On Sunday evening Steve and I took the Quito city bus to the end of the terminal at the end of the line to catch the night bus bound for Lago Agrio in Northeastern Ecuador. We ended up waiting in the eerie outdoor terminal for over two hours for our delayed bus as the night went from slightly chilly to downright frozen.
At 7AM I awoke with a start as our bus lurched into the terminal in Lago Agrio, a quiet town notable only to travelers as the jumping off point for trips into the protected Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. At the Hotel D’Mario downtown, a haggard group of under slept Westerners wiled away the morning waiting for their groups to assemble by attempting to sleep, drinking instant coffee, or smoking cigarettes.
Just before 10AM we boarded another bus, this time to the intersection of a river and the edge of the reserve. As we approached the rainforest, it started pouring and didn’t dissipate for almost 1 hour, until we were deep in the forest. Our boat driver Wilmer wound through the windy, muddy river as we immediately donned heavy-duty ponchos and got soaked by blinding sheets of rain. Along the way our guide Romulo tried his best to sing out the birds and animals of the jungle, turning into a one-man symphony and manipulating his vocal cords to emulate a wide variety of species.
Steve remarked that evening that the boat ride into basecamp seemed more like going to a zoo in a boat or going on a ride at Disney Animal Kingdom. One thing is for sure: it felt completely surreal. As the rain began to lighten intermittently, Romulo began stopping the boat every few minutes, pointing out no less than four different species of monkeys, toucans, bats, owls, and even an adolescent Anaconda. The animals of the Amazon have intense competition for survival in the jungle and have evolved to thrive in its chaos, as evidenced by their strong camoflouge, dexterity, or bright mating colors. Over the next few hours the cloud cover was unrelenting, but nature put on a beautiful show.
In the afternoon we pulled into Samona Lodge basecamp, a collection of wooden huts powered by solar panels. Unfortunately we were there in the rainy season, so we only had a few hours of electricity during the entire 4 day trip. The huts are connected by a ring of slippery docks raised above a sunken bog.
After lunch and a quick rest, we hopped back in the boat for an afternoon tour of another part of the area. But starting from the moment we pushed off from the dock, an unrelenting downpour soaked us to the core. Wildlife mostly retreated for cover and through the tiny openings of our ponchos all we could see was rain. Romulo tried to look for wildlife but also warned us: “If you come to the rainforest, it’s going to RAIN!” Instead we headed to the Laguna Grande, which is a good spot for swimming as the deeper water keeps caimans and snakes away. Steve and I decided we couldn’t get any wetter, so we stripped down and dove in.
The water was surprisingly warm and it felt refreshing to take a plunge after a long day of travel. It was a great feeling: we had made it to the Amazon.
Day 2 brought with it clearer weather, and as we prepared for the trip in the morning, a tiny patch of blue sky even peeked through the clouds for the first time. As the sun rose and the rain abated, we set off far downriver to an indigenous village. Birds swam by along the sides of the boat and we stopped multiple times to check out monkeys swinging through the treetops and grabbing breakfast. We even encountered a momma sloth creeping along an undersigning branch with her newborn perched precariously on her stomach.
At the village our job was to help a local woman prepare Yuka bread, which is made from the potato-like roots of an Amazonian tree. For all you bread baking fans, here’s the recipe:
- 2 yuka trees, chopped off at the stump and uprooted
- 3 cheese graters or equivalent (the root of a walking palm tree also works well)
- A thick rope made of balsa tree bark
- An open flame on medium-high heat with a flat round stone on top
- Uproot trees and peel the roots
- Grate the yuka into a mushy substance resembling Ricotta cheese
- Line the tree bark with the mushed Yuka and wrap it closed
- Twist the bark as hard as you can, removing all the juices.
- Sift the clustered dry Yuka into a thinner crumbling mix
- Place 2-3 cups on the stone, spreading the it like a thin crust pizza.
- After 3 minutes it will have solidified. Flip it.
- After 2 more minutes, remove it and tear into palm-sized pieces.
Top with vegetables, tuna salad, or jam. Enjoy!
