One of our most anticipated trips of South America was the Amazon and we were really excited to finally be heading off deep into the world’s largest rainforest. It was jammed packed full of exciting stuff so this is a really long blog – just as a warning! Our journey began in Quito with an 8 hour night bus journey to Lago Agrio in the east of Ecuador. We left Quito at 11pm in quite a swanky bus by Ecuadorian standards and for only £5. However, we had a really bad night’s sleep on the bus because of a mixture of winding roads and constant stopping which kept waking us up. On one occasion, the bus was stopped by the police and one of the officers came on board. He started asking some people to get off the bus (possibly to do a stop search) and because Matt was standing in the aisle waiting to go to the toilet and possibly looking dodgy, the policeman asked him to get off the bus as well! Very confused and sleepy, Matt obliged and got off the bus only for the policeman to tell to get back on again! Eventually we made it into Lago Agrio, an ugly town built on the massive oil trade that is unfortunately ripping apart large parts of the Ecuadorian Amazon. We were met by a friendly chap called Don Miguel who had a minibus waiting for us, so we got on and waited for other members of the group to arrive. A group of rather noisy 18/19-year old Brits got on and our initial thought was “do we have to spend four days with these guys?”. It turns out that they were really nice – but more on that later! Once everyone was on-board, we were taken to a random half-built house out of town where there were hammocks to chill out in and where we had breakfast.
After breakfast, we were picked up again by Don Miguel after he left with our luggage to pick up more people and taken on a two-hour journey to where we needed to catch a motorised canoe. The journey in the car passed through masses of agricultural land and oil factories, with huge oil pipes following the road. There was little rainforest left on this part of the journey, until we entered the outskirts of the Cuyabeno Reserve. It was quite sad to see how much damage the oil industry has caused in the area. When we reached the boat port, however, we were at the start of beautiful, dense jungle which was quite clear by the number of beautiful butterflies (they actually turned out to be moths) flying around the bathrooms. We waited around for nearly an hour during which time the young English lads played a spot of cricket, where their ball fell three times into the water! Eventually our canoe showed up and we were taken with our very friendly and informative guide (Jairo) for a two-hour journey to our lodge (Guacayamo Lodge) along the river through stunning jungle scenery. Straight away we started seeing amazing animals from the boat and each time something was spotted, Jairo would get excited and get our driver (Walter) to turn the boat around. We saw various species of monkey, a snake bird, a baby anaconda (which continues to grow until it dies), the rare Harpy Eagle, loads of other birds and so on. Susanne even managed to spot a glimpse of a dolphin. It was a great start and Jairo said we were lucky to see some of the animals we did. On the way the weather already showed its true colours turning from burning hot and sunny to a massive downpour.
We made it to our lodge and then after checking into our rooms (which were basic but quite cute) we were treated to a fantastic three course lunch. The food on the whole was fantastic and really varied. The lodge itself was beautiful, set deep in the jungle on the river (30km from the port) with wooden walkways connecting the various accommodation huts, a dining area, a chillout hut with hammocks and sofas, and a bird watching tower. One of their solar panels was down, so there was only enough electricity for the dining hall and so all the rooms and balconies were lit by candlelight which made it quite romantic. When we were chilling out, one of the other guides ran up and asked whether we wanted to see a Harpy Eagle feasting on a monkey as one had been spotted down the river – so we all piled into the boat and headed off to see it. Of course, it wasn’t particularly nice seeing a giant bird ripping into a poor little spider monkey, but it was still an amazing natural event and the chances of seeing this bird are slim, so seeing it feast was something else (apparently serious birdwatchers pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to look for this bird and our guide ‘won’ his camera through spotting one for a bird watcher). We came back to the lodge and then as it approached sunset, we were taken on a boat trip to the nearby lake and saw glimpses of pink river dolphins as well as the eagle again. When we arrived in the lake we were allowed to swim. Susanne was a bit concerned about getting in because of talk of alligators and electric eels, but Matt braved the water which was really warm and lovely to swim in. When it got dark, we then started our hunt for caimans (or alligators to you and me). We cruised around the shoreline of the same lake we swam in and water trees with torches looking for these beasts and others animals such as snakes (Jairo also made rather convincing caiman noises to try to attract them). Every now and then we saw little glinting red lights in the torchlight which turned out to be the eyes of caimans or snakes, and we saw both up close. It was a slightly scary but quite amazing experience cruising around the lake at night looking for these potentially deadly creatures. On the way back someone from the group spotted something in the bushes and it turned out it be a caiman, so we were able to see one incredibly close. We got back to the lodge and had a lovely dinner and got to know the rest of the group. Luckily we were blessed with a really nice group of people and the four young English chaps were typical polite, private school boys who were really nice and who sat around drinking tea like old ladies! We were all knackered though after an exciting day and our awful night’s sleep, and so we all went to bed quite early.
