Ecuador

Swinging monkeys and poisonous spiders in Cuyabeno, the Amazon

Drip, drip, drip, drip… The rainforest is named like that for obvious reasons, but the amount of rain banging down on us at this very moment is not just a tropical shower but an actual downpour. We try to hide in our ponchos as much as we can, but the rain seems to fall down from all directions and seeps through every opening it can find.

Our guide asked us if we were sure we wanted to venture out to the lagoon even with the rain. So really, if we would want to complain we would have only ourselves to blame. But even though we are soaking wet and there’s not a chance in the world that we will be seeying any kind of sunset tonight, we are not regretting our decision to leave the lodge.

The low hanging clouds and rain give the lagoon a mysterious feel. As raindrops wrinkle the water surface, we pass trees with trunks that are half hidden in the water, and see mangrove forest reach the horizon as far as the mist allows us to. The temperature of the water is agreeable and so my partner and a fellow tour group member jump in. I am tempted but decide not to follow, as there is just something about the fact that the waters are inhabited by alligators, snakes and piranhas, that I find less appealing. But, until night has fallen we do not see any animals other than birds.

When everyone is safe on board again and the skies have fully darkened, our guide turns on his bright torch light in search of the Amazon’s wildlife. As we sail past the riverbed of the lagoon he scans the roots of the mangrove trees with utter concentration. “Look, a caiman over there!” he exclaims while pointing down at the something in the dark water. We draw nearer to take a closer a look – and a photograph of course – but I first have to locate the animal we are supposed to be looking at. It is only when we are just a metre away from the young caiman that I see more of its body than just the reflection of its glistening eye. And that is precisely the moment it decides to dive under and swim away from us.

We continue the search for animals from the river, but the bundle of light is now directed some metres above the water, hoping to catch the reflecting eyes of animals hidden between the many leaves. After ten minutes or so our guide signals to the canoe driver to turn around. Every time this happens we all sit up straight, eager to see what his sharp eye has spotted this time. We lay still below a tree and then we see it as well, a boa constrictor that has wrapped itself around a branch.

Boa constrictor

As we make our way back to the lodge on the motorized canoe I am impressed once again by the animal spotting skills of the guide who points out an owl in the top of a tree, but I am perhaps even more impressed by the skills of our captain, who knows how to sail the curvy river in the pitch dark of the night.

The next morning we start exploring the jungle by foot. We make our way through a forest of trees with intricate and sometimes brightly coloured root systems, lianas, air plants, and muddy soil. We are surrounded by the sounds of birds and hear monkeys in the distance. I am happy to be wearing rubber boots as we wade through the river created by the rain that came pouring down earlier. I have to fight the urge to grab tree trunks for more balance as my feet sink deep in the mud. To find grip there would be a mistake with all the poisonous insects and fungi that call the bark and moss of trees their home, such as wood spiders, bullet ants and centipedes.

A mushroom that is not so much a danger to human beings but is all the more fatal for insects is the Zombie. A fascinating parasite that grows a mushroom from within an insect’s body, taking control over the insect and ultimately killing it.

Luckily, no one gets hurt during our walk, perhaps only mentally because of the lack of a zoom lens when the promising sounds of a group of monkeys is followed by us spotting them in the tree tops above us.

I turn my head to the sound of cracking tree branches and falling leaves, and see a brown woolly monkey swinging from one tree to the other. It is incredible to see the distance they can easily bridge at high pace. Watching this monkey business might even beat the ultimate jungle moment where we watched the smaller squirrel monkeys climbing and swinging between palm trees on our first day sailing in to the reserve. “Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh” “In the jungle, the mighty jungle…”


In the afternoon we set out to the lagoon again on the motorized canoe, but this time the skies are a bright white with a few spots of blue instead of threatening hues of grey. The water surface is wrinkle free and doubles as a mirror. The clouds above us are decorated by a golden lining cast on them by the perfectly sun. Birds fly around as they enjoy the last moments of daylight in the jungle. It is picture perfect.

A hoatzin spreads out its brown coloured wings on a tree branch. The feathers are however not the part of its body that receives most of my attention. The bird, better known as stinky turkey for its bad smell, has a remarkable head with a spikey hairdo. As if it has just escaped Jurassic Park.

