Exploring Cuyabeno

Most of DonQui’s time in the Cuyabeno reserve is spent exploring the magnificent primeval rainforest by canoe (sometimes motorised and sometimes paddling) and on foot.

The trails through the jungle often resemble rivers. There is a clue in the name ‘rainforest’ but although it is the rainy season, DonQui is very lucky that the weather is bright and clear during the days he is there. It is very hot and humid. After a couple of hours trotting and wading through the forest he is soaked with sweat.

DonQui’s wonderful guide, Victor Hugo, is very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna. Here is is demonstrating the uses of sap from the copal tree as an instant fire lighter, candle and also (thanks to its strong menthol aroma) insect repellent. 

His ability to find even the smallest animals and insects is uncanny.

This is a ‘walking tree’ so called because it has ‘legs’ rather than fixed roots. It is able to shift its position by growing new legs and discarding old ones in the never ending search for that little bit of sunlight coming down through the canopy. 

Looking a little like a rocket with its ‘tail fin’ roots this tall ceiba tree is probably around 600 years old.

Towards sunset DonQui takes advantage of the opportunity to swim in the river at Lago Grande — a wide lagoon at the confluence of two tributaries. 

DonQui learns that this lagoon, now swollen with rainwater, is little more than a mud-flat at the height of the dry season in September.

The sunset over Lago Grande is amazing. So too are the stars that come out shortly afterwards.

After sunset a night walk through the forest reveals a hidden world of caymans, snakes and spiders. DonQui would have liked to have seen an anaconda but although he encounters several boa constrictors, anacondas elude him. Apparently they are easier to spot in the dry season. He does however, have a close encounter with a tarantula. This DonQui finds a little challenging as he has a few spider issues. 

During the course of his explorations DonQui sees and hears a huge variety of birds including parrots, toucans and macaws. His favourite is the stinking turkey (hoatzin). DonQui thinks they look a little bit like comedy cartoon characters.

In between exploratory excursions there are a couple of free hours after lunch to rest and relax. Invariably DonQui drifts off to sleep exhausted from long walks and canoe trips in the humid heat.

The absolute highlight is several sightings of pink (actually pinkish-grey) Amazonian fresh water dolphins — one of which DonQui sees frolicking just a few feet from the dock of the lodge. They only surface for a fraction of a second before going back under the dark murky water with a quick flip of a tail fin. This is a stock image as they were are far too quick for DonQui to capture a photo. According to Victor Hugo they become more pink in the mating season (May) and at that time they also leap further out of the water.

On to Amazonia

Wishing to explore Ecuadorian Amazonia, DonQui is given two options to get there from Quito — a 12 hour coach journey or a 25 minute flight.

“You get some great views on the coach,” says the kindly lady from the excellent Quinana Tours in Quito.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that DonQui pays the extra money for the 25 minute flight to Coca (officially Puerto Francisco de Orellana but no one calls it that) followed by a 2 hour car journey to Lago Agrio (officially Nueva Loja but no one calls it that). 

Lago Agrio is a gritty, ramshackle frontier town carved out of the Amazon rainforest in the 1960s by Texaco as a base for oil exploration. Close to the Columbian border it is an infamously dangerous, polluted, unattractive place, filled with oil workers, Columbian drug traffickers and impoverished looking locals.  It is, however, gateway to the fabulous Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. DonQui needs to spend a night there in a drab hotel in which most of the other occupants are dressed in red Halliburton branded boiler suits. He does not stray very far from the hotel.

Early next morning his driver takes DonQui on the 2 hour journey to the Cuyabeno Bridge — the meeting point for those wishing to head down the Cuyabeno river into the reserve.

Despite the insalubrious layover in Lago Agrio, DonQui is most pleased that he opted for the flight when he sees his bedraggled fellow travellers stagger off the overnight coach. As they gather their belongings for the canoe trip downriver there is universal agreement that the 12 hour coach trip was an absolute nightmare.

it is another two hours down the Cuyabeno by motorised canoe for DonQui, nine other passengers and an ebullient guide named Victor Hugo. 

The two hours stretch to three as the canoe stops whenever Victor Hugo spots monkeys, birds, snakes and the occasional sloth. His ability to spot wildlife whilst on the move is impressive. Even when the canoe is stationary DonQui often has a hard time to locate the animal or bird Victor is pointing out.

See if you can spot the bats clinging to the upright log in the water. It takes DonQui several minutes to do so from the canoe.

These colourful butterflies are quite a bit easier to see.

Finally the canoe pulls up at Dolphin lodge which will be DonQui’s base for the next few days of Amazonian exploration. 

The lodge is rustic but comfortable with only a dozen or so guests. Deep in the rainforest it is completely off grid with no wifi or phone signal and there is only a limited amount of electricity provided by the lodge’s solar panels. The sense of being away from everything suits DonQui perfectly. The food is pretty good considering the limited cooking facilities and the fact that absolutely everything has to be brought in by canoe. 

Up in the cloud forest

Back on the Ecuadorian mainland, DonQui is spending a couple of days in the Mindo cloud forest.

As the name suggests there is… well… lots of lush forest high up in the Andes so as to be more or less permanently in the clouds. When it is not actually raining there is an almost constant light drizzle. It is quite a climatic change from the hot, dry Galapagos.

Feeling quite intrepid DonQui sets off along a narrow path to explore the forest.

He trots down to the Mindo river and then on to the small town of the same name. 

Mindo is a very pleasant place fully geared up for tourists but there are very few of them around. DonQui stops off for a coffee (which is grown in this area) and then heads off in search of wildlife.

This crested guan is not in the least camera shy — indeed he is a bit of a poser.

The cloud forest is famous for its many species of humming birds and they are everywhere. Many places have set out feeders to attract them.

While watching the humming birds DonQui also sees an agouti happily enjoying its midday meal.  

Tomorrow DonQui leaves the cloud forest and heads off into Amazonia.