The glinting of eyes in torchlight in the Cuyabeno Reserve, Ecuador

By Emma. Pour l’article de Damien, cliquez ici. Click here for photos of there.

The thrum of distant howler monkeys, the curious waterdrop birdcalls, the constant whirring and clicking of hidden insects and the enchanting song of the treefrogs, the earthy smell of vegetation, the flavours of roast maggots and lemon ants, the colours and the camoflage, the enveloping humidity … visiting the Amazon is like diving headlong into another world which captures and beguiles all of your senses. There is a strange sensation, both jarring and comfortable, of being while you’re there. You become your skin, your senses. Every moment is absolutely delicious and completely unique. I fell head over heels in love with the Amazon rainforest in the Cuyabeno Reserve in Ecuador. It’s an incredible, magical place.

Day 1

From the moment our plane touched down in the tiny airport on the fringes of the jungle in Lago Agrio, our hearts were beating faster. We clambered into a minivan and spun down winding roads out of town and into a strikingly verdant countryside where tiny thatched houses perched high on stilts and pale cows with beautifully long, drooping ears calmly watched the world go by. Two hours later, we piled into a motorised canoe along with our guide, a Swiss couple, a German gentleman, a local family, their weekly shopping and our baggage. Knees somewhere up around our ears and already enraptured by the steady hum of life around us, we zipped along the meandering murky brown curves of rio Cuyabeno. Vines trailed from the arched canopy overhead into the water and the chatter and howl of monkeys rippled through the trees around us. Giant blue morpho butterflies drifted above the twining exotic plants, like ladies’ hankerchiefs caught in a breeze. Throughout our two hour journey, we peered into the treetops and between their twisted exposed roots on the riverbank, while David, our guide, pointed out fluffy-tailed Monk Sakis, curious squirrel monkeys and tiny black-mantled tamarins.

By the time we arrived at the dock of Jamu Lodge, an ecolodge deep in the forest, Damien and I were already thrilled and our trip had barely even begun.  At the lodge, David gave us a comprehensive run-down of our itinerary for the next few days, explained the eco-ethno ethos of the lodge and showed us to our lovely thatched timber-framed hut where candles and the lodge’s own environmentally friendly toiltries were provided. Raised wooden walkways connected the individual cabañas to a central open-air dining room  and a circular roof-top den strung with multi-coloured hammocks.

Following a short siesta, we bordered the canoe again. Green parrots flew overhead and pink river dolphins breached the river’s muddy brown surface, hunting in the stream of bubbles raised by our passage. Half-submerged trees cast their reflections across the river and a giant anaconda curled up snoozing in a old trunk’s hollow.

We came to rest in the middle of the completely still opaque black waters of Laguna Grande. The sinking sun seemed to set the sky on fire as reds, pinks and oranges glowed above us. The darkened silhouettes of drowned trees stood sentinel nearby. Hearts hammering and those inner sensible voices questioning our sanity, Damien and I were the first to take up David’s suggestion of a swim. Caimans, piranhas and snakes, oh my!

When the darkness fell, it was complete. The sounds of the rainforest subtly changed and grew louder. David skimmed the beam of his torch across the river’s surface as we made our way back to the lodge. The eyes of lurking caimans glinted unnervingly in the foreign light and fisher bats swooped and dived in its spotlight.  That night we fell asleep to the sounds of the nocturnal jungle, indescribably elated by our first brush with the Amazon.

Day 2

After breakfast, we hopped back into the canoe and travelled for an hour down the river, and deeper into the rainforest, to visit  the Siona Community, the largest ethnic group in the reserve.  Rubber production, oil excavation and deforestation has had a devastating impact on the Ecuadorian Amazon and the traditional way of life of its indigineous peoples. In recent years, some families of the Siona community have made the decision to participate in the eco-ethno tourism developing in Ecuador.  A spritely, raven-haired elderly lady named Aurora greeted us as we disembarked in Tarapuya and proudly led the way, barefoot, past some plantain trees to the tiny settlement’s communal kitchen. Under the stilted structure, dogs lounged panting in the shade and chickens scratched in the dust. Nearby, curious children edged ever closer and plump babies sat on banana leaves in the sunshine while their startlingly young mothers tended the fire and fed cheeping baby chicks. It was like a scene from a film. Aurora told David, our guide, that she had managed to forage some mayon (maggots found in the heart of palm trees), a local delicacy, and generously offered to share them with us. We didn’t even hesitate. When else would we ever get the chance to have maggots for lunch in the Amazon? Laughing at our obvious enthusiasm, her granddaughter began threading the wriggling creatures onto twigs to cook over the fire. The smell was surprisingly enticing so soon enough – though I couldn’t quite believe it – I found myself nibbling some juicy roast maggots….and they were good!

Once we’d finished our maggoty feast, Aurora took us out to her little yucca planation and, skillfully weilding her machete, felled one of the looming plants. She then uprooted it (this lady of eighty plus years had superpowers!) and we helped peel the white tuberous roots. Carting our bounty in beautiful baskets woven by the community’s menfolk, we returned to the kitchen hut where Aurora taught us to grate the root, squeeze out the liquid and to cook it on a flat clay dish over an open fire to make a bread, known as Casabe. The whole process was facinating and the bread was delicious. Aurora served it along with tuna fish and chillis which had cooked in the drained yucca milk while David told us more about the life of the indigineous communities in Ecuador. It has to be one of the best meal experiences I’ve ever had!

