Cuyabeno Wild Life Reserve
The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve (Reserva de Producción Faunística Cuyabeno) is a 603,380 ha lowland tropical rainforest in the Amazon region of Ecuador with some of the highest biodiversity on earth. It is the only Amazon park close to the Andes with a dense network of beautiful lakes and navigable creeks.
After exploration in 1975 by a United Nations team, the Government of Ecuador declared about 150,000 ha of the Cuyabeno River watershed a protected area. Since the early eighties, the reserve became accessible by road and many settlers started invading the reserve. As a compensation to the area lost to these invasions, Ecuador extended the reserve to the current more than 600,000 ha, the second largest park in the country! After its extension, the park reaches all the way to the border with Peru where it joins with parks in Colombia and Peru, thus creating one of the largest park complexes in the Amazon region.
The new road not only created a threat, but also an opportunity. The highlight of the park, its network of lakes and navigable creeks could be reached from the capital in a matter of hours. Moreover, originally only Siona Indians were included in the area, but after the extension, also Sequoya and Cofan families saw parts of their traditional territories protected.
As part of an effort to take stock of this new opportunity and create alternative income for local communities, a group of conservation biologists started organizing eco-tours into the reserve since 1985. Lodging was originally facilitated in a small biological station, but after it had burnt down, Neotropic Turis was created to build a lodge to tend to a public that demanded more comfortable accommodations. After several years of dialogue and preparation, the Ecuadorian National Park Service granted a license to build the Cuyabeno Lodge in 1989 at the best location in the park: a high hill forming a peninsula on the Laguna Grande, approximately 2 hours from the bridge where the new road crosses the river.
As part of the initiative, Neotropic Turis organized training courses to train Indians to work with visitors as boatmen, naturalist guides, household staff, growing vegetables, etc. As a result, most adult members have become involved in the tourist industry. The biologists of Neotropic Turis also trained the first group of accredited guides in collaboration with the Park Service.
Tourism took off very slowly and it was not until the second half of the nineties before other lodges were being built, most of them about half an hour in motorized canoe, downstream from the Cuyabeno Laguna Grande.
The lakes and narrow rivers are the secret of wildlife visibility of Cuyabeno. Throughout the Amazon region, most national parks lack narrow rivers and can only be seen from very wide branches of the Amazon river and from trails through the jungle. But if you walk on land in the tropical rain forest, you don't see all that much. Looking up to the canopy, the contrast between the sky and the leaves is so intense, that the leaves almost look black and animals are so high up in the trees, that you can hardly distinguish them. When you are on a major branch of the Amazon River, you hardly feel you are in the tropical jungle because the shores are so far away. In Cuyabeno, on the other hand, the shores are so close on both sides that you really feel inside the jungle, while the narrow rivers still provide sufficient opening to see the trees with beautiful daylight lighting. In other words, in Cuyabeno you see both the forest and the trees! No other national park in the Amazon region from Venezuela to Bolivia offers this kind of landscape, jungle experience and wildlife visibility from the water! That is why the Cuyabeno is the best Amazon park in the world!
Flora and fauna
Few protected areas in the world have so many species of plants and animals. Its biodiversity includes 10 species of monkeys, and all large Amazon mammals are present, such as Tapirs, 2 species of deer, all Amazon cats, including Jaguars and Pumas, Capibaras, 2 species of Dolphins, Manatees, the Giant Otter, etc. The current number of registered bird species is now over 580 species and still rising. At the peak of the wet season, thousands of hectares of forest become inundated, forming an El Dorado for an estimated number 350 fish species Crocodiles, Boas and Anacondas, while countless frogs and toads sing their never-ending concerts. We have even seen dolphins swimming in the heart of the forest at a great distance from the lakes and rivers! They follow the fishes.
There are 2 lake areas in the park. The largest network of lakes is in the eastern part of the park, and can be conveniently reached from LagoAgrio over an asphalt road. The other lake network is located at the border with Peru, and requires some extensive travel. These late areas have a different flora and fauna than the higher grounds in between the wetlands. While the inundated forests are relatively poor in species of plants and trees, the higher grounds are have some of the highest number of trees per hectare on earth. On one location, 307 species of trees/hectare were counted; many more than all of Europe!
The Amazon tropical rainforest climate in Ecuador is characterized by an average of about 3000 mm of rainfall per year and an average day-night temperature of 23° C. However, these values are very coarse and temperatures are lower in the foothills of the Andes, where the Laguna Grande is located. At the lakes, on sunny days the temperatures usually run up to the low 30s, while at night the temperatures fall to a comfortable level: one needs a light blanket to stay warm; near the border with Peru, temperatures are higher. Average Amazon rainfall also shows a west-east gradient, with average values decreasing towards the east. So probably, the eastern lakes area receives more than 3000 mm of rainfall per year, but there are no data yet to prove it.
