The Amazon – something from Jen’s bucketlist finally happens!

Jen has always wanted to go to the Amazon – to see the animals, to swim in the waters, to explore the dense forest, to meet local people – everything about it!  So of course, when planning the first couple months of this trip, a trip to the Amazonian rainforest was a priority.  After all sorts of research, we decided on Jamu Lodge in the Cuyabeno Reserve of Ecuador.  Ecuador was chosen because it is half the price as a Brazil rainforest trip, we were a little tentative of doing the jungle in Colombia (FARC and all) and we aren’t planning on going to Peru (it will be another trip).  Jamu Lodge was chosen because it was mid-range – something nice enough to make the experience special, but not the full-on luxury to blow the budget.  We booked it back in August and Jen was ready!

After a brief time in both Otavalo and Quito, the time was here!  Thing is, Jen was stressed.  So far on this trip, everything that Jen really looked forward to had gone awry due to weather or travel mishaps – the San Blas (hurricane Otto), hiking Volcan Baru in Boquete (rainstorm and dangerous visibility), canyoning in Dominican Republic (tropical storm), Quito (VivaColombia Airlines is shit).  In Jen’s mind, something else was going to go wrong.  She didn’t sleep the night before, stressed we would not wake up in time for the flight.  Then she thought Quito traffic would make us miss the flight.  Then she thought the plane would be delayed.  Even when we arrived in Lago Agrio for our ground transfer, she was still waiting for something bad to happen – spoiler alert – nothing did!

Wow!  We had actually managed to tick off one of Jen’s must do items for the trip!  Yay!

Granted there was a very slight travel mishap, in that Tame had cancelled our return flight.  Yet, we had found out about this a couple days before, so we decided to stay an extra day in Lago Agrio after leaving the jungle (a rather misable town, except for the ecology park).  However, when we first arrived in Lago Agrio, we had to check with Tame to make sure that we were indeed scheduled on the next possible return flight.  We were, but this checking meant that the lodge transfer bus had to wait 15 minutes for us.  We ended up apologising to all the other guests, once we finally did board – great way to meet the people you’ll be spending the next 5 days with. . .

Anyway, settled on the bus, we began the 2-hour journey to the reserve, giving us plenty of time to meet our fellow travellers.  In particular, one was another Londoner, who was also taking a sabbatical.  She was spending her time traveling in Central and South America, while learning Spanish and doing some volunteer work.  We also met a young French couple from Paris who were in the country for a wedding in Quito two weeks later.  Instead of taking the 40-minute flight to Lago Agrio, they took the 7-hour bus and had been up pretty much the whole night. . .

Once we arrive at the reserve, we have a quick boxed lunch, meet our guide for the week, Ronald, and then boarded the canoe for the 2-hour boat journey to the actual lodge.  It should be said that there’s 11 of us in our group, so it’s a pretty big canoe (and it has a motor).  This journey was our first guided tour and we saw a big one within an hour – an anaconda!  It was sleeping on a termite nest (odd) and all coiled up.  Jen was hoping for a photo of the head, but we didn’t get too close to see (rightly so).

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During this journey, we also saw tons of birds and monkeys – all of which had to be pointed out to us by Ronald.  Our urban eyes weren’t used to spotting things yet. . .

Once we get to camp, we settle in and Ronald outlines the agenda and the house rules (for instance, we could only use the soap and shampoo provided, as all regular cosmetics would damage the fragile ecosystem).  And of particular note – there is no internet or phone access.  Now is the time for Erwan to get stressed – 5 days without whatsapp!  As you can see, we survived, however it was our longest time without wifi since it became ubiquitous (103 hours!!!).  After the first day, Jen kind of enjoyed the peace, however it was strange to not be able to immediately look something up when in conversation, as we are all now used to.

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Also of note, the lodge runs entirely on solar power.  There were no electrical sockets in the cabins and instead, there was a “charging area” in the large communal cabin, which also housed the dining area, the bar, and the hammock loft.  Due to the amount of charging points (and actual electricity), the lodge requested that people be mindful of others and not charge high power items (hair dryers and irons – who brings an iron to the jungle?) and to limit the items that you charge.  Another panic attack for Erwan!  How would he charge all his gadgets?!  Fortunately, we switched everything to airplane mode to save power and we have our own handy solar power pack – did the trick nicely. . .

