Our 3 day tour of the Cuyabueno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon (booked with Jamu Lodge) started from Lago Agrio. From there, it was a 2-hour drive to the entry point on the Cuyabueno River. From the entry point, in normal conditions, it would be a 2 hour canoe ride to the jungle lodge. However, the water levels were very low, so they told us it would take about 4 hours. They asked everyone to only bring what is essential, to limit the amount of weight our canoe would carry. Our bags were small enough that they said we could bring them. Others with larger bags had to rearrange their things and leave large bags behind for storing until our return.
We boarded the canoe and started down the river. It was indeed very low, but I was under the impression that it would get better downstream.
Less than an hour on the river, the motor on our canoe broke (from hitting rocks).
We waited on the river for the guide to search for a new motor or another canoe. After over an hour waiting on the river, we ended up getting into a different canoe. It was now 3:30 in the afternoon. They told us it would take until 8 or 8:30pm to reach to lodge because of the low water levels.
To say it was SLOW GOING is an understatement. We could have walked faster than we were going in the canoe, but there was no trail or road to walk on. There were sections of the river where it was possible to walk, which we did. But typically, it went like this: the canoe moves for a few minutes, then it gets stuck, then everyone gets out of the canoe and starts pushing until the canoe is moving again, then get back into the canoe and bail water as necessary. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. This went on for hours.
There were 7 tourists and 3 locals on our canoe. We tried to stay coordinated, with shouts of “1, 2, 3…push!” And, “adelante (forward)…detras (backward)!”
At 6:30, the sun set. Now, it was no longer beautiful birds flying overhead, but instead, lots of small bats. Around this time, our guide told us we were at the halfway mark. It was hard to believe we were only half way there.
In the dark, we moved even slower, because it was harder to navigate around all the fallen trees in the water. At this point, I had thoughts that we might not make it to the lodge…we might be sleeping in the jungle. Thankfully, everyone was pretty calm about the situation…even laughing and singing songs.
Once it was dark, we began to see caiman (alligators) in the water and along the banks of the river. Their eyes glow in the dark, so you start to see these glowing eyes around you. I’ll never forget the image of one standing on the river bank, its whole body visible and mouth wide open. I didn’t get any pictures…I’d put the camera away…but got a great picture of one the next night (later in this post).
Initially, I was really afraid of getting out of the canoe to push the boat and stepping into the water knowing there were caiman around. But then, I got too tired to care. After SEVEN hours of canoeing, we finally reached the lodge. It was 10:00pm. When we approached the Jamu Lodge dock, the staff were waiting there for us with flashlights. They handed each of us a cold beer and then we sat down for dinner. We said a toast…”the water was low, but the spirits were high”.
After dinner, we headed to our rooms. The place was nicer than I thought it would be. One thing I really liked about the lodge is it’s focus on having minimal environmental impact. All organic material is composted, and all wastewater is treated using natural enzymes and bacteria.
The next morning, we took a short canoe ride to the place where we would go for a nature walk. Our guide led us through the forest, and showed us many things along the way.
That afternoon, we got back in the canoe to do some bird watching and look for pink dolphins. The reserve has over 500 different species of birds. We saw many different kinds…hoatzins – aka stinky birds, kingfishers, parrots, vultures, heron…and many others whose names I cannot recall. Although I tried to get good pictures, I was unsucessful. So you`ll just have to take my word for it that they were quite stunning to see…except for the vultures, they were a little creepy. Also, on our afternoon tour, we did briefly spot a pink dolphin that was swimming ahead of our canoe but no picture. 😦
That evening, we went for a night ride in the canoe to look for caiman. We saw so many of them, but every time we would get close, they would take off under the water. Finally, we approached one that stayed put, and we were able to get a great picture. This particular one was about 3 feet long. The largest one we saw was about 7 feet. We also saw baby ones that were smaller than a foot.
The next morning, we got up early to start our journey out of the reserve. As we were gathering to eat breakfast, monkeys were swinging by through the trees surrounding the lodge. It was our first time seeing them at the lodge and a nice surprise to end our stay.
Since the water levels were dropping each day, we knew the journey out of the Amazon would likely be more difficult and require more pushing than the journey in. Thankfully, we had a great group…
The journey back was upstream, yet thanks to the guys, we managed to make it in 5.5 hours and get back in time to catch our flight back to Quito.
I wish I would have captured more wildlife on camera. And, I wished we would have seen more wildlife in general.
In hindsight, if we had known that the reserve would be suffering from dry conditions, we wouldn’t have gone. In addition to the river being so low, many of the activities were not possible because of the situation (such as swimming or fishing in the lagoon because it was completely dried up). Many of the jungle lodges had already closed by the time we were there. Our lodge closed the day after we left. They will reopen once it finally rains again and the area gets the moisture it desperately needs to restore water levels. At the time we were there, it hadn’t rained for six weeks…the rain forest just isn’t the same without rain. Lesson learned: DO NOT go here during the dry season. The dry season can run from December until March.
All in all…our time in the Ecuadorian Amazon wasn’t the experience we had hoped for, but it definitely was an experience we’ll never forget.