Ecuador, South America, Travel

Cuyabeno River Cruising

I was so sad to be leaving Mashpi, and honestly, it already felt like I’d been on holiday for 2 weeks, but actually, I’d only been in Ecuador for 5 nights so far!

The next adventure was going to be just as good though… after being dropped back in Quito, I checked into a cheap little hostel to sleep and chill (in the day) to prepare for my 12-hour overnight bus to Cuyabeno Reserve in the far East of Ecuador and part of the wider Amazon River Basin.

The bus actually wasn’t that bad, it was quite quiet and not super busy and so I had a double seat to myself. The first bus stop in the morning was at a kind of service station, where I was able to grab a quick coffee and more snacks, and just before midday, we arrived at the Cuyabeno Bridge, which was the final bus stop and a bustling river port ferrying tourists to and from their various lodges in the region.

I had to wait a couple hours more in the little village whilst my boat stocked up. I was seemingly the only person destined for my lodge, Jamu Lodge, and as everyone else there slowly boated away, I was left on my own as the Jamu boat packed up with drinking water, fresh food and fuel.

We eventually got on our way to the lodge, it was a 4-hour boat journey to Jamu lodge from the Bridge, but it was an amazing journey! And by the time I arrived at the Lodge I had already seen 4 species of monkey, countless macaws and aracari. I even got to experience the true “rain” forest! As for about an hour of the journey we were pummled with relentless rain, HUGE rain drops too! I was soaked to the core, but when the rains stopped, the Equator sun soon dried us off.

Jamu lodge was absolutely stunning, and as we pulled into the lodge with it’s raised walkway under the trees, I was ready for lunch for sure. I checked into the room quickly and then was served a delicious meal of soup (which in this heat seemed insane haha, but is a real Ecuadorian staple) and quinoa burger. It really was nice home cooked food at the lodge. Although unfortunately, they weren’t able to offer me vegan every meal and I did end up eating a lot of eggs here…

I was on my own at the lodge when I first arrived, but not long after the rest of the guests turned up, they had been out on the river. There was a big mix of nationalities, and actually I was the only Brit which was a change! I was going to join this group for a late afternoon/evening boat and then an early morning birdwatching boat, but then they would be gone and unfortunately after that I found myself at Jamu Lodge all on my own again. It was a bit weird to be honest, and I had hoped to meet some people to enjoy the (internet-free) evenings with. Instead, I had quite a few early nights! But since we had early mornings, this wasn’t too bad.

So that evening I joined the existing group for an evening boat, and we saw a couple more species of monkey, some too far in the tree tops to see on my camera, but I did see a lot with the binocs. We then ended the evening on Cuyabeno lake where a few of the group were brave enough to take a swim! This planted the seed for me, but with Cuyabeno (and the Amazon in general) famous for caiman, pihranas, anacondas, and countless other dangerous animals lurking in the opaque waters, I was going to have to really psyche myself up for it haha!

The sunset on the water was absolutley incredible too…

After watching the sunset, we waited on the lake until it was pitch-black, and the main thing I noticed was the stars… I’ve never seen so many stars in my life. You could see the colours and the swirls of the milky way. With no light pollution for miles and miles, it really was incredible. So many colours in the night sky that usually arent visible…

After admiring the stars for a little, we then started the journey back to the lodge in absolute darkness. However, we were told to use our torches to scan the riverbanks and surface waters for eyes… caiman eyes are reflective, so if you catch it right, they light up like little beacons. We spotted quite a few caiman, both black (the larger variety) and white or ‘spectacled’ caiman (the smaller variety). But to be honest, they were both big and I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the water with either!! haha

Very blurry in the low light!

After another nice tea of soup (again!) I got an early night in my bungalow, but not without a quick inspection of the surroundings. There were a few spooky looking creepy crawlies in my room, but they were quickly swept out and I cautiously tucked my mosquito net in all around the bed hoping to sleep easily.

The next morning I woke up early to the sounds of parrots and parakeets as well as a troop of monkeys making their way through the lodge. I went out up onto my bathroom balcony to try and see them, they were so noisy chattering amongst themselves, but I couldn’t for the life of me spot them!! They were very well camoflaged!

I had a delicious breakfast and then was back out on the river again, this morning we were going to go up river slightly and do a forest walk on land. The river in the morning was full of birds, but without a good zoom camera, I was instead glued to my binoculars. I saw a few different species of Trogon (compared to the ones I saw in Mashpi (I was getting good at spotting and identifying birds now ;)) and quite a few Aracari, including many-banded aracari high up in the tree tops. There was also A LOT of Hoatzin, which my guide called “stinky turkeys” because they apparently don’t smell or taste good (which is why they are not hunted and there’s so many of them!) lucky for them I guess! haha

We came up the the landing point and started our hike on land. My guide told me all about the forest and showed me many traditional plants used for things like dyes, medicines, weapons, air-conditioning… haha (one type of leave he cut into a fan shape and it was perfect in the thick humidity!) There was loads of cool things to see.

