We were so lucky to be able to visit the Cuyabeno Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon. We spent five days exploring this amazing place with our guide Diego, from Nicky Lodge. You can read all about our stay, and learn about the wildlife we saw.
The following post gives an extremely brief introduction to the Amazon and how you can strive to be a conscious tourist when visiting this incredible ecosystem.
Why is the Amazon jungle so special?
The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world, and is one of the most diverse places on our planet. Even after years of research there are still so many species of plants and animals that we know nothing about.
It’s often referred to as the lungs of the earth. The plants remove carbon dioxide from the air and produce life giving oxygen, cleaning the air that we breathe and helping to reduce the impact of climate change.
The forest is in a constant state of change, and all of it’s life and diversity is supported by just a few feet of soil, as one thing dies it decomposes and gives life to something new. This circle of life means that the forest’s top soil is rich in minerals and nutrients, but if you dig deeper down the earth is very different.
This is one of the reasons why deforestation is so damaging to this ecosystem. Once the cycle of life is broken, and the plants are removed, the nutrients and minerals are quickly leached from the soil. In a very short period of time, what was once a piece of land teeming with life and activity, is barren. At this point, it is very difficult to return the land to it’s former state and not only have the plants been lost, the animals that rely on the forest are also at risk. When the land is no longer profitable, businesses move on, cutting down more forest and on the deadly cycle continues.
Where to visit
Most people think of the Amazon and Brazil, but in reality the rainforest spreads out across several countries including Colombia, Ecuador (where we made our visit), Peru, Bolivia and of course Brazil. Although the Amazon is united under one name, and you will find many of the same species throughout, it varies a lot. As a tourist, your experience would be completely different depending on which part you go to. You might find different endemic species, the local indigenous populations will be very different, and the level of tourism and therefore facilities will change.
We chose to visit the Amazon in Ecuador, which is known as the Oriente, and contains around 2% of the entire Amazon rainforest. Despite its size, Ecuador’s Amazon is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. In particular, the Yasuni National Park was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the 1980’s.
We visited the Cuyabeno Reserve, which is around 600,000 hectares in size and is a very unique ecosystem as large parts of it are often flooded with water, creating floating forests. We chose to visit this area for several reasons:
- Cuyabeno is a great reserve to witness wildlife of all different kinds, from small insects to large monkeys. A lot of the tours are canoe based, and you sit in the boat and watch the animals in the trees along the nutrient rich water banks.
- Tourism is quite advanced in this part of the rainforest, and it seems that all the lodges here strive to a certain environmental standard. Our guide explained that the Ecuadorian government check them regularly to ensure that they are up to the job (how strict they are in reality, I can’t say!).
- The government department concerned with the environment does appear to take some form of a role in ensuring the preservation of the reserve. For example, our guide told us that the walking trails and laguna that we visited will be closed to visitors in the next year or so to ensure that they get chance to recover.
- The reserve is relatively easy to access from Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, and safety concerns are lower than in some other places. Originally, we had looked at visiting the jungle in the south of Colombia, but this would have involved an additional flight (we are trying to keep flying to a minimum), and a lot of the Colombia’s jungle is still unsafe to visit.
We stayed at Nicky Lodge in the Cuyabeno Reserve. You can read about our stay here.
Is tourism damaging for the Amazon?
Tourist trips like this come with pros and con. I know Phil and I sat down together to discuss whether or not we should go. We didn’t want to negatively impact the forest with our visit.
- Tourism brings with it a lot of money, and this can be a great incentive for local communities and governments to protect their nature. From the stories our guide told us, it seems that Ecuador is hopefully becoming more aware of this and are introducing new protective regulations.
- Tourism provides sustainable income for the locals and country, creating new jobs and opportunities.
- As an individual, tourism brings with it new memories, and a new appreciation of the wonders in our world. Hopefully this is shared with family and friends back home and spreads an awareness of our world, both its awesomeness and its fragility.
- Through more and more interaction with ‘the outside world’ such as tour operators and tourists, local indigenous populations lose pieces of their unique traditions and beliefs. It can also turn these proud, intelligent communities into tourist attractions.