Next on the village tour was a meeting with the Shaman, a respected healer in the tribe. He told us about his natural healing techniques, how he's been drinking Ayaschua since he was 8, and even gave Steve a chanting and blessing. But the highlight of this pit stop was definitely the Shaman's pet monkey, who was incredibly friendly and enjoyed craling up our legs and hanging off our arms by the strength of its tail.
We lucked out with the weather for the rest of the boat ride back, and again the jungle was teeming with life. As we wound down the river in the afternoon sun, we basked in the feelings of the sunshine on our skin, the wind in our face, and the tranquil river flowing by us.
Nap time was next up on the agenda, as we retreated back to basecamp for a midafternoon siesta to gear up for the evening's activities. As the sun began to arc towards its descent, we headed back to the Laguna Grande. Right as we turn the corner into the laguna, our breath was collectively removed by a stunning arching rainbow. Steve and I immediately hopped in for another dip in the Amazon under one of the most ridiculously gorgeous views we had ever seen. The next few hours were downright perfect as we swam and coasted around the lagoon.
Rapidly, the jungle began to transition to its nighttime state and darkness unfurled all around us. Wilmer docked the boat on one of the only patches of land nearby and Romulo led us through the woods on a night walk, pointing out massive insects and making us turn all over flashlights out to appreciate the utter darkness, then showing us two different ways to make natural torches with the plants of the amazon.
By the time we made it back to the boat complete darkness had settled, making for one of the most prolific star gazing experiences of my life. We drifted back to camp in the pitch black, necks craned upwards the entire time as thousands upon thousands of stars illuminated our path.
Day 3 of our excursion brought the rains back as we awoke to the pattering of rain on the rooftop and braced for another day of getting soaked to the bone. In the morning we set off for a hike through one of the (relatively) dry sections of the reserve, trudging through mud and wading through a bog on the lookout for insects and snakes. Along the way Romulo pointed out many of the medicinal plants that local tribes have been using thousands of years before the eases of modern medicine, including sap to cure diarrhea and tree bark tea to treat the flu.
Miraculously, by the time we emerged from the jungle the precipitation had cleared, and although the cloud cover persisted it was perfect weather for our upcoming paddle back to camp without getting overheated. Unencumbered by the noise of our usual motor, we were able to navigate much closer to the shoreline without disturbing the animals. Near the Laguna where we had been swimming the previous two days we discovered a Caiman lurking with just its snout above water.
Stroking through the Laguna we suddenly spotted a group of four or more dolphins playing around in the surrounding waters. The dolphins of the Ecuadorian Amazon are a skeletal grey, but as they fooled around in the Laguna and got their blood pumping, the exposed dorsal fin transformed into a beautiful light pink. Romulo encouraged us to dive in and try to swim with them, so Steve and I jumped in just a few feet from where we had seen them last. Alas, the dolphins were quite shy and every time Steve or I swam over to their general vicinity, they would disappear again and sprout up their snouts on the other side of the boat, playing an everlasting game of hide and seek. Tired from the swim but instantly invigorated by the experience, we paddled back to camp, hanging out right next to a family of gorgeously colored Tucans along the way.
After three constant days of activities, the afternoon was the perfect respite as most of the crew took naps, lounged, and took naps in the cabana of hammocks that serves as the center of Samona Lodge.
Day four meant the end of our expedition down the river into the jungle, but by the time it was over Steve and I were both ready for some dry clothes and a bedroom that wasn't teeming with creepy insects. We were merely the temporary residents of a hut inhabited by a large cockroach family and the main area was teeming with massive hairy spiders.
One thing we weren't quite ready to leave behind yet were our two hilarious guides, Wilmer and Romulo. Wilmer cuts his boat expertly through the S-shaped river, navigating shortcuts straight through the canopy like a pro and always keeping an eye out for the next group of monkeys or hard to spot snake. Romulo was the main tour guide and always kept a smile on our faces even in the pouring rain by cracking jokes and keeping us constantly entertained.
Even in an area that's well tracked by tourists, the rainforest's diversity and complexity still abounds. It was a refreshing and awe-inspiring experience to see nature's wonders in such spectacular fashion.