Our Cuyabeno Rain Forest Amazon Basin Adventure –
Our excitement mounts seeing the landing strip of Lago Agrio, the first step to getting to the Amazon Basin, known to Ecuadorians as Amazonia. Our guide Miguel and bus driver Mr. Frankie are on hand to meet us. We board a bus for a two hour stint passing through villages and verdant terrain; a black oil pipeline looks out of place running alongside the roadway. At the entrance of Cuyabeno National Reserve we transfer to a motorized canoe and travel down the Cuyabeno River for another two hours, taking us deeper and deeper into the jungle. The air is hot and for sure it has reached its average 80% humidity.
Standing in the front of the canoe, Miguel watches for movement while listening for sounds. If indications are that a creature is near, he waves to William, our master canoe-man, who immediately slows or cuts the motor as we can peer through the tree-tops at such wonders as red howler monkeys and a Yellow Toucan winging by…then a pair of Harp Eagles! The most unusual sight (and smell) is a stinky turkey, the prehistoric looking Hoatzin whose foul odour stems from a digestive system in which vegetative matter ferments in its crop.
The dark river water contrast with the golden clay banks from which a profusion of greenery reaches towards “el sol”. Thirty million years ago the whole of the Amazon Basin was under the ocean, hence the clay base, which is devoid of nutrients. The voluminous plant-life is sustained by the dark water composed of rich nutrients from decayed plant matter collected along the way from the Andes, the source of the Basin’s rivers, lagoons and swamps. “This tributary, the Cuyabeno River is 150km long,” says Miguel, “which with every waterway in the basin will eventually spill into the Amazon River, 7,000km from here – to the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil.”
At the top of my wildlife sighting list is “A” for anaconda, specifically the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). These kings and queens of the jungle swim with ease in the swamps and slow-moving rivers, and at times slither up onto a convenient tree branch to sun themselves. The females are substantially larger than the males and have been known to grow up to 9.1m (30ft), reaching 227kg (500lbs) in weight, their girth can measure 30.5cm (12in)! I mention my wish to Miguel, who says, “We can only hope.”
We arrive at Jamu Lodge, our home for the next three nights. The boardwalk we tromp over is surrounded by entwining roots and branches of trees with massive trunks.
Gathering around a map in the lodge’s dining area, Miguel points to Jamu saying, “From here we are only 120km from the Colombia border.” We learn that Jamu means armadillo in Siona, the indigenous jungle peoples of Cuyabeno.
Our room name is “Alligator”. It is one half of a hut with a peaked thatched roof, the outer walls open to the elements from chest level. We look appreciatively at the mosquito net draping our bed. The ensuite “banyo” (yes, believe it) has the only electric light (to be used sparingly); candles are available for our main lighting source. Jamu is one of 11 Eco lodges along the Cuyabeno River.
After a fine supper, where we meet our gregarious fellow adventurers, we pile into a canoe and head for Laguna Grande to see a glorious sunset and spot the sleek backs of pink dauphins that disappear again with lightening speed. After darkness falls we patiently watch and luckily see the red eyes of a caiman gleaming from under hanging branches along the shore. I swirl my hand in the tepid water, I have to trust Miguel that Piranha have no interest in my digits, and that their mouthful of sharp teeth are to crack the hard shells of seeds that make up a good portion of their diet.
An orchestra of bird songs and riotous squirrel monkeys rouse us early the next morning. After breakfast we are fitted with a hefty pair of rubber boots, and reminded to bring along our rainproof poncho given out yesterday for the sporadic showers that seem to come out of nowhere. It is then off to trek in the jungle and browse through nature’s pharmacy. Miguel scrapes the bark of a camphor tree releasing its familiar medicinal scent. He points to another, “From this tree Quinine is extracted.” A cut in the bark of another draws out red sap – Sangre de dragon (Dragon Blood); used for healing internal infections and external wounds. An innocent looking vine, Curare, is a poisonous substance used on darts, causing respiratory arrest when it enters the bloodstream. Oddly, this same plant is not poisonous via the stomach, and instead is a cure for various ailments. It is said 70% of new drugs come from Mother Nature.
As we plod along, the biomass is beyond believable. The word “lush” takes on a new meaning. Every square meter has a mega tangle of plant density – tree trunks clumped with moss, both epiphytes and parasitic vines vying for holds on every tree and bush in sight. Tree tops stretch towards the sun; only 20% of light reaches the jungle floor. The Kapoc tree towers the forest growing up to 60m tall. The lowly fallen logs have their place sprouting mushrooms and toadstools; a carpet of leaves in stages of decay are underfoot – some camouflage a hole left by rooting wild pigs that we chance loosing our foot in. “Watch where you put your hands,” warns Miguel. He taps a tree trunk and a frenzy of teeny ants appears. “These are called stripper ants, as if they transfer from the wood to your body, you will be stripping off your clothes.”
Back in the canoe we cut the motor and paddle to an area with giant-sized trees sprouting from the water – the perfect sunning place for snakes! We admire a boa constrictor on a branch above our heads – he periodically twists his lengthy body and lifts his head, his tongue flicking. We slowly manoeuvre around other trees; my fingers are crossed – Alas, no anaconda.
A night trek brings us front and centre to witness the jungle’s most alive time, when many creatures hunt and feed. A concert of sounds resonates – cicadas, crickets, frogs, toads and bats produce all manner of buzzing, tapping, croaking, and whirring. The emitted energy is palpable! With flashlights we gingerly walk along snapping pictures (without flash) of scorpions, tarantulas, lone spiders in lacy webs, hundreds of communal spiders sharing humungous spherical webs. Back in our canoe for the ride back the constellations shine like halogen bulbs against a black velvet sky.