Cuyabeno is one of the most accessible Amazon parks in the world and some of the most inexpensive parks to reach and stay. To get to the park, one must travel to the oil exploitation town LagoAgrio, a typical oil boom town, that arose spontaneously around 1970 when it had become the center of operation for the oil pipeline across the Andes. There are two options to get there from capital Quito, on a 25 minute flight on an modern Embraer Tame flight (about $130 return ticket), or on a 7-8 hours bus.
From LagoAgrio it takes 1.5 hours to the reserve over an asphalt road. Most tours are offered including transportation from LagoAgrio to the reserve and back, but there is a regular bus service to the border of Colombia that stops at the entrance of the park. Coordination with that bus service and organized tours is difficult however.
Visitor have to register at the park entrance, but admission has been made free a few years ago. It is compulsory however to enter the park with a licensed tour operator an accredited guide and an indigenous boatman on a motorized canoe provided by the local communities.
The jungle adventure starts when the visitor boards the canoe. After the first bend in the river, the entire journey to the lodges is on a beautiful narrow river, winding through nothing but breathtaking virgin forest, with aquatic birds flying ahead of the canoe, turtles jumping off logs where they were sunbathing and bromilias and vines hanging from the trees.
There is no entrance fee for either nationals or foreigners; no permission is needed for personal filming or photography.
The lake based lodges have the excursion areas "right around the corner" by and often the canoes are peddled by the visitors to avoid the noise of the engines. But often visitors prefer the convenience of motorized mobility and then the outboard engines are used.
The River based lodges are about half an hour away from the Laguna Grande, but they are much closer to the Siona village - yet an additional 20 minutes down stream, to which a visit is part of most packages.
Unfortunately, none of the lodges can be considered wheel chair accessible, but many elderly citizens with limited walking abilities have been able to enjoy the reserve. Guides are always happy to help visitors and as most excursions are done from canoes, all visitors are taken to the best locations for wildlife viewing. Occasionally a visitor decides to stay at the lodge during the few jungle walks and the visit to the village.
There are thousands of plant and tree species in the reserve, most notable are:
The millennial traditions can be seen in the local community settlements (ex: Puerto Bolivar). 3 indigenous communities can be seen in the reserve: the Cofans, the Secoyas and the Sionas.
What to do
Some indigenous handicrafts can be bought from the local community members.
There is a variety of options for tours and lodging that tend to different budgets and needs for service. At least the upscale lodges provide rooms with private bathrooms and hot showers.
While 2 lodges are located on the shore of the Laguna Grande, all other lodges are located along the Cuyabeno River, down stream from the lake.
List of lodges
Camping and "dormitories"
Some operators organize canoe trekking with camping throughout the reserve, while other lodges facilitate camping and "dormitories" - common roofed spaces with elevated floors where visitors can roll out their sleeping bag and mosquito netting to tend to backpack visitors with limited budgets.
There are no shop other than a little shop at the entrance of the park where one can buy snacks and drinks for the river ride. Therefore, food is included in the packages of the tours, unless specifically stated that food is excluded and an operator has made arrangements for a group to bring its own food. This is not a good idea however, as visitors have no experience in how to keep fresh in the tropical rainforest.
Food quality probably varies with the cook, but most high end lodges receive positive feedback on their menus from travel websites, but be realistic with your expectations. This is the real jungle and all food is being transported in from LagoAgrio or locally grown. The lodges can never serve you a 5 stars cuisine, but at least in the upscale lodges food is decent and pleasant; they also bake fresh bread on a daily basis.
Special food can probably be requested from all tour operators if requested in advance, including vegetarian food.
As there are no shops in the reserve, most lodges provide alcohol-free beverages free of charge, including bottled water. The tapwater is not drinkable. Alcoholic beverages are sold in the more upscale lodges.
You are entering the virgin tropical jungle and all animals are wild. While some animals have a reputation for being fierce predators, like Jaguars and Anacondas, these animals hardly ever attack people; on the contrary, they try to stay away from you. There is no need to have any fear for them, but, don't be foolish and never try to touch a cup or "sleeping" animal. Never leave your lodge alone, even if nature seems so peaceful. You don't know the jungle and you need the wisdom of your guide and Siona to keep you safe.
Indigenous people have been swimming in the lake and the river as long as they can remember and no swimming accidents have ever been recorded. However, swimming in the river can be dangerous, particularly during high waters, as the currents can quite strong and underwater trees and roots can draw you under. Tour operators prefer to take their visitors swimming at the lake. Only go swimming under the watchful eye of your guide.
If an accident happens, most lodges and guides carry cell phones and emergency evacuations can be organized. As the region is an oil exploitation area, helicopters are never far away, but such evacuations would only be done at the patient's expense.
Mosquitoes are always present, but strangely enough, rarely in big numbers and with the mosquito netting they never affect your sleeping. Now, that does not mean they are harmless. They do carry malaria and you should consult your medical provider about the best prophylactics for you, and you are also advised to use insect repellent.
Your guide and the staff of your accommodation have to be informed of any food allergy or illness that requires special treatment
Return transportation is part of the packages sold by most lodges.