- It can be incredibly damaging; land is altered to build lodges, sewage and water systems, transport to and from the site uses energy etc. If this development isn’t done with thought, in a way that complements nature, it can be extremely harmful.
- Tourist operators and lodges want good reviews, and guides want tips. This can create a culture that only considers the economic impact and not the environmental impact behind each action. For example, we heard stories where tourists really wanted to see a particular animal, and therefore they put lots of pressure on their guide to deliver. In response, in some places, animals are kept in captivity to ensure the satisfaction of the customer.
How to be a conscious tourist
If you choose to visit the Amazon, please think carefully about how and where to go, and the impact of your actions throughout your trip. Here are our top four tips:
- Monitor your expectations and go with an open mind
The rainforest and its wildlife is not for your personal entertainment. You might really want to see a tapir or a jaguar, but you need to know that it’s highly unlikely to happen. The rainforest isn’t like TV on demand – you can’t push a button and get what you want. Also, if you spend all of your time praying to see a tapir, you will miss the magic of all the other wildlife.
- Don’t touch or feed the wildlife!
It’s really important not to touch or feed the wildlife, and if your guide offers this to you, please say no and vocalise why this is not acceptable. As with the first point, the rainforest does not exist for your personal enjoyment and the wildlife is undomesticated and needs to remain so. It’s important that the animals do not become dependent on humans in anyway as this can be dangerous for them. For example, it may make them more vulnerable to hunters, or for species which are genetically close to humans it may be possible to pass fatal bacteria or disease.
- Be considerate to the local cultures
You will be meeting with the indigenous communities in the local area. Be mindful of your actions, and be grateful for the opportunity to learn their traditional beliefs.
- Share your stories!
Share your experience with your friends, family and other tourists. If you found your guide to be causing environmental damage, warn other tourists to avoid the company, or if you learnt a new way to protect the forest from your home country speak out and let others know to do it too
What other threats face the Amazon?
Unfortunately, as with all of our natural ecosystems around the world, the Amazon faces a plethora of threats. These problems vary in size and damage depending on the country, they include:
- The Oil Industry
The oil industry is responsible for cutting down swathes of forest, contaminating waterways and leaching chemicals into the soil. It’s a balancing act, for which Ecuador is a fine example, where oil brings valuable money into the economy, but the extractive processes need to be heavily monitored or they can have devastating impacts to the people and wildlife of the forest.
As I’ve previously mentioned agricultural can have a fatal impact upon the forest. Huge areas of land are cleared for farming or crop plantations.
- Climate Change
Our guide at Nicky Lodge, Diego, spoke to us about how climate change is visibly affecting the forest. The timings of the different seasons are changing and so the plants and animals are struggling to adapt.
- Land Expansion
Humans are growing in numbers and as they do more and more land is cut down to provide space. Road construction is a huge problem that fragments the forest, slicing apart animal communities.
Today, our world is interconnected through business, travel, and the internet. Regardless of where we live, even if it’s thousands of miles away from the Amazon, there are a range of things that we can do to ensure we aren’t contributing to its destruction.
I hope that reading about our visit inspires you to want to do your own part to protect the Amazon. Here are two simple, yet important, steps you can take today, from the comfort of your own home. Together, we can make sure that future generations are able to to enjoy this beautiful place.
- Use your power as a customer to make change
- Read the label carefully! Try to avoid products that contain palm oil or soya unless you know it’s sustainably produced.
- Cut down on your meat intake and ensure that what you do eat doesn’t come from cleared forest – source locally produced where possible.
- Think before you drink! Ensure the tea and coffee that you drink is also grown sustainably.
- Support a charity working to protect the Amazon
There are many charities and NGOs working to protect the rainforest. Search around to find which best fits with your own values and find ways to support them. This could be through donating, fundraising or adding your voice to their campaigns.
If you have been to the Amazon please do leave a comment or drop us an email with your own experiences. Where/when did you go? Is there anything you would do differently? Do you have any top tips or recommendations for others?