Jungle exploration in the Ecuadorian Amazon / by Robert Moltmaker

– Part 2: Trip into the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve | Arrival in Siona lodge and meeting the crew | First adventures
BY ROBERT MOLTMAKER IN ECUADOR

 Our naturalist guide, Luis Torres, spotting wildlife in the boat’s front.

Our naturalist guide, Luis Torres, spotting wildlife in the boat’s front.

The day had come: we were travelling from the famous market town Otavalo in Ecuador to the Ecuadorian Amazon. At the border of the Amazon, we’d meet our naturalist guide. During your stay in the Amazon, it is the standard that a professional guide takes you around in the area. This is a necessity, as the Amazon is not exactly the place where you can just wander around by yourself. There are plenty of creatures out there that may kill you.

You’re adventurous and think you might not need a guide? Think again!
Even with a guide you still have to be careful in the Amazon. Two people once left their group and guide for only a minute during a walk through the rainforest. They got lost and wandered into the wrong direction. No one was able to find them. Everyone feared the worst.

Our guide, Luis Torres, was hired to track them down. He found them after marching for two days – deep into the Amazon – hiding, dehydrated, basically dying, up in a tree. They were lucky, Luis came just in time.

** Note: This is Part 2 of a series. Read: Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 **

Journey into the jungle

Because of its position close to the foothills of the Andes mountain range, the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in Ecuador is an area of the Amazon with unique ecological characteristics. It has a slightly cooler and wetter climate than other parts of the Amazon. Forests, lakes and creeks are flooded periodically.

 

Cuyabeno National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon

From Ecuador’s capital Quito, the quickest journey into the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve takes half a day. A 40-minute flight took us from the Andes mountain range into the Amazon basin, to Lago Agrio (or Nueva Loja). If you’re on a tight budget and have more time: it is also possible to travel to Lago Agrio by bus.

Upon arriving at the airport, we were happy to be welcomed by Luis Torres, telling us he would be our naturalist guide for the week. Obviously we had never met him, but during our research that preceded the trip, we had found that travellers were very happy with Luis as a truly knowledgeable guide. As you will read later, this turned out to be true: we couldn’t have wished for a better experience.

From Lago Agrio, we hopped on a bus towards the border of the reserve. The drive took about two hours, but there was enough to see outside and we had some nice conversations as we met others staying at Siona Lodge.

At the end of the line we were offered some food, as Luis and the boat driver were busy handling cargo. Cuyabeno is a remote place, and proper coordination of stock is essential. Fruits, vegetables, water, domestic products: it all had to be taken into the reserve by boat. Upon return waste is carried away from the reserve. One last check over the satellite phone, and we were ready to leave.

We jumped in the boat and off we went, along the beautiful Cuyabeno River. With no road to get further into the Amazon, the only way to get there is either by boat, or through the air.

We were navigating along the river for only a couple of minutes, as Luis raised his hand. It’s the driver’s signal to slow down immediately. Luis pointed out towards a branch, hanging low above the water. “A tiger heron”, Luis said. It is a young heron, looking slightly clumsy as it’s trying to maintain its balance.

 On the way to Siona Lodge: a young tiger heron is trying to maintain its balance while walking on a branch.

On the way to Siona Lodge: a young tiger heron is trying to maintain its balance while walking on a branch.

Every time Luis spotted wildlife, we slowed down in order to have some time to observe. During this first boat trip, we saw a lot of wildlife already. It did not take long before I realised Luis has a superb ability to detect wildlife. Sometimes he spotted something from far away, which I wasn’t even able to see even though it was – supposedly – right in front of me. If others weren’t actually seeing what I didn’t, I would have had a hard time believing anything was really there.

 On the way to Siona Lodge: a monk saki monkey

On the way to Siona Lodge: a monk saki monkey

 On the way to Siona Lodge: hanging nests made by the oropendola bird.

On the way to Siona Lodge: hanging nests made by the oropendola bird.

After more than two hours, we arrived at Siona Lodge, which is nicely located at a lake: Laguna Grande.

Setting the pace

Upon arriving in Siona Lodge, we met the lovely crew that was going to make our stay comfortable. Every day, three times a day, they made lovely meals. Basic knowledge of the Spanish language goes a long way and helps you to interact and really connect with these people. The small amount of Spanish classes we had so far made all the difference.

If you like to make some music, you can do so together with the crew. A couple of times, the crew, one fellow traveller and I made some tunes. So if you play a small instrument, don’t forget to bring it if you visit Siona Lodge!

 Playing music with the crew.

Playing music with the crew.

Luis speaks many languages, including local Quechuan languages, English, Spanish and even German. Therefore, he is able to put his incredible knowledge about the Amazon and its flora and fauna at the disposal of most travellers. Luis does not only work for Siona Lodge, but offers his service to different lodges and even individuals.

It wasn’t for long after we arrived or Luis asked us to get back into the boat to try and find an anaconda! Only minutes after we stepped into the boat, Luis found the creature, twirled around a tree. This animal was around seven meters long. “During the day, anacondas use these trees that stand in the water to lie in the sun and warm up”, Luis said. “They disappear into the water to hunt in the beginning of the evening and stay there all night.”

