Located at the foothills of the Andes, ‘La Reserva de Producción Faunista Cuyabeno’ is the second largest reserve of the 45 national parks and protected areas in Ecuador.
For two-thirds of the year, the forest is submerged in water. This unusual occurrence is due to the water that flows from the Cuyabeno River and its many tributaries into the reserve, acting like a giant lagoon that can fill up to 30 feet deep.
The Wildlife Reserve is made of a rich and diverse variety of fauna and flora. Over 500 species of birds have been recorded here, including the Harpy eagle, one of the largest species of eagles whose talons can be as big as the claws of a grizzly bear. Giant anacondas reaching up to 9 meters are frequently seen, sometimes with a characteristic swelling protruding out of their belly: the remains of a capybara, peccary or a small cayman. There are 12 species of monkeys roaming the trees and you would consider yourself lucky if you caught a glimpse of the fabled jaguars and pumas, for they prefer to hunt in the cover of darkness.
The 1.5 million acre Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve was created in 1979 and that complex system of lagoons, swamps, flooded areas and ‘terra firma’ — land on higher ground that doesn’t get seasonally flooded — makes it a biodiversity hot spot, and one of the most spectaculars sites in the Amazon basin. Over the years, the reserve has become an important tourist destination. In the last decade or so, there has been a new trend of ecotourism seeking to help maintain the natural environment of the forest.
According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism can be defined as sustainable tourism that focuses on education about the local environment and people, while providing income and unity for the local inhabitants. That allows tourists and adventurers alike to experience the rain forest and take part in its revitalization.
You can access the Reserve by bus from Nueva Loja also known as Lago Agrio. The town was founded in the 1960s as a base camp of Texaco. As recently as 2011, a local judge ruled that Chevron, which now owns Texaco, had to pay $9 billion in environmental damage for polluting the rainforest. Thirty years of reckless oil development has taken a devastating toll on the forest communities and ecosystems. The company’s dump and run tactics have left thousands of acres of rainforest floor stained with toxic waste pits and streams laced with heavy metals and known carcinogens.
Ecuador relies on oil exploration for 50 percent of its revenues and its dependency on fossil fuels assures that there is no viable alternative to the drilling, in one of the most bio-diverse regions of the world. Especially since 2013, when the government decided to auction vast tracks of pristine forest to international oil companies, in order pay for the country’s increasing foreign debts.
Lago Agrio is a short half an hour flight from Quito. You can reach it by road from the capital and the bus ride takes about 9 hours. This makes the Ecuadorian rain forest, the easiest access to Amazonia and also the most economical, in the whole continent of South America.
Once you arrive in Lago Agrio, which stands only 15 miles from the border of Colombia, an undulating road that cuts through the jungle and passes by several drilling sites and settlements will take you to the entrance of Cuyabeno Reserve, after 90 minutes by bus or a shorter ride in taxi.
Incidentally, several countries including the United States have issued a -Do Not Travel Advisory- to the Cuyabeno Reserve, because of the close proximity to Colombia and the presence of guerrillas and drug traffickers. In total fairness, there has been a couple of documented robberies and one kidnapping in the Reserve since 1975, ending with no casualty. Putting things in perspective, over 100 murders were committed in Washington, DC in 2014 alone.
As soon as you enter the Reserve at Puente Cuyabeno (Cuyabeno Bridge) which is the end of the road, you must take a motorized canoe to navigate a meandering creek for an half an hour ride over coffee-milk waters becoming increasingly black, to reach the various lodges. This was our first introduction to the wonders of the rainforest. As the dugout canoe glided downstream among the evergreen landscape, bromeliads and orchids dressed the river banks like multicolored diamonds on a crown jewel.
One had to pinch himself not to become instantly moved by the whole atmosphere of the forest. It felt like being transported to a magical kingdom, straight through the pages of a fairy tale book. ‘Wonka and the chocolate factory’ was the obvious choice because of the high concentration of tannin in the water from the leaves decay, which made the water black like cacao.