The next day we travel by boat another two hours deeper into the jungle to visit a family of the Siona peoples (one of five indigenous Ecuadorian Amazon Basin nationalities, each with its own language and traditions). As our canoe is pulled up onto the sandy shore, a young boy and girl run down the embankment to greet us, their bare feet oblivious to the twigs and prickly bits of foliage. In the main hut we are welcomed by the 75-year-old grandmother of the family. Out in front of the hut we see a baby toddle about while her mom and two other women do chores.
It is time for us to go to work. The sinewy elder leads us to her sizable garden of Yucca (Manioc) plants. She swings a machete, toppling a few of these 10-ft plants. She then asks for a volunteer, and one of the men in our group wrestles the edible roots from the ground. Foot-long sections of the stocks are immediately set back into the hole and packed with earth, so they will re-root and grow into a new plant – thus sustaining this staple food of these jungle villages.
We are then instructed how to peel back the skin of the roots to reveal firm, white turnip-like inner cores. After trotting back to the hut – the real work begins. We take turns washing the roots, grating them in an oblong wooden trough using large graters made from tin with hundreds of nail holes. The turn taking continues with squeezing out juice from the mash in a woven contraption. The dry mash is then placed back in the trough to be rubbed through a woven plant-fibre sieve. The pro takes over – namely Grandma, who pats the now fine-textured yucca into a hot pan over a wood fire…..and within minutes we are reaping the rewards of our labour – fresh baked Casabe, traditional bread. Rather bland on its own, but tasty spruced up with chunks of tuna or a desert spread of pineapple syrup.
After bidding this gracious family farewell, we head out in our canoe again for a larger Siona settlement to meet the Shaman; one of two Shaman left in the Cuyabeno area. A smallish 54-year-old man comes into our midst in the meeting hut dressed in a loose cloth frock, necklaces of shells and jaguar teeth reaching his chest, and a cloth cap representing the many colours of bird feathers signifying the flight of his spirit. A hallucinogenic beverage called Ayawaska (Ayvasca) is used to aid in this linking of the spiritual and physical worlds; the secret ingredients passed down from his ancestors. A plastic bottle with this thick molasses-like substance is passed around for us to smell its pungent odour. The Shaman says (with Miguel translating) that he began to drink Ayawaska at the age of 15, and has drunk it 2 or 3 times a week since. The first response of the body is to purge, with violent vomiting, a cleansing necessary to see auras and various manifestations to better detect how to aide those seeking to be rid of the evil forces that are playing havoc with their mental or physical well-being. He says it takes many years of consuming it to reach the meta-physical level to do this.
The Shaman picks our new friend Oliver for his sampling ritualistic ceremony. My eyes bulge and I look at Rick. We both stifle a chuckle. A gentler or more caring fellow you cannot find than Oliver, who told us earlier that day, “I made a few Shaman jokes today, and do you think he will somehow know this?” Oliver sits on a small stool with the Shaman behind him swirling tobacco leaves while chanting in his native tongue to remove any bad energy and enhance good vibrations. We interrogate Oliver later, who tells us he first felt hot (possibly from his mind spinning with reasons he was picked from our group of eleven), then he was encased in a soothing coolness.
On the boat ride back to the lodge we are happy to have remembered our ponchos as heavy clouds move in shedding a fast and furious deluge. Our last hunt for creatures is therefore cancelled – I’m feeling with leaving tomorrow morning it will have to suffice to know that there are anacondas out there…somewhere.
After our breakfast and goodbyes to the hotel staff and to our fine fellow adventures who are booked to stay an extra day, we climb into the canoe with William at the helm to begin retracing our journey back. About twenty minutes into our ride another canoe is idling near hanging tree branches on one side of the river. David, another guide form Jamu is waving wildly. Slowing to a snails pace, we hear him softy call “anaconda”. He slowly moves his boat to let us in closer. My heart drums and I can barely breathe as my eyes fall on its green and yellowish pattern! Although partially hidden in the foliage, David speculates this young jungle queen is over 2m long. “Now, is this not the most amazing ending?” I beam at Rick.
I would be remise not to mention after being immersed in the rainforest for only four days, on the bus ride back to the airport the black pipeline takes on an even more ominous appearance. The Yasuni area that borders Cuyabeno is where uncontrolled destruction of the Ecuadorian rainforest took place during the 1980’s and 1990’s, along with massive amounts of toxic sludge being spilled into the waterways. A court case launched by the Ecuador government is currently ongoing against US oil giant, Texaco/Chevron for clean-up compensation. Ecuador will continue with oil extraction, but “say” it will be done with the least impact on the environment and the indigenous peoples. As well as the unparalleled beauty of Ecuador’s Amazon Basin being saved for future generations, we can only hope that one of nature’s major oxygen factories will survive for all of us on this big blue ball.
“We’re home!” we announce as we step back into the Windsor Hotel in Quito. It feels good to be pampered by the staff and to be milling around our old hood. We even splurge and get our bag of jungle-mud encrusted clothes professionally washed!
Ecuador topped our expectations – from Quito’s colonial Old Town, to the slower-paced city of Loja and Vilcabamba Village, to the Galapagos and the Amazon rainforest…with welcoming people everywhere we went.
Next is our journey to Colombia!