A small lodge provides you with a unique opportunity to experience the rainforest in as natural a setting as possible while still maintaining comfort and safety for its guests. Falling asleep and waking to the sounds of the jungle, the insects, the birds, and often the rain dripping through the trees takes you away from the distractions of the modern world, and is something we would recommend to anyone. Our last post described getting here, and now we are here.
The Guacamayo Ecolodge understands this concept and provides its guests with an authentic experience. Limited electricity, local food, knowledgeable staff and guides, traditional building styles, and sound environmental practices exhibit an appreciation for this sensitive environment.
We arrived with a small group of 6 people and over our first meal we got to know each other and our guide better. As we came to find out over the next several days, we were extremely fortunate to have Gido as our primary guide as he was a wealth of information about the reserve and had a profound respect for the environment. A member of the Siona indigenous people, he added to his traditional knowledge through personal interest, much dedication, and a university education. He was the perfect interpreter for the reserve. For us an added bonus was that he was a keen and knowledgeable birder!
Our first afternoon provided an excellent introduction to the reserve and one of its key features. Heading back along the river we entered an inland lake known as Laguna Grande. Again we were treated to many sightings including long-nosed bats, many bird species, several species of monkeys, and a wonderful view of a sloth!
As we entered the lagoon three pink river dolphins were spotted feeding near the surface of the dark and placid water. Reliant on water levels these mammals migrate throughout the Amazon basin feeding on fish. Unlike their more well known marine counterparts, river dolphins cannot jump due to their vertebrae so we watched carefully in order to see them breaking the surface nearby. We were rewarded several times with clear views of their feeding activity.
As we headed further into the lagoon we entered a mystical flooded forest and as the water levels were quite high we were able to take the canoes deep into the shoreline. Anhingas, woodpeckers, flycatchers, parrots, swallows, herons, and many other species of birds were all around us and we were captivated. The abundant wildlife combined with the surreal vision of the giant trees emerging from the lake created a scene that we had only seen in documentaries. This was why we had come here.
Then came the time for the daily ritual of swimming in the lagoon in the late afternoon. Canoes from several of the lodges converged on the central part, shut off their motors and anyone who wanted (or dared) dove into the tea-like water to cool off, refresh or fuel their adrenaline. Yes, there are caimans and other interesting residents of the lake but the deeper central portion was perfectly safe and very relaxing.
A night walk is a feature of most trips into the rainforest and provides you with an altogether different perspective on the jungle. Your usual sense of sight is diminished to a small ray of light, your hearing is subsequently enhanced and together these will let your imagination run wild. Additionally, night is when many different species of animals, birds, and insects are at their most active.
Before arriving at our trail we motored slowly along the shoreline and were treated to the sight of dozens of boat-billed and night herons taking flight in the shadows. As the light began to fade, dozens of fishing bats appeared, swooping closely overhead and gracefully skimming the water’s surface. All the while Gido swept the shoreline for the bright red eyes of caimans who feed in the early evening.
We were completely awestruck at the skill at which the boatman navigated the difficult waters in almost complete darkness with no light. How they unerringly took us through the myriad of flooded trees, mudbanks and other hazards and arrived at our destinations time after time amazed and delighted us.
Walking single file through the jungle in complete darkness is a very interesting experience. For those at the front of the line you have the large beam of the guide’s flashlight while those at the rear tend to look over their shoulders and become startled at every sound or perceived movement. On our walk we saw tarantulas, scorpions, and very large crickets, but no snakes. It is an experience we highly recommend to anyone.
On one evening we were astonished (again) at the skill of Gido. We were slowly motoring along the riverbank towards our lodge in almost complete darkness while he swept both banks for the red eyes of caiman. A quiet call to the boatman and we turned towards the left bank and into a fairly large thicket of small trees. Pushing several aside we glided into the shore and there before our eyes was a small boa constrictor curled up on a branch. We still have difficulty believing him that he spotted it from the middle of the river and through the trees. He swears he did!
There was a common joke among some of us that the guides placed plastic and stuffed animals, birds, and insects along the river and paths to amaze the tourists, creating a Disneyland like experience.
