May 31, 2014 GMT
Lasso (Ecuador) to Quito and Cuyabeno

It is a quiet Sunday morning in Lasso, we awake to very overcast conditions, have a hearty breakfast, pack up, don the wet weather gear and are on the road to Quito by 9.00 am.

We get only 10 km up the road before the phone tells us we have no satellite reception and decides it doesn't want to navigate us into Quito. We pull over while Skill makes a few adjustments and after a few tense minutes, the problem seems to resolve itself and we are under way, albeit in the rain.

The ride into Quito is totally amazing, absolutely NO traffic, it is like a ghost town. After only one wrong turn we arrive at Casa Helbling (which is to become our home for more than two weeks) where we easily park in the small garage area. The staff are so accommodating. They give us a tour of the hostel, a map of Quito and explain the ins and outs of the hostel and the city. Our room is small but very comfortable. As luck would have it there is a good Chinese restaurant (Chifa) next door so we venture out for an early lunch.

Casa Helbling Dining Area

One of our rooms at Casa Helbling

In the afternoon Skill goes for a walk to Freedom Motorcycles (a motorcycle rental and tour business) which is just around the corner. He gets chatting with the guys there and tells them our GPS woes. They instantly tell him that they can order one for us (at wholesale cost), they also tell him that the best mechanic in town is Diego who has his workshop just across the road. Skill returns to the hostel buoyed by his visit to Freedom Motorcycles, he has ordered a new GPS and he is also sporting 2 new T Shirts.

The next five days are a whirlwind of trying to track down a Galapagos boat tour, so many decisions to make, firstly which travel agent do you use, then what class of boat, which sort of boat, which itinerary, how many days???? After visiting 10 or so different agencies we have information overload, our brains are about to explode but in the end we decide we will have to take a dodgy boat as our budget is not going to stretch any further, we want an 8 day cruise with an itinerary in the Southern Islands including Isla Lobos where we can see the Red footed booby. Having made our decision we go back to the travel agent and get her to book our cruise. The following day she replies via email to say the boat is full and we will have to wait two weeks for the same itinerary. Hmmm what to do??? While we ponder over this problem Skill has booked the bike in with Diego at Mariscal Motos, the poor old bike is overdue for a good service, we need to get the proper seals installed on the radiator plus find where the exhaust leak is plus a few other bits and pieces. Diego is very helpful and the guys from Freedom Motorcycles help with translation.

It is also during this time that we meet Gail, a fellow motorcycle traveller and HU Memeber. One evening at the hostel we share a late night, many bottles of beer, a famous Casa Helbling meze platter and a great many laughs. Gail has been on the road for a year, after retiring from the US Navy. He plans to travel until he gets tired of it. He was great company and we thank him for his “going North” information.

A few beers with Gail at Casa Helbling

After a few nights of contemplation we decide we will book onto our chosen boat in two weeks time and pay our deposit. No turning back now!!!!! The next problem is how do we get enough money out to pay for the cruise; to pay by credit card you get charged a whopping 12% and you can only get out a maximum of $600 US per day. So every day for the next several days it is off to the automatic teller.

On Friday we head out to Freedom Motorcycles and while we are there our new GPS arrives. After a long chat with the guys we head across the road to see Diego who is having a few problems sourcing some of the service parts and there is the May Day holiday as well so the bike probably won't be ready until later next week. It is at this point we ask him to also install the wiring for the new GPS.

We return to the hostal late in the day and get chatting to Klaus (the hostel owner) about our dilemma. What should we do for the next week while we wait for the bike? After a quick chat and on his recommendation we make a snap decision to book a tour to Cuyabeno Reserve. Within 10 minutes we are booked into the Siona Lodge for a 5 day jungle tour. While we are just finishing off our booking and organising a return flight with Klaus another couple Michel and Iona (pronounced Joanna) from Montreal also get a rush of blood and decide they will book the same tour. They are a lovely couple and we are looking forward to having some travelling companions.

