Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ecuador - Cuyabeno Reserve - The Rainforest!


We're just back to civilisation after spending four days in the jungle in the Ecuadorian Oriente, Ecuador's part of the Amazon Basin. Turns out our timing was impeccable; the day we left Quito there was a mini coup after the president, Rafael Correa, introduced new legislation cutting police bonuses, or something like that anyway... nobody we've asked seems to really know what it was all about. Whatever the reason, the police laid siege to a hospital that Correa was in, five people were killed, the presidential limo was shot up, the airport was closed and the police tried to take over a load of TV stations and shut down the internet providers. Nobody could get into or out of the city and all gringos were advised to stay in the hostels because there was basically no law on the streets. The first we knew of any of this was when we were waiting in the airport in a place called Lago Agrio, where our trip into the jungle began. We were waiting to collect four people who had splashed out on a flight rather than getting the overnight bus like ourselves and the TVs in the terminal were showing live pictures of the police in Quito running amok and building roadblocks out of flaming car tyres. Needless to say, the four big spenders never made it off the ground in Quito so we had to head off without them.

 Lago Agrio...

It was a massive change arriving at the edge of the rainforest after being in Quito. While the city was mild enough during the day and really cold at night, in the Oriente it was absolutely sweltering right from the off. Getting to our lodge was a bit of a mission. After a seven hour overnight bus, we had another two hour trip on a minibus to get us to our canoe, before a three hour river journey to the lodge. The canoe shouldn't take this long normally but the river was really low thanks to a lack of rainfall so we had to go slow avoiding all the massive fallen trees and other debris in the river. Still, it was nice to get a bit of sun and get a sense of how enormous the forest is.  We came across various tropical birds, monkeys and turtles on the way.

The lodge itself was really cool. Located just back from the river bank, it had about ten cabins, a dining room and a common area with hammocks. There was no electricity except for a handful of sockets for charging cameras etc, which were powered with solar panels. In the cabins the walls didn't actually reach the ceiling so as soon as night fell there were all sorts of things crawling around the place. We thought our guide, Luis, was messing about poisonous spiders being in the room but on the very first night an English couple in our group were turning in and there was a massive tarantula having a nap in the thatch roof right above their bed! Before all that, though, Luis had a surprise for us: as soon as it got dark we were heading into the forest at the back of the lodge to see what nocturnal action there was to be seen. I think everyone was a bit cagey about it because we were heading out armed only with little torches and wellies to stop things biting us from below and the nerves weren't helped when our guide warned us to avoid contact with basically everything in the forest in case there was something poisonous lurking around that he hadn't spotted. This proved fairly tricky as rainforests have a tendency to grow in quite an unruly fashion and the slightest brush of a rogue twig on the back of the neck was greeted with a effeminate squeal.

Luis wasn't joking however, and within a few seconds we had met our first venomous spider, sitting in his web just on the side of the path we were struggling follow in the dark. As we went on we found loads more spiders - including a few wolf spiders which are known for their ability to jump - poisonous frogs, scorpions and loads of other bugs. The guide had the eyes of an eagle and was spotting all things from miles off. Despite the crippling fear and litres of sweat pouring off everybody it was great fun and a brilliant start to the tour. Still, it was nice to get back to the lodge after the bones of an hour falling through the forest. But wouldn't you know it, we got back to our room to find cockroaches and a gigantic cricket type thing strolling around the bed and a menacing looking wolf spider sitting on the ceiling directly above the toilet. Talk about stage fright. We just had to leave them be and make sure we were well tucked away behind the mosquito net. It was a bit of a shock initially but it's amazing how quickly you get used to things crawling all over the place where you're sleeping and just accept that they're there.

The next day we headed off in the boat again for a walk through another part of the forest and around a lagoon which was bone dry because of the lack of rain. In the forest Luis showed us loads of trees and plants that are used for various medicinal purposes and we came across a couple of troops of monkeys swinging through the trees above us. The lagoon was really eerie, like an arid desert surrounded by lush forest. Luis was hoping to find a giant anaconda there and he found some skin that one had shed but he couldn't find the genuine article, only tracks leading into the few pools dotted around the place. Probably for the best: we've all seen what those snakes can do in the film with rapper turned actor Ice Cube.

