitting on wooden planks, and I was absolutely knackered when heading back to the Lodge. However, we saw plenty of birdlife in the laguna and were able to get a lot closer to it due to lack of noise from the boat. I didn't do anything for the rest of day and had a kip in the late afternoon and a couple of beers in the evening. An Amazon Tree Boa put in an appearance in the dining room which was an added treat being the first snake we had seen on the trip.
On Friday, the three of us went out for a 6am motorised canoe trip down the river. We saw quite a lot of birds and also a troupe of Woolly Monkeys. After breakfast, it was time to pack our stuff (with a bag of damp clothes which you can never get properly dry) and we headed back to the Reserve Office by motorised canoe. The excitement wasn't quite over yet though as on the way back, we saw a troupe of Howler Monkeys and two Yellow Anacondas. Due to the timing of transport, we had to spend all afternoon at Lago Agrio airport waiting for our 5.30pm flight back to Quito. On the flight, we also got to see one of the volcanoes which flank Quito close-up with a spectacular sunset in the background. A great end to the week.
I had a wonderful time during the week. Although birds and monkeys were the main large fauna you see in these trips, I saw so many different species. The night walk and caiman hunting trips were fun, as was the piranha fishing. It was amazing to see dolphins too. There were plenty of different activities during the 5 days so I never got bored and it was interesting visiting a local village and the Shaman, learning how they live and the problems they face. The Lodge facilities were excellent and the cabins good, after getting over the initial trepidation of the "open-air" aspect of them. The food was of a high standard, as good as any hotel/restaurant and the staff very friendly. Last but not least, Rodrigo was a superb guide - very enthusiastic, he had extremely sharp eyes and keen ears, spotting and identifying species from huge distances when we couldn't even see if there was anything there at all. Jamu Lodge is highly recommended for anyone wanting to experience a slice of the Amazon. Go there before it turns into an oil exploration site!
The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is an area of protected tropical rainforest in northern Ecuador, a complex of rivers (which are the main highways), lagoons and flooded forest. The area is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world in terms of both fauna and flora. It contains over 12,000 different plant species, 550 different bird species, 350 fish species, plus numerous species of insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, amongst others. Unfortunately, the area also contains lots of oil and is the scene of some of the worst oil spills in the Amazon - during its operations in the Amazon until 1992, US company Texaco spilled 17 million gallons of oil from its pipeline and dumped 18 billion(!) gallons of toxic waste directly into the rainforest. There is currently a $27 billion(!) lawsuit against it which is in limbo. Strange how the Yanks kick up a huge fuss when someone spills oil on their soil but when the shoe is on the other foot.... Very few tour operators are qualified to work in the Reserve so there are not that many tourists visiting, making it an attractive place to enjoy nature. I had booked a 5 day trip to Jamu Lodge, a steal at US$250, including all excursions and food.