July 6 to 13, 2010
Our trip to the Galapagos had left Roz and I ravenous for more wildlife. There was only one place after the Galapagos that could amaze and excite us with its flora and fauna: The Amazon. So as soon as we got back to Quito, we started researching Ecuador’s Amazon region (which they call the Oriente – ooooh, how mysterious!). The Galapagos had shredded our budget, so we wanted to do the Amazon as cheaply as possible. My idea was to install floats and a paddlewheel on our truck, but Roz vetoed that so we looked online for other options. We were almost overwhelmed with the choices of lodges and jungle tours, but for a variety of reasons (price, location, ecotourism, etc.) we decided to book a 5 night/5 day stay at the Cuyabeno River Lodge, situated on the Cuyabeno River, within the Cuyabeno National Reserve, in northeast Ecuador. The Cuyabeno River is a tributary of the Napo River, which in turn is a tributary of the Amazon River.
(ROZ: Coincidentally I had just read “The Mapmaker’s Wife”, about an 18th century woman’s incredible journey down the Napo River in search of her husband – a member of the French team of scientists who had travelled to Ecuador in 1735 to measure the circumference of the earth. Her tale of survival is beyond belief. Ooops, did I just give the ending away?)
We were scheduled to arrive at the lodge on July 8th, so we departed the huge city of Quito on July 6th and headed east into the mountains, towards the Amazon. A few hours later, we stopped at Papallacta, to check out their hot springs. The springs were actually part of a high-end resort called Termas de Papallacta, but low-life outsiders like us were allowed to use their pools for a fee. We found a cheaper sleeping option down the road at the friendly and basic Hosteria Choza Don Wilson. After a delicious trout dinner there (and tequila shots gratis), we drove 15 minutes to the spa and spent the evening checking out each of the 20 different pools. Every pool was unique in shape, size, landscaping – and temperature. Some were overwhelmingly hot and a couple were “cool” pools. One hot pool was situated right beside a river, so I got to do the Scandinavian thing and go from scalding hot water to freezing cold river. Sweet. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring the camera, but trust me, this place was truly amazing – especially at night with a starry sky.
After 90 minutes at the Termas, we felt like liquid goo and headed back to our hostel, ready for a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately the hotel was at 10,000 feet so Roz didn’t sleep well because of the altitude. The next morning, after a few cups of coffee, we hit the road again, continuing east through the mountains. The scenery was stunning. So green. And so missed by us after weeks of Galapagos and Quito brown. The road wound through the mountains from one gorgeous vista to the next. And the weather went from sunshine to mist to heavy rain and back to sunshine again. Best of all, we were always descending. As we made our way down to 2,000 feet, we gleefully watched the landscape change from high-alpine bleakness to lush forest fecundity.
At one point, we stopped at the San Rafael waterfall – Ecuador’s tallest falls at over 400 feet. Full disclosure: I whined to the park staff about the $10 entry fee and they eventually reduced it by half for us. Try doing that at Yosemite (or any other national park) in the U.S.
After passing the oil town of Nueva Loja on Highway 45, we got on a dirt road that eventually brought us to the Cuyabeno bridge and the entrance to the Cuyabeno National Reserve. We bought tickets at the office, parked Yuki next door at the lodge owner’s house, then waited for our ride to the lodge. This being the Amazon, our ride was in a 20-foot flat-bottom canoe, propelled by an outboard motor, which we had all to ourselves (excluding the driver). We threw our packs into the boat, then sat back and enjoyed an exhilarating ride upriver. Fifteen wonderful minutes later, we were at the Cuyabeno River Lodge (http://www.cuyabenoriver.com/). Consisting of a half-dozen cabins along the river with a large dining/living lodge in the middle, it was rough, but more than sufficient for our needs. In fact, it was amazing.
This economical place is not to be confused with the high-end Cuyabeno Lodge. Ours was a pretty no-frills place with bland food and rustic cabins. But what it lacked in gourmet food and creature comforts it more than made up for with our guide. Rom, short for Romulo, was extremely knowledgeable about the jungle, and had an infectious love and enthusiasm for everything that lived there – from the big, furry tarantulas to the small, furry monkeys. He was a self-taught local who not only knew the English and Spanish names for most of the flora and fauna of the Amazon, but he also knew their Latin names! Rom’s mother was indigenous and his father was Spanish, so he had an interesting upbringing with one foot in each world. He certainly made our stay in the Amazon a high point of Ecuador!
We shared Rom with three other guests: Theresa, a young German gal, and Bernard and Christina, an older French couple (he was a scientist working for a Swiss climate-change research organization and had travelled through most of South America studying glaciers and other indicators of climate change).
Our time there was a happy blur of jungle walks and boat rides where we were fortunate to encounter a broad sample of the exquisite variety of life in the bush. Our walks (including nighttime ones!) lasted for hours at a time and took us around some of the 300 acres of Cuyabeno Reserve jungle that the lodge owns and protects.
When we weren’t walking, we were boating. The drivers, Rom or another local, drove the 20-foot canoes with precision – they seemed to know every sandbar and sunken log in the river. One day we boated to Laguna Grande, a flooded forest, where we enjoyed a refreshing swim. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of the famed pink dolphins there. But we did see a lot of birds and monkeys.
(ROZ: Monkeys!!! Wow!!! What an amazing experience to see monkeys being monkeys in their natural habitat – swinging and jumping from branch to branch along the river. Most were in groups of at least 4 or more. We also saw some very unusual-looking and beautiful birds. For those who care about such things, here’s what we saw: squirrel monkeys, Monk Saki (big, black furry monkeys who, Rom told us, don’t swim because their wet fur gets so heavy, it sinks them), capuchin monkeys and black mantled tamarins. At the Siona village we saw a baby woolly monkey. During our boat ride we saw these birds: Greater Ani, Hoatzin, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Neotropical Cormorant, White-throated kingfisher and brown oropendola.)
We also visited a Siona village along the river. While Rom had already warned us that it wasn’t as traditional as more remote Amazonian villages, it was still a fun afternoon learning how to make yucca bread. We finished off the long day by fishing for piranhas. Using raw beef for bait, Roz caught a beauty (as did Rom). And just to add the final touch to the whole day, we heard a howler monkey while we fished. Rom cooked the piranha for dinner that night (he used to work as a cook at the lodge) and it was surprisingly good. Kind of like perch – with attitude.
The wonderful thing about the lodge was that most days, we didn’t even have to go anywhere to see wildlife. There was a parrot that hung out in the tree behind Rom’s hut, flocks of oropendolas loved hanging out in the huge kapok tree near the lodge and we saw monkeys almost every day in the tree tops across the river. One morning, we first heard and then saw a group of squirrel monkeys moving through the trees right next to the lodge. That was fun to watch from a hammock. When we weren’t looking at wildlife, we were reading about it. Most nights after dinner, we would all sit down in the lounge and leaf through books on snakes, birds and insects while’s Rom’s mp3 player would blast tinny Bob Marley and Manu Chao tunes. Very chill mon!
Before we knew it our stay was over, but we were so happy to have had the enjoyable experience we did. Other than the bland, basic food (bring lots of hot sauce – the other guests will want some too), the Cuyabeno River Lodge delivered. For some reason, the lodge didn’t stock any alcohol, but since the general store was only a 15-minute boat ride downriver, we made almost daily beer runs with Rom. I never got tired of motoring up and down that river. The Amazon is truly amazon-azing.
Stay tuned next time for “Zip Line Assassins!”