Later that day we headed out to do some piranha fishing, which was great craic. Considering their reputation they're picky little critters - we were using fillet steak as bait. Apparently they don't like fat. Still, it was only a matter of sticking the baited hook in the water for a few seconds and yanking it out as soon as you felt anything and voila. Everyone was catching them. It was catch and release though, so our guide had to get them off the hook because they had seriously sharp teeth and some of them would have had a finger off no bother.
It was getting dark at that stage so after watching the sunset we got the torches out to spot caymans, a type of alligator, on the way back in the boat. Their eyes glow orange-red when you shine a torch on them in the dark. It was weird, as soon as we got the torches out we realised there were loads of them within a few metres of where we were standing. They were small enough and went under the water when we got close in the canoe, but as we neared the lodge we found two black caymans, about five and six metres in length, who had no fear of humans and didn't budge an inch when the boat came within a few feet of them even though Luis was splashing the water with a paddle to try and get them to move. That was deadly, like floating beside a little dinosaur. Events at the lodge were a bit less dramatic that night. Only a few cockroaches and crickets creeping around the place.

We visited an indigenous village a couple of hours downstream the next morning and one of the women in the village showed us how to make a kind of jungle pizza bread from manioc root. We also got to try a glass of chicha, the local firewater, a delicious, potent alcoholic brew made out of fermented sugar cane. According to Luis, two glasses of chicha and it's lights out. The pizza bread was good too. We had it with blazing hot chillis from a bush in the village and some pineapple jam. The village monkey had a sweet tooth apparently and kept going for the jam. Little did he know that at some point he'd be in the cooking pot as well.  He was a 'woolly' monkey, the only type the locals eat. There was a torrential downpour while we were there and the village elders came in from their work in the fields. Nobody knows how old the oldest man, Don Victorino, is. Luis reckoned over 100 anyway and his wife was probably touching 90. They looked fairly spritely anyway, and his wife even washed his feet for him before they went into their house.
Luis also told us about another tribe the 'yellow feet', who live in the southern part of the forest in Ecuador.  He said they are naked and don't have any contact with the outside world, anyone who has tried to contact them, missionaries etc. has been killed.  Even when the oil companies wanted to explore their territory, 35 armed soldiers were all killed by blow darts loaded with poison from jungle frogs backs.

 There was time for a quick dip in the river beside the village before heading back to the lodge and another night walk through another part of the forest. Didn't come across as much stuff this time but Luis did find a massive, hairy tarantula on the branch of a tree. It was like something out of a horror film but apparently their bite is no worse than a wasp sting. Looked like it could take your head off though.

The next morning we were out of bed at 6am for a quick birdwatching trip before breakfast, followed by an epic journey back to Quito. The river was so low that we had to keep hopping into the water to push the canoe over the sand. It was boiling hot so it was nice to cool off and it broke the journey up nicely too. It took between three and four hours to travel about 35kms and then we had the two bus journeys before arriving in Quito that night. We were a bit wary after the trouble of a few days earlier but there was hardly a sinner on the streets thanks to a government-declared state of emergency so we had no trouble at all before heading further south first thing the next morning.

 Back to Quito...

Some more pictures from Quito...


While we we in Quito there were organized interventions by artists from various countries in ten patios in the old town. Most of them weren't great but the one by Ecuadorian artist Miguel Alvear was interesting.  There was a pretty strange grouping of shops within the building surrounding the patio, including religious ornament repair shop, herbal remedy shop, hairdressers, painting shop where the artist copied old classics and photos, and another weird photo shop. The idea the artist had was to put little pieces of art into each premises to encourage business.  The best part was that all the shopkeepers seemed really enthusiastic about it and wanted to show you everything.  One of the pieces of art was this giant inflatable Jesus that was in the centre, it was blessed too like all the other Jesus's in the Jesus shop.  The place was so weird we weren't really sure what was there already or what was the artist's intervention, but we wouldn't have seen it if it weren't for the art anyway, because it was really hidden away.


  1. This is the best blog ever. I don't even need to go to South America now. Loved the inflatable Jesus, the mad old photos, the lovely green beetle and the fascinating piranha fishing. Fillet never fed ME fillet steak!! :)

  2. I am actually so freaked out by the idea of tarantulas crawling around your bedroom!!! How did u sleep?? Seriously, how??

  3. the mosquito net really helped! once you're in there you feel pretty safe. apparently tarantulas aren't the ones you need to worry about -poison-wise- they're just ugly.