Ahhhhh. We are sitting here in the fantastic Hotel Reina Isabel in Quito for the last few days of our trip, enjoying luxury and good wifi. After 12 hours of travel by canoe, small bus, then smaller bus through the Andes mountains yesterday, we need a day of peace and quiet, laying around doing nothing but writing posts and resting. This is just the place: Comfortable king sized bed with duvet, large open corner room on the 4th floor above the noise of the city, huge bathroom with large separate glass and tile rain shower and a real Jacuzzi tub, plenty of hot water to fill the tub, completely responsive staff who all speak English (wow!), a turkish sauna, and a breakfast that puts our country’s hotel ‘breakfast included’ places to shame. Now the number everyone wants to know: we paid $204 total for three nights here, including breakfast. We booked through Expedia and I’m pretty sure that’s how we got that price because the posted price is much, much more. If you book through the hotel website, it’s also more. We love this place. Can we live here now?
We’ve just spent 5 days in the Cuyabeno Wildlife preserve at the Bamboo Ecolodge. The term ‘ecolodge’ as used here means one step up from Gilligan’s hut. It’s completely off grid in the middle of the jungle. But I’m not complaining. It’s fantastic. This is the first of a few posts about our rainforest experience. I’m getting all of this written down in case anyone else wants to channel their inner Professor or Maryanne and travel here. Getting there is half the adventure.
There are 14 eco lodges along the rivers and lakes of the Cuyabeno Wildlife preserve. How did we choose Bamboo Ecolodge? I used the time honored method of going with the cheapest place we could find and liking the website, which is the internet equivalent of how I choose wine: by how much I like the label, all other things being equal. I know nothing about wine or ecolodges. My research showed that all of the lodges in the reserve offered exactly the same kinds of tours and activities: canoe rides on the jungle river, night walks in the jungle with flashlights looking for bugs and frogs, caimen lizard spotting at night, swimming in the lake with the piranhas, early morning bird watching, a visit with the local indigenous Siona community complete with Shaman viewing and manioc bread making, certified personal guides for your group. Same boats, same rivers, same animals, same Shaman and bread baking.
Here’s the rainforest experience in dollars: We paid $872 for a ‘matrimonial suite’ room and all inclusive tour of 4 nights and 5 days at this lodge. (Add another 50$ in tips to the guide, cook, housekeeper, and boat captain.) What we got for that money was the guide (Diego, The Great), a private room and bath that was separate from the other guest rooms and had walls that came up to the ceiling (unlike the other guest rooms which afford no sound privacy at all), all meals and fresh water to drink, electricity from 6pm-10pm, and private transportation back to our Quito hotel. Read my Trip Advisor review here. One of the more popular lodges, the Cuyabeno Lodge would have charged us $1100 for their deluxe room. I don’t know the status of their walls and whether they afford privacy between spaces. If you are ever in the position to do a rainforest tour here, do your shopping around and book directly with the lodge. The prices for lodges on websites such as Trip Advisor and Expedia would lead you to believe this kind of travel is not affordable. We feel like we got a good deal at our lodge and we had a very good guide. We also got lucky with our group. There were only 7 people in our group and they were all respectful and friendly. That was fortunate.
Getting to the Cuyabeno Wildlife preserve is an adventure in itself and the planning of this part of the trip enlightened me as to why people just go with tour groups. All the logistics of planning the connections can get very confusing and overwhelming. From Cuenca, we took a plane to Quito and stayed in the Quito Airport Suites Hotel for 39$, plus 16$ round trip to the airport. That’s a lot by Taxi standards here. You are paying for the convenience.
This place is owned by an American and is a fine place to spend a night if you have to be at the airport the next day. The cook will make lunch for you for a modest fee if you need it and the food is good. We have found that to be the case almost everywhere in Ecuador at the smaller hotels. The kitchen might be closed but if you are hungry they will cook for you. I would say the website makes this place look more upscale than it is, but we were happy enough with it and the owner is a nice guy who we enjoyed visiting with. There’s a great yard to sit in and read and watch birds and visit with the other guests. It’s located in the ‘town’ of Tababela, but in reality this is a very rural area and I thought our driver had made a mistake when he first pulled up to the motel. I’m kind of wondering why we were not offered the January special of free airport pickup, but it’s only 8$ and relieved a lot of stress.
From Quito we flew to Lago Agrio, the meeting place for the rainforest tour. Lago Agrio is an oil boomtown and driving through it we found we were glad to not be staying there. The lodge offered private transport from Quito to Lago Agrio, but we declined even though the price was right at 25$ per person for a 7 hour bus ride. The bus would be traveling through the mountains overnight and this did not sit well with me. The road between Quito and Lago Agrio is a narrow two lane highway that literally snakes its way up the mountains. As we found out on the way back during the daytime, it is a rough road with a lot of bouncing around. Unlike our mountain highways, there are no straight areas in the road for more than 30 seconds before you are doing another hairpin turn. By the way, the bus had pretty much no suspension.
On our way back we saw there are NUMEROUS areas where the road is washed out due to the heavy rainfall. The common repair is to add river rock and dirt and then drive over that. Vehicles need to take these areas very slowly.
