What really makes an adventure? It’s a combination of a few factors—it’s a uniquely exotic place. It’s adrenaline rushes and spontaneity. It’s taking off the gloves and getting dirty. But, what really creates an adventure are the people that you share it with. Luckily I have the best friends that are up for such an experience, and are willing to travel across the globe to find it. After one of my best friends Sami arrived in Quito, we embarked deep into the Cuyabeno jungle for the adventure of a lifetime.
While the jungle was incredible, the two travel days that sandwiched it could be described only as pure hell—but hey, that’s what adventures are made of.
Cuyabeno is located in the north east of Ecuador, bordering Colombia– in fact, the border is just 21 km from Lago Agrios, our take off point, which necessitated a passport check. The trip to Lago Agrios was about 7 hours by bus and we arrived at 4 am. Our travel agency had set us up with breakfast at a local hotel, from which we would take a 2-hour bus ride into the reserve, and then a 2-hour motorized canoe ride to Samona lodge.
When we arrived at the hotel (D’Mario hotel—do not EVER attempt to use this hotel), exhausted from travel, hoping to grab a few hours of shuteye on a lobby couch, we were promptly turned away. The restaurant doesn’t open until six he said, and we would have to wait. Well, it was pitch black outside and we had absolutely no idea where we were. Lago Agrios did not seem to be the safest town, and nothing was open because it was 4 am. Without any other idea of what to do, this horrible man laughed at us while we sat on the sidewalk outside of his hotel for two hours in the dark, because there was nothing he could do…
Somehow we survived, and at 6 on the dot we set up shop in his restaurant where we waited until our pick up at 10 am.
Finally, we were on the bus to the jungle, and despite the near delirium brought on by exhaustion, we were excited! Unfortunately the travel god’s had a different plan for us, and our bus broke down—Sami sure was getting the full Ecua-experience. We were back and moving before long, and somewhat regretting our choice to venture to the jungle. Everything else went smoothly, and we arrived at our lodge in the afternoon, about 18 hours after we had left Quito.
Cuyabeno and Samona Lodge
Cuyabeno reserve is one of Ecuador’s largest reserves, with over 6,000 square km of rainforest. According to my guidebook, the reserve has over 500-recorded species, and 200 trees per hectare. In the reserve are various indigenous communities, including Kichwa, Cofán, Secoya, Siona and Shuar. (Rough Guide to Ecuador and the Galapagos).
On the ride to the lodge, we certainly realized that were in the jungle. Via our motorized canoe, we saw three different types of monkeys, as well as many different birds, and an anaconda! In addition, we saw a few sloths on our various excursions, which was absolutely amazing.
After a shot siesta in a hammock, we were taken in our canoe to Lake Cuyabeno for a refreshing dip in the river water. Yes—I did swim in this Amazon river water after just seeing an ENORMOUS anaconda hiding by the riverbank (yes, they can swim). But, when in the Amazon, right? On the way we also saw some river dolphins! There are grey and pink river dolphins in the Cuyabeno river!
The nighttime brought with it new challenges, as the rooms were not even enclosed and mosquito nets were the only way to take refuge from the assault of bugs. The cockroach sized beetles were the least of our worries wieh we opened the bathroom door after dinner, our headlights shone on an ENORMOUS and terrifying spider, which made using the bathroom in the middle of the night, something like a horror movie experience. When we asked someone to get the spider out, he replied “Welcome to the Jungle”. It was basically Sami’s worst nightmare—she is terrified of spiders, but also suffers from claustrophobia. So, her options were to get attacked by viciously enormous spiders all night, or suffocate under the mosquito netting. She chose no sleep. In addition, there was no electricity, since the lodge runs on solar power and it had been rainy lately, so since the sun sets so early, there were no showers.
In the morning we set out up the river to visit an indigenous Siona tribe. With the careful eye of a Siona woman, we pulled yucca from the ground and grated it to create a mash, which she then squeezed all of the water out of to make a dry yucca powder. She took the powder and put it on a griddle to create bread—nothing else added but yucca! Visiting the community was interesting, because it is so very secluded. I cannot imagine living so far away from everything. They wear modern clothes, and even sell coca-cola there, so I am not sure how isolated they are anymore, but the way of life is fascinating.
We also visited the local Shaman for a “religious” experience. He told us about how he “cures” people, and even demonstrated a ritual cleansing. Basically, he takes this hallucinogenic drug and then shakes a palm leaf. I was not quite sold by the Shaman experience, especially in light of modern medicine. He has been taking this hallucinogenic drug since he was 8 years old, and his “training” is just taking the drug often. When there is a problem, he goes on a trip, and then somehow finds out what is wrong with them (although if they need an operation, they have to actually go to a hospital).
In the evening we went back to Lake Cuyabeno to watch the sun set, and without any clouds, the sky turned a brilliant orange color. This was my favorite part of the trip—everything was so calm, and you could hear the birds deep in the jungle.
Once the sun had set, we went for a night hike. Trekking through the pitch-black jungle at night, I was terrified that a snake would pop out and eat me, but the majority of our findings were just big spiders or ants that were over an inch big.
We once again escaped the jungle by hiding in our mosquito nets on the second day, although I woke up to a beetle climbing onto my face in the middle of the night.
Our last few hours in the Amazon were spent bird watching in the morning and then enjoying the hammocks one last time before making the long trek back to Quito.
Our trip home was just as horrendous as our trip to Cuyabeno. In Ecuador, you cannot buy bus tickets more than one day in advance. So, when we arrived in Lago Agrios we couldn’t buy our tickets back to Quito. Most of travel in this country is the “flying by the seat of your pants” type. We finally got back to Lago Agrios after roasting in the Ecuadorian sun and smelling like deet, sunscreen, and sweat (hey, we hadn’t showered in 3 days!). There was a bus in 45 minutes—which was full. And the one after that was full. So, we settled in for a 4 hour wait in the hot, dirty town of Lago Agrios. Instead of getting home at 11, we would get back around 3am.
Fortunately, after quite long walk, with sweat pouring down by body, we found a place for frozen yogurt, and relaxed. Because it was carnival week, everywhere we walked little kids and teenagers poured water on us. Soaking and smelly we finally got on our bus back to Quito. In classic Ecua-fashion, two movies blared throughout the bus ride, and then music bumped for the rest of the 7 hours. Finally, 17 hours after we left the lodge, we arrived back in Quito.
Overall, Cuyabeno was an incredible experience, but the entire travel was very Ecuadorian. This country has so much to offer and it is so beautiful, but finding this rare beauty is such a stressful experience. I am hoping that Sami enjoyed her time in the jungle, but I am really hoping that our travel luck turns around!