February 2 – 17: This was our chance to see more of Ecuador. The kids had two weeks vacation from school in February, so we were determined to take advantage of it. Alex and Rachel were great travelers as we drug them from one end of the country to the other (literally!). Although, in this relatively small country, no place is that far. In a days drive (if only we had a car!) you can go from the Amazon jungle up and over the Andes to the Pacific coast. Such diversity! Instead of driving a car, like we would do in the US, we traveled on airplanes, buses, canoes, and taxis.
February 4 – 9 Our first destination was Cuyabeno Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon. We decided to make the journey a little easier by flying into Quito. Spent the night and then after a nearly eight hour bus ride, we spent the night in Lago Agrio, close to the Columbian border. Our host lodge picked us up the next morning. After another 2 hours on a bus, some lunch, we boarded a long wooden canoe with a motor on the back of it. Over the next 2 ½ hours, our driver, Marcelo, would expertly navigate us along narrow twisted rivers, often picking up the motor to avoid fallen trees. We were excited to be entering such a remote part of the jungle, looking intently at the lush landscape.
Our destination was Siona Lodge on the Laguna Grande (big lagoon) of the reserve. Yes, it was the dry season, but we didn’t expect to arrive to see that the lake had disappeared. Amazingly, it only takes four days for the lagoon to fill, unfortunate for us it takes the same amount of time to drain! That meant no pink dolphins. It also meant that we would have to walk 45 minutes across the lake bottom to get from the canoe to the lodge. Normally, the canoe would carry guests across the Gran Lagoon to the lodge, but not during our stay. Oddly enough, we
are sure that the mud is what we might most remember. We had never walked in mud like this before; some spots over knee deep. It was like quick sand. If you stopped, you sunk in deeper, your rubber boot would get stuck, and many of us fell. We had some pretty challenging moments just trying to advance one foot after the other. It was quite a community building exercise for our group which consisted of a couple from Argentina, a couple from Switzerland, three Russians and one other US American from Madison, Wisconsin.
During the rest of our 5 day stay in Cuyabeno Reserve, Marcelo and
Washington, our guide, would take us on several hikes, canoe rides, and a trip to a local indigenous community. The lodge was great – we were fed fabulously and many nights Washington led us with guitar playing and singing. In the evenings the sounds of the jungle enveloped us as we rested in our rustic but nice huts – it was not a murmur, but more like a loud symphony! Some of the highlights of our outings included:
watching almost 100 monkeys
cross over the river while we were sitting underneath in our canoe, finding a tarantula on our night hike, fishing for piranha as the sun was setting, countless spiders, frogs and birds, an anaconda and spotting numerous caimans’ red eyes in the river with flashlights. We went swimming a couple of times in the river. It was so refreshing that we didn’t think too much about the piranhas and caiman that we had seen in the same river.
One memorable incident involved getting stuck with the canoe in the low waters. Marcelo got in the river up to his chest cutting fallen trees with a machete. He had everyone move from one end of the canoe, then to the other and then we all had to get out. We moved, we rocked and after about an hour we became unstuck and were on our way – to the delight of everyone.
On our visit to the Siona village, we learned of some of the impact of petroleum in this isolated part of the country, but we also got to see how they are preserving their traditional indigenous ways. Their village shaman explained his healing practices, many of which involve using local plants that have hallucinogenic effects. He painted our faces with different images of mystical visions. We also got to watch and help a local woman make cassava bread in the traditional way – bonus that it was gluten free.
It was a pretty unforgettable experience. It is hard to conceptualize how gigantic the Amazon is – 1.2 billion acres or more than 2 million square miles (the US is 4 million square miles). We are so happy we had the chance to enter into and experience such a unique and important part of our world.