A variety of lodges are built on the banks of the Cuyabeno River and also of the ‘Laguna Grande’, the biggest of the lagoons. Our final destination for the next 4 days was Guacamayo Eco Lodge, one of the newest lodges built on the river. It was ranked #1 on TripAdvisor and what could possibly go wrong with a lodge named after a macaw, the colors of a rainbow?
By then, the afternoon had settled in and we checked in our quarters, on the second floor of one of the huts. The private setting consisted of 2 separate beds framed by mosquito nets and an antique looking commode. A separate bathroom with a shower, covered with clay tiles and open air windows offered an intimate feel of the flooded forest around. My 14 years old son Nicolas was traveling with me and he was too overwhelmed by the whole experience to say much of anything, or maybe was he just being a teenager?
The three partners who built Guacamayo Lodge in 2010 have a lot of cumulative experience in the tourism and hospitality industry, as well as having operated as naturalists in the past. The lodge consists of thatched-roof cabins built on stilts, with wooden platforms connecting them, in a semi-circle surrounded by the dense forest, and was designed with the best ecological techniques to minimize the impact on the environment.
A big observation tower stands majestically on the far edge of the lodge, akin to a fortress overlooking unconquered land. You have all the comfort of a first class resort with electricity supplied by solar panels and showers with hot water.
The waste water and the toilets are treated with bio-digesters. Granted, the management shuts down the light at 9 p.m., ensuring that you will have plenty of time to catch some rest before the early morning start. Laying down in a hammock by candlelight and surrounded by the endless jungle is pretty conducive to deeper reflections about the miracle of life and our miniscule place in this universe.
Small tribes of indigenous, mainly Sionas and Secoyas (the 2 tribes eventually merged) inhabit the Cuyabeno Reserve. They live mainly in the higher grounds of the Aguarico River, 51 families in all, with less than 200 individuals who speak a mix of Paicoca and Spanish. Hunters and fishermen, their activities have switched in larger part to tourism.
Guacamayo Lodge is in Siona territory and our guide for our stay was Dario, a charismatic tri-lingual and finely chiseled member of the tribe with a permanent smile on his face. Echoing around the Emerald Green of the forest, you could overhear an elder tribesman’s whisper: “We have the richness of the forest and the river. We need for nothing.”
The lodges utilize the services of the local tribesmen for the operation of the canoes. The driver assigned to us was Walter, a man with an uncanny ability to spot a baby Anaconda laying on small branches and gathering sun rays, from a speeding canoe. Or a motionless sloth so perfectly camouflage, hanging from a high tree. Walter didn’t speak much, but like all the members of indigenous tribes, he was in perfect tune with the forest.
You see many more animals along narrow rivers where light breaks through the canopy. When you walk in the forest, the animals are difficult to observe because they are high up in the crown of the trees. Adding to that, the contrast between the sky and the leaves is so overwhelming, they appear black. Riding on the river in a canoe, you feel in the middle of the forest while the river still opens up the canopy, enough to see the lower trees and shrubs. There is also plenty of light to spot birds, flowers, and mammals on the branches.
Many land species need to go to the river to drink, while water dependent species occur in addition to the terrestrial fauna. These factors combined make Cuyabeno one of the best, if not the best Amazon park in the world, where you are able to observe more different species of animals, flowers and birds per day than in any other park in the world.
After getting some refreshments, we went for a canoe ride up the Cuyabeno River towards ‘Laguna Grande’ (the big lagoon). Spider monkeys were jumping from tree to tree in the sunlight filtering through the dense trees, reminiscent of trapezists from the Cirque du Soleil in a Las Vegas show.
These monkeys have large tails they use as a 5th arm, which enable them to grip branches as they swing from tree to tree. They can accomplish these acrobatics with the speed of a human running. They are social animals, living in groups of up to 20 individuals. We also saw a couple of Saki monkeys who tend to be very shy, their heads hooded with fur, probably looking for unripe fruits and seeds, which consist of 90 percent of their diet. A few Hoatzins were busily foraging for leaves on the nearest tree. They are known as stink birds because of their herbivore diet, which make them reek of fresh cow manure.
