Welcome to the Jungle – Amazon Part 1

Guns N’ Roses – Welcome to the Jungle

So our friend (and former couch surfing guest) Morgan called us out of the blue, and asked if we’d be interested in joining her on a five day trip to the Amazon rainforest. Morgan is from the U.S., but is currently working in Ecuador as a Galapagos tour guide. (I know, right?!) We always wanted to see the jungle, someone else was willing to plan it for us, and the price was right (aka super cheap), so we were ready for a spur-of-the-moment trip. Morgan’s friend and coworker, Kelsey, was visiting Cuenca, and joined us as well. We met Kelsey and caught an overnight bus for the nine hour ride to Quito where Morgan was staying.

Once we arrived in Quito, we had a day to kill before our second overnight bus ride to El Oriente – Ecuador’s Amazon region. We had never been to Quito (other than the airport), and so we decided to do a little sightseeing. Morgan was staying in a very touristy area, so after securing our bus tickets for that night, we headed over to Old Town, stopping along the way for an almuerzo (see question #9 here). Quito’s colonial “Old Town” is a UNESCO heritage site, and is one of the largest in South America.

Our first real sightseeing stop was Quito’s basilica. It looked a lot like those we have seen in Paris and Prague, most notably Notre Dame. One thing I find totally charming about Latin America is the unselfconscious tackiness of religious items. This basilica did not disappoint. There was a giant crucifix lit from behind in green neon, and above the pulpit was a portrait of Jesus in a giant silver frame onto which was shining alternating red and blue spotlights reminding me of Las Vegas. It was compensated for by the cool gargoyles adorning the outside.

After a break in the colonial park we found ourselves at the La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. This incredible church is completely adorned inside in gold leaf. We weren’t allowed to take any photos since a mass was about to start, but there are a couple of good photos on Wikipedia. It was quite impressive to say the least. We’ve seen a lot of places of worship throughout our travels, and many churches seem to fit into one of just a few categories when it comes to the way they look inside (beautiful though they may be), but this one was a total standout.

A few blocks away, outside the Monastary of St. Francis we found a craft market where we wandered the stalls eating frozen, chocolate-covered bananas. There was music, lots of good food to eat, and many handmade items. I particularly liked the guy who was making customized string bracelets with the buyer’s name stitched into them, in a matter of minutes.

But hey, this post is about the jungle, right? So let’s get to it…
Our second bus in as many days took us overnight to the town of Lago Agrio (pronounced: “La-GWAH-ri-o) near the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin. We arrived (dead asleep) at 6:00 am in a torrential downpour, but by the time we met our tour representative, the rain had largely stopped. A brief 90 minute van ride found us at the Cuyabeno River where we would take a canoe to our lodge. At first, I was disappointed to learn that it was a motorized canoe, and that we wouldn’t be paddling, but when they told us it was two hours downriver to the lodge (with a motor!), I was okay not to be paddling. The canoe sat low in the water, and really made us feel like we were IN the jungle.

Video: Motoring Down the Cuyabeno

The two hours went by surprisingly fast. The Cuyabeno twists and turns through amazingly thick and lush jungle foliage. It felt like motoring through Jurassic Park. There were hanging vines and exotic flowers, and GIANT (6-8 inch) blue butterflies that simply would not hold still for a picture. We also saw Anhingas – also called snakebirds. These birds have long necks, and will swim in the river with just their necks out so they look like snakes. They can also dive under the water for two minutes at a time to look for food. Every now and then we’d look up in the trees to see squirrel monkeys jumping from branch to branch or black monkeys just sitting there curiously checking out the interlopers below.

Finally, we arrived at our destination – the Caiman Lodge. Caimans are the South American cousins to the Alligator, and were one of the animals we were hoping to see in the wild while in the Amazon. The accommodations were wonderfully jungle-y, and just what we expected. The rooms had bare wood floors and walls and the bed was surrounded by a mosquito net. (It was pretty. So pretty, in fact, that Stephanie wants a mosquito net around our bed at home now.) There was no electricity in the rooms. At night, the light came from a single candle encased in a plastic box so it couldn’t accidentally burn the place down. There was no hot water in the bathroom, but in the sticky, steamy jungle that can be a good thing. Best of all, there were plenty of hammocks to go around. The lodge had solar batteries, so there was enough power to run the kitchen (yay!) and to charge cameras and laptops in the mornings and evenings.

After meeting our local guide for the week, Elvis (no kidding!), the first order of business was to feed us. Lunch seemed a little small, but that turned out to be an anomaly. Every other meal was huge, and fresh, and so so tasty. We also met some of our fellow travelers. The lodge seemed to have a revolving door, and people came and went all the time, but during our stay we did make some new friends from around the world – Michael and Rochelle from Canada, Steven from Belgium, Jonas from Switzerland, Leticia from France and Alex and Marco from Germany. In fact, we seemed to be the only Americans there.

After lunch, a shower (very welcome after two nights of bus rides!) and a quick nap we took an afternoon boat ride to look for wildlife. The Cuyabeno River opens into a lagoon near our lodge, and it was here that we went to enjoy the sunset. Elvis invited us to go for a swim and we thought he was kidding. After he assured us that the caimans and piranhas kept to the banks, a few people did jump in. Alas we were suitless, or Stephanie would have been in the water in a heartbeat.

The final evening activity was caiman spotting. The way to find them is to shine a flashlight under the brush along the banks, and look for the yellow reflection from their eyes. We saw a few in the distance, but the only one we got close to on this first night was a juvenile.

The day was completely packed, and we were exhausted, but we had four more jungle-packed days to go. After some good conversation with fellow adventurers, we hit the sheets safe under our mosquito net.

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