As I write this, I’m sat in a wooden hut in the Amazon jungle. Night has descended and the rains have stopped, and so the jungle music begins. Crickets, cicadas, toads and frogs are just some of the inhabitants that come alive in the cloak of darkness.
This is our fourth and final night in the jungle, and wow what an experience it has been! There is something so calming about being surrounded by so much greenery and nature. Everything has a place and a purpose (apart from perhaps the tourists!). To the untrained eye it looks chaotic but scratch beneath the surface and you will discover there is an order to everything.
I loved learning about nature when I was a child and went on to study biology and environmental sciences at college, followed by environmental economics at university. A trip to the Amazon has always been a distant dream, and it’s been a privilege to spend the last few days exploring this awe-inspiring ecosystem. All those books that I spent hours reading have been brought to life in my mind, and I know that both Phil and I have made memories that will remain with us for the rest our lives.
The Cuyabeno Reserve
There are a number of different lodges that you can stay with in the Cuyabeno Reserve, all offering similar packages and prices. We chose Nicky Lodge after our research showed that they had great reviews and they worked closely with the local Shiona tribe. A four night, five day tour including Nature Guide, accommodation, food, transport from the closest largest town Lago Agrio, and all tours cost us US$330 each. We have been more than happy with the value for money, and would recommend them.
In the Cuyabeno Reserve the best way to see wildlife is by canoe down the river. The riverbank is rich in nutrients and minerals and so it attracts insects, which in turn attracts those that feed on them, and those that feed on them. Travelling by canoe can offer great views of a wide range of animals, birds and water creatures such as dolphins, caimans and fish. Take a look at some of the wildlife we’ve had the chance to see.
We have spent hours in the motor canoe squinting up into the trees, trying to distinguish leaves from carefully evolved camouflage. Luckily for us, our guide, Diego, has hawk eyes and sensitive ears, and has amazed us each day with his ability to spot animals and birds from great distances. He has pointed out sloths high in the tree tops that to the untrained eye just look like termite nests and he’s heard birds hiding in the undergrowth or flying overhead and been able to identify them purely by their calls. He has blown own minds daily with his knowledge and passion for the forest. We’re really grateful to him for all of the hours he has spent with us, sharing his experience and stories of the Cuyabeno Reserve.
The reserve doesn’t really experience full seasons, due to its proximity to the Equator, but it does have a wet and a dry season. A lot of the waterways near the lodge are black water rivers, meaning that they are created by rain water. For a couple of months a year, the rainfall is much lower and therefore the forest is drier, and some of rivers all but dry up. We visited just before the dry season arrived, and got the opportunity to see many floating forests, where the trees reach up out of the water. It’s a strange and unique sight. Both seasons offer their positives with regards to the different wildlife you will be able to see.
Cuyabeno’s indigenous tribes
We got to spend one morning with the local Shiona tribe making traditional yuca bread. Yuca is a root, also known as cassava, that grows very quickly in this environment. It’s used for a range of different recipes, and is also great for the skin (we applied it to our faces and they were left lovely and soft!). Before we got to work, our group of seven began by learning about the different indigenous clans that exist in the Amazon. There are five groups within the Cuyabeno Reserve, of which the Shiona are one. We had time to talk about the local beliefs and learnt about a small selection of plants that have amazing medicinal properties. Sadly a lot of the younger generations are shunning these traditional medicines for more chemical-based medications. Modern science has given us lots of fast acting medicines, but the remedies of the elders are much more holistic, and it’s so sad to think that this knowledge may one day be lost to us.
After this, we went to the yuca plants and harvested the roots from which we would make our bread. With a lot of patience we worked together as a group to clean and grate the yuca so that it could then be strained. Yuca holds a lot of water and only 5% of it is needed to make the bread – if the yuca is too wet it can’t be ground down to the flour required.
Yuca flour is the only ingredient needed. Once it’s ready, it can be fried, almost like a pancake, flat and circular, until it is crispy! The water that had been strained out was used along with banana, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked on the fire to make the yummiest, gooiest banana bread we’ve ever eaten!
It was really interesting to get to meet members of the local tribe, and we were able to get to see the land where they live and the traditional style of their homes. They are accustomed to tourists, and a huge part of their income depends on visits like this. Because of their interaction with the ‘outside world’ they are losing some of their traditional ways of life, particularly amongst the younger generations, many of whom go to study in the cities and return with new ideas and beliefs.
