Of course, the Amazon Rainforest is on everyone’s checklist when traveling through South America. But I faced a little dilemma when planning this portion of my trip: The world’s largest rainforest is so huge that it spreads across nine countries, including all of the ones that I was going to visit. To give you an idea of just how huge we are talking, here’s a map of the US held up against the Amazon:
As you can see, the US isn’t much bigger.
After consulting various resources and travelers who went before me, the resounding consensus seemed to be Ecuador was the best place to do an Amazon tour for diversity and wildlife viewing purposes. So our journey begins on the streets of Quito, with a mission to get our bargain on.
The normal price for a four day, three night Amazon tour is around $250, but you can get it for less. Quito is full of travel agencies so it’s worthwhile to check a few out and see how low you can go. Since we were three people booking together, we talked one agent down to $220 as a “group discount”. That includes all of your meals, activities, rain boots, ponchos, drinking water and lodging. It doesn’t not include your transportation to the Cuyabeno reserve, which lies in the most eastern part of the country, some fourteen dollars and twelve hours away by bus. So we boarded an overnight bus from Quito into the abyss.
Day 1: Floating through the Amazon
We got dropped off at a bridge where our guide Hugo was waiting to take us by boat down the Cuyabeno river- which is connected to a tributary of the Amazon river- to our lodging. After breakfast we went on a walk into the reserve attached to the lodge and immediately spotted a Caiman in the water next to our path. Caiman is a reptile in the same family as crocodiles and alligators. It is smaller but apparently much more aggressive. Not bad for our first 5 minutes walking in the jungle.
After lunch Hugo informed us that we will be going on a boat ride upstream to view wildlife, and at the end he will drop us off in the river in our life vests and let us float back to the lodge. It sounded like a fun idea at first and we were feeling pretty excited about it until right about the time Hugo pointed out the world’s second most deadly tree snake hiding in the limbs just beside where he was about to leave us in the water. Sheer panic set in as the danger factor involved in what we were about to do hit us.
What’s under there?
Isn’t this the same water we saw a caiman lurking in just hours before? What about leeches, anacondas, piranhas, and other blood-sucking Amazonian river creatures? What about the millions of species that haven’t even been discovered yet in the Amazon? How does Hugo know that they aren’t deadly and floating right underneath us in that brown, murky jungle water? We really can’t see an inch below the surface. Anything could be hiding under there. Hugo’s calm response: “Just make sure you stay in the center of the river. That’s all.”
Panic ridden, we began interrogating Hugo. “How many times have you had guests do this activity before?” “Many times” he replies calmly, well aware of where our minds are at. “And have you ever had any problems?” “Never” he replied. “Just stay in the center” he reiterated. Putting our trust in Hugo, we leapt into the river to meet our fate, slightly terrified.
Of course, Hugo wouldn’t put us in danger, and before we knew it we were laughing and loving the float, all the while fighting the current that tried to drag us out to the caiman-inhabited edges of the jungle water. As the lodge emerged into view ahead of us we rejoiced with relief. We survived it! I’ve floated many a river, it’s a common pastime where I live back home in Montana, but floating through the Amazon rainforest in that questionable jungle water with just my life vest was definitely an unparalleled experience in my life. We loved it so much we requested to do it again on our last day.
After dinner we went on a nocturnal jungle walk- this time with the intention of viewing INSECTS. We spotted a couple massive tarantulas right off the bat, the first of many crazy spiders we would come into contact with the next couple of days. Luckily none of those happened to be in our cabin. A frog, however, did. Not sure if he was a poisonous one or not.
Day 2: Laguna Grande and the Curse of the Shaman
Day 2 was a full day excursion deeper into the park to the Laguna Grande, the largest lake in the Cuyabeno reserve and the only part of the Amazon in the foothills of the Andes mountains. The two hour journey to the lake was designated wildlife observation time, and we immediately saw groups of squirrel monkeys swinging in the trees above our heads. That was the beginning of pretty much constant wildlife viewing the rest of the day: we saw five of the ten species of monkey that live in the park, toucans, macaws, more caimans, bats, and two animals that we were particularly excited about seeing but didn’t think that we would: pink river dolphins and a sloth. Big, beautiful, neon blue morpho butterflies floated in and out of view the entire ride.
A prehistoric turkey and dolphin watching. Of course, it was difficult to get pictures of animals in the wild that are moving fast and from a distance.
When we arrived to the lake we got to jump out and swim in the same lake we had spotted dolphins in. Our guide also informed us that this is where he spotted the craziest animal he’d ever had in all his years living in the Cuyabeno: a 10 foot anaconda one year when the lake dried up. Scary, yes, but… as we had already braved a river full of all these things we weren’t feeling so afraid as the day before. The stuff we needed to be worried about is at the bottom or around the edges of the lake, and they dropped up smack dab in the middle.
At this point things couldn’t really be going any better for us. We were really getting a bang for our buck with all this wildlife viewing. The next stop was a visit to one of the five native communities that inhabit the Cuyabeno reserve. Deeper in the Amazon, there are still dozens of tribes of thousands of people that have never made contact with society. The one that we were visiting, the Siona, were clearly accustomed to outsiders. In fact, we learned (and saw firsthand) that they are actually living off of tourism here, with tours like ours coming in daily.
