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by Irene Butler
For Travel Writers' Tales

Standing at the front of the canoe, our guide Miguel watches for movement along the Cuyabeno River. He points in turn at red-howler monkeys in tree-tops, a Yellow Toucan, and a pair of Harp Eagles! Most unusual is the prehistoric-looking Hoatzin (a.k.a. stinky turkey); its foul odour the result of a digestive systems wherein vegetable matter ferments in its crop.

Miguel on wildlife alert

My husband Rick and I are deep in the Amazon Basin, known locally as Amazonia. "Thirty million years ago," says Miguel, "this whole area was under the ocean, hence its golden clay base is devoid of nutrients. The dense jungle vegetation is sustained by this black water that's comprised of decayed plant matter collected along the way from the Andes the source of which is from where the Basin's waterways flow into the Amazon River.

Jamu Lodge

Arriving at Jamu Lodge, our home for three nights, we settle into a thatched roofed hut with walls open to the elements from chest level up. We look appreciatively at the mosquito net draping our bed. A lone electric light is to be used sparingly. Jamu is one of eleven Eco lodges along the Cuyabeno.

"A" for anaconda tops my wildlife sighting list, specifically the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). These kings and queens of the jungle swim with ease in slow-moving rivers, often slithering up onto tree branches to sun themselves. The females are larger - reaching up to 9m (30ft) in length, 227kg (500lbs) in weight, with girths of 30cm (12in)! I mention my wish to Miguel, who says, "We can only hope."

Lagoon swim at sunset

After a fine supper, we canoe with fellow adventurers to Laguna Grande for a glorious sunset (and cooling) swim - trusting in Miguel's words: "You are of no interest to the Piranha, their sharp teeth have evolved to crack open hard seeds". With the fall of darkness the stars glitter like a city in the sky.

Jungle trek

The next morning, fitted with hefty rubber boots, it's off for a jungle trek. As we maneuver through tangles of dense growth, Miguel warns, "Watch what you touch." He taps a tree trunk and a frenzy of teeny ants appears. "These are called stripper ants, as if they transfer to your body, you'll be ripping your clothes off." He commences to share facts about Nature's Pharmacy. Scraping bark off a camphor tree releases a familiar medicinal scent. A cut into another tree draws red sap - Sangre de dragon (Dragon Blood); used for healing internal infections and external wounds. It is said 70% of medicines come from the Amazon rainforest.

We later canoe to a river section where giant-sized trees sprout from the water - the perfect sunning place for snakes! We admire a boa constrictor twisting his lengthy body on a branch above our heads, sensing us with its flicking tongue. We slowly move around more trees; my fingers are crossed. But, alas, no anaconda.

A night trek brings us a face-to-face encounter with the jungle's most lively time, when most creatures hunt and feed. A concert of sounds resonates - cicadas, crickets, frogs, toads and bats emit all manner of buzzing, tapping, croaking, and whirring. The energy is palpable! With flashlights we gingerly walk along snapping pictures (without flash) of scorpions, tarantulas, communal spiders in humungous webs.

Shaman ritual

The following day we travel further down the river to visit a Shaman of the Siona (one of five indigenous peoples). We are greeted by a smallish man with necklaces of shells and jaguar teeth, his cap the vivid colours of bird feathers. A bottle of Ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen, is passed around for us to inspect - molasses coloured and putrid! The Shaman tells how the first response to drinking it is violent vomiting, a cleansing necessary to link the spiritual and physical worlds in order to aide those who ask for his help in ridding their bodies of evil forces.

But for today the Shaman will demonstrate a simple ritual to enhance good vibrations. He chooses Oliver from our group of ten, whose face pales as the Shaman chants and swirls tobacco leaves around his head. You see, earlier Oliver confessed, "I told a few Shaman jokes today, and do you think he'll know?" ...we can't be sure.


On our canoe journey back out of the Amazon Basin, we see passengers in another canoe staring into the edging of thick foliage. Their driver whispers, "Anaconda". My heart drums as my eyes fall on a green and yellowish pattern! Speculations are this young jungle queen is over 2m (6.5ft) long! I beam at Rick, "Now, is this not an A+ ending!"


More Information: Cuyabeno Nature Reserve

Where to Stay: Jamu Lodge

Getting to Jamu Lodge: Fly from Ecuador's capital city, Quito to Lago Agrio. Jamu Lodge guide is at the airport for 2-hour bus trip to the entrance to Cuyabeno National Reserve. Transfer to a motorized canoe on Cuyabeno River for 2-hour journey to Jamu Lodge.

PHOTOS by Rick Butler

1. Miguel on wildlife alert
2. Jamu Lodge
3. Lagoon swim at sunset
4. Jungle trek
5. Shaman ritual
6. Anaconda!

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