Laguna Grande and the night of the caimans
Our second evening was spent around the Laguna Grande (Big Lake). Before sunset we got to sit and watch river dolphins in the laguna. They are different to their ocean cousins that we all recognise, they have much smaller fins and don’t like to interact with humans. They are also a different colour, and depending on how active they are, they can turn pink (most active)! We got chance to see three dolphins moving together through the water around our small boat.
After this we travelled to the edges of the lake; part of the forest is completely flooded here, but there are areas where you can get out and walk. Unfortunately I was suddenly feeling really unwell and stayed in the boat, but the others got out and walked to a nearby hollowed out tree which housed a resting anaconda. I got to return a few days later and it was absolutely huge! You couldn’t see most of it, as it was curled up so tightly, but it’s great size was still easy to make out by the width of the parts on display. Our guide told us that the snake was shedding its skin and so wasn’t a threat to the visiting tourists. Hmm…
Just before the sun set, we returned to the centre of the lake and the group was able to go swimming. The sky was so clear that the low hanging sun set the water on fire. We were gifted with one of the most awe-inspiring sunsets we’ve ever seen. As I still wasn’t feeling well I was the designated camera lady for the group, but even through illness I was able to appreciate the beauty of this place.
It wasn’t until everyone got out of the water that we were informed that the dolphins are joined by piranhas and caimans in the lake! Luckily they like to stick to the edges during the day and so it is safe to swim until nightfall.
The final part of the evening involved hunting for caimans! Working as a team our guide Diego, and our driver John, boggled our minds by being able to find caimans along the dark river banks. Diego shone his torch out into the darkness, and the light was reflected off the eyes of the caimans. We got to see three caimans on the way back to Nicky Lodge, as well as bats and a couple of different species of snake. The sky was still clear, even after the sun had disappeared, and the moon lit up the water.
It was a magical evening, and although I wasn’t feeling well, Phil had a fantastic time for both of us!
We’ve had a packed few days at Nicky Lodge, and got chance to do lots of different activities. In addition to the highlights mentioned above we:
- have been on two night walks. It’s pretty impressive and completely terrifying how you only need to walk for a couple of minutes and you can discover a range of insects, reptiles and amphibians, some with pretty nasty bites and stings… All just a few metres away from where we have been sleeping! Luckily each bed comes with its own mosquito net to keep the creepy crawlies out.
- went on a medicinal walk to learn about the different plants used by the local indigenous communities. There are so many different plants, many look very similar, yet they all have unique properties.
- rose early one morning to travel down the river by canoe. The jungle is much more active in the mornings and evenings, so it was good to explore at different points through the day, as it allowed us to see different species.
- took a walk near Laguna Grande one afternoon to stretch our legs and experience a new part of the rainforest.
Thinking about staying at Nicky Lodge?
- Great value for money. It is a lot cheaper than some of the other options that we looked at in other parts of the Amazon!
- Good facilities. The rooms were clean and well maintained. We were super impressed to have a hot shower in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
- Unfortunately we spoke to other guests who weren’t quite as lucky in their huts so it doesn’t seem to be a luxury for all!
- The kitchen team are amazing. Considering they are in the middle of the jungle and all of the food needs to be brought by canoe, it’s amazing just how tasty and varied each meal is!
- Great location. It’s much deeper into the reserve than many of the other lodges and you can spot lots of wildlife around the site.
- The guides are all very knowledgeable and passionate about their work.
- It isn’t owned by the local indigenous communities like some of the lodges in Ecuador’s Yasuni Reserve, such as Napo Wildlife Centre and Sani Lodge (but these do require a higher budget!). This seems to apply to all the lodges in Cuyabeno, however.
- They strive to get better and reduce their environmental impact, but there is still a lot of work to be done. At the moment all of the lodges in the area use two track motor canoes which leak oil into the water with every use. They are hoping to change all the boats over to more environmentally friendly four track canoes in the coming months – this seems to be a reserve-wide effort.
- There isn’t a great deal of privacy in the cabins as the walls don’t reach the ceiling and the doors are see-through.
- I found it very difficult to get answers to my questions around the impacts of the oil companies and tourism on the reserve. I’m not sure if this was guide-specific or if the lodges make an effort to not discuss this.
All in all we would recommend Nicky Lodge for all those budget-conscious travellers, who would like to visit the Amazon and get the opportunity to witness lots of wildlife with an experienced guide.
If you are thinking of making a visit to the Amazon, please read our guide before you go, which includes lots of hints and tips on how to be a more conscious traveller.
As usual, if you have any questions or thoughts please leave a comment or drop us an email!
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