To the east of the spine of mountains and snowcapped volcanos which bisects Ecuador from north to south lies this country's tiny share of the vast Amazon Basin. There are many countries in South America from which a visit to the tropical rainforests of the basin can be made: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and, somewhat obviously, Brazil. We've heard, though, that Ecuador is a particularly good place to organise a visit to the rainforest: Ecuador's diminutive size - some 30 times smaller than Brazil - means that the forest and its famously immense biodiversity is never very far away.
Ecuador it is, then. Two large reserves, the rather oddly-named Reserva de Producción Faunística Cuyabeno
(making the Amazon sound like some sort of biological production-line) and the Parque Nacional Yasuní
make up a large part of Amazonian Ecuador. Interestingly, Yasuní has recently made appearances in the media worldwide, highlighting just how fragile the rainforest is in the face of mankind's relentless thirst for resources. Indeed - in a cruel irony - Ecuador's rainforest-draped eastern provinces, known as el Oriente
, sit right on top of lots and lots of crude oil. There has been a lot of drilling in the Oriente and,
as is sadly inevitable, there have been spills, contamination, pollution and habitat destruction to match. Very recently, the Ecuadorian government has proposed leaving oilfields located right underneath the heart of Yasuní National Park untouched in return for hefty compensation from the international community for the lost oil revenues. Blackmail? Perhaps.
Whatever the answer, the signs that black gold is near are plentiful as we make our way to the town of Nueva Loja in Sucumbíos Province from Quito. The town would not be here were it not for crude oil - Texaco came here some fifty years ago and set up camp here. Nueva Loja is actually much more commonly known as Lago Agrio, after one of the first oil fields to be exploited in the area. The name Lago Agrio
is in fact a literal translation of "Sour Lake", which happens to be the town in Texas where Texaco was born. There is no getting away from oil here.
The road eastwards out of Quito climbs steeply - which is saying something since Ecuador's capital is already perched at 2,800 metres - until we are once again in the familiar setting of cloud forest and misty páramo.
Lago Agrio - where our journey into the Cuyabeno Reserve will begin - is some 8 hours away from Quito and to break the journey a little we've decided to stop in the tiny hamlet of Papallacta, a rather dull grey speck on the otherwise impressive landscape of verdant peaks and gushing waterfalls. Ecuador, being such a volcanically active land, has a lot of springs; those at Papallacta are reputed to be the nicest. Having whacked myself quite hard in the ribs with a saddle buckle on dismounting my horse in San Agustín last week, a soak in some nice mineral-laden hot water seems like a nice idea. Despite being at the usually chilly and misty heights of 3,200 metres above sea level, it's a lovely sunny - and even quite warm - day when we walk uphill from our friendly hotel in the village to the Termas de Papallacta. The hot springs are indeed lovely, a collection of a dozen pools of all temperatures and sizes set among attractively landscaped gardens by a thundering stream. We wallow in the hot water for nigh on seven hours solid, emerging decided prune-like but very, very relaxed.
The following morning we
catch the bus onwards to Lago Agrio. After Papallacta the road begins to descend and the landscape levels out markedly. For much of the six hour journey the road runs beside a large pipeline and numerous oil installations - many of which have their signage in both Spanish and Chinese... Several depressing, concrete-heavy settlements have mushroomed along the road: a lot of petrodollars pass this way, although it seems not many of them bother to stop. Lago Agrio is everything you would expect a sweltering oil town on the edge of the rainforest and only a few miles from Colombia's lawless border regions to be, and it's not particularly pretty. It's certainly a bustling place - the profusion of Colombian restaurants (you know the food in a country is underwhelming when you get excited about the prospect of Colombian cuisine, believe me) suggesting a lot of Lago Agrio's residents, legal and otherwise, are from over the border. On the way we pass more than one suspicious-looking "motel" and our own choice of accommodation offers rooms not just for the night, but also for the afternoon (rather unjustly at the same price!). I do believe the suitable adjective is...gritty
we're only passing through. The following morning we are picked up by Dracaena, the Quito-based company which - together with the Kichwa community in Cuyabeno - operates the small forest lodge we will be staying at. Our concerns about group size are quickly allayed: we are, it seems, going to have the lodge entirely to ourselves for the next four days! A two-hour bus journey (with only the two of us to keep the driver company on the 40-seater bus) takes us to a tiny run-down village right on the shore of the Aguarico River which runs straight through the reserve. There we transfer to a longboat (which disgorges the previous group, some 12 strong...Phew!) which speeds us downstream for another two hours into the heart of the reserve, first down the Aguarico and then up the much narrower, meandering Río Cuyabeno to the lodge itself. Our hopes of seeing any wildlife on the way to the lodge are quickly dashed: within half an hour on the longboat the heavens open in truly Equatorial style, and we spend the journey huddled under ponchos trying desperately to prevent too much water getting in. Despite our efforts we arrive soaked (our bags,
supposedly protected under a tarpaulin in the bows, are also decidedly damp).
