Amazon Rainforest at Cuyabeno – no such thing as silence

My first trip to the Amazon Rainforest will certainly not be the last. I loved it!! I can’t believe I nearly skipped it.

For this 4-day trip I was with Sharon and Paul from the Netherlands and Elaine from Ireland and we made a great bunch. We left Quito at 11pm on a nightbus transfer to Lago Agrio at the edge of the rainforest. We paid $20 each way for a private transfer (it wasn’t just us on the bus, but it wasn’t a public bus stopping every 30 seconds). The local buses cost $12.50 and leave from the southern bus terminal (an hour on the metro but not very safe at night or a $10 taxi ride away). We each had plenty of seats to sprawl across for the bumpy, twisty 8-9 hour journey over the mountains and down the other side, ears popping the whole way.

We had chosen to go with CarpeDM tour agency which is located inside the Secret Garden Quito hostel and we paid $280 for three nights, four days in the rainforest, all food and activities included. We chose to stay at Caiman Lodge, there are others in different price brackets.

The journey to Lago Agrio was another hair-raising one and I was glad to have my eye mask and pillow. We were supplied with a blanket and then whisked at breakneck speed round the twisty roads into the jungle. I nearly fell off my seat so many times but I kept finding it funnier each time.

We arrived early in Lago Agrio in the middle of an enormous downpour so we had to find our way bleary-eyed up to the hammocks in a small cafe where we took shelter until breakfast. I had another great sleep in the hammock and nearly missed breakfast. After this we were collected by another bus and driven 2 hours further into the rainforest to a cafe along the river where we met our guide, David.

I covered myself in bug repellent and changed into shorts and t-shirt as if it rains you may as well just get soaked to the skin as more clothes will not keep you dry… Perhaps as you would imagine it was sweltering and humid but absolutely fantastic at the same time. Wouldn’t have changed a thing.

We got into our canoe (motorised thankfully!) and began the two hour, 20+ kilometre journey to our lodge.

I felt like I was in the film avatar or on a journey with my idol, David Attenborough. It was jaw-dropping the whole way. We saw so many of the iconic species in that first journey. It took us over three hours because we had so many detours to swing round and get closer to the wildlife.

Within a few minutes we found a sleeping anaconda curled on a tree fork. I was straight up to the front of the boat with my camera reveling in the dream come true of seeing one in the wild.

I had forgotten what an absolute wildlife nerd I am! So many of the species I could name before being told by the guide.

I didn’t know all the different monkey species until then but it was like being in a zoo, wherever you turn your head there is a different species to compare. We could see which layer of the jungle each occupied, the family size, eating habits, whether or not they had prehensile tails and also whether any other species trail them around to feed off the mess they leave behind. In our first journey we encountered squirrel monkeys, yellow handed titis, sakis and capuchins.

The noise was incredible and at times the cicadas were almost deafening.

We made it to Caiman Lodge after passing through a tiny arch cut into the trees and vines then we threw our luggage into our rooms and went to eat lunch.

Lunch was 3 courses and dinners were 2 courses. Our first lunch began with a dish like ceviche without the fish and it was delicious and refreshing. Then we had meat, rice, lentils and yuca then fruit to finish. Tasty and fresh.

I had a short rest in a hammock overlooking the rainforest and then at 1630 we went out in the boat to see what we could find. Exceptional wildlife again including groups of pink river dolphins, it felt like such an incredible strike of luck that we could see them so easily but they do live in the deeper oxbow sections of the river during this part of the season.

We also saw some enormous Arapaima, a fish that can grow to 3 metres long and 150kg, they were in the same area as the pink dolphins but when they showed out of the water their tails were quite beautiful with dark grey scales and bright red/orange lines between the scales.

We made our way to a large lake to watch the sun set over the jungle. The water was like a mirror and it was such a beautiful sight to move around the part-submerged trees and see their reflections. We went to the centre of the lake and all jumped in for a swim, hoping the thing that touched our foot was another person and not a piranha!! We watched the spectacular sunset from the water and then went back for dinner at 8pm.

During dinner, an opossum scaled down a rope to snack on some bananas so I went to watch her for a while until she retreated into the rafters.

After dinner we went on a nocturnal excursion to see what we could find. We went back to the lake, with Manu driving our boat by the light of the stars. It was an almost indescribable experience. The stars were so bright, with no moon and an enormous thunder storm over the rainforest in the distance with impressive flashes every few seconds. We stayed watching the stars for a long time and I think all of us would have voted to sleep out there if we had taken blankets.

David was shining a torch into the trees so that we could spot a tree boa from her reflective eyes. It took us a while but we found a beautiful one at a good height and got a great close-up view. Then we went over to another lodge on the lake as living right by their dock is a huge spectacled caiman. It stayed perfectly still while there was light on it but as soon as we moved the light away the caiman submerged and moved closer, popping out and staying perfectly still, like it was playing Grandmother’s Footsteps.