We woke up to the wonderful sounds of the jungle and to a lovely breakfast which set us up for the day. We packed our stuff and headed off on the boat again and into the jungle for a three hour hike. We were told to take wellington boots that were provided and were told we weren’t allowed to take our own boots because of the mud. On our way to the walk we saw lots more birds and animals such as monkeys and a massive sloth from the comfort of our boat. When we got off the boat and saw the amount of mud along the jungle path, we understood why had to have wellington boots. Jairo our guide took us on a seeing, hearing, tasting and feeling tour of the jungle which was really fun and interesting. We didn’t see many animals probably because there were 12 of us trampling through the jungle like elephants. The things we did see were quite interesting though, such as one of the most poisonous frogs in the world. It was beautifully coloured and tiny, but if you somehow got any of the poison on its back into your body (for example through blow darts) you would die in under three minutes! We also encountered the absolutely massive bullet ant, so-called because if it bites you it is so painful it feels like you have been shot! Matt was also subjected to a strange ant that is sometimes used by indigenous people to stich up wounds (anybody watched Apocalyptica, it is true?!). Jairo put one on Matt’s finger so it clamped into his skin with its claws and then Jairo ripped its body off just leaving the head which basically functioned as a stich. Another couple of people were asked to put their hands on a tree full of tiny ants which when rubbed together on the skin smell like a natural form of incense and mosquito repellent. We were also invited to taste things such as a disgusting piece of bark that is a natural remedy for malaria and a tasty, sweet sap from a tree. At one point during the walk we also had to walk through a massive swamp with mud up to the top of our wellington boots!
After the jungle trek we went for a swim in the lake and then headed back to the lodge to chill out for a few hours and have lunch. At some point someone found a massive tarantula in the kitchen – it was quite amazing to get up close to one of these creatures. After our relax time, we went back out on the boat to head back to the same trekking point for a night trek. When we left it was still light and on the way we saw some pink river dolphins. They were incredibly hard to spot, let alone photograph, as they only popped their heads up for a couple of seconds to get some air. We were really lucky though as it was mating season and there were loads swimming around near to the boat. After the excitement of the dolphins, we headed to the lake and took in the beautiful sunset. Once it was dark we boated over to the trekking point and started our hour-long night walk. It was amazing and slightly scary to be in the jungle at night with nothing but torches. We were on the look-out for any creepy crawlies that we could find and once again we were lucky and found quite a few. One of the highlights was a very large and thin spider which looked like one on a Harry Potter film. One of the English lads came forward as a volunteer (rather he was coerced by his mates!) and had the spider put on his face! The poor chap was horrified and all he could say afterwards was: “I want to go home” and his sense of humour was gone for about 30 minutes. We also got quite close to a poisonous snake and an enormous toad. However, the highlight was when we got back to the boat. The driver, Walter, was very excited that there was a caiman right near to the boat. So Jairo started to make caiman noises and splashing in the water to try to get the thing to come closer – and eventually it worked. Some of us were standing on the shore and others were in the boat, and it was quite exhilarating to see this fully-grown, two-metre long alligator come up to the boat. Jairo had his hand out incredibly close to it and we thought at any moment it would jump up and bite it off! The journey back was beautiful under star light and we were asked to turn off our torches to enjoy it. When we arrived back we had some beers and celebrated the last night for the English lads as they were only on a three-day tour. During the evening one of the really nice girls from Belgium joined out table and she asked if anybody checked under the table for spiders. Well, she did and found a massive spider protecting her sack of eggs, right by one of the English guys. Finding out about it, they all jumped on top of the chairs and would not get down until somebody would remove the beast. It was a fascinating and funny sight.