Too soon the time came to say our goodbyes to Aurora and her family and to continue down the river to another slightly larger indiginous settlement, Puerto Bolivar. We were stunned to see a football pitch, solar panels, reportedly the product of an EU environmental innitiative, and even a satellite dish nestled in the midst of the thatched traditional village, especially as it was here that we were to meet Delio, the community’s Shaman.

The Siona people practice animism whereby they believe in a multitude of spirits that inhabit natural entities such as humans, animals, plants, rocks, thunder, the wind, the rivers and the earth itself. The Shaman acts as a mediator between the people of his community and the spirits and is revered as having both magical knowledge and the ability to heal. The Siona Shaman drinks a potion made from ayahuasca, a hallucinogen, before he or she performs the ritual of the yahé ceremony. The ceremony serves multiple purposes, depending on the needs of the community at the time, including the diagnosis and treatment of illness, the calling of game animals, appeals concerning the weather, communication with supernatural spirits and the dead, and the identifying of children with the potential to become a shaman in the future. Meeting Delio, the Shaman in Puerto Bolivar was incredibly interesting. Seated on the packed earth floor of his “hospital”, a giant river otter gamboling at his feet and a stick insect on his shoulder, Delio was majestic. Dignified and softly-spoken, his presence was electric. He recounted to a captivated audience how he became a Shaman and the recent rituals he has performed, including a purifying ceremony on a lady who had been flirting with men other than her husband. We felt extremely lucky to have been given this tantalizing glimpse into the culture, lifestyle and belief system of the Siona people.

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That evening we left the lodge again, this time for a noctural walk in the rainforest. Again, eyes gleamed in darkness around us as David pointed out the different game trails and creepy crawlies. I have to say, I absolutely loved this! It was exhiliarting to have my eyes adjust to the jungle, learning to pierce camoflaging and to see creatures where before there were only leaves.

Day 3

What day could ever begin badly when you have a treefrog resident in your shower? Seeing Fawcett (he needed a name) with his suction pad toes every morning made me really happy.

Fawcett the Tree Frog

Fawcett the Tree Frog

All the frogs in the reserve made me happy. There were just so many of them and they would all sing. For me, they were the sound of the rainforest.

On our third day , David took us for a hike through the terre firme and primary forest pointing out creatures and trees as we went. Mud squelched satisfyingly under our boots and woolly monkeys called from the canopy above us, just out of view. David told us of the nutritional and medicinal values of the differents plants and vines and what to do if we became lost in the Amazon (I wouldn’t stand a chance!). A vine can both be deadly and a life saver, wood termites can act as mosquito repellent and ants can be both a lemony snack and stitches! At one point, he showed us a raised scar on his hand where he had cut himself in the forest. A two-day canoe ride away from the closest doctor, he relied on a jungle remedy to help him close the wound – surgery ants. By allowing the ant to clamp down on either side of the wound and then removing the ants body from its head, the ant’s mandibles act like sutures, staying in place until unhooked from the skin.

That evening we took to the river again searching for caimans. Caimans are similar creatures to alligators … monsters which petrify me! Everybody in the canoe remained completely silent as David’s torchbeam swung across the water. Eyes gleamed back at us in the torch light but invariably as we got closer, the powerful reptiles would slip, without a ripple, under the brown surface, disappearing from sight. One little baby wasn’t so quick though so we managed to get a proper look at him. His throaty ack-ack call for his mother raised goosebumps on my arms.

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Day 4

The sun beamed down on our fourth day in the Cuyabeno Reserve and just as well as today was the day we planned on paddling a smaller dug-out canoe through the waterways. We paddled with great enthusiasm, delighted to have that peaceful experience. We made our way further in amongst trailing vines to a small lake where motor canoes are forbidden. There we spotted families of stinky turkeys, toucans, egrets, monkeys and Damien was lucky enough to spot a rare Amazonian manatee – I only saw the ripples. It was a beautiful day of birds and monekys, the calming sound of the ace-shaped paddles dipping into the water and the little sighs of despair of our wonderful but sport-loathing boatmate, Ollie.

That evening, post-well-deserved-siesta, we set out again on the hunt for predators. This night, we found success. A local teenager came along and agitating the river water with stick, he flung some fresh meat into the water. He did the same thing again a few moments later but this time the meat was on a hook. A flurry of activity churned the water around where the hook had landed and seconds later we were face-to-face with a vexed-looking piranha! The success continued when we came across some spectacled caimans in the shallow waters under the trees. The mood was triumphant …. but still very wary! Moments later, David points out a boa streaming through the branches just above our heads. A true smorgasbord of Amazonian predators!

 Day 5

On the morning of our final day, David woke us up at 5am so we could go bird spotting (and, for me, tree-frog spotting) before we caught our plane back to Quito. Damien was in his anorak-y element spying parrots, macaws, toucans, and herons. I was drifting into mourning at having to leave this incredible place. I honestly think of all the places we’ve been over the last 5 months, the Cuyabeno Reserve has touched me the most. I loved every moment of my time there. It’s a truly incredible place.

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Dawn on rio Cuyabeno

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