An Amazonian Jungle Safari in Cuyabeno, Ecuador

The noise of the jungle is deafening, but some calls are so strange, so unique that they stand tall amongst the crowded reverberation of insects and animals.  This we determined when the startling song of the oropendola lured us from sleep deep in Ecuadorian Amazonia.  The mating call, best described as an electronic interpretation of a surfacing water bubble echoing in a cave, was alone worth the trip to this remote rainforest.  But this bird barely scratched the surface of wonders in this remote forest.

Golden hour sun rays breaking through the canopy

We knew we were far away from the start.  To get to our lodge alone took two hours aboard a motorized canoe, zipping between the curving banks of an impossibly expansive river.  But the boat ride was just the last (and by far the best) portion of a long trip spanning over two days to reach this area.  It started with a bus from Quito which was at times too beautiful for words and other times so painful as to consider jumping from the window.  Punctuated with unending high decibel sales pitches for everything from disco lights to snake oil medicine, the excessively long bus ride to Cuyabeno was not the highlight.

No, not a leaf, just a well camouflaged moth

Ecuadorian Amazonia is said to be one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth, which seemed entirely plausible as we set off in our boat.  The wildlife was on display, as if trying to confirm the statistics.  Neon blue butterflies shimmered in the equatorial sun, monkeys hopped amongst trees and bright yellow birds darted between hanging nests overhead.  Just a short ride down river and we we saw one of the most unexpected sights of the trip.  A group of wild pigs, maybe eighty in all, swimming upriver.  Upon seeing us, they began a hasty and sloppily executed retreat back downstream.  Later on, after seeing piranhas and black caymans in the river, we would better appreciate their panic.

The jungle is filled with interesting plants, trees and flowers

We could have been on the set of Indiana Jones as noted by other members of our group.  Or more likely, we had stumbled on a filming location for Planet Earth, where the most strange, unique and perplexing species thrive.  The oropendola, looking somewhat like a yellow tailed chicken, performed it’s daily dance in the trees, bowing deeply to display bright plumage in unison with its water bubble song.

Iconic macrolobium trees adorned with epiphytes fill the waters of Cuyabeno

Without needing to leave our lodge we were surrounded by macaws, toucans, parrots and numerous other bird species which treated us to a symphony of song and color.  But not all visitors were quite as welcome.  Tarantulas called our camp home, the occasional snake ended up sharing a bedroom and a large black cayman crocodile was spotted in the swimming area by the dock.

This tiny piranha bit right through the stem

But the most interesting creatures are found in the dark of night.  Long after the sun disappeared in a dazzling show of orange and pink, the amazing diversity of nocturnal animal and insect life can be recognized.  Spending a spine tingling evening searching for what seemed to be the world’s largest insects, we explored one of the many islands of the vast river by torch light.

One of the many spiders spotted on our night walk through the jungle

It’s a strange phenomenon when a group of people wander into the dark of night, turning leaves and poking in large ground holes which most people spend their lives trying to avoid.  Nocturnal monkeys jumped overhead and owls watched as we uncovered giant spiders and other insects too strange to recount.  The African whip scorpion was the crowd favorite.  It looks just how you imagine, only it is not a scorpion and not in Africa.  Other hand width spiders looked to to be inspirations for Lord of the Rings as they wrapped and fed on other insects almost their size.

Sunset from the Laguna Grande is always beautiful

Even the most spider averse among us found beauty in this creepy crawly world.  But spiders and crocodiles barely made up a fraction of the diversity we encountered.  The numbers were so great that we lost count at 60 unique species over our short visit.  Various monkeys, sloths, turtles, anacondas and birds more varied and unique than imaginable.  We even watched the rare pink river dolphin peek it’s head from the expansive laguna at sunset.

Baby anacondas are a testament to their presence

As we wound our way back up river after three days in this natural wonderland, we could now spot and name many of the wild species along the way.  We were reminded of the importance to preserve these dwindling places which are ever encroached by man and industry.  Even Ecuador, with its incredible rainforest, is destroying these areas for oil production and agriculture at an alarming rate.  Eco-tourism is a real and sustainable way to incentivize countries to value their wilderness.  With new sources of income for government and local tribes, slash and burn farming and resource extraction are no longer the only way to feed the economy.  We take comfort that our visit provided more than simple enjoyment.  Despite the cost of our trip, we certainly left with more than we had when we arrived.

We came across a long line of wild pigs swimming through the muddy river

We stayed at Guacamayo EcoLodge, which is one of a few lodges in Cuyabeno.  There are three, four and five day options, which include guide, private room and bath, all meals and transport from Lago Agrio.  Our three day/two night trip cost $250 a person. We booked directly with the owners at their office in Quito.  Their WhatsApp number is +593 939062779.

An African whip scorpion is really nothing more than a ginormous spider with huge claws
How to get to Lago Agrio

We took the daytime bus from Quito which originates from the Quitumbe terminal.  We went with Putumayo which is found upstairs at stalls 18-19.  The price was $10.20 with same day purchase, although tickets showed $12 with $2 discount.  There are several other companies which also run this route, including Baños company downstairs.  Their tickets are $12 with supposedly nicer buses.  There are numerous departure times throughout the day.  While our seven hour ride was admittedly terrible, it was still not as bad as the world’s worst bus rides in Vietnam and Nepal.

Macaws seen early morning from the lodge bird watching tower
Leaving Lago Agrio

After our jungle trip, we took a bus directly to Latacunga.  There were a handful of times, but our 1:40pm arrival in Lago Agrio let us catch the 2:30 bus.  There were three or four times per day with this route.  We rode with Baños, which ended up being similar to what we rode originally, although there were blessedly no mobile salesmen.  Our tickets cost $14 per person for the eight hour trip.  There are also numerous buses going to Quito throughout the day, so no lack of options.

Before you hop on a coach in Ecuador, read up on how to keep your belongings secure. This country is known for theft on buses.

Many species of monkeys can be found in the trees around Cuyabeno

If you are heading to Peru next through the Aguas Verdes border, you will want to read our detailed experience.

If you like wilderness adventures, then you will love these other posts from Ecuador:

We didn’t let a small mud puddle stand in the way of finding wildlife

Want to know how we afford long term travel?  Here is a basic investing explanation of how we prepared for the future.  After a career spent in finance, we can attest that it is simple and it always works.  This is the way we live, and you can too.

This Tarantula can often be found near the river at Guacamayo

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