Saturday, 23 August 2014

Cuyabeno reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon positively teems with wildlife

The Ecuadorian Amazon around Cuyabano reserve is not the dense deep jungle you may associate with the Amazon.  It is more low lying primary forest,  allowing more light to reach ground level than one might expect. This makes it a perfect place for viewing wildlife as well as jungle. Cuyabano Lodge is situated on Laguna Grande a 32 kilometre motorised canoe ride down the Rio Cuyabeno from our starting point.  

A good lunch was welcome before we set off, still tired from a sleepless night on the overnight bus journey from Quito. Over lunch we got to meet out guide Dario and companions Francois and David a couple of friends from France and Carmen and Anain a mother and young daughter from Cuenca in southern Ecuador.

The motor canoe ride took us straight into the primary forest with vines growing from the highest branches which also spilled air roots down into the narrow river.  Luis was to be our driver for the whole trip and we straight away felt he worked well with Dario.  One of our main reasons for choosing Cuyabeno Lodge was the that reviews named a number of different guides as being excellent and as the quality of guide is one of the biggest success factors in a trip like this it tipped the balance from other, cheaper lodges which had maybe one named, excellent guide.
Welcome to the jungle
Within minutes Dario was pointing out beautiful birds, not my strong point or passion when it comes to wildlife and numerous butterflies were following us down the river. Birds such as the great ani, a stunning deep blue member of the cuckoo family and the dark brown and yellow russet backed oropendola were a great start. At this point my eyes were peeled only looking for Anaconda. It has been my dream to see an anaconda in the wild for as long as I can remember and having been foiled by weather at Reserva Provincial Esteros del Iberra in Argentina and a combination of weather a woeful tour operator (Pantanal Discovery) and appalling guides supplied by Londra Lodge in Brazil I was hopeful that recent reports of sightings from other travellers we had met boded well.

Soon Luis slowed as we approached a couple of other boats with everybody straining to look high into the canopy, apparently a red tailed boa could be seen by the eagle eyed. After patiently awaiting our turn to move closer we could finally see the boa high up and started to realise just how important good guides are. We wouldn't have had a hope of seeing it ourselves. Things were looking good.

By now clad in ponchos to keep dry, hey it is the rain forest we were excited to stop for squirrel monkeys, woolly monkeys and capuchin monkeys, the river and surrounding forest was teeming with wildlife.  

Pulling over towards a fallen tree covered in bromeliads Luis cut the engine and Dario calmly announced we'd have a look at a baby anaconda.  And there it was coiled, exactly like you would imagine, deep green with the distinctive black markings, it would have been less than a metre long and only marginally thicker than your finger it was hardly the 30 foot monster of my dreams but there it was, very real, stunningly beautiful and barely an hour into the trip.  
Baby Anaconda
Rio Cuyabeno spills into a large lagoon during the wet season, drying out for only the first three months of the year. The water turned from a muddy brown to deep black as the water deepens, slows and deposits the organic matter on to the bottom of the lagoon.  As we crossed the lagoon the engine was cut again and we looked straight ahead as an endangered pink river dolphin surfaced ahead. Several of the dolphins surfaced as we sat on the otherwise motionless lagoon only just breaking the surface as if they were toying with our inner photographer.
We had a warm welcome from Javier and the team at Cuyabeno Lodge and an hour to settle into our rooms before heading out for a sunset motor canoe and swim.  The cabanas are perfect thatched huts open to the outside with blinds for privacy if you wish, ours had a private bathroom with piping hot water. The lodge is very strong on minimising environmental impact, providing biodegradable shampoo and soap and operating a low impact black water system. Their attitude to environmental impact would continue to impress me.
Cuyabeno Lodge
Always game for a swim I was happy to join the throng as boats from all the surrounding lodges came out for sunset and a swim. It was the only time of day when I felt like I really was on the tourist trail, squeals of excitement piercing the still air otherwise only punctuated by birds and insects. Returning back to the lodge we were happy for a warm meal and after a sleepless night on one of the most uncomfortable bus journeys we have endured were ready to crash out early.

Day 2 

Rising with the equatorial daybreak at six am we were greeted immediately by a large troop of squirrel monkeys parading through the camp, leaping one after another through the trees.  A small incredibly cute monkey with rust coloured backs and white faces with grey rings around their eyes, it was astonishing to watch. Still before breakfast we climbed the lookout tower and got our first view across the forest canopy and were treated to a visit from a many banded aracari (toucan) and a number of vultures.

A good breakfast of eggs, freshly made bread, juice and good coffee inside us our first official activity of the day was a jungle walk.  We were joined by Carlos an environmental science student who was studying the impact of tourism, how many groups and individuals passed through, who kept to the marked tracks or didn't, he was staying at Cuyabeno Lodge with us as part of their commitment to ensure high sustainability standards are kept by all operators.

Carlos, keeping an eye on our environmental footprint
Due to the high water in the lagoon even our land based activities started with a boat trip, no complaints here and we were treated to a ride across the, still water, I was again struck by the clarity of the reflections.

Dario gave us an interesting talk about the path we would walk and the importance of minimising the number of paths but also not wearing them out and spoiling them, his knowledge of and commitment to environmental concerns was hugely impressive throughout.  Within minutes we had added the black mantle tamarin to the expanding list of monkey species we had seen. I felt the flora was the star of the walk though.  The impressive walking palm tree which stands on numerous trunks, growing a new one as one dies it literally moves over time. Francois was later to comment that this was one of the things that impressed him most.

Dario shared with us how many of the plants and fungi had either medicinal or hallucinogenic properties, such as this medicinal mushroom.

The walk itself crossed different landscapes, terra firma and Pantanal (swamp) requiring careful navigation.

We also added our first significant spider to the list with a large, very hairy bird eating tarantula.