They are prehistoric looking birds with a Mohican crest and neon-blue facial skin surrounding a gleaming red eye, accessorized by cape-like wings and an oversized fan-shaped tail. They are not at all graceful but the species have been seen as evidence of the transition between reptiles and birds.
The babies are born with claws on the top of their wings. Blue Morpho butterflies floated around our canoe like iridescent kites on a windy day and higher in the sky, a flock of macaws was flying away from our prying eyes.
It was fast approaching sunset when we arrived at ‘Laguna Grande’. Here, on the Equator, the sun rises at 6 a.m. and sets at 6 p.m., all year round. There are only two seasons, the dry season and the rainy season. It was the end of June, towards the end of the wet season and the serene water in the lagoon reflected the colors of the sky and blended in the horizon, like primary colors on an impressionist painter’s canvas.
Far and wide, a flooded forest in its full glory, with trees perched on little floating islands. Their branches catching the hues of the setting sun and spreading, it seemed, towards infinity. The water we jumped in was the same temperature as the air, a balmy 75° Fahrenheit. Only the brave, or the fools among us would experience the black waters coiling around their skins, like a halo of divine light.
Dario assured us that the caymans didn’t venture in this deep part of the lagoon. Forget about the electric eels that can generate powerful electric shocks of up to 600 volts or the mighty piranhas who can devour an entire buffalo cow in minutes. Stuff of legends, apparently!
There is a daily ritual here at Cuyabeno for the guests of the different lodges in the Reserve, to gather in the middle of the lagoon at sunset, in a symbiotic meeting of souls and canoes, and to immerse themselves in the magnificence of the forest elements.
We swam in water so black we couldn’t see our own limbs and only imagined what savage beasts were lurking below the surface, ready to make a feast of our hapless body parts. The water was about 30 feet deep and once we returned to the lodge, Dario showed us photos of guests playing soccer in the dry season, in the same spot where we had just been swimming. By then the Cuyabeno River becomes a narrow strip of shallow water and the lagoon turns into a giant soccer field.
That is the best time to encounter giant anacondas and caymans because they don’t retrieve into the far reaches of the flooded forest as they do during the rainy season. Accessibility to some of the lodges becomes then more difficult because of the low water and the guests often have to continue on foot to gain access to them.
The next morning, after a wholesome dinner that consisted of chicken, yucca, cabbage and fresh squeezed juice from a local fruit and some well-deserved rest, we headed for ‘terra firma’ for a discovery trek through the forest. The rain was pouring with a vengeance. Never seek shelter in the forest, or you are going to get soaked twice – especially if you forgot your rain poncho at the lodge.
It was all worth it, for the forest is a living laboratory and Dario had an encyclopedic knowledge of its intricacies. Where else could you witness a mushroom that grows on the body of a dead ant or a specie of palm from which sturdy rope can be made, kabobs tree that routinely live several hundred years and cinchona trees whose bark contains quinine, the original medicine to treat malaria? All within a short stroll in rubber boots.
25 percent of the world’s medication come from plants in the Amazon and scientists have only discovered or studied one per cent of them. You are left to wonder what greater miracle of life lays there in the forest, unknown and undisturbed?
Cuyabeno Reserve’s first group of tourists came in 1986 and the consequent efforts of a group of scientists who built the first lodge, Cuyabeno Lodge, right on high grounds overlooking the lagoon helped save this fragile eco-system and introduce it to the rest of the world. More importantly, they worked closely with the Siona community to safeguard their own way of life and culture, and to insure that future generations would enjoy respect and learn from the Amazon forest.
The next morning, after an evening where some of us had a few too many mojitos, we had an early 6am start and returned to the lagoon in the soft luminous light that wrapped the whole scene like a bride’s veil. We had our first encounter with the residents pink dolphins, considered to be among the most intelligent of animals. They are well adapted to navigating through the flooded forest, being able to turn their heads 90 degrees due to their unfused neck vertebrae and avoid obstacles, like submerged tree stumps.
Any encounter with wildlife in their natural habitat is always a special treat, but something really defies the imagination when it comes to dolphins. They have been viewed as somehow magical for millennia by humans and they play an important part in Greek and Hindu mythology. In the Amazon, they are believed to be shapeshifters, ‘encantados’ (bewitched) who are capable of having children with women.