We woke up to our last full day and had another tasty breakfast before heading off on our two-hour boat journey to a village belonging to the Sion indigenous community. Along the way we saw some amazing wildlife including a very strange looking prehistoric bird that has claws on its wings (a trace of the link between birds and dinosaurs). We also saw an extremely cuddly-looking monkey, appropriately called the wollie monkey. The highlight though was seeing a special wasps’ nest called marching wasps. We were asked to shout “march” at the top of our voice towards the nest which makes them nervous inside their nest. As they die if they sting someone, they group together and create a strange sound by scratching on the side of the nest and creating an incredible sound that was like marching soldiers in order to deter a prey. We did it again and the noise got louder, but then Jairo said we should probably stop as they would come out if they felt too threatened! We also stopped by an enormous tree in the jungle which was around 300 years old. It was also quite funny to watch Jairo fall out of the boat when we arrived! We swear it was our driver Walter’s intension, but we are not sure. When we arrived at the village we were quite surprised by the mod-cons including TVs, electricity, modern clothing and so on. However, the villagers have not lost any of their traditional customs and beliefs, and we were able to experience some of these. First of all, Jairo painted the girls’ faces with a natural red paint from the inside of a fruit and then we all tried to hit something with a blow dart which is really much harder than it looks. We then went to harvest some yucca which is a root vegetable almost like potato that the villagers use to make cassava bread. We were invited to help make the bread which first involved grating the yucca and then squeezing out all of the juice in a specially-made contraption. The dried out yucca is then gathered together and cooked over a really high heat. The whole process only took about 20 minutes and the product was a really tasty bread with no added ingredients whatsoever.
After lunch, we walked for about 10 minutes to meet the local shaman. We were informed that shamans are not allowed to live in the village as they may receive negative energies from pregnant women or those on their periods! The shaman was wearing traditional clothing and we were assured that this is normal and not a dress-up for tourists. We were offered a bowl of juice squeezed out from yucca with a little twist – in order to ferment it slightly, the juice is swilled around in other people’s mouths and then spat out! As it is extremely rude not to drink something offered to you, we were all required to finish the bowl! The taste was alright, but the thought of drinking somebody else’s spit was just disgusting! We were then lead into the Shaman’s hut which he views as his hospital. As well as drawing upon spiritual rituals and at times a hallucinogenic drug called ayuwaska, the shaman uses all manner of natural plants to heal illnesses. Our guide assured us that he has heard of many cases where the shaman has cured some quite serious health problems. Encouragingly, the shaman will send people to conventional doctors and hospitals when he feels something is outside of his healing capabilities. We chatted to him for a while, learning about his techniques and the training he went through, and then we were offered a cleansing ritual. Matt decided to participate which involved being lightly whipped with a stinging nettle type plant with thorns that ended up leaving great bit welts on his back – they did subside after a few hours! We then said our goodbyes and headed back to the lodge. Back at the lodge we had a little time to chill out before heading out on the boat again back to the lake. On the way we saw some more dolphins and then had a final swim in the lake as the sun was setting. We also had a beer on the boat which was really nice, before being put into a paddling canoe swapping with the people who were already in it. We were dragged along by the bigger boat for a bit, but were then set free to paddle back in the dark. So we had a long and noisy journey back to the lodge singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” as we went. Susanne also managed to see a very rare and extremely large rat, despite the incredible noise we all made. We then enjoyed our last dinner at the lodge and spent some time chilling out with the group before needing to leave tomorrow.
On our last day, we woke up really early in order to get up to the top of the birdwatching tower for around 6.00am. There wasn’t a whole lot of activity up there, but we did manage to see some toucans and parrots as well as some other amazing species. After our breakfast, we packed up our bags and then were able to do a little bit of piranha fishing and look closely at their incredibly sharp little teeth. We then took our boat back to the port and saw some more monkeys and birds on the way. Then we had the journey back to Lago Agrio through the developed parts of the jungle where we had to wait around for a couple of hours before getting our bus back to Quito. While waiting we managed to book a place at Colonial House, the hostel we had stayed at before. It was a long seven hour journey back and we arrived into Quito at around 10pm. We managed to get a taxi and then headed to our hostel for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we will head off to Quilotoa for some trekking through the mountains! From deep jungle to high and cold mountains in a couple of days – that’s the variety you find in Ecuador!