Welcome to the jungle
Last Thursday night, after I arrived back from the Galapagos and had a Thanksgiving dinner, my Dutch friend Maaike and I boarded a night bus to Lago Agrio. I also again ran into the Kiwi guy that I have been running into for the past month, as he’s been on the same route but about a day behind (and also went the Galapagos the same day as me, but on a shorter cruise) and he was of course on the same jungle tour as well!
Once we arrived in Lago Agrio the next morning we had a few hours to wait before we were picked up. Then it was the beginning (or continuation) of one very long day of travel. First we went in a truck for nearly three hours, half of which were on an unpaved road, to get to the port. It was a long drive.
Then we had a small lunch at the port (where there were some cute macaws and parrots hanging out!) and loaded into the motorized canoe that was to take us to our lodge. As my luck goes with jungle trips, it poured rain for the entire first half of the three hour boat ride. Luckily we were provided with ponchos, but that didn’t help the fact that we were going directly into the rain and it was pounding against our faces!
After a week in the Galapagos, I had grown so used to seeing animals everywhere, that it was hard for me to grasp that it’s not so easy in the jungle. I kept thinking I saw animals, but in the end it was always a log or something like that! And then when you do see animals, they’re often far and difficult to see, and definitely not so easy to photograph!
Finally we did arrive to the lodge. We were at the Nicky Amazon Lodge, apparently the only lodge you can book in Quito that is in the middle of the Cuyabeno Reserve and not on the edge of it. It’s used solely by the company Dracaena. It’s funny, actually, because when I had gone around looking at jungle tours before, this one was the only one that sounded a bit different and more interesting, but it was also $40 more than the other ones. But Maaike (and so I in turn) had booked it at another agency other than Dracaena — in fact one right around the corner — for the same price as all the other tours. Funny!
The lodge was empty when we got there and our group was only nine people. The lodge had seven cabins, each with two rooms that could hold up to three people. So they told us we could spread out, and all four of us that were solo-ers got to have our own rooms! I was excited to be able to have a huge double bed, but of course it ended up being a paper thin mattress and uncomfortable — but what should I expect in the jungle!
Overall it was very basic; only cold water (which is OK in the sticky heat of the jungle), no fans or a/c, no electricity at all (except for one solar-powered outlet area where we could charge batteries). That pretty much meant early bedtimes and lots of lounging in the hammocks in the main area, reading by candlelight.
The biggest downside was that it was harder to see and avoid bugs in the dark, and of course my flashlight decided to semi-break the second time I used it on the first day (it is a headlamp, but the button broke and you had to hold the button down to keep it on, which gets a bit painful and annoying, and totally defeats the purpose of having a headlamp!)
Anyways, the jungle trip started out with a lot of flashbacks. The canoe ride definitely had me thinking of my trip in Iquitos a few years ago. And the huts, mosquito nets, and hammocks all had me thinking of Southeast Asia.
Our first night we went on a short night walk in the jungle outside the camp. Here we finally saw some animals (though mostly a far cry from the cute and friendly sorts you see in the Galapagos!)
First we spotted a tarantula hanging out on a tree right outside our camp. This was followed by numerous other insect spottings: stick bugs, leaf bugs, cicadas, giant dragonflies, huge millipedes/centipedes, ants carrying leaves, etc. And plenty, plenty, plenty of spiders. I’m really just not a fan of spiders, and in the jungle they are big and they are everywhere. (Including in my hair one night when I was changing for bed!)
We also saw a snake, some frogs, lizards/iguanas, and some other things. An interesting night walk, especially with the sounds of the jungle echoing around you. In the jungle, the sounds of monkeys and birds are constantly going all around you. It’s pretty nice.
The next day we planned to get up early to go to a salt lick to see parrots, but it started to rain so we had a lazy morning napping in hammocks until later in the day when we went on another walk in the jungle down the river.
On the boat ride over (and all our rides on the river really) we saw tons of birds flying around — macaws, toucans, parrots, etc. But they are always far away, flying high above or sitting up high in trees so it’s impossible to get a picture of them. There was one interesting bird that can make fifteen different sounds, including sounds like a monkey and sounds like water dripping! We also saw some monkeys (I think in the whole trip we saw three or four different species) in the surrounding trees as we were in the boat, but again they try to stay mostly out of view. I wish I had brought binoculars!
Then we went on a hike in the jungle. There we saw all kinds of interesting plants and huge trees. We had a bilingual guide and a native guide, and the native guide showed us all kinds of interesting things about the jungle and how the indigenous people use it. Plants that cure this and that, giant tree roots that you can drink fresh (delicious and cold!) water from, and he also showed us how they use leaves to make things like crowns (used in wedding ceremonies) and backpacks!
We also saw plenty more insects — ants, centipedes, and some beautiful butterflies as well. There was one giant blue butterfly that we saw everywhere during the trip that was absolutely beautiful, but impossible to photograph!
I was starting to get a bit sick of the jungle though, wondering how I was going to make it through three more days! Mostly it was the bugs — you just cannot escape them. And despite my best efforts, I still had plenty of mosquito bites everywhere. Plus my room was basically all open; the roof is raised a foot above where the walls end, and my door didn’t even close all the way.
In our free time I liked to lay and nap or read in the hammock on my porch or a hammock in the main common area, but these loud obnoxious flies would buzz loudly all around you, driving me insane! I was also a bit anxious to sleep in a decent bed, take a hot shower, and just be away from the bland tour food and be able to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted again!