We had never intended to do a jungle tour mainly because of my terrible anxiety. What am I afraid of you may ask? Could it be the FARK rebels who sometimes hold up tourists in this area, or perhaps the wild vigilante town of Lago Agrio, or the dreaded Malaria carrying mosquitoes, or perhaps the flesh eating piranha, or maybe the caymans (alligators). No, none of these things even rate a mention. It is my terrible fear of, and allergic reactions to the dreaded sandflies, beechos, no-see-ums or whatever you care to call them, I loathe them.

What one little sandfly bite does to Lan

So to counteract this problem the following day I go out and buy a couple of long sleeved cotton shirts, a giant can of fly spray and 3 bottles of bug spray containing enough DEET to cause me serious side effects, a quick side trip to the local farmacia for a huge box of antihistamines and I am set. We also buy yet another small cheap carry bag. It is then back to the hostel to sort through our gear, pack our bags and get stuff into storage. Skill goes to see Diego telling him he can have the bike all next week, we will pick it up next Saturday. That evening we have a quiet beer with Iona and Michel, they are such good company and we chat easily about our respective homelands and our guiding passion, TRAVEL.

Next day it is up and at em early, we have breakfast in the hostal's restaurant, check with our receptionist about which bus station we need to go to (hmmm in hindsight a mistake), then walk down the street to catch a taxi. Iona speaks fluent Spanish so she negotiates and we are off . We are five minutes into our journey when Iona asks Michel if he has the passports to which he replies “NO” so we do a quick detour back to the hostel and then we are off again. We arrive at the bus station only to find that this is not the bus station we need so it is back into another cab and a 45 minute ride to the another bus station. Lucky cabs are cheap in Quito.

Finally we book onto our Lago Agrio bound bus and set off at 10.00 am. We don't get far down the road when my motorcycle addicted travelling companion starts complaining about the bus. It is too hot, there is not enough air, the kid behind me is kicking the seat, he is driving like a madman, the litany of complaints is unending. Skill has never been a good bus traveller!!!! Having said that it was a very long, windy seven hour bus journey, with only one stop for lunch. We indulged in some local barbecued chicken and potato on a skewer, which was great and returned to the bus feeling less ill. The next part of the journey was even faster and twistier than the first, many of the locals turned delicate shades of green and came to the front of the bus to ask the conductor for little black plastic bags. Hmmmm. By the time we get to Lago Agrio all four of us are pleased to get out.

Now everything you read about Lago Agrio tells you how dangerous and ugly it is. To the four of us it just looked like any other dodgy South American town, in fact it was a darn sight better than many we have visited. We opted for the Hotel Araza, a more upmarket hotel than the Hotel d'Mario where we were to join the tour in the morning. Our reason for doing this was because of the reviews we had read, normally we take trip adviser with a grain of salt but we could not find one positive review anywhere on any website. In the end this was a wise decision as the rest of our tour group who either stayed or ate at the aforementioned hotel became quite ill while on our tour.

From the bus station it was a quick 5 minute taxi ride where we easily checked in, showered, cooled down in luxurious air conditioning, I then covered myself in Deet, before joining Iona and Michel for a few beers. A sandwich dinner and an early night after I had used a third of a can of fly spray annihilating any sand flies which may or may not have been in our room.

Next morning we had a big breakfast in our bullet ridden plate glass dining room. Michele said he had chosen this particular table in front of a bullet hole with the theory lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place. After breakfast we pack up, I slather myself in yet more Deet and we stroll down the bustling but friendly main street to meet our tour group. From the word go it was obvious we were with a nice group of people and our guide Jacob, was going to be a friendly, knowledgeable and communicative soul.

Michel And Iona on the bus ride to Puerto Bolivar

It was then a 2 hour bus ride to Puerto Bolivar where we had a quick lunch before getting into our canoe and heading downstream for two hours. It was a fantastic ride with Jacob and Benisio (our canoe driver although he was almost another guide) pointing out all manner of birds, monkeys and even a baby anaconda. These two guys were amazing, their knowledge and passion for Cuyabeno was infectious, they could spot animals that were completely invisible to we mere mortals.

