Amazon basin   (Ecuador – Cuyabeno)

Angie our lovely Equadorian friend, (we originally met Angie in Melbourne) had returned to Quito and was planning a trip to the Amazon with two Canadians (Matt & Kat) as well as her partner Jose. We jumped at the chance of joining them (especially as they have close connections and know the area).
Day 1 – Six of us caught an overnight bus from Quito to Lago Agrio, (which took 6 hours). The bus cost US$40 each for a return trip. We stopped at a hostel at 6am for breakfast and a snooze before getting picked up by a minibus and driven to to the entrance of the Cutabeno Reserve and register to enter the park (this took a further 2hrs).

On arrival we ate lunch and then set off down the Cuyabeno river in a small motorised boat.

Our guideRodrigo (Angie and Jose’s old school buddy) was instantly friendly and full of fun. We cruised for around 3 hours spotting birds, monkeys and pink dolphins. We took our time watching a Cormorant with a fish in it’s bill, trying to swallow it whole (very entertaining as the fish was way too big to fit down its narrow throat).

On arrival at Caiman Eco-lodge we were extremely impressed with the buildings and beauty of the jungle setting.

We had a short rest to unpack and settle into our new rooms before heading off for a swim at Laguna Grande and to appreciate the sunset before the clouds rolled in. Jon of course dived in with no hesitation, where Vanessa was a little wary of Caiman crocs, pirahnas, electric eels, snakes and other interesting creatures. Vanessa’s dip in the Laguna was almost as quick as her dip in the Antartic waters.

We swam for 20 minutes, then quickly went back to the lodge before the heavens opened, ate an amazing local dish and hung out for a few drinks before bed .
Day 2 – 8am breakfast, with a 9am start. We were all given wellington boots and told to wear something comfortable.

The day started with a 30 minute boat trip along Cuyabeno river, stopping to pick some unusual fruit off overhanging trees. This fruit when opened and squeezed, excreted a clear liquid. We were told that in a days time this liquid if rubbed on our skin would in fact turn blue, leaving a dye for a few days. We got quite excited and proceeded to cover our arms and legs.

After spotting a few more wild birds we arrived at the start of our hike, which gently climbed up through deep forest, muddy and overgrown in parts. We stopped at a large tree to swing on an enormous vine. We all felt a little Tarzan like.

We spotted some woolly monkeys, milk monkeys, giant ants and gorgeous butterflies.

Rodrigo (our guide) spotted an ant nest and explained that they were quite dangerous and in groups can, in fact, kill humans. Then he requested a volunteer. Jon (who probably wasn’t listening) put his hand up. He was then asked to place his hand on the large ant nest which was cleverly attached to a tree and to keep it there until told to let go. Rodrigo then explained that once told to let go, Jon would need to rub his arm very quickly to remove the ants. This would then release a strong natural jungle mosquito repellent. Jon patiently waited (with his hand on the nest) whilst thousands of ants started climbing his arm. Then Rodrigo yelled close to the nest, which sent the ants rushing around and climbing Jon’s arm quickly. When told, Jon rubbed the ants off in a rush. We all then smelt his arm. The odour was incredible. We all congratulated him on his bravery, as most of us were not keen .

​​​Moving on, we stopped to pick up a couple of sticks approximately 2m long. The reason became quickly apparent when we came to a swamp-like area stretching for perhaps 50m in all directions and blocking our path. Good job we all have boots on, we thought, as Rodrigo proceeded to walk a very cautious path through the swamp. He then encouraged each of us to follow carefully and recommended we use the sticks to do so. Only once each of us tried to follow him and found that the sticks sunk to at least half of their length, did we realise he was walking on an underwater tightrope of sunken trees approx. a foot below the surface of the mud and that the remainder of the area was at least waist deep. The next 10 minutes were hilarious, as each of us attempted to navigate our own path, either with or without sticks, across the swamp. In summary, whilst the 2 of us miraculously stayed dry, our 4 friends all fell in the swamp over boot depth and got pretty wet. Fortunately this didn’t put them off and we continued with the hike, spotting strange fungi, more huge butterflies and a group of wooly monkeys swinging by before reaching the river and our waiting boat.

However, this boat had no motor and we were advised that we needed to row back to our lodge. With Rodrigo and 2 of us paddling, we set off back. After a short while we reached the lake and, with the mid-afternoon sun beating down, most of us felt brave enough for a swim. Just as we did so, a couple of pink dolphins popped up nearby and hung around for a while..bonus.

Switching paddlers we continued back to the lodge for a late and satisfying lunch. During which the heavens opened (good timing!).
We decided to rest up for a couple of hours before heading out in the motor boat just before sunset as the rain eased off.

We were hoping to find some Caiman near the river shore and Rodrigo explained this was best done at night with torch lights looking for the reflection of their eyes. This worked to some extent as we managed to find a couple of snakes but the Caiman were more elusive.

After returning for dinner we set out again for a night walk. If insects and creepy crawlies are not your thing then you should give this a miss but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Wolf-spiders, owls, frogs and other weird insects were in abundance.

At around 10pm we returned to the lodge for a quick drink and bed after a busy day.
Day 3 – June 1st

This was a very busy day. Two things were immediately obvious when we met for breakfast. Firstly Vanessa was a year older and secondly we all had blue hands and arms. The second was more of a surprise, as the strange fruit from the previous day really had left its mark. Writing up this blog a week later the blue dye has yet to completely fade!

