The Amazon Adventure – Birds, Bugs and Buses

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 Cayman (similar to a crocodile but smaller)

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.

The bus died after an hour of idling and playing the radio,  hmmm… who would have thought?

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.

Hammocks were very comfortable
Waiting for the bus after breakfast
Our next bus …
A square in Lago Agrio (Sour Lake)

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.

A blue parrot enroute to the lodge
Ben enjoying the ride
A hitchhiker with good taste landing on a Moosehead beer hat

Colleen enjoying the comfort of the canoe ride
Montezuma Oropendola bird

Hannah checks out the hammock
Our Lodge for the next 4 days
Outside and above our back deck this monkey foraging for food started dropping nuts on our roof first thing in the morning
The dining room at Siona Lodge – great food and conversation

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.

I see you
Got any food?
I don’t think he sees me
Is that coffee I smell?

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.

A Cocoi Heron (correct me if I am wrong)
The river system of Cuyabeno is amazing
A little taste of Dagobah in the Empire Strikes Back

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.

The fin of a Pink River Dolphin
The Pink River Dolphin
Enjoying the quiet of the landscape
Sunrise or maybe sunset
Birdnests of the Montezuma Oropendola highlighted in the tree at sunset
The trees are in about 2 to 3 feet of water
Suprisingly very little garbage in the Reserve
The calm of the river
No-Nose Bats hiding in plain view on a tree
Giant wasp nest
Amazon Kingfisher
Montezuma Oropendola bird
Hanging bird nest of the Montezuma Oropendola
Hanging bird nests in the tree
Colleen relaxes during the ride as we look for birds and wildlife
Falcon in the distance
Sloth in tree
Baby Boa Constrictor in the trees
The elusive Hoatzin bird (also called the Stink Bird)
Hannah captured this shot of the Stink Bird
We saw this bird about twenty times and only three good photos as it quickly takes flight
Wasp nest
Parrot in the distance
Wooler monkey spending a lazy afternoon
White fronted Capuchin Monkey just hanging out

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.

Emma enjoys a sunset swim
Ben and Emma swim with the fishes

Jungle walk

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.

A frog in the woods
The tree is covered with a white mushroom fungus. The fungus is highly known for its medicinal value
Bug with catapult tail
Working together – ant nest below a wasp nest
Toucan in the trees
The white is a flammable substance that is scraped off the tree.

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.

The bullet ant – one of the most dangerous creatures we saw in the jungle
Spider waiting for prey
Luis, our guide, was happy to find this mushroom which when made into a tea (tastes like mushroom soup) is good for abdominal pains and has anti-cancer properties
The tree adapts and captures leaves to build up nutrient stores as they decompose
The stick bug
The sap from this tree is lethal and often used to cover arrowheads, and tips of spears by local hunters

A dragonfly takes a break
A mahogany tree
Spikes on the tree to stop animals from climbing up and eating their leaves
The Walking Tree – branches grow downward to adjust the trees ability to get sunlight and gives it the appearance of multiple legs for walking
This little flower will become a mushroom
Thirsty? The water vine holds a litre or two of water – just make sure you cut into the right one
Emma picks up a hitchhiker – a caterpillar with spines that could be very painful
A tree has a hole cut in it – according to Luis, our guide, the cutter used a chainsaw to fashion a large plate

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.

Peeling Yucca tubers – Hannah and Ava
A locally made tilapia pond and also great for swimming if you are a dog
Tilapia baked in banana leaves
Banana Tree
Hannah grating the yucca tuber
Sifting the tuber mixture to remove water and make it into a flour
Our host making a type of flatbread from the yucca tuber that we peeled earlier
The Devil’s Testicles hot peppers – I am thinking they must be hot with a name like that!
Serving up the flatbread – made with yucca tubers
A fermented drink made from sweet potato – Chicha

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.

Anna volunteers for the spiritual cleansing
The Shaman must be adept at hunting with the blowgun
Colleen gives the Blow Gun a try
More peppers – they like it hot here
A family photo with Raphael, Shaman of the village

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!!

5 Replies to “The Amazon Adventure – Birds, Bugs and Buses”

  1. Well, a very instersting post. Swimming with Piranha that are mostly vegitarians. Mostly. Well Good luck with all that! Overall this was an excellent post. I liked the videos and the pics. Liked the flow and I must say that it is an interesting trip you are doing. Well done.

  2. Colleen! So glad to have found your blog. Amazing what you guys are doing! Send me an email, would love to catch up! All the best from Vienna.

    1. Hi Carlos, Great news that you found the blog. Colleen will send a more in-depth e-mail to catch up. Our WIFI here is really really slow. Hope all is well and that you are enjoying the adventure of Vienna.

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