Back at the ranch we were fed a very welcome lunch, feeling kind of overwhelmed by the sheer volume and variety of what we had seen so far. We had an opportunity to take a break until the scheduled night activity, a boat trip by spotlight.  I took the opportunity to take a canoe out on the lagoon for a solo paddle through the undergrowth.  Being the only person out on the lake it was deathly still and eerily quiet, enabling me to get very close to some Hoaxin, known as stinky turkeys because of their physical resemblance and a combination of their diet and poor digestive system.

Night Boat Trip

We went out as a group on the motor canoe for sunset but due to rainfall delayed the night ride until after dinner when fortunately it had dried up.  We were soon eyeball to eyeball with an amazon tree frog, a common and not poisonous amphibian.

A small amazon tree boa was the next spot by the eagle eyed Luis, a small coiled specimen which was soon followed by a larger one, this time hanging for a branch head poised directly in front of a hole in the tree currently serving as a bats nest, we watched silently as it hung ready to spring on its unwitting prey. An amazing sight to end another spectacular day.

Siona Community Visit

Day three, I was awoken by the light sky and thinking it was dawn climbed the lookout tower, then realising the light was simply the brightness of the moon.  Not knowing the time I watched and listened and waited for dawn to break. Always my favourite time of day one of the joys of travel are extended periods of being able to enjoy day break rather than watch from the inside of a car or bus on the commute to the office which never seems natural to me.

Our main scheduled activity of the day was to visit the local Siona Community and see how they live and to make some of the traditional manioc (yukka bread).  I am always a bit sceptical of activities held out as visiting traditional villages thinking they are either forced on the local people or set up as a bit of a cheesy tourist trap. Visiting with a small group I was open minded about this visit.

As a bonus the village was a long boat ride down river so opportunities for further wildlife spotting were abundant, the jungle along this stretch of river was even more remote and pristine. Stunning electric blue Morpho butterflies followed the boat as we spotted blue and yellow Macaw, red cardinals, woodpecker and black saki monkeys and these delightful night monkeys which watched us as intently as we watched them.
Night Monkey
Once again Luis slowed the boat, already overwhelmed with what we had seen the call of anaconda sent shivers down my spine, this time a juvenile, larger than the baby on the first day it was basking in the sun.  We watched until it slowly slid into the water beside the boat. 
Juvenile Anaconda
The visit to the village was excellent our hosts took us through the whole process of making manioc bread, from harvesting the roots through washing, grating drying and baking right through to eating the bread.  Dario gave us an interesting talk on how none of the families work with the oil companies and how they see tourists as an important part of protecting the reserve for the future.  By coming to visit and supporting sustainable, low environmental impact tourism you help protect the reserve from further oil development. An interesting take as it is always a concern that simply by visiting these places you are adding to the damage.

Returning to the lodge, it seemed only minutes before we pulled over again this time for an even larger anaconda, dream land. Still not a giant but either a close to fully grown male or reasonable size female of close to ten feet, at a guess.  A truly beautiful animal, again soaking up the sun.  Magnificent.

Night Walk

Heading out into the jungle after dark, armed only with gum boots and flashlights is an eerie experience. Flicking your torch across the tree canopy lighting the foliage in the otherwise pitch black and scanning the jungle floor for insects, each image appears more intense, outlines so much crisper in the torch light, every movement more noticeable.

An amazon tree frog was an early spot and I claimed a large bufo marinus toad. Some amazing insects, some very similar to the Giant Weta of New Zealand and even managed to bag a vine snake, another new species.
Contemplating the night life
Morning Canoe

The next morning started with an early pre breakfast boat ride for the early risers, Dario was always up for bonus activities.  The first official activity was a canoe down the river taking in the jungle and wildlife in silence. Probably my favourite activity, the slow pace really enabled you to take in the remoteness of the location and to listen for the bird life and monkeys as you approached them.  Dario and Luis' trained eyes again picking out birds and snakes we would never have picked out ourselves.  We got amazingly close to a group of black saki monkeys completely engrossed in feeding, seemingly oblivious to our presence. It was incredible, only using the paddle to position the boat in the water listening to the rustle as they picked leaves, even handing leave to the babies on their backs.
Black Saki Monkeys

Afternoon motor canoe

Cuyabeno lodge has invested in an electric motor, creating less noise and fume pollution and Dario strapped this to the canoe for an afternoon ride around the lagoon where we saw the pink dolphins for a third time, managing to get much closer with the quieter mode of transport. A fine end to our last official activity.
Yellow handed titi monkey in the camp

Morning return to Puente Cuyabeno

Daniela and I were again up at dawn and were delighted to be treated to a final display from the squirrel monkeys jumping from tree to tree through the camp as the colour started to creep through the darkness.  Unfortunately the sunrise was directly behind the tallest trees and we could only glimpse the pink water.  I climbed down from the tower to see if there was a better angle from the wharf but still couldn't get the angle right, at this point Dario came to the rescue again, he got up to join us and immediately offered to take the canoe out again. We were not going to turn that offer down!  We paddled out into the lake, just missing the prime sunrise but still caught the now golden sun rising through the mist again creating the most stunning reflections on the still water.  Dario and I paddled slowly and silently close to the lake shore, again catching the squirrel monkeys on the move, we finally returned just in time for breakfast relaxed and happy.

The boat trip back delivered more up close monkey viewing and only twenty minutes from the end a final new species of snake, an amazon scarlet snake, another spot I could claim.

The Ecuadorian amazon is simply stunning, scenery to rival that as any I have ever seen and wildlife I could only have dreamed of an absolute highlight of South America and a must do if you come to South America and want to see jungle and wildlife.

Amazon Jungle, Ecuador. Flagged for Enzo

No comments:

Post a Comment