Many places on the road have no guardrails and add to that the heavy truck and bus travel, all trying to pass one another on a blind curve. We have a friend who lost her beloved 16 year old daughter to a bus accident at night in Bolivia because the driver was tired and fell asleep at the wheel, plunging the bus off the side of the road. Recently Peru saw a bus accident in the mountains that killed 48 people. In addition, I knew that we would get no sleep by traveling overnight and I wanted to be well rested for our tour the following day. We paid more for peace of mind and a good night’s sleep and I know we made the correct choice.
At Lago Agrio we were met by a taxi arranged by the hostel we stayed outside of the town: Planta Azul. I’ve always wanted to see my name on a sign held by a driver at the luggage pick up at the airport. For 5$ I got my chance. “Ingrid – Planeta Azul” , the sign said. Damn it. Wrong name, right ride. We got in the car.
Planeta Azul is the meeting place for all of the eco lodges in the area. It’s right by the little suspension bridge you can see from the plane when you begin to land in Lago Agrio. Once more we had arranged to have a room with a private bath by asking specifically for such a room. Thank goodness because all the rooms are on the second floor and the bathrooms are downstairs. Traipsing down dark stairs in the rainforest in the middle of the night with only a flashlight for company? Nope. In order to book this room, we had to go directly with the manager of the hostel. Although the lodge is listed on Air Bnb, you cannot reserve a specific room that way. I contacted the ‘owner’ through that website and then I went directly through ‘Betty’ and paid her cash on arrival of 30$ for a room on the balcony of hammocks where we sat and watched Pygmy Marmosets and Black Mantled Tamarins all afternoon. It was pretty awesome, I have to say. This place also has a lovely swimming pool for guests. I made good use of that.
In the morning after breakfast several private vans showed up and all of the guests divided up according to their lodge destination. It would be a two hour bus ride to the Cuyabeno Reserve bridge where we met our canoe and had one final opportunity to purchase snacks, which we did, and for which we were glad many times. These ‘canoes’ are more like stretched out fiberglass pangas to us. They are very long and wide enough to be stable. The canoes are all owned by families of the indigenous people who live in the rainforest. The lodges are not allowed to own them. They rent canoes and drivers from the tribe, which allows the tribe to make money. It’s a nice system. Eco tourism is the life blood of the rainforest at this point. It protects the rainforest and also the people who live there.
True to the name ‘rainforest’ our first ride through the forest was in literally pouring rain. There’s a reason why the lodges give all guests heavy rain ponchos upon arrival at the bridge. Nothing makes me appreciate our hard dodger on Galapagos more than going 20 knots in stinging rain. I’ll leave you with some notes on the canoe ride written in my travel journal:
“I had some silly idea I would be able to take photos during the boat journey. Other people thought this as well. But on this day, I regretted not buying that expensive Nikon waterproof camera I looked at last year. My camera is NOT waterproof. I spent most of the canoe ride with it huddled underneath my heavy rain poncho like a hen sitting on a precious egg, hoping to keep it dry. Lesson number one: buy a waterproof camera if you are going to the rainforest.
We are kind of excited for this boat ride. The river runs fast through the rainforest. It’s narrow and muddy, and there are a lot of snags and fallen trees in the water. But that is nothing to our driver. He starts the Yamaha 20 hp twostroke with one strong pull and roars downstream. Whee! The boat jumps to life and the driver slaloms down the ribbon of brown snaking through the jungle, throwing bow wakes to the left and to the right. I look at Mike and yell that I’m waiting for him to hit a snag in the water because there are many of them. I have a cunning plan for getting to shore should he turn the boat over in his attempt to catch air with his hull. But apparently he knows this river really well. As we approach a likely snag, he puts her in idle and lifts the engine out of the water. We coast over it and roar on.
As it begins to rain even harder I am ducking my head to keep balls of water from slicing through my eyeballs. My glasses act as a windscreen, but I cannot see a thing. The water is warm enough to fog up the lenses. I pull the hood tight against my face to keep water from getting to my hearing aids. I’m already planning what to do differently on the ride back. Mike is blissfully sitting there without his rain poncho, soaking wet, gleefully bailing water out of the bottom of the boat with a large rubber boot, glad to be back on the water again. He grins like the primate he is. He has his waterproof camera. (Addendum: he would live to regret this life choice as his leather hiking boots have never dried out and his leather wallet grew a layer of fine, dusty mold. Neither did his clothing dry completely while we were there.)
During breaks in the deluge our guide raises his arm to signal the need to stop to view animals. We observe Spider Monkeys, Toucans, Tree Bats, some big Morpho butterflies. We are having the time of our lives. Who wouldn’t want to scream down a muddy river at 20 knots, swerving left and right to avoid snags, rain pouring in solid sheets from the sky? During one pitstop for animals thunder cracks directly over our heads. I practically leap from my seat I’m pretty sure I’ve never been that close to thunder. Our driver takes off, streaking down the river. Mike said he was trying to outrun the storm. I’m pretty sure he was just having fun.
After almost two hours, the river widens into a large lake and soon our driver is beaching the canoe onto the mud. It’s still pouring rain as we get our luggage and trudge the very muddy path, a swamp, really, up to the lodge. Mike and I had reserved the extremely fancy ‘Matrimonial Suite’, which means we have two beds and a bathroom all to ourselves. It’s awesome. We can’t wait to begin.”