Some minutes later we spot another bird with an unusual appearance. Its long, slim neck has inspired its name: snake bird. Above us, a couple of brightly coloured macaw parrots fly over and in the distance we hear the sound of howler monkeys.

As the day comes to an end the blue skies turn orange and pink. The sun now is a perfectly round orange light bulb on the horizon. We sail back to the big lagoon to witness one of the most magical sunsets any of us have ever seen. I pinch myself as I watch the sun near the horizon. I am so happy to see the beauty of a mildly clouded evening in the rainforest, although I know that the experience of yesterday evening matched the name ‘rainforest’ better.

When darkness sets in we put on our boots and headlights. It is time for the jungle activity I had feared most: a night walk. Being in the Amazon with poisonous animals feels riskier than going for a short night walk alone scanning for reflecting spider eyes close to camp during our Lost City trek in Colombia’s jungle.

Our guide proves to have extraordinary eyesight as he points out one poisonous spider after the other with some warnings in between. “Watch out or you will break the spider web”, “Be aware as this is a jumping spider that likes rubber boots”. They give me the creeps, especially the hairy tarantula with its deadly red haired rump. When we are almost about to embark the canoe again, our guide points out an animal in the grass. I am half disappointed and half relieved to see that it is not a snake that has come out to play but ‘just’ a toad. Again, I am surprised about the amazing camouflage that wildlife can have: even in the beam of a bright head light it takes effort to blow its cover as a rock.

Back at the lodge, we are greeted by a more brightly coloured fella. It croaks us good night as we try to hermetically close our mosquito net. We fall asleep with the sound of water drops hitting the reed roof and wake up to the exact same sound. Heading out of the reserve for two hours on the canoe is a soaking wet affair. But hey, we are still in the rainforest after all.

Say yes to a jungle adventure yourself: practical info for booking a Cuyabeno tour.

3 day or 4 day trip?

Most tour operators will advice you to book a 4 day trip as it will increase your chances of seeing wildlife and a sunset with clear skies. The additional activity on the extra day however is to visit an indigenous community. We chose a 3 day trip excluding such a visit as we were afraid that it would be too much of a tourist show. From what I have heard from other travellers they liked the activity of baking (and eating) Yuka bread with the community, but not so much the rest of the visit as it felt like a performance.

Which lodge should I book & what does it cost?

The river banks of the Cuyabeno Reserve are dotted with lodges that are all more or less the same and venture out to the lagoon and river on the same type of motorized canoe. Prices differ somewhat, but are all between $250 – $300 for a 3 or 4 day tour, depending on if you’re booking a bed in a dorm or want to sleep in a private room. Prices include meals and activities, although you have to pay an additional $5 when visiting an indigenous community as part of a 4 day trip.

The name lodge might evoke up visions of romantic wooden and reed houses on poles with a rain shower and romantic four poster bed. Well, then let me tell you the Cuyabeno Reserve does not offer such luxury. The huts are made of wood and reed, but the roof does not close off the walls so basically any animal than can fly or climb can enter. The mosquito net hanging over your bed is probably dirty with spots of insects that were killed by guests before you and the linen smells and feels like laundry that was left in the washing machine for too long because of the humidity of the air. It is all worth it though.

How to get there?

One day jungle tours to secondary rainforest are available from Banos, but if you’re in for the real thing – meaning primary forest thus Cuyabeno – you have to put a bit more effort in starting your trip. All tours start from Lago Agrio, a rather boring town where there’s nothing else to do than meet your tour operator. You can either fly in from Quito, take a direct (night) bus from Quito or take a (night) bus from Banos with a transfer in Coca. The latter option was our itinerary, and although there were people in our seats when we entered the bus (they did move) and the transfer was at 5 AM in the morning, it went quite well. There’s no need for you to search online or ask for timetables at the bus station as your tour operator will definitely help you out.

What to bring?

  • Insect repellent! – take it with you at all times as the mosquitos here are pertinacious.
  • Waterproof sun screen
  • Sun glasses
  • Head light
  • Refillable water bottle (the lodge will have a fresh water tank)
  • Bathing suit  
  • Power bank (as your lodge will most probably only have a power point in the common area)
  • Rain coat (although your lodge will also provide you with a poncho)
  • Some snacks

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