I was feeling better about things though in the afternoon when we went piranha fishing, using big sticks with fishing line and cut up pieces of meat. Maaike caught the first piranha, and I went on to catch three! I caught the most, with everyone else only catching one or none. It was actually pretty fun.
On the way back from piranha fishing we took our time and did some caiman spotting. At one point we pulled off to the side and our native guide caught a caiman and showed him off. Later we spotted a turtle and stopped off to look at it. It had just dug a nest and laid eggs, and the guide picked the turtle up and picked out an egg to show us.
I was pretty bothered by this, I don’t really feel like they should be handling the animals, especially a turtle laying eggs! Apparently, though, the government here pays locals to go collect the eggs (supposedly so they aren’t eaten by predators) and hatch them in their communities, then they get 25 cents for each turtle. When we visited a community the next day we did see the big areas where they keep they keep the eggs/turtles.
The next day we were up bright and early for another chance to go visit the salt lick. It wasn’t quite what I expected, as it wasn’t quite as visible as I’ve seen pictures of other ones being. It looked like we were just stopped in front of a bunch of trees. There were a ton of parrots though, flying in and out of the area in huge numbers. But again we couldn’t get that close, you could hardly even tell the color of them flying up above against the sky.
Then we went to visit a local Kichwa community. We were going to visit the school, but it was Sunday so of course it was empty.
We found a bunch of kids playing soccer (with a big chunk of styrofoam!) in the main recreation area. A few of the people in our group joined them (they did find a real ball eventually).
It was interesting to visit the community and compare it with the one I’d visited in Iquitos. They were pretty different. This one was much smaller, and there were hardly any people around. I didn’t see any adults really, just lots of (really adorable!) kids. Who of course loved having their picture taken and getting to see themselves on the digital cameras.
But they community is not so isolated as you’d think. Yes, they have to go three hours in boat and three hours by car just to get to the nearest city, but they have solar powered electricity and television and computers with Internet (well, they did but apparently they weren’t there anymore when we visited).
Then we went to another area down the river where a family lives on a yucca/cocoa plantation, in a house away from the community. We had a nice little visitor then, an adorable monkey that comes and goes as it pleases.
He was a hungry little mono, but also not wanting to get too close to us, so he’d run around up on the rafters looking for food. At lunch he would take advantage of anyone who had their plate on the floor and run over and grab a handful of rice. In the end we set out some leftover fruit for him to eat. He was so cute, sitting there eating it right in front of us but kind of looking around afraid he’d get caught!
Then the family took us out and showed us how they harvest the yucca (a root, a bit like potato) and then how they make yucca bread out of it. It was really interesting; they make it using only yucca, nothing else is added. It’s a thin tortilla-like bread that is really delicious. They made tons of it for us and let us try it in different ways — with salt, sugar, marmalade, etc.
We took a short break at the lodge after this (it was the first blue-sky/sunny day and it was extra hot!) and then went out to this tower in the jungle to watch the sunset.
The tower, which is built around (but not attached to) a giant tree, is apparently 15 years old and was a bit terrifying to climb. It shook a lot and you can see clearly from the ground that it has a strange lean to it.
Parts were rotten or falling off, and I was definitely grateful to make it up and down without having any steps collapse beneath me!
The view from the top was nice, though. We were up high, and could see all the trees going out all around us, and a lovely sunset as well.
In fact, from the tower and during the boat ride back I probably took like a hundred pictures of the sunset, it was so gorgeous.
The next day was our last full day in the jungle (and a few people left who had only done a four day tour). We first went on a two hour walk in the jungle, but it was pretty uneventful and we didn’t really see any interesting plants or animals. We had a lot of free time to relax in the middle of the day, which I didn’t mind. It was nice to just relax in my hammock and listen to the jungle around me, enjoy the warmth of the air with a slight breeze. Try to ignore the flies!
In the afternoon we went out paddling (I think really this was just because both the motorized canoes were in use!) which wasn’t the most comfortable experience. One boat was basically sinking so they had to constantly bail out water, and our boat was just wooden benches very close to the floor so your knees were in your face and your butt was sore after just 15 minutes!
We paddled around a bit then went to do some more fishing. Eventually our two boats split up and the other boat (who had the native guide who is apparently specialized in fishing) went on to catch tons of piranha and catfish, which they cooked along with dinner that night. Our boat had much less luck (I caught one tiny catfish, no one else caught anything). But we did see some pink dolphins (which we had seen a couple times already, but they were closer and more active this time).
The next day our time in the jungle was done. I admittedly was pretty happy to get on the canoe and go. Of course, we still had a long, long day ahead of us. After the long journey back (again, three hours by boat, three by truck), we arrived in Lago Agrio with about seven more hours to kill until our night bus. And it’s not exactly the greatest town to have to kill time in.
Finally we boarded our bus, and I was happy to see that my seat actually reclined a bit! (On the ride up my seat was broken and didn’t recline more than an inch, which was miserable and I didn’t sleep at all.) As soon as I was basically asleep, the bus stopped, a military guy with a big machine gun got on, and we were all made to get off the bus. Some people were being patted down or their bags searched. We (a British couple, Maaike, and I) were the only foreigners on the bus, and they just waved us to a window where we had to show our passports and answer a couple questions.
I still have no idea why we had this random military check, but my best guess is that it was because we were coming from so close to the Colombian border. Lago Agrio is only like twenty minutes or something from Colombia, but it’s a really unsafe border. In fact, one guy in our group wanted to go to Colombia, and in order to do so he had to go all the way back to Quito, then go another five or six hours from there up to the one safe border crossing. Crazy!