This leaf produces a red colour when damaged and is used as a dye primarily, but he also said sometimes to write on! Or create cool patterns like this.

This tree is what they use to make blow darts, they are sharp spines, but the tree also has a kind of cotton like inner which can be rolled around the dart.

This was the freakiest thing… the zombie ant fungus. The fungus infects the brains of their victims taking over the behaviour of the ant and causing them to wander off from the nest, usually climb a tree and them clamp down with their mandibles in an act of suicide so the fungus can grow a fruiting body from their brains… spooky!!

I saw so many other things too, countless frogs, and who knows how many ants, mostly leaf-cutter ants in huge highways across the forest floor, but also lemon ants (so called because the locals like to eat them as they taste citrusy – I didn’t try them!).

We searched (and mostly stayed quiet and listened) for any anacondas. The guide said that this was the best place to spot them, but we didn’t see any unfortunatley, before getting back in our boat to return to the lodge for lunch. On the way back we had a paddle boat instead of the motorboat, which was nice and tranquil, but with just the 2 of us, it was hard work, and in the equatorial sun (even creamed up to the max) I got quite badly burned!

After lunch (of soup again!) we went back out for the evening boat and then back on land for a nigth walk after the sun had gone down. The evening boat was great and we saw loads again, including a 3-toed sloth high up in one of the trees! We also saw the famous pink river dolphins, although they weren’t very pink haha! They are quite rare and dificult to spot since they disappear or move on as soon as they see or hear the boats, but we stayed quiet and paddled along side the for a while. Since their visits to the surface are quite quick, you tend to hear them more than see them, but it was still really amazing.

The night walk, however, was not as pleasant haha! The jungle comes completely alive at night, and I hunkered down in my jacket, zipped all the way up, with my hood up and everything, to protect from all the biting insects (and to feel some sense of security against all the spiders!). For those who know me, you will know I am not the biggest fan of spiders – although I have got a lot better over the years and a lot more tolerant. Well on this walk, I must have seen HUNDREDS of spiders, and I am not exaggerating… I could not get many good photos in the lighting, and also, I was far too distracted by how big they all were to take too many photos, I was tying to watch where I stepped. Honestly, everywhere you looked was a massive spider on the hunt! We also saw a few poisonous toads, some whip scorpians (which are not really spiders at all, but look like them), stick insects, and loads of other bugs. My heart rate was through the roof haha, but I survived, and I must admit, it was quite cool.

On the way back to the lodge we went caiman spotting again and saw a couple right by our lodge (again!), one reason to not take a dip in the accomodation area! haha

On the 3rd morning and my last full day, the plan was to boat over to one of the local villages in the area, the Tarapuy community. On the way we stopped off for another short walk to visit what the guide said was the biggest tree in the whole region, and OMG is was HUUUGE! It was a Ceiba tree with massive buttress roots and it dominated the whole region.

The village was quite interesting, all stilted houses which were really cool! And I learned how to make a type of flat “bread” made from yucca called casabe. We went out and dug up some fresh yucca and then grated it, squeezed the water out and fried it on a pan to make the bread. It was really tasty actually, especially with some spicy onions we made and some pineapple jam as a sweet variation!

That evening a new group arrived, so the night boat and the last morning bird watch before I left Cuyabeno was with them. It was a dutch couple and a German couple of similar age to me, so it was nice to finally have some company to be honest! Although I did find it frustrating when the spoke really loudly during the evening boat when we were trying to spot the dolphins again! haha I was too use to my own silence! But we did see the sloth again (it basically hadn’t moved and was still in the same tree) and we did see some dolphins again, although not as much.

Although what the group did help me with, was giving me the confidence to get into the water. It was the last night after all, and I had had the last few days to build up my courage. So on the last night when we visited the lake again, I jumped in (for a few seconds) haha!

The last morning we did a final early bird watching boat trip, and saw all the usual suspects, trogons, toucans, squirrel monkeys, saki monkeys, wooly monkeys, capuchin monkeys and river dolphins, before I came back to the lodge to pack up and head back to the bus station to go back to Quito,

What a wonderful time in the Amazon. It was so differnt from the Mashpi region, and to be honest, I think going there straight from Mashpi did change my expectations and experience slightly as nothing will compare to Mashpi, but seeing so many animals in their native habitat was truly amazing and despite all the insects, the sweltering heat and humidity, and getting burned in the sun a lot, I would DEFINITELY like to return to the Amazon at some point!

Here are all my videos from this trip:

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