Experiencing the Amazon is a must when it comes to visiting Ecuador or South America for that matter.
Coasting down the Amazon river, taking in the flurry of life around, from the fluttering little wings of blue butterflies to an anaconda lying camouflaged in the overgrowth by the river, or a red macaw perched on a branch in the distance to various species of monkeys dancing on branches overhead, you will be forgiven for failing to capture all the hustle and bustle of the ever-present jungle life of the Amazon. As we drifted done the river we passed almost invisibly by a large river bird perched on a branch above the water to catch its meal. There were a few indigenous houses close to the river, and as I sat completely mesmerised I saw something leap out of the water, then, again and again, a dolphin seemed to be trailing us and the hooves of wild boars could be heard distinctly some place away. It was nothing like I had ever witnessed before. It was truly special.
We soon turned out of the main river and entered a large Laguna where all the lodges are located. The range of prices is extremely varied from about 60$-500$ a day. Depending on what you book your experience of the Amazon will be defined. I had paid just 200$ in all for 3 nights and four days. At that price we got beds that were comfortable, mosquito nets which sufficed, basic food, which led us to go fishing piranhas for dinner almost each night, beers could be ordered from the premium lodges across the Laguna, there were no motor boats, a blessing in disguise I would say. The head of the lodge, Jose, taught me the techniques to paddle and told me I could take the canoe out whenever I wanted.
The weather is tropical which means there is the sun most of the time and heavy rain in the afternoons. Be prepared for that. Taking the canoe out alone is not dangerous in itself, but you must have a certain sense of direction because getting back to the lodge in the darkness can be complicated as we found out. It’s not the wisest idea to get back in the darkness but to watch the sunset over the Laguna is spectacular. Being in the midst of the Amazon, the second the sun is gone, so is the light, and treading the waters back can seem to be quite a task. Jose kept saying that there was a chance of seeing an anaconda and said that the previous tourists from Canada were devastated not to have but he felt we could. In one of his classic moments of perceived madness, he stood on his boat and peered into a large hole in a tree looking to find an anaconda. He said he was sure there would be one around. We had no luck the first two days but on the third, we got to see an anaconda spread out on a branch in the sun. There are no words for it, an eight-metre long snake. We spent some time looking at it, but could not find its head. We went back to the lodge, a couple of hours later we came back out and saw it curled up in its nest. To see an anaconda in its natural habitat was like having another dream fulfilled. We were lucky because we were there at the right time of the year, they say November and December are the best months as the anaconda beings to shed its skin. When we came back to the camp we were offered local Ecuadorian alcohol, almost as a toast to having seen an anaconda. The rain beat down and we toasted the afternoon to the splendour of the Amazon.
On that night the schedule was to take the night walk and while I donned a hoody and was covered from head to toe, the young man who was leading me through the Amazonian night, wore shorts, slippers and had a machete in his hand. It was only the two of us. He showed me spider webs, insects, some marks on trees and he killed sleeping fish with the machete for our food. Suddenly, he ran into a small pond striking furiously and I asked him why he said he thought he saw a Cayman and wanted to scare it so I could also see it. Well, these natives live without fear, it is their habitat and they are as free as can be. It was amazing and as crazy as it got. I had soon lost all sense on the night walk but not much long later the light came through the trees and I knew we were back. It was all almost as good as walking blind through the night.
On the last morning I went out alone, I just didn’t want to leave. As I rowed across the Laguna I saw scores of birds, green macaws and I lay back on the boat, floating in the laguna. I heard the sounds of animals and I paddled swiftly towards the sound. There was a horde of wild boar and as I came close to them I could see them rustling in the grass, making the iconic noise that they do and as I approached they looked at me across the water and I saw in the boat wondering how was I blessed to be at the very center of natures bliss. Birds, animals and water all around. It seemed a dream, I guess it was a dream.
On the journey back up the river, we were joined by people from another lodge with their high profile guide. We saw a red macaw some two hundred yards away through binoculars, five different species of monkeys, some 14 different birds and to top it off another anaconda lying camouflaged in the overgrowth. All of this in less than an hour but a stroke of luck, since the only boat going back at the time was with this other group. It was all clear to see. We saw more in an hour in terms of variety than we did in all three days. These guides are superhuman, they have an eagles eye, perfect understanding of the jungle and years and years of experience.
All of this leads to the question of how you want to visit the Amazon and the resources which you have. If you are on a tight budget you don’t have an option, but you can have the liberty to explore the Amazon by yourself and take the boat out whenever you want. However you will miss the detail of the forest, you will not see all that is there because the guides are simply not that good. The best lodges have motor boats, those superhuman guides, incredible equipment, and almost a guarantee to make the most of your time in the Amazon, the probability of you seeing what you desire is close to a hundred. They will never let you take the boat out alone, so you are secure, you will be forced to wear life vests, we had no life vests but your experience when it comes to what you see in the Amazon without a doubt will be incredible. One day I might go back to live in a great lodge but for now, rowing out into the Amazon is what I must be content with, I was and how.
There are two popular options for visiting the Amazon, either at Cuyabeno or Yasuni. I visited Cuyabeno and it seems to be the less expensive of the two options. To get to Cuyabeno I took a bus from Quito down to Lago Agrio without pre-booking a tour of the Amazon, the trip cost 8$. I was with a friend and we got to Lago Agrio late in the evening. We got a hole in the wall double room for about twenty dollars, nothing worth recommending. The next morning we were up bright and early before any of the tourist offices were open. Once they did open, we checked a few of them and finally booked one of the least expensive trips. The bus to the reserve left soon afterwards and it was less than two hours away. At the point where the reserve starts we stopped for lunch. The food was good. From there we got into a motorboat and the real journey down the Amazon started.