Ecuador: Exploring the Amazon Jungle

We crossed the border into Ecuador, drove into the oil-field town of Nueva Loja (also called Lago Agrio), and promptly discovered that our hotel had a water slide. So we basically did this for the next eight hours:

 

But the real reason we were in town was to spend some time in the jungle!

Ben has been talking about the Amazon jungle ever since we told the kids we were going to embark on this crazy adventure. This boy is obsessed, particularly when it comes to exotic critters. Top of his list: seeing an anaconda.  Additional bonus points for venomous snakes. If we’re being honest, his list didn’t have much in common with my hoped-to-see animals but hey, everybody is different.

Nueva Loja is the jumping off point for the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, a 1.5 million acre preserve of protected land in Ecuador’s northeastern corner.

The reserve floods each year, leaving submerged trees and hilly islands surrounded by a liquid world of slowly moving water. In the dry season the water recedes back to its channels and manatees come to feed on the newly exposed grasses along the banks. We visited in early November, just as the water levels were dropping in preparation for an extended dry spell.

We stayed at a lodge located in Laguna Grande, which connects to the Rio Cuyabeno, which empties into Rio Aguarico, which meets the Rio Napo, which at long last is consumed by the Rio Amazon. From there it’s a long journey out to the Atlantic Ocean. We found it amazing that a tiny drop of water in a country on the Pacific Coast will spurn that nearby sea in favor of a far-off ocean. Topography at its finest. (Here is a map of the Amazon basin for a visual explanation)

 

 

 

 

Our particular journey involved a two hour van ride from town followed by a two hour motorized canoe ride to our lodge on the lake. The canoes are long and narrow, making the tight bends of the river a challenge for the helmsman.  

Right away we began to catch glimpses of wildlife. 

We saw the tail end of this snake disappearing into the forest. Ben was in a tizzy. We were off to a great start in the snake department…lucky us. 

An Oropendula condominium. 

The poorly named but very exotic Stinky Turkey (also known as a Hoatzin)

We arrived at our lodge and Emma donned her Amazon Explorer outfit: swamp boots, a dress, and pink long underwear. Own it, girl. 

This one is similar to the oropendula as it converts a tree into nesting condos: the Yellow-rumped Cacique (I think).

Another stinky turkey. 

The beautiful blue morpho in camouflage mode. 

 

According to our guide, there was a 5 meter Anaconda lounging in that hollow tree. 

Our boat captain went up for a very tentative look down the hole. 

You’d better believe that Ben and Emma were also game for a bit of climbing and spying but their cruel parents put the kibosh on that brilliant idea. 

 

They had to content themselves with peering into this 4 square inch hole (which is horribly out of focus) that did, indeed, contain a patch of monster snake.

Exhausted from our snake adventures, we went back to the lodge for dinner before embarking on our final expidition of the day: night boating.

The Amazon was proving to be a hot-spot for reptile spotting. I wasn’t thrilled when our boat captain suddenly jumped overboard to snag this spectacled caiman but was slightly mollified when it just about nipped his fingers off in an impressive display of bendy body gymnastics. Score one for the caiman.

This baby Amazon tree boa was suspended in a tree a few inches above the water, waiting for dinner to swim by. It amiably alighted onto a proffered paddle before sliding gracefully back onto its branch.  

 

 
The next morning we once again took to the boats, this time hoping to spot on of the rare Amazon dolphins that ply the rivers searching for fish, turtles, and freshwater crabs. These are often called pink dolphins, and all week we’d seen pictures of pepto bismol-colored cetaceans adorning Amazon advertisements and posters. 
Success! We spotted a family of three feeding in the lake. The only problem? They weren’t exactly pink…
We subsequently learned that individuals get pinker as they age and that males tend to sport a rosier hue than their female counterparts. So perhaps we saw three young females.
Later it was time for a jungle trek, with one very enthusiastic Ben and one grumpy Emma. Our wee girlie is not so enamored with forest hiking and our guide was a little too verbose when it came to describing the fascinating characteristics of tree reproduction.
But look! A frog that looks like a leaf!
The downside of Cuyabeno? There are eight or nine other lodges in the area; it was quite common to see boats of jungle explorers zipping up and down the river in a virtual log jam of long boats.

Here is the scene around one poor sloth. We promptly baled, to the displeasure of both our guide and driver. We half suspected that all the guides wanted to congregate boats together so that they could engage in some good river gossip time. Sorry dudes.

Thankfully the sloth seemed oblivious to the hullabaloo down at the water. 

