The Independent Traveler’s Ecuadorian Amazon

I arrived in Banos weeks ago, the gateway between the Andes and Amazon.  Every tour operator in town is trying to sell you a package that is for some reason twice as much as most (probably outdated) guides tell you they should be, especially given the two 20 hour travel days involved.  $70-80 a day to go to an area that I’ve gotten confirmation from Ecuadorian tour guides is currently dangerous?  No thanks.  I considered going in another country or just sucking it up.  Then I met a nice American family while rafting that was taking an independent go at it and they let me tag along.  Warning: unlike my experience in the rest of Ecuador, there was a lot of gringo prices/overcharging on a small scale on this trip to get to the jungle.

So where does one start?  To head to Yasuni National Park, you get a bus from wherever you are to Coca, a riverside oil city.  If you take a night bus like we did, you’ll arrive groggy and confused at the incredibly modern bus station.  It had design reminiscent of the Madrid airport, was extremely bright, and even included a free movie theater.  From there you should catch a two dollar taxi to the port next to the Coop de Transportes Fluviales Orellana building.  That’s a mouthful I can’t pronounce, so just say you want to go to Nuevo Rocafuerte and they’ll know.  It appears by now they have boats every week day going in both directions but there was limited boating service due to the holidays.

We stopped for breakfast before getting on the boat.  The Oresco restaurant recommended by guidebooks wasn't open like it was written to be (shock), so we ended up at a fancy hotel that fed croissants to these monkeys.  Let the wildlife begin!

We stopped for breakfast before getting on the boat. The Oresco restaurant recommended by guidebooks wasn’t open like it was written to be (shock), so we ended up at a fancy hotel that fed croissants to these monkeys. Let the wildlife begin!

The port authority wasn’t open before the boat was to leave at 7:30 AM so we asked the times of a guy cleaning the place and bought tickets from random guys with clipboards at the port.  This guy sat there hemming and hawing about whether to give us the local price ($15) and we’d seen online reports of people getting charged $20 before another guy and our insistence at talking to the company finally got him to give in.

The scenery is exciting for the first hour.  Then there's about nine more.

The scenery is exciting for the first hour. Then there’s about nine more.

The boat ride is about a ten hour affair in the high water season, longer if you go during low river season.  It’s faster to get to Nuevo Rocafuerte because it’s downstream.  The seats are pretty uncomfortable and at least one of the boats doesn’t even have seat backings for you.  Bring a cushion and some cards.  The locals seemed fascinated as we played games.

While it was mostly pretty thick jungle, albeit shorter than I expected, I particularly liked this grove of tall spindly trees.

While it was mostly pretty thick jungle, albeit shorter than I expected, I particularly liked this grove of tall spindly trees.

Once we arrived we had trouble finding the hostel recommended to us by other travelers.  Turns out it was two blocks straight off the port and about five or so right, until you reach an ecotourism college.  At the end of the ecotourism college, take a left and the hostel run by them is at the end of the road.  They had comfy beds and friendly employees that knew Manuel, the guide we were looking for. It’s a small town, so when people figured out we were looking for the place, the employees found us.

More wildlife right outside my door.  Ribbit!  This guy was pretty big.

More wildlife right outside my door. Ribbit! This guy was pretty big.

It turns out Manuel is part of a community an hour and a half away called Martinica, in Cocaya nestled between the more famous Yasuni and Cuyabeno National Parks.  We took a canoe past Ecuadorian border control, waved to Peru, and ended up at their community house.  Why yes, we’ll take a whole reserve for ourselves.

Our guide Miguel ran inside and came back out with this centipede he let crawl all over him.

Our guide Miguel ran inside and came back out with this centipede he let crawl all over him.

As soon as we got to the community house, they tried to lure in some dolphins for us to see.  It seemed only one of us would see one at a time, as they breeched quickly and disappeared back under.  The river was high and running muddy and fast, making for bad dolphin watching.

After the tour we watched videos and realized the dolphins come up in clear water and eat the fish out of the guides' hands or sometimes even their mouths.  This time we had no such luck.

After the tour we watched videos and realized the dolphins come up in clear water and eat the fish out of the guides’ hands or sometimes even their mouths. This time we had no such luck.

As we had no luck spotting any pink dolphins and had trouble even seeing gray ones, we dressed up in wellies and headed deeper into their reserve.

I went to Disneyland a lot as a kid and kept thinking the guide was going to stop to fire a fake gun at rhino ears sticking out of the river.