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Anyway, after settling in, we were off on our second tour – an evening swim in the local lake, Laguna Grande, and then a night ‘hunt’ for caymans (like alligators).  Yay!  A swim!  On the very first day, Jen will achieve her goal and get to swim in Amazonian waters!  And at sunset!  It was stunning!

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However Erwan can’t tread water very well, so in several of our selfies, it looks like he’s drowning. . .

Oh, and we also got to test out the life straw – it works a treat – or at least Jen didn’t get sick, yet. . .

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After sunset, we got back in the canoe and headed out to look for caymans, which you do by noticing the reflection of their eyes when you shine a flashlight.  The thing is, once you spot one, by the time you get over to the spot, you maybe see a bit of its head before it goes underwater, where it might stay for up to 30 minutes.  Thus, sadly, Jen got no good photos of a cayman the entire trip (despite seeing quite a few).  The shining of the flashlights also makes you notice how many bugs are along the river – a lot!

Back at the lodge, we all ate dinner (by the way, they had good veggie options for Jen) and then were left for ‘free time’.  We headed to the dock with the fellow Londoner to watch the stars – wow, just wow!  There were so many!  Our fellow traveller also had an app that when you hold it up to the sky actually tells you the constellations/planets/stars that you’re looking at – Awesome!  As urban folk, we were stunned.

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So, to sum up day one – made it to rainforest, saw an anaconda, swam in Amazonian waters, and had a stunning star show – Jen was happy, really, really happy.

Day two!  After a very large breakfast (Jamu Lodge definitely fed us well), we headed out on the next tour – a walking medicinal tour, where we learned all about the various plants and trees in the rainforest and what some of them can be used for.  We drank milk of magnesia straight from the tree and saw a tree where the sap can be used to paralyse one’s enemies.  Oh, and there’s also a tree, where when you break off a branch, the sap on the top can be lit and used as a torch.

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Oh, we almost forgot!  When boating to the location for the walking tour, we saw a pink dolphin!  It was extremely briefly, but Jen managed this one shot – see that pink smudge to the right in the water?  That’s him going back under water.  We will print this photo out, circle the dolphin, add an arrow to it and pass it to our friends, just like Jen’s mom does with her whale watching photos. . .

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After the walk, we had another boat ride back to the lodge – only this time we had to paddle.  Sounds great, however it only really works if everyone in the boat paddles.  Instead about half did not (there were two older couples that didn’t really do much) and thus, those that were paddling (us) were pushing a lot of dead weight.  It seemed to take forever to get back to the lodge.  On the upside, during this time, Erwan gained a pet butterfly that stayed on his hand for ages (even while paddling).

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Back for lunch, everyone was exhausted, so there was very little talking and afterwards we all went for naps in the heat of the day.

In the evening, we headed back to the lagoon, but this time to the side of it that is known as the ‘flooded forest’.

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There we found the tree that you make henna from and thus made some homemade tattoos. . .

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We also found this one bird that has the best camouflage ever – can you see him?

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Following the lagoon, we went for a night hike ‘hunting’ insects and other creepy crawlies.  Suddenly, Erwan got his jungle eyes.  He was one of the best at spotting things.  And we saw tons, from scorpions, to beetles, to all sorts of spiders.

On that last note, the night before, we saw that there was a tarantula family living in a tree near our cabin.  We saw them every night – ah, neighbours.

After the insect night hike, the finds continued back at the lodge – just before dinner, we found a snake on one of the camp’s raised walkways.

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Onto day three!  And it was a marathon one!  We started with a 6am birdwatching hike.  Plenty of birds, however oddly the highlight was seeing an anteater – the only one we saw the entire trip.

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After birdwatching, we head back to camp for another large (but quick) breakfast and then head out to spend a day in the local indigenous village, which is about an hour boat ride away.

Once we arrive in the village, we meet a few of the locals and get a brief description of the area.  In particular, we were shown all their various fruit and chilli trees and get to try them out.  One of them even provides the traditional face paint for the tribe. . .

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Outside of the village we also get to visit one of the oldest trees in the world.

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After our brief tour, we get down to business – our goal was to learn how to make the local yucca tortilla.  The first task was to harvest the actual yucca, which looks like a medium sized bush, but then once you pull up the roots, you get the large, yam-like yucca.

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Next step, we had to peel the yucca, and then we take it back to the village kitchen for grating.  We all had a go at grating it, but the local women, put us to shame.  After grating it, the shredded yucca has to be drained of water in this woven hammock, wench type manner.  After this process, the shredded yucca looked and felt like shredded coconut.