Strangely there was really nobody around, we saw only a handful of actual native people, including the girl who taught us how to make pan de yuca (yuca bread), our first activity in the village, and the Shaman that we met. Digging out the enormous yuca plant was an interesting experience for which you definitely need some good arm strength. We used it to prepare a bread that has only 1 ingredient: yuca!
Digging up and picking the yuca out of the ground: definitely not easy, I learned firsthand
Preparing the yuca bread
A storm was rolling in when we arrived at the home of the shaman. Before meeting him, we were brought to his backyard to see where the Ayahuasca plant comes from. Ayahuasca is actually a strange-looking vine that grows around a tree that has hallucinogenic properties and requires careful preparation for human consumption. This is the Shaman’s task and responsibility.
The Shaman is both the spiritual leader and doctor for the tribe. He came out adorned in a costume made of feathers and bones that he later told us he designed in an Ayahuasca vision while under the influence. His grandfather was a shaman and when he was just 8 years old, he decided that he wanted to follow in his footsteps. This meant taking the Ayahuasca every day for decades and learning to control himself while under the influence, prepare the vine for consumption, and guide others through their Ayahuasca experiences.
After this very interesting question and answer session, the guide asked if anyone would like to receive a cleansing from the shaman. Curious what that was all about, we volunteered, and sat with our backs facing him while he performed the three-minute ceremony and chant that were meant to cleanse us from stress and bad energy. We got up and as we went to leave, the guide asked us to pay the Shaman. Unaware that this cleansing cost money, we apologized and explained that we didn’t have money with us, as we didn’t expect to have to pay for anything that day. We parted ways, slightly concerned about what we had just done.
We returned to the lake for a very special sunset and some more animal viewing before we ran out of daylight. Feeling very satisfied with our day, we returned to camp hungry and ready to relax and reflect.
But as soon as we got back to the lodge for dinner, the electricity went out. This meant no warm water for showers and dinner by candlelight. When we finally sat down to eat it was tiny and unappetizing. We tried to brush it off and distract ourselves playing cards, wondering to ourselves if we were possibly experiencing some kind of bad juju for not paying the Shaman earlier. And then this happened:
All doubt was removed: this was a curse indeed. The staff had gone to bed early and locked the beer fridge on us. When we noticed that we were also being attacked by mosquitos, we decided it might be in our best interest to turn in for the night before anything else could go wrong for us. Sober, hungry, itchy and unable to see, we headed to bed, weary of what the next day might hold for us.
Day 3: Piranha fishing and sinking in the rainforest
It should come as no surprise that we woke up to torrential rains the following day. We tried to stay positive, joking that we couldn’t really say we experienced the rainforest without having at least one day of pure rain. The morning activity was piranha fishing, which we had been looking forward to for days. Ponchos and rainboots positioned, we boarded our canoe and got to rowing upstream. We were given the most primitive of fishing poles; a wooden stick with a wire dangling and a hook attached to it. But hey, it worked, and within seconds of dropping our hooks into the river we were all getting bites, even despite the pouring rain. We caught red and white piranhas, and even a few sardines, which apparently also live in jungle rivers. We were excited to try piranha, but unfortunately Hugo said we couldn’t keep them if they were less than a kilo, and they all were.
For those of you who are wondering how we were able to float down a river with or eat flesh-eating piranhas, one of the many things were learned during this four day educational experience is that is a myth: piranhas rarely attack human flesh unless it is already dead or there is no other food source available. With the waters high and full of other things for them to feed on, we didn’t face that issue.
As if the torrential rain itself wasn’t bad enough, we were about to find out that strong rain provokes flying termite colonies to swarm. Upon returning to camp we literally faced a termite plague as they emerged from their nests and engulfed the entire area. They flew into our juice or shed their wings all over our table while we were eating lunch. Disgusted and horrified, we feared what would happen next.
Despite the unending rain we kept with the afternoon’s itinerary to go for a jungle walk to search for medicinal plants. This turned into more of a jungle swim, and even despite our rain boots and ponchos we got soaked from head to toe, sinking into the ground with each step that we took. With the electricity gone again when we returned to camp, we faced cold showers and another pathetic, candlelit dinner. How long would the curse of the Shaman last?
Day 4: Shaman follows us out of the Amazon
We got up very early the next morning to go on a bird-watching walk, but unfortunately we saw nothing. We were supposed to go piranha fishing again but due to lack of organization on the part of the agency, it didn’t happen. So we took it upon ourselves to have an encore float down the river back to the lodge in the meantime, while we waited for some kind of concrete answer about how we were going to return to civilization from the Cuyabeno.
That never came and the best advice the lodge could offer us was to wait at the bridge we were dropped off at when we first came in for another bus to come and take us to the nearest big city, Lago Agrio, from which we could arrange a bus to wherever we needed to go in Ecuador. After waiting over and hour and fearing we might be stuck on a random bridge in the Amazon, the bus finally passed by and stopped for us. But look who was waiting for us in Lago Agrio…
Despite the curse of the Shaman, we made it out alive and back into society, although he seemed to be wherever we went the next couple of days. Still, the four days that we spent in the Amazon will definetly stand out as one of the most interesting, educational and unique experiences that I have had in South America.