We went back to the lodge at about 10pm and got a reasonably early night. The lodges are really close together and my nextdoor neighbour was snoring like a trooper so I had to put my earplugs in to sleep, gutted as I was enjoying the sounds of the rainforest.

Breakfast was at 8am so I got up a bit earlier to do some yoga and then meditation in a hammock, which was a great way to start the day!

We had an all-day trip to visit a village so we left at 9am and took a 17 kilometre boat ride down the river. The four of us were joined by a French couple with two cute and fearless little girls, Zoe and Nina who were 8 and 11 years old.

We stopped and got out of the boat along the way to search for pygmy marmosets (sadly these smallest monkeys in the world weren’t showing themselves!) but we did spot a two-toed sloth high up in the tree. Sloth fur is an incredible adaptation. It has two layers which overlap in a zigzag and encourage a kind of moss to grow which gives them great camouflage as they look like a green boulder.

We arrived at the edge of the village and got out of our boat to walk through it and see how the families lived. First thing we spotted was a tame Amazon parrot in the tree above us.

I climbed up the tree to get some photos of him and the next moment we were joined by a saki monkey with a puppy in tow. Everyone’s hearts melted as these two little creatures were play-fighting without paying any attention to us.

We eventually tore ourselves away from the cuteness and walked through the village, stopping to look at the water tanks and solar panels set up for them by an Australian charity. Then we hopped back into the boat to get to the more remote hut we were aiming for.

The shaman’s ceremonial lodge was where we learned how to make yuca “bread” from scratch. First we had our faces painted with the red juice from a spiky lychee-looking plant.

I volunteered to help pull up the yuca roots after the shaman’s daughter cut down the plants with a machete. It was such hard work!!! But eventually I got the plant up with about 8 decent sized tubers. We peeled them then grated them on a traditional grater (a metal sheet with jaggedly punched holes in. Then the girl wrapped then shredded yuca in a banana leaf hammock-like sheet and twisted the sheet to wring out the huge amount of water. After she had finished, the texture of the shavings was like desiccated coconut. Before we arrived the fire had been set up ready with a large disc on the top and now the woman placed a coconut shell-full of the mix onto the disc and smoothed it out as it dried and then pressed it into a pancake where it cooked and was flipped to create a finished piece of bread. Nothing added. Pure yuca. And whilst it was tasteless it was probably my favourite form of yuca ever as it had absolutely no stringy bits in it. I topped it with some hot sauce made from the water collected when the shavings were wrung out and chillies. Then we ate lunch which had been brought with us from the lodge. We had a kind of paella with chicken and vegetables.

After lunch, the shaman sprang into action, speaking a combination of his mother tongue and Spanish he described to us the life of a shaman and the importance of the famous hallucinogenic Ayahuasca ceremony for his ability to determine the best treatment for his patients. It was fascinating and at the end, one of the people in the other group volunteered to undergo a demonstration of chanting and purification ritual with a bunch of herbs being shaken around his head.

After the ritual finished we took a leisurely ride back to the lodge, stopping to watch wildlife whenever possible. I climbed up the central tower of Caiman Lodge and spent about 45 minutes up there watching birds flying home to roost and listening to the changing sounds of the forest as the sun set. I was surrounded by black vultures in almost every tree and some were very close.

When it got dark I came down and joined the others in a couple of games of cards.

Before dinner the four of us and the French family went on a night walk through the jungle near the lodge to look for bugs mainly. It was great! I am not brilliantly comfortable with spiders but I found the jungle ones totally fine. We found a huge Brazilian Wandering spider very close to our lodge before we even got into the trees.

Once in the trees we found a wide variety of spiders including a golden orb web and a banana spider (one of the few whose bite can be very harmful to humans due to allergies). We found the skin of an anaconda down by the water and David found a caiman but it shot off before we could see it. We got attacked by wasps and had to turn out our lights and stand in the pitch black with wasps trying to get into our clothes. I had one in my hair right next to my ear and I was luckily not stung. Poor Sharon had at least 5 in her top and I was helping her get them out. The older little girl, Zoe, panicked and I was giving her a cuddle to calm her down as well. What a calamity! Luckily we had dinner to go back to and relax.

We had an early start for a birdwatching trip out to the lake. It was a beautifully calm morning and the lake was as flat as a sheet of glass reflecting the trees and sky.

We saw plenty of stinky turkeys (Hoatzin) along the river. Very beautiful with a strange prehistoric look to them, this species branched off long ago and developed some unique adaptations among birds. They survive solely on leaves which need some predigestion into order to remove the deadly toxins. This predigestion process (similar to cows) makes the birds very smelly! Another wierd adaptation is the claw on the wings of the baby birds before they can fly, this means they can dive into the water to evade predators and then climb back up the tree to safety!