Evening meals and a cold beer afterwards were great times to chat with our new friends, reminisce about the days’ experiences, and conjure up exotic images of the next day. After the long day spent in the outdoors, the good food, and the amazing night sounds of the rainforest it only took a few minutes to drift into a very peaceful and relaxed sleep.
Four days pass very quickly and it is amazing how easily you can fall into the rhythm of the rainforest. We were up early for a hearty breakfast and then Gido would have us out onto the boats for our first activity of the day. A full morning of hiking or paddling would last until 1:00 or so before we arrived back at the lodge for lunch. Some days you might have an hour before heading out again. Some people opted out of the afternoon activities and chose to relax at the lodge which was a wonderful experience in itself.
On our last full day we visited a Siona village several kilometres downriver. We passed several lodges, spotted many birds and monkeys, and as always were moved by the beauty of the river system.
After about an hour we arrived at the village. Several women, children, and dogs were on the bank to welcome us. Obviously this takes place every day of the year but it still felt like a privilege to spend time with people who continue to live in their traditional lands, albeit with some modern conveniences.
For the most part we were quite impressed with the condition and infrastructure of the village. To us it appeared that they were living much better than a large number of Ecuadorians in many of the towns and villages we had seen throughout the country.
They had a large community soccer pitch and a recreation centre. Most of the homes we saw were in good repair and it was far cleaner than many other places we had seen. The most impressive feature was the extensive community gardens, fields and orchards. Pineapples, yucca, sugar cane, bananas, corn, papayas, mangoes, and many many more fruits and vegetables were tended by the women and children.
Of course there was a demonstration for the visitors. In this case it involved pulling yuccas from the fields, transporting them to a specially created building and then going though the whole process of making making yucca bread. The Siona woman (she sure could handle a machete!) who led us though the process spoke little English but was proud and gracious and even though she does this every day made a great effort to be engaging and friendly. We all helped out and enjoyed the tasty and warm yucca tortillas (gluten-free) with our box lunches provided by the lodge.
It was a very interesting and informative morning spent at the village. We were impressed with how the people seemed to be adapting to modern living while retaining many of their traditional beliefs and practices. On the surface they seem to be taking the best of both and making it work for them. There is a mandatory $6 US donation that everyone makes to the village in return for the experience.
Our next stop was one that many of us had mixed emotions about. It was the possible meeting and demonstration by a local shaman. We had read many varied reviews commenting on the authenticity of the shaman and the fact that it was simply a show for the tourists. This type of tourism is common throughout the world and the subject of ongoing debate, but in reality he clearly had trained extensively, honored his beliefs and was carrying on the traditions of his people.
Whether you believe in supporting local communities in this manner or not, the shaman that we met and who performed a cleansing ritual was honest, genuine, and proud of his role in his community. We were pleased to leave a donation.
The last day of a trip like this is always filled with mixed emotions. There were a couple of people who appeared more than ready to move on but most of us were sad to leave the natural, unhurried life in the Amazon rainforest behind. No contact with the outside world, minimalist living, and feeling part of the local ecosystem is good for you both mentally and physically. For us, we were genuinely sorry to be leaving.
There was one last reminder for everyone of the true nature of the place we had visited. A large tree had fallen across the river the night before. The hard work and sharp machete of one of the guides cut through it, allowing the boats to continue to transport the dozens of tourists and locals along the Cuyabeno River to the heart of the reserve.
The two hour trip up the river passed far too quickly and we just relaxed quietly and contemplated this wonderful corner of the world we were leaving behind. We may never have the opportunity to return again but it will always remain in the forefront of our memories.
As we got off the canoe at the reserve entrance, sure enough there were many “newbies” just like we were a few days ago awaiting their chance to experience the beauty, diversity and challenges of the upper Amazon Basin.
People we spoke with before and after this trip expressed a range of ideas about this type of a trip. Some were genuinely concerned about spiders and snakes, some about mosquitoes and others didn’t want to be cut off from the their cell phones and wifi signals. As for insects, we saw very few mosquitoes and almost none at the lodge. Sure there were spiders around, some cockroaches and lots of butterflies, dragonflies, and wondrous beetles. We did see a few snakes but had to look hard for them. As for no cell phones or wifi – it was a perfect way to ensure you get the maximum experience possible and does us all good once in a while.