The schedule for the morning consisted of 2 hour long boat ride deeper into the jungle to a small riverside village, during which we spotted/heard firstly woodpeckers and then some very vocal macaws chasing a hawk away from their nest in the sky above. At one point we stopped at a bend in the river and Rodrigo explained that this was a sacred area where the river was at its deepest (60m). Some pink Dolphins popped up to say happy birthday to Vanessa and Rodrigo then manoeuvred the boat near to a large tree. He asked us to be quiet and pointed out a very large wasp nest and advised that they were sleeping. He then suggested that we all yell simultaneously at the top of our voices. As a rule we would think twice about waking up a hive of wasps but he hadn’t let us down (yet), so we did. We then stayed silent whilst watching and listening to the reaction. Amazingly the sound from within the nest was not buzzing but very loud marching. Rodrigo explained that they simply rub themselves together to make this sound when interrupted from sleep. He advised against shouting whilst they are awake.

We continued on passing trees covered entirely by webs (one containing a dead snake) and arrived at the village.

On doing so, we were handed some red berries and invited to try our hand at face painting,

before being introduced to a local woman (name forgotten…sorry) who showed us to an allotment type area to the rear of the village, where she asked for a strong volunteer. We all stepped back as our strapping Canadian police officer Matt, hesitantly stuck up his hand. He was instructed to grab a Uka plant (looks like a small bamboo) and pull up the roots. Matt gave a strong tug and to our surprise, pulled up approximately 8 very large root plants, each around the size and shape of a sweet potato.

Our hostess then produced a machete, chopped off the ends of each root with ease, using her one free hand (surprisingly she still has all her digits intact) and handed one to each of us to rinse and peel off the husk. She then took the shoot, chopped off each end and placed it back in the earth. They replace each plant used and the plant will be ready for harvest in around 6 months.

Returning to her hut (kitchen) she demonstrated how to grate each root into a pulp and left each of us to take turns doing the same.

Once they were all grated she placed the pulp in a material, which she twisted with the aid of a thick branch to extract the moisture, leaving a fine white powder. Meanwhile, she had a fire burning in the corner of the hut, with a shallow concave pottery dish approx. 40cm in diameter. She placed a handful of powder in the dish, spread it effortlessly with the use of a flat stick and within 3 minutes was able to flip it. Two minutes later she had a freshly cooked wrap of Uka bread for our consumption.

Whilst she set about making more (she can make approx. 10 per plant) Rodrigo produced some tasty fillings for our bread and we set about eating our lunch. Again we were lucky with timing as the heavens opened whilst we ate.
Before leaving the hut Rodrigo demonstrated the use of poison ivy as a somewhat masocistic method of cleansing of the body, by having someone rub the nestles all over his naked upper torso. He invited each of the dozen or so people present to have a try but the sight of the welts appearing on his body put most of them off. As the only other Ecuadorians present, Angie and then Jose stepped forward, followed by Jon and Matt.

After each had been thoroughly cleansed all over their backs, the ‘compleana’ (birthday girl) bravely volunteered but stopped after the first touch of the nestles because ‘they sting’. Once the itching subsided, we took a short walk through the jungle to see a giant ‘Sabo’ tree, before heading back to the river for a cooling dip.

Vanessa, buoyed by her poison ivy experience, decided to jump off the riverbank…and at precisely the same moment she did, someone spotted a snake in the water. Needless to say, everyone exited pretty quickly.

Back in the boat we took a short journey downstream and stopped off at a clearing. We were shown to another hut and introduced to a Shaman (medicine man) who lived there away from the main village. He explained (first in the indigenous language and then in Spanish) that he lived alone and had practiced to be a Shaman since he was 12 and that the knowledge is passed down from father to son, with a kind of initiation involving the drinking of a concoction of hallucinagenic plants from which you might be very ill. He then invited questions and offered to cleanse one of us. Of course the ‘compleana’ was nominated and she sat nervously whilst he chanted some incantations and waved a mysterious bush over her head.

Next the Shaman demonstrated the use of a blowpipe to shoot darts at a very small target approx. 20 feet away. Not surprisingly, he nailed it first try and then offered each of us a go (fortunately they were not tipped with poison as the risk of accidentally sucking or hitting each other is high). Unfazed by her second cleansing of the day ‘compleana’ went first and was pretty close. However, try as we did, none of us hit the target with our 2 attempts, although Rodrigo showed us that he had done it before when his 2nd shot was successful.

We posed for photos with the Shaman and then left…actually we couldn’t leave as our boat had run out of petrol so we waited for half an hour whilst the pilot was off looking for some…which meant we had to rush back upstream towards the lodge to reach the lake for a sunset swim before it got dark.

After a quick dip, we headed back to the lodge. After a shower and change, the six of us plus Rodrigo met at the top of the watchtower for a drink and some stargazing before dinner. The chef surpassed himself by producing an amazing birthday cake, which Vanessa generously divided between the 20 plus guests.

We played cards for a while and as fatigue set in after an eventful day, we hit the hay.
Day 4 – We were up at 5.30am as we wanted to have a swim in the lake at sunrise (6am), although most of the guests failed to rise. After a refreshing boat ride and dip, we headed back to the lodge but only to collect one or two of the stragglers and some bait to go piranha fishing.

We headed out onto the river again and each tried our luck at casting a line…we were told by Rodrigo that there were usually Pirahna in the area…but after 45 very relaxing minutes we had not had a bite, so reluctantly headed back to the lodge for breakfast (it was still only 7.30am).

After breakfast we packed and said our goodbyes before taking a boat back towards civilisation. Fortunately the 2 of us took advantage of the lodge’s ponchos, as it poured for some of the journey upstream.
All in all, we loved our Amazonia adventure and couldn’t recommend it highly enough; not least because we got to spend it with some wonderful people and had one of the coolest guides we could have wished for.