 Ben and I squeezed in a jungle night walk and got to spy a few tarantulas and other critters. I am always amazing at how much more ‘alive’ the forest feels after dark. Lots to see, too, especially in the bug department. 
And that was the end of our grand jungle adventure. Details below.
Afterwards we hit the road to Quito, pausing to spend the night at this lovely waterfall, Cascada San Rafael. It also happens to sit right below Volcano Reventador, which is quite active at this particular moment. It’s safe to say we were a little jumpy for the duration of our visit.

Recommendations and Observations

Hotels and Lodges

Gran Hotel del Lago (in Nuevo Loja/Lago Agrio) was a splurge for us but the fact that it had big rooms, an outdoor pool with waterslide, and an indoor soccer court sealed the deal. Plus they had an included breakfast and we just can’t tear ourselves away from a buffet. Pretty sure Emma ate her weight in pineapple each morning. The hotel itself is in kind of a sketchy area but its set on massive grounds with ample parking for the truck. Plus, WATERSLIDES. What’s not to love?

Amazon Jungle Tour: We went on the 3-day Amazon Trip (3 days, 2 nights) with Bamboo Eco Lodge. We contacted a few different lodges and Bamboo gave us a good deal on a private tour. We opted for the private tour (our own boat, guide, and captain) for a few reasons but mainly because we were travelling with two lovely but fickle children and they’re not up for many hours stuck in a canoe looking at birds. And we felt bad imposing our loud children on other people that had paid a lot of money to enthusiastically sit in a boat and stare at birds. We needed flexibility. In the end, having the private tour was good choice for our family, despite the additional cost. We were able to tailor the activities to suit the needs/sleep schedules of the kids and while we didn’t make it for the 5am birdwatching/snake tour, we saw enough to satisfy everyone. Private tour price for four people: $950usd. (included full room and board (3 meals/day), boat, driver, guide, rain gear/boots, and all transportation to and from the lodge)

What we liked about Bamboo: The front office people were great (scheduling was easy), they worked hard to find boots that would fit Emma (little feet) and Chris (big feet) and we loved the food. Ben now wants to learn how to fry a whole fish – head included. The kitchen ladies and folks that worked at the lodge were lovely.

What we didn’t love about Bamboo: Our guide was nice, and spoke good english, but he lacked any real excitement about his profession. We got the impression that he was just punching the clock and waiting until he could usher us back to the bus and get his tip. We have had some incredible guides over the course of six months and the very best ones have a strong enthusiasm for their craft: searching for animals and sharing their knowledge of the area. This guy had a few canned speeches for each animal that he would recite; it was up to us to press for any additional information beyond his spiel. To his credit, he did work hard to tailor the activities to the kids, tried his best to find an anaconda for Ben, and was understanding when we needed to change the itinerary due to cranky children. Overall, he gets an average rating.  We had another guide on our last day: he pretended to ‘shoot’ the animals with a gun as we roared past in the boat. Not exactly what you want to see from the professionals that make their living in a wildlife preserve.

All the lodges in the area are basic; ours was particularity basic and suffered from lack of housekeeping attention. It took us about 5 minutes to find the massive ant infestation living in the dresser and while they took the whole thing away, our room was especially rife with critters for the duration of our stay. Luxury accommodations these aren’t.

That said, this adventure was an incredible experience for us. The Amazon jungle astonishes one at every turn and we feel so fortunate to have been able to visit such a truly magnificent place. Go prepared for bugs, rain, and spartan accommodations; these are minor annoyances to the splendors that awaits.

 

Activities

We liked the 20 minute hike down to Cascada San Rafael. There was talk that a massive upriver dam would forever silence the waterfall but it appears, at least at the time of our visit (October 2017) that it hasn’t been dramatically impacted. The park, like many in Ecuador, is free. We camped just outside the park in the bus overflow parking lot. We probably wouldn’t have done so had we known exactly how active the volcano is/was.


Amazon Jungle Partial Species List

Birds
Blue and yellow macaw

Black headed parrot
Long winged swallow
Cocoy heron
Amazon kingfisher
Ani
Collared trogan
Crested oropendula
Hoatzin (stinky turkey)
Yellow-rumped Cacique
Mammals
Fisher bats
Woolly monkey
Squirrel monkey
Yellow handed titi monkey
Black mantled tamarin monkey
Monk sac monkey
White face monkey
Pink river dolphin (x3)
2 toed sloth (Holman)
Reptiles and Amphibians
Spectacled caiman (x3)
Black Caiman
Yellow anaconda
Amazon tree boa
Morete (?) snake
Spotted river turtle
Tree frog
Leaf frog
Poison dart frog
Fish
Sardines
Insects and Spiders
Tarantula (x3)
Ant infestation – our room!
Blue morpho butterfly
Owl butterfly
Green butterfly (species unknown)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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