 An anaconda twirled around a macrolobium tree standing in the water.

An anaconda twirled around a macrolobium tree standing in the water.

We quickly learned that every time we would see an animal – or to be fair – every time we would see an animal after Luis spotted it first, he tells you all about the creatures. Not just about their behaviour, also about the local legends.

A matter of trust

We went back to the lodge and had some time to rest. But the day was not over yet. Something unexpected was waiting for us. The sun was setting and according to Luis, this was a great time to get to the centre of the lake and jump in the water for a swim.

 Rowing to the Laguna Grande.

Rowing to the Laguna Grande.

I did not forget Luis telling anacondas retreat to the water in the evening. Being a nineties-kid, I couldn’t supress childhood memories of the adventure horror film Anaconda, set in the Amazon.

While rowing towards the centre of the lake under a beautiful glowing sky, I asked Luis: “You have to be kidding, right? Swim in water with anacondas in it?” Luis confirmed, that was the plan. “There are crocodiles too”, he was quick to say, while laughing.

However, Luis convinced us that it is completely safe, as anacondas don’t like to go to deeper waters. So apparently, this makes the middle of the lake a safe swimming spot.

What do you do? Start an argument with a professional Amazon naturalist guide about his knowledge of the local fauna? You simply don’t. And after all, you do not get to swim in the Amazon every day.

“Jump in the water”, Luis said, while we stood in the boat, looking at the mud-coloured water, unable to see the depth or anything in it. We jumped in. And it felt awesome. It’s actually the best way to escape from the heat in the Amazon.

 A great escape from the heat. Don’t think about what might swim and hunt for food in the same waters.

A great escape from the heat. Don’t think about what might swim and hunt for food in the same waters.

 A beautiful Amazon sunset.

A beautiful Amazon sunset.

 Returning to the lodge after sunset.

Returning to the lodge after sunset.

By returning back to the lodge, we met our garden pet the tarantula sitting on the tree, so big it would easily cover your head. Isn’t it a nice thing to have your own ‘spider-watch-dog’ next to your door?

 A 30-centimetre tarantula sitting on the tree next to the hut.

A 30-centimetre tarantula sitting on the tree next to the hut.

Fun fact: The first time we took a shower in the lodge, the watercolour surprised us. Taking a shower is the same as jumping in the lake as this is the water-source. It’s brown, but clean. The water also flows back into the lake. Therefore, you are asked only to use environmentally friendly soap or shampoo to clean yourself.

After a long day, it was time to rest. We went to our hut and checked our beds for little creatures. There were none. Suddenly, we heard a scream. Our fellow female traveller next door had discovered a little spider in her hut. She loudly called upon me to come to the rescue. Always willing to be a jungle hero, I helped her put the spider outside. “There are probably another hundred spiders in the hut that we didn’t see”, I thought while I walked back to our own hut.

Amidst comfortable jungle sounds, we fell asleep.

The next days, Luis took us for many tours: by foot, by boat, during sunrise, daytime and night-time. No time to get lazy here!

Exploration by foot

“You have to stay close to me, in order not to get lost.” Luis pointed out as we were going for our first hike. For the first bit of the adventure we jumped in the boat. We were dropped of a little further in the reserve.

 Most hikes start after a drop-off by boat.

Most hikes start after a drop-off by boat.

Luis is able to see things we simply cannot. His knowledge is overwhelming. In this untamed labyrinth, you are nowhere with your ‘developed world skills’. A couple of days alone here and you’re dead – forest food.

 Luis telling about the local fauna and flora.

Luis telling about the local fauna and flora.

Teeming with wildlife

While we were still in awe of what we had seen previously, Luis pointed out to the next spectacle. So there we were, trying to find three bats Luis pointed to. Eventually, we saw them. But without Luis, not a single one of us would have seen the bats. They were hardly visible, although they were quickly moving up and down while sitting on the tree.

I had no idea why they were moving in this matter. It looked very strange, like they were having an epileptic episode. But I guess they had a good reason. Maybe they were trying to scare us away. How unfortunate it must have been for them, seeing me setting up easily to take a good shot.

 Three Bats, well camouflaged, doing their weird moves.

Three Bats, well camouflaged, doing their weird moves.

The moment I thought I had seen something weird, something weirder was around the corner. You can be pretty sure with hundred thousands of species surrounding you. You think zombies exist only in science fiction movies? Then we found ourselves a real-life science fiction film set: the Amazon.

I am serious. Zombies live here.

I had once heard about this phenomenon, but now I was about to see it with my own eyes…

** Note: This is Part 2 of a series. Read: Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 **

What wildlife adventures have you experienced?

Have you been in the Amazon? Have you ever seen ‘out-of-this-world’ creatures during any of your adventures? Do you have any questions about my story? Please leave a comment below and let me know!

Tags: Ecuador | South America | Amazon | Wildlife |


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