No matter what I tried, I could not get dry. I showered and toweled off, put on one of two pair of pants and T-shirts I had carried into the Amazon jungle, and within minutes of stepping into the unforgiving Equatorial sun, my sweat-soaked clothes were stuck to me like a second skin. To put it bluntly, after two days at Cuyabeno Lodge I stank. It was a relief to climb into bed each night, pull the mosquito net around me, and lie spread-eagle and motionless as the exotic sounds of the jungle lulled me to sleep.
My journey around Ecuador had previously taken me to the Galapagos Islands; the dry coastal plains around Puerto Lopez, with their immense stretches of beach and surf; and the central mountains, home to one of the world’s highest capital cities, Quito, but these three zones combined make up only half of the area of the country. The remainder is covered by tropical rainforests and my trip to Ecuador would not have been complete without visiting what is known as Amazonas.
With such a vast area, options for visiting the Amazon jungle are myriad, however I had an advantage when it came to choosing a specific destination. My friend Heather Cowper, who writes the popular travel blog Heather on her Travels, highly recommended Cuyabeno National Park in the far northeast corner of Ecuador, one of very few inundated tropical rainforests in the world. My first hint that this would be an out-of-the-ordinary adventure came when the owners of Cuyabeno Lodge briefed me about the trip. From Quito I would need to take a seven-hour bus ride to the town of Lago Agrio, where I would be met by their guide for another two-hour van ride to the entrance of the National Park. There I would transfer to a boat for an additional 2.5-hour ride on the Cuyabeno River to the Grand Lagoon. Since the last leg would be accomplished in small motorized canoes, space for luggage was limited to a small backpack; their parting advice was to pack only lightweight, quick-drying pants and shirts, a comment I glossed over and promptly dismissed, to my later dismay.
The following evening I boarded the Esmeraldas bus bound for Lago Agrio and sank gratefully into my front row seat, hoping to fall fast asleep, but the moment we headed down the mountain it became clear this would not be a comfortable trip. For three hours the road plummeted at a grade so steep that I had to brace my feet against the front wall to keep from sliding out of my seat. At the foot of the mountain we entered steamy lowlands bordering the jungle, forcing me to peel off layers of clothing that had kept me warm through Quito’s chilly nights. Finally, I dozed, only to be rudely awakened when the pavement ended and our bus jounced over rough graveled roads and across a series of rickety metal bridges with narrow wooden planks barely wide enough for the tires. By the light of the full moon I could just make out the glistening rivers far below and my mind conjured images of tumbling to the bottom of the gorges.
As the eastern horizon was blinking pink we pulled into Lago Agrio, a prosperous town on the edge of the jungle where giant refineries process the abundant petroleum being extracted from the Amazon basin. Now in a private van, we traveled a newly paved road that cut a serpentine path through dense vegetation, bordered the entire way by a huge pipeline through which flowed black gold. Two hours later we arrived at the park entrance and transferred to a dugout canoe painted in faded bright colors for our transfer to the lodge. I tottered down the narrow floorboard of the boat and commandeered a rough wooden plank behind our heaped luggage, exhilarated from a combination of sleep deprivation and the foreign landscape that lay before me.
With wind blowing through my hair and the coffee-colored Cuyabeno River at my fingertips we motored deep into the Amazon, past serpents sunning on muddy banks and exotic Hoatzin birds perched on overarching branches. Suddenly, the river broadened into a vast lagoon where azure skies dotted with cotton-ball clouds framed palm-crowned islands. Our boatman deftly steered around giant trees with wide buttressed trunks protruding from the black water and beached the boat on a muddy bank leading to the high ridge where our cabins awaited.
Can’t see the above slide show of Cuyabeno National Park in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador? Click here.
For the next three days we plied the rivers in search of exotic birds, reptiles, and insects. One day brought sightings of four different primate species: two tiny night monkeys peered out from a tree hollow; a mob of squirrel monkeys flew through the forest on a highway of dead limbs; a Satanic-looking Capuchin monkey bared fangs from a high perch; and an endangered Parahuaco Monkey with an incredibly long, thick tail flew between branches like a trapeze artist. One night we swept the inky waters with flashlights until the yellow eyes of a caiman gleamed back at us; we motored within inches of the nine-foot long submerged beast and gaped at its immense head and jaws. Another night I was totally unnerved by a giant Wolf Spider clinging to a leaf just inches from my leg as we trekked through the jungle after dark.
Even the afternoon I opted to stay at the lodge rather than trek was spectacular; Black Tamarin Monkeys groomed one another and nursed babies hanging from their teats just feet from the lodge’s open-air dining room. But my favorite moment of all was on the final day, when we paddled to a quiet bay in the lagoon just before sunset and baited bamboo fishing poles with hunks of beef in hopes of hooking a Piranha. Within seconds the flesh-eating fish struck, deftly nibbling the beef, but try as I might I could not set the hook. I was down to my last hunk of beef and had just about given up hope when a perfectly-timed snap of the pole brought up a White Piranha. Our guide cautiously extracted the hook and displayed the fish’s razor sharp teeth before releasing it, giving me pause about a suggestion earlier in the day that we could swim in the lagoon.
I almost took them up on the offer as a means of doing my laundry. By that time, I had tried to spot-wash my stinking clothes in the sink with the biodegradable soap provided by the lodge, but that was an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, my pants were not lightweight and after hanging two days in the tropical humidity they were still not dry. I boarded the bus back to Quito with a backpack full of damp, reeking clothes, wearing my least dirty trousers and T-shirt, painfully aware of my own stench. I tried keeping the window partially open to minimize the smell but temperatures dropped as we headed up the mountain and every time I opened my window, the person in front of me closed it. I suffered in silence, wondering what my seatmate must be thinking and consoling myself with the thought that it was a small price to pay for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the Amazon.
Visiting Cuyabeno Lodge
Cuyabeno Lodge, the oldest accommodation and first ecotourism facility within the 1,500,000 acre Cuyabeno National Park, is operated by international conservationists who helped create and protect the park. Every bit of building material for the facility was trucked in to the border of the reserve and transported by canoe to the building site, rather than using trees from ecologically sensitive areas. Because cabins have only waist-high walls topped by roll-down wooden blinds I had visions of jaguars jumping through my windows as I slept but the only critters I had to oust were beautifully colored giant cockroaches. Once I got rid of the undesirable bugs, sleeping was quite pleasant, as the nights cooled down to very comfortable temperatures and the exotic sounds of the jungle quickly lulled me to sleep. Each cabin is furnished with a comfortable bed, mosquito netting, lukewarm-water showers and a small desk. Though the cabins are lit by generator every evening, electric receptacles are available only in the kitchen, however the staff takes great pains to recharge batteries for guests’ electronic equipment.
Cuyabeno Lodge kindly hosted the author’s visit to the Cuyabeno National Park in Ecuador. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items/services received will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.