Skill gets ready for our canoe trip

On the Cuyabeno River

Jacob our wonderful guide

Locals call this the Stinky Bird

Snake Bird

Capuchin Monkey

Baby Anaconda

After two hours of travelling up the Cuyabeno River we arrive at Laguna Grande, it is a stunning expanse of tea coloured freshwater. To add to it's beauty are the trees which seem to rise up like monsters from the murky depths. Siona Lodge is one of only two lodges located on the Lake (other lodges are located on the rivers) and we arrive at our little jetty to the sound of howler monkeys in the distance.

Laguna Grande

Howler monkeys are always at the top of the highest trees

Siona Lodge

After a briefing about the lodge, we are assigned to our lovely little huts complete with a four poster bed and mosquito net and also a veranda and hammock. We settle in and explore our surroundings before heading out for a sunset canoe ride and swim.


Sunset on Laguna Grande

Sunset on Laguna Grande

Swimming in Laguna Grande, better not to think about piranahs or cayman or anacondas.

On our return we settle down to a few beers in the dining room before a delicious dinner and then a night walk through the jungle. These are the creatures we discover.


Amazonian Bull frog

After a serious bug spraying of our room we retire to bed listening to the amazing sounds of the jungle. Another pinch myself, I don't believe I'm here moment.

We awake to clear skies, a sumptuous breakfast before donning our unbecoming wellies and it is off in the canoe to the other side of the Lake where we go on a three hour walk through the jungle. Even the uncomfortable wellies and the oppressive humidity can't take the edge of the awe and excitement of seeing all manner of animals and birdlife. At one point we come across the remains of a sloth, Jacob is particularly excited about this and later returns with Benisio who apparently determines it was a Jaguar that killed the sloth.

“A Nice Walk in the Jungle” (For my teacher friends, can you remember what happened in this story, I don't want to be last in the line)

Blue and Gold Macaus

Monk Saki Monkey

Jacob finds the remains of a sloth

Camouflaged frog

Leaf Cutter ants are everywhere

We return to the lodge for lunch and a siesta. All morning the humidity has been building and as we lay down to rest we can hear the rumbling of thunder which gets louder and louder until the storm is right above us, it rains really heavily for the next two hours.

As we emerge from our cabins for our next excursion the rain has abated and we head out in the canoe looking for the elusive pink dolphins. Fortunately for us they don't prove to be that elusive and we see quite a few. They are very shy creatures so no close up photos. Being out on the lake and rivers watching the passing parade of dolphins and animals is just wonderful, it is so peaceful and we just drift along occasionally turning the motor on to navigate further up stream. After a blissful couple of hours we return to the lodge for a few beers in the dining room before another amazing dinner.

Amazon Pink River Dolphin - trust us it really is....

Dinner is a happy and talkative affair and each day we learn a little more about our wonderful young guide. While highly knowledgeable about the wildlife of this region he also speaks fluent Spanish, Quechua, English, French and also a little German. He is also learning two native languages. A highly intelligent young man. I ask the obvious question “How does a boy from a remote Amazonian village become a guide and learn countless languages”. He laughingly tells us it was a mistake.

Apparently his brother came home from school for holidays and when he had to return, Jacob at the age of ten went with him to keep him company on the long trek through the jungle and apparently didn't come home. He stayed on at the school where he went from strength to strength and eventually did the studies to become a guide, however while he is passionate about the Amazon, it is languages that he really loves and studies them every chance he gets. He also explains quite succinctly that he is now caught between two cultures. The Western culture with all its modcons and his traditional village culture. He freely admits that if he was still living in his village he would be married with 4 kids and maybe two wives he tells us with a big grin and a wink. He is a delightful young man.

After dinner we are back into the canoe for a night time ride on the Lake, our eagle eyed guides spot all manner of nocturnal creatures.

Amazon River Boa

On our return to the lodge we join another group of travellers and are entertained by their guide who plays the guitar and pan pipes. It is a wonderful evening, later on I go to sleep listening to Simon and Garfunkles Sounds of Silence on the pan pipes. I am in heaven. That night we have another big storm and a huge down pour, it rains very heavily for most of the night. Surprisingly our palm thatched hut is quite waterproof, there is only one little puddle on the floor in the morning.