As soon as we arrive, though, we can see we're going to have a lovely time here - Nicky Lodge is built on the shores of an oxbow lake (how very
GCSE Geography!), in a small forest clearing in the very heart of the Cuyabeno Reserve. The lodge consists of a large common building festooned with hammocks and eight wood-and-palmleaf huts, each with two double rooms and more hammocks on the balcony, and nothing else. It is wonderfully low-key but surprisingly comfortable. Wooden walkways lead to some steps down to the Cuyabeno River, where we have a refreshing dip on arrival (swimming in the lake being inadvisable thanks to, of all things, electric eels!) after having hung up all our wet clothes (in my case, almost everything in my pack) to dry - by late afternoon the rainclouds have parted and the sun is out, and hot. After we've settled down our guide for the next few days, Rómulo, shows us around the lodge and gives us a taste of what awaits us in the coming days.
We spend a wonderful few days in what is
effectively a private rainforest lodge. Our time is divided between wonderful outings in the longboat onto the Cuyabeno River, watching squirrel monkeys frolicking in the tall trees by the shore, listening to myriad bird calls float over the forest canopy and even having a go at fishing for piranhas in quiet side streams; walks in the dense primary forest surrounding the lodge, where animals are remarkably difficult to spot but where there is much to learn about the immensely varied flora and how local communities make use of it; venturing out after dark - slathered in DEET - with nothing but a torch to spot the forest's night-time inhabitants - outlandish crickets, vocal frogs and bats flying in and out of the torch beam, their wing tips brushing against your hair. We were thoroughly spoiled with delicious freshly-cooked food (with fresh vegetables! yes, in Ecuador!). We returned to our room every evening to find candles burning on the porch and the mosquito net ready - it really was first-class service and we felt very pampered and very, very lucky. Flying nocturnal cockroaches the size of rats (well, mice, but rats sounds more impressive) and white-bellied rats (definitely rats this time)
scurrying noisily around the room at night were two minor - and, let's face it, unavoidable - downsides we were more than ready to put up with in exchange for the sight of dozens of species of animals during our stay in the Reserve.
Rainforests are stunningly biodiverse: the reserve is home to well over 10,000 plant species, over 500 bird species, over 300 fish species, over 10 species of primate, not to mention an almost incalculable number of invertebrate, amphibian and reptiles. Biodiversity, however, is not the same thing as abundance - wildlife in the rainforest is remarkably difficult to spot. Much of it is nocturnal and very reclusive: sadly, there aren't ocelots on every branch waiting to be stroked, although we did spot one's print in the forest floor one day. The canopy is so dense that the birds and monkeys which spend much of there time there are often hidden among the branches and leaves. Fortunately, Rómulo had an absolutely remarkable ability to spot monkeys from a distance just by looking at branch movements. Thanks to him we saw an astonishing variety of species: howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, capuchins, titi monkeys and several more. On the
river, kingfishers, noisy macaws (blue-and-yellow, chestnut fronted, green-winged) were common sights, the macaws often in ear-splitting flocks of a dozen or more, while we had some lucky sightings of white-throated toucans and many-banded aracaris. The Cuyabeno River is home to elusive Amazon river dolphins which we were fortunate to spot several times in the wide, lazy bends of the river, surfacing every once in a while to take a noisy breath. Huge, electric blue Morpho butterflies - with a wingspan approaching 20cm - were a regular sight, bobbing up and down along the river shore wherever we cared to look. Even the small oxbow lake right on our doorstep was home to tortoises, flycatchers and hoatzin - the latter being a particularly unusual and striking species. There are certainly a lot of animals out there in the forests of Cuyabeno, but it takes some effort and, above all, a great deal of luck to see some of them. We may not have seen a twenty-foot anaconda, but all in all Lady Luck was with us in Cuyabeno, I'd say.
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