Planning our trip around the world we asked the kids for input into what they may want to see. Hannah immediately suggested a trek in the Amazon jungle. Her thoughts conjured up machete hacking through mosquito infested jungles in the dense heat of the Amazon River and finding lost peoples and ferocious wildlife. Okay, so we weren’t as adventurous as all that. But we still had an amazing time …
A Happy Gringo is …
Our adventure started, as many do, with a tour operator. We found one with good reviews, an office in Quito and compelling information to embark on a great journey. What could go wrong with a company called Happy Gringo? With just a week left in Quito we started the planning. Certainly later than what we should have done but hey … as Ross from Friends said, ‘we are on a break’.
We came up with a plan based on information we found online. One thing we really didn’t like was travelling from Quito to the Amazon basin at night, especially on another overnight bus. Since some of us are in bed around 8:30 at night the idea of staying up until 10pm just to catch a bus through Ecuador was not appealing. As a comfortable (and IMHO more sensible) option, we found flights from Quito to Lago Agrio, our destination nearby the Amazon lodges.
An e-mail to Happy Gringo went unanswered (in fairness we only gave them about 5 hours) so we went to their office and met with their staff in person. They have a pretty slick operation and it was far more professional than we were expecting. Our tour agent, Priscilla, came up with a customized itinerary and explained the process of transfers. She discouraged us from taking flights as they are unreliable. And she encouraged us to take the overnight ‘private’ bus. Our first choice for the lodge was not available so Priscilla recommended Siona Lodge – a great choice! The tour company does take credit card payment but they add on a hefty percentage that makes it better to pay cash. So we returned the next day with a wad of bills and paid for the trip.
The bus to the lodge
The recommended ‘private’ bus is $20USD per person each way. The pick up location is at the Q Restaurant at 10pm. We were never happy with this option (past our bedtime remember) but what is an adventure without a little adversity. The Q Restaurant is a great little place in the heart of Foch Plaza but with tourist prices – whammo we are talking expensivo! The bus was late in arriving (Priscilla warned us that things are not always on time in Ecuador). Forty minutes of waiting and not seeing anyone else looking like they were going on an Amazon adventure we got a little worried. But, a bus pulled up ….
Off to see the Amazon
Not so fast Gringo. We drove through the streets of downtown Quito to the second pick up point – a little seedier with prostitutes on the corners and happy drunks staggering around. We pulled up outside a hostel and waited for an hour for 2 people (who never did show) and wow – the van was dead. I mean dead! The driver put it in reverse and tried to jump start it! Let me assure you that driving backwards down a hill in Quito to jump start the engine is not a good plan.
Well the driver didn’t have a plan so he called a guy and that guy had a plan. Try and jumpstart the engine with jumper cables! No luck. Plan B – get a new bus. Okay, it is 1am and we are on our way. One piece of advice – If they tell you the bus is comfortable it is not and you want to sleep or keep your eyes shut so you don’t see the craziness of the driving!
Hostel outside Lago Agrio
We drove all night with a couple of quick stops and surprise we caught up with the other van that left hours before we did. Waiting for bus number 2 to head to the Cuyabeno Park entrance. Breakfast at the hostel was $3USD and turned out to be very good (coffee was hot and there was other stuff). We waited a few hours for the next ride.
A motorized canoe?
The next leg of our journey after a brief stop at the entrance to the Cuyabeno Reserve for lunch and to pack our supplies was a canoe ride to the Siona Lodge.
During our first morning a troop of Squirrel Monkeys descended on the lodge and we had a chance to see them while sipping coffee. Ben fed them bananas with one of the staff.
Along the River
The easiest way to move about in the Reserve is by motorized canoe. Our tour was divided into two groups of 9/10 people each and we travelled independent of each other along the river. Often the wildlife was every elusive for a good photo but the jungle sounds were amazing.
The River Dolphin
Also known as the boto or ‘pink river dolphin,’ the Amazon River dolphin swims throughout much of the South American river basin and the neighboring Orinoco river basin that stretches through Colombia and Venezuela. The species has a long snout and pale pink color. The River Dolphin is not as playful as its’ Ocean going cousin and does not jump out of the water.
Swimming in Piranha invested waters
Each day we finished our activities with an opportunity to swim in the Cuyabeno Lagoon which is home to many species of fish including Piranha. Surprisingly, the Piranha are mainly vegetarian in this area and live off of fruit and leaves.
We left early morning by boat to a nearby abandoned research station for a three trek in the jungle to learn about flora, fauna, and the wildlife of the area. Our guide, Luis, is very passionate and excited to show us interesting things about the amazon. The two main lessons we learned is that everything in the jungle is in competition with one another and second, those that partner are often the most successful.
Ants are Dangerous?
The bullet Ant is the most dangerous creature we saw during our walk. The sting of the ant, which feels like a bullet, can last up to 24 hours and induce throbbing, shakes and intense burning.
Night Walkers and Crawlers
We did a two hour night trek as well that was really cool. We saw tarantulas, ants, dragon flys, scorpion spiders and other creepy crawlers but unfortunately our cameras don’t work well at night.
Here is a taste of what we saw:
Visit to a Siona (Indigenous) Community
We took a two hour boat ride up the river to a Siona Community where we met Alisha who let us try some traditional foods and drinks. The big activity was to dig up the tubers of the Yucca tree, peel them, grate them, and then press the water of the pulp to make a flour. With the flour a flatbread was made that tastes like toast.
We said our goodbyes to Alisha and walked through the community to visit the local Shaman – Raphael. He and his four brothers are all Shaman for the Siona. The shaman has no formal training in medicine ut they go through an extensive tutoring process as young adults. They must be adept at local knowledge of flora and fauna as well as being excellent hunters.
Raphael responded to questions about Ayuaska which is a hallucinogenic drug used by Shamans for spiritual journeys and cleansing. I learned of it from the Father John Misty song, “I am writing a Novel” and the book, The Green Labyrinth by Sylvia Fraser. It is an extremely dangerous drug and no we didn’t try some.
Time to go
The next morning we were up early to do one last jaunt in the canoe to see more wildlife. Two hours later, after breakfast we said goodbye to this beautiful place and are off to re-find civilization. As we travel the river gets shallower and shallower due to the lack of rain. We learn that if the boats couldn’t travel we would have had to walk. Good thing our driver was pretty good at navigating the shallow spots.
We had one minor hiccup on the way back, our instructions said we were to get off at the same place that we got on. The first stop was the airport and many people got off. Checking with the guides at the airport our names weren’t on the list so we drove on down the road. After some discussion with the bus driver, who only spoke Spanish, we found out that the airport was the pick up point. Fortunately we made it back without a problem and then took a gruelling ride back to Quito.
We highly recommend a visit to the Cuyabeno Reserve. It is a beautiful area that needs to be experienced at least once in your life!!