We are entertained with Guitar and Pan Pipes played at same time.

By now I have realised that there are no sandflies at the Lodge and Skill no longer has to endure my manic room fumigation, besides the rooms are screened and we have a mozzie net. I am sure he breathes a clean-air sigh of relief. Actually Jacob explains that the tannin water of the Lake is too acidic for mosquitoes to breed and for some reason sandflies are also rare.

The following day we take a canoe ride downstream to a Siona Indian community, on the way we spot lots of different wildlife including more pink dolphins, some noisy night monkeys and the sacred and esteemed Harpy Eagles, the boys (our guides) are in seventh heaven.

Noisy night monkey

Our guides and all the local indigenous people are in awe of the almost legendary Harpy Eagle

Two toed sloth

Green Macaw

Snake bird drying itself in the sun

Arriving at the village we dispense with footwear leaving them in the boat and don our gumboots. The walk around the village is interesting, we not only get to see the daily life of the locals but also all manner of insect and frog life in the forest.


Village life

One of many species of Poison dart frog with tadpoles carried on its back.

We are then met by a local woman who welcomes us to the village and shows us how the traditional casabe (yucca bread) is made.


Harvesting the Yukka root


Grating the root and sqeezing the water out of the pulp

Sifting the dry Yukka flour

Cooking the flat bread on a clay pan

The bread is delicious and we have a fantastic picnic lunch before the Village shaman arrives to explain his role in village life. Trying to explain this sounds incredibly tacky like we were some wide eyed tourists invasively peering into their lives, but to be honest this wasn't the case, they seemed to enjoy our company and we definitely enjoyed theirs, especially the shaman who was an absolute hoot. Of course there are also financial benefits for the village. Impressively they have a reasonably equipped school, generators and of course the obligatory satellite televisions, however they still cling fiercely to the remainders of their traditional way of life.

Village Shaman

Village Shaman demonstrating part of a healing ceremony

On our return to the canoe I discover my footwear is missing, hmmm I knew I shouldn't have left my blingy thongs (Austalian for flip flops) behind, after some consternation with villagers running an all directions, I decide that maybe somebody needs them more than me and tell Jacob “we should forget them and return to the Lodge”. Jacob is visibly disturbed by the turn of events and apologises profusely saying it has never happened before.

We enjoy the 2 hour ride back to the Lodge and are welcomed back by our resident cayman who is lolling in the shallows near the jetty.

Our resident cayman

Our resident cayman

That evening we enjoy quite a few beers with Michele and Iona taking in our beautiful surroundings and discussing the days events.

Blissful surroundings

Blissful surroundings

Just before dinner Jacob returns from taking another small group out on the Lake, he has my thongs carefully wrapped in a plastic bag. Apparently one of the small kids from the village had picked them up out of the boat and given them to another girl who in turn handed them in to the elders. They then put them in a canoe and travelled 2 hours to return them. AMAZING!!!!!!!

The following day all of our group (except for we four) are leaving to return to Lago Agrio, we take the obligatory family photo before we go off paddling with Jacob for the morning.

Our group including our wonderful guide and lodge staff

We paddle quietly around the Lake for a couple of hours and get out to trek to the Equator Monument which is really just behind the Lodge.

Paddling on the Lake

At the Equator

Later in the afternoon we just chill back and finally it is back out onto the Lake to spot more pink dolphins. What a day.

Day five in the jungle and it is time for us to leave, Bernisio takes us the 2 hours back to Puerto Bolivar but not before pointing out more monkeys, bird life and another beautiful baby anaconda.

In the Canoe leaving Cuyabeno

Back at Puerto Bolivar it is time for a quick lunch, then a 2 hour bus journey to Lago Agrio airport, a 3 hour wait, a 35 minute plane tip to Quito before a 90 minute taxi ride in Quito Friday night peak hour traffic. We arrive back at Casa Helbling safe and sound. A long hot shower and a delicious home delivered pizza. What a great 5 days, great company, great scenery, great experience. I am now a jungle convert.

Posted by John Skillington at May 31, 2014 07:43 PM GMT

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