We then proceeded to the nearest Siona settlement where we first encountered Sylvia who was standing proudly on the elevated floor of her hut, ready to come down a balsa wood ladder to greet us, as we were making our way from the canoe. She led us to an open space at the back of the hut where yuccas roots, banana trees, pineapple, and coffee plants were scattered all around. Sylvia proceeded to pull a few yucca roots from the ground and cut them into manageable pieces with a machete she moved through the air so expertly, she could have manufactured tooth picks. Back in the hut, she went through the extensive process of making yucca flour and then delighted our palates with crepes that we devoured with tuna salad and hot sauce. Who knew yucca was so yummy?
Outside a couple of men were installing solar lights at one corner of a big expanse of grass that had been turned into a soccer field. The men in the neighboring settlements gather sometimes in the evening to indulge in this favorite Ecuadorian sport. The kind of game, 5-foot-7 men play with their feet and their heads and doesn’t require any fancy gear. We even started a pick-up game with our 2 guides and co-ed crew, 5 against 5, some of us barefoot, others in their rubber boots running around a beat up ball. By then we had attracted quite a crowd, elders laughing whole heartedly, children yapping and an army of chickens foraging in the green grass, on the edge of the field. It was an uncanny scene where nobody had a care in the world and one wished time had stood still.
The most anticipated activity of the day was the afternoon visit with the local shaman, who lived down river with his wife and children. Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediate or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. Shamans are said to treat ailments and illnesses by mending the soul. Ecuador has a rich tradition with shamanism which according to Carl Jung, is historically and symbolically the basis of modern psychotherapy.
These healers rely on centuries of knowledge passed down from their ancestors. They have an intimate relationship with the many plants in the forest and they act in the community as a bridge between ancient custom and current knowledge. Our Shaman was from a family of 5 brothers, all Shamans in their own rights living in neighboring settlements. His headdress, a kaleidoscopic crown of birds’ feathers and wearing around his neck a menacing assortment of jaguar and peccary’s teeth, he spoke dreamily of spiritual encounters experienced during ayahuasca rituals and of healing ceremonies.
Ayahuasca, a Kichwa Indian word which translates as ‘vine of the soul’ is most commonly known as yagé. The Indigenous tribes of the Amazon use this sacred medicine as a powerful tool for physical, emotional, spiritual healing and awakening. It is a medicinal tea brewed from 2 distinct forest plants and prepared according to a sacred method passed on from generations. Missionaries in the 16th century, upon witnessing such rituals spoke of witnessing the work of the devil.
The spread of evangelism in the forest is fast threatening the culture of these indigenous tribes. As the existing shamans are becoming older, whether these traditions will be passed on to future generations is pretty doubtful. We also had an apprenticeship in shooting a blow pipe, also known as a blowgun. If you ever shot a sarbacane as a kid, you still would have a hard time adjusting to the length of such weapon that can measure up to 45 feet. They play an important and fundamental part of the indigenous tribes’ life and culture. Their warriors still commonly use darts tipped with curare or from poison extracted from dart frogs in order to hunt monkeys and large birds, up to 45 yards away in the tree canopy. The animals are paralyzed by the powerful nerve and muscles toxins and fall to the forest floor. For the tribes who still rely on sustainable hunting, the use of blowguns have been increasingly replaced with rifles, a sign of the times.
The Waorani (or Huaroni) who are the ancestors and the gate keepers of the rain forest have been protecting their land from outsiders for centuries. They believe the forest is an intrinsic part of who they are, both physically and spiritually. Their notion of time is particularly oriented to the present, with few obligations extending backwards or forwards. They once believed that the entire world was a forest.
Tomorrow morning we will leave the Cuyabeno Reserve and go our separate ways. Regardless of our final destination, let’s partake in hoping that we will visit this enchanted forest again! It is a rare privilege in one’s lifetime, to behold those moments of time that have the power to transform an individual, in an elusive albeit profound way. Sometimes, mere words are able to do it justice, as Robert Louis Stevenson’s attest: “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”