I went to Disneyland a lot as a kid and kept thinking the guide was going to stop to fire a fake gun at rhino ears sticking out of the river.

Every twist and turn of lush green looked the same to me and I could’ve been easily lost.  Luckily our guide knew every inch of the land he grew up in and would stop the boat to show us wildlife or to duck into lagoons.  Parrots, toucans, and macaws flew majestically in the high reaches of the trees as we spotted other colorful birds and monkeys lower.

There were self sustaining little forests on islands in the lagoons full of birds.

There were self sustaining little forests on islands in the lagoons full of birds.

The day was gray and water muddy but it was still gorgeous as we floated down the much smaller and intimate calm river.

We could see such beautiful reflections as we floated along.

We could see such beautiful reflections as we floated along.

After a bit of river bird watching we stopped to take a short nature hike.  The guide seemed to know everything and would stop when none of us saw a thing to point out a ridiculously camouflaged frog or tapir tracks.

"Here, taste these ants, they taste like lemon!"  Indeed, those ant eggs did taste like lemon.

“Here, taste these ants, they taste like lemon!” Indeed, those ant eggs did taste like lemon.

The other ants in the forest were gigantic.  I’m sad we didn’t see a tapir, which they had a platform for watching at night, but I’m also happy to not run into a jaguar or snake.

We saw lots of beautiful colored butterflies.

We saw lots of beautiful colored butterflies.  I really wish I had managed to catch the other animals as clearly as this.

Right at the end of the hike it started pouring rain.  Expected since we were indeed in a rainforest.  As our canoe wafted into the water we saw some river otters duck away.  Lunch was back in the community house and consisted of traditional dishes, although they didn’t try to make us eat the giant grilled grubs the region is known for.

Maito: fish wrapped in what I assume was banana leaves and grilled over a fire with onions.  It's pretty delicious served with plantains and rice.

Maito: fish and wrapped in what I assume was banana leaves and grilled over a fire. It’s pretty delicious served with plantains and rice, just beware the bones.

After lunch we relaxed by the riverside again.

Our guide ran up again this time with a prehistoric looking fish.

Our guide ran up again this time with a prehistoric looking fish.

We awaited the sight of a pink dolphin for a while but had no luck.  I had better luck spotting dolphins in Cambodia on the river.

Miguel was introduced to us as a dolphin expert but they seemed to be scaring the poor things away more that day.

Miguel was introduced to us as a dolphin expert but they seemed to be scaring the poor things away more that day.

Sadly I didn't get any very good photos and these look more like Loch Ness monster sighting than dolphins.

Sadly I didn’t get any very good photos and these look more like Loch Ness monster sighting than dolphins.

After a while we gave up as we’d seen enough brief glimpses of dolphins backs and headed back.

There was a piranha just hanging out in our canoe back.  I'm not really sure why, but hey, a piranha in the Amazon!

There was a piranha just hanging out in our canoe back. I’m not really sure why, but hey, a piranha in the Amazon!  Look at his sharp pointy teeth.

When we got back into town we spotted this pet parrot in a home and it was the only clear shot I got of a bird all day.  He giggled at us.

When we got back into town we spotted this pet parrot in a home and it was the only clear shot I got of a bird all day.  Locals tell us his name is Pepito.

Locals tell us his name is Pepito.

The trip was made a tad short as we rushed back to cities for New Years.  Our guides later recommended that they could show us way more animals and their cultural traditions if we had two to three days instead of one.  The next morning we stumbled onto the dock at 5 AM just to wait some Ecuadorian time for the boat to finally arrive and whisk us back up the river, stopping to let on and off the jungle citizens who used it as their local bus.

I was more alert on my way back and spotted traces of the oil industry destroying the forest.

I was more alert on my way back and spotted traces of the oil industry destroying the forest.

It was a shorter trip than I would’ve liked but that’s how timing works out.  What a beautiful oasis out in the far eastern side of Ecuador.  All that nonsense that most sources spout about it being impossible to do it independently are bullocks.  Bring lots of mosquito repellent and patience and it’ll be about a third of the price of those silly tours.

Contact info for guides in Nuevo Rocafuerte:

Canton Aguarico
Manuel (Spanish speaking only)
Telephone: 062382226 or 0993104290
Just ask around, some locals saw us wandering around and said “Manuel’s house is that way!”

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2 comments
  1. riotise said:

    that is a beautiful butterfly. and i’m impressed you ate an ant. lemony. snickety.

  2. Debra said:

    Love it.

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