We also found the perch of a Potoo, a nocturnal bird that during the day can barely be distinguished from a tree branch. Rarely spotted due to its near perfect camouflage but they often perch in the same place which is the only way we were able to find one! That was a real treat and I remembered hearing about this species when I was little.

After about an hour exploring, we returned to the lodge for breakfast.

Today was the rainforest hike day! We got into the boat and towed a wooden canoe behind and we went across the lake and then had to navigate between trees in the flooded forest to reach the bank. We all wore Wellington boots and long trousers. I wore a t-shirt but some people also wore long sleeves. I didn’t actually get bothered by mosquitoes or bugs as much as I expected which is fantastic!

Our hike took around 3 hours and we started in an area of solid primary forest with a tall closed canopy, lots of vines and orchids high up and we were walking between ferns (they are as tall as trees) and other short trees.

In lots of places we came across fallen trees which had left an opening in the canopy. We could see the race to fill the gap, with plants which were usually stunted suddenly shooting up into the canopy. They never quite make it though, the slow-growing giants do overtake them again and eventually one of those will take its place at the top. That part was secondary rainforest.

We found some amazing creatures on the walk, most of the new creatures were bugs and I spent a lot of the time off by myself hunting for insects. I found a great leaf mantis and watched her for a while.

I got quite far behind the group and when I caught up, they were stood around a lemon tree with lemon ants nesting in it. It’s an amazing symbiotic relationship. The ants live inside the tree for protection and in exchange the ants use formic acid to kill all other plants in at least a one-metre radius from the tree, allowing it to flourish and creating a very strange sight of a tree surrounded by a noticeable void. The locals called this the devil’s garden as it was so stark against the life of the jungle.

So anyway.. the others had been told they could try eating ants and that they tasted like lemon. Some had tried, some hadn’t. I knew I wanted to so I walked up to the tree and to the stream of ants, trying to pick up some to try. Someone called that I needed to lick my finger to pick them up, I promptly did this and swiped my finger along the ants, collecting at least 50 tiny ants on my fingertip and before I could freak out about them wiggling I just stuffed them in my mouth. To the horror of the group, one of them laughed and called out “take it easy Godzilla; we only had one each!!” I nearly fell over laughing. I just assumed that you needed a bunch to taste the lemon!! So I tried to swallow them as quickly as I could because I realised they would be alive on the way down. Eek. I licked my finger to get some of the ants off my tongue and there were four wriggling ants on my fingertip. Bleurgh. Takes having food stuck in your teeth to another level!

Shortly after the lemon tree we made our way downhill and came to a section of flooded forest which we had to cross using a variety of treading very carefully with small steps and finding submerged roots to balance on. Pretty much everyone fell in up to their thighs rendering the Welly boots useless. I made it out unscathed, barely, with sticky, squelchy mud coming right up to the top of my boot just as I located the root to stand on.

We found some dry land and wound our way through the jungle back to our little wooden canoe where the four of us paddled back to the lake for the sunset.

We were joined by a group that had paddled a floating platform from our lodge and they had brought out cold beers so that was definitely a great idea.

After dinner we asked to go back out to watch the stars. It was phenomenal again and we all saw a shooting star go all the way across the sky, it was amazing. The sound of the forest was deafening again and none of us wanted to leave.

I got into bed fairly early to listen to the jungle and just as I was trying to drift off there was a racket of rustling plastic in my room and I froze with dread, grateful for my mosquito net but also certain that there was an opossum about to burst through it and bite me. After bravely calling out to see if someone could come and help me (no replies save snoring), I counted to three and burst out of the mosquito net, grabbed my flipflops and dashed out of the door to put them on. I must have seemed like a total lunatic to the night Watchman sleeping on the bench outside but he jumped up and we both went back into the hut to work out what was going on. It turned out to be a mouse ripping food packets to shreds. The dude didn’t think it was special, but I reckon it was a rare tropical Amazonian mouse-frog or something.

At breakfast time I got hang out with a family of capuchin monkeys and one adolescent male in particular was quite playful and stayed close by in a tree posing for photos.

Then we finished packing up our things and by about 0930 (we were all dragging our heels so we left late) we were on the water for our journey back through the jungle to the road. This time the journey was much quicker as we didn’t stop for every animal that was spotted.

Except the howler monkeys that I spotted!! We watched them for a while. For some reason they were totally accepting of our presence.

We all tried to sleep on the journey so that when we arrived back in Quito at around 10pm we could get dinner and then go out partying as it was my last night in Ecuador!! What a place.

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