All of this was then spread on a flat, round plate and heated to make the tortilla. . .

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We ate it served with jam (for Jen the vegetarian) or more interestingly, a local salsa, which includes fish.

After lunch, we have free time to wander around the village for a bit.  We found the ‘pub’ – basically it was a shack that had a tienda sign and some advertisements for beer.  Sadly, it wasn’t opened, but the hammock was still out.

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Even though Erwan thought Jen was spending too much time in it. . .

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We then head upstream to meet the local shaman.  Shaman’s huts are traditionally located outside the village so that they can do their thing and properly treat any patients.  The shaman, tells us about his profession and his studies and then lets us taste ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drink – it was horribly bitter – not sure we’re fans.  Following the ayahusaca, he performs a ritual on Jen to cleanse her mental state.

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And Erwan learns how to use a blow gun.  He was much better than Jen, but not as good as the fellow Frenchman who could hit the target – even when challenged to do so with one hand!

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It starts to rain, so we head back.  In the process, we decide to take a poncho selfie, but got photo-bombed!  Best selfie ever!

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Back at camp, we only have a quick 30 minute ‘settling’ before we’re on our next adventure.  Unfortunately, it’s cloudy and raining, so sunset isn’t great, but we head out for another ‘cayman hunting’ tour.  Pretty much the same outcome as last time – they duck for cover before Jen can get a shot.  However, from the bubbles, we could tell that after ducking, one swam directly under our boat and circled around for a bit. . .

At dinner, we say bye to the French couple as they have to leave at some ungodly hour the next morning (in fact that’s why we did the bird watching tour this morning – it’s normally on the 4th day and thus, it allowed them to join).  As it’s the last night in camp for everybody in our group except us, we stay in the bar area having drinks and discussing everything we’ve seen as well as everyone’s future and past travels.

Day 4 and it’s solo time!  We say goodbye to everyone else from our group at breakfast and now it’s just the two of us!  It was great to meet the others, but we must admit we loved our day of just us with Ronald – a private jungle tour!

So, we go out for another paddle journey.  This time it was grand.  There were only the three of us in the boat, thus it was much lighter, but more importantly, all of us were paddling!  Because we didn’t have the noise of the motor or all the other people, we also saw so many more animals – a whole group of monkeys jumping between trees.

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Our best views of a sloth (they hang like a hammock, so sort of look like a blob).

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Not to mention way more birds, including some awesome macaws.

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And even some creepy crawlies in our boat!

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The goal of the paddle trip was to make it to one of the smaller lakes via a really tiny river.  The thing is, a tree was blocking the way.  We tried to cross over it, but as our boat was still the big one used for the bigger group, it wasn’t having it.  We turned around the continued our exploration elsewhere. . .

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Two other interesting tidbits from this tour:

  1. Erwan tracked it on runkeeper
  2. Erwan got shit on by a monkey

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After a private lunch, which was a little bit awkward since it was us and Ronald, we had a bit of down time before heading out for another swim (the last one!) and a night tour.  Oh no – our final sunset!

During the swim, Jen also had a homemade Amonzonian face scrub.

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The main thing from our final night tour is that we saw piranha (interestingly when trying to find where a cayman had gone).

During our final dinner (again, just the two of us with Ronald), we learned that Ronald is childhood friends with Antonio Valencia, the Manchester United defender (turns out he’s from Lago Agrio).  Interestingly, Ronald said that Antonio’s older brother was the better footballer, but he “liked beer too much”.  We also learned that only a few months prior to our stay, the Cuyabeno hosted the next series of the reality show, “Naked and Afraid”.  The tv crew stayed at Jamu Lodge and Ronald had to brief the contestants for the show before they got sent out (what to avoid, what not to eat, etc).  He was filmed while doing this, but was unsure if he’ll appear in the series.  We knew little about the show, so Ronald filled us in – we were particularly surprised that the contestants do it just for fun (Jen was sure there was a cash prize or something).

Sadly, that was our last night in the jungle (sad face).  The next day, after breakfast, we headed back to Lago Agrio.  We had one last boat tour back to the entrance of the reserve and then repeated the same 2-hour bus journey to town.

On the bus journey, back, it all felt like a bit of a dream.  We had seen and done so much in such a short amount of time and everything was beginning to blur together.  Great memories for a lifetime and we were gutted to leave.  However, back in town, Erwan was at least able to get back on whatsapp – he had 500 missed messages. . .

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