I finally arrived to Nueva Loja and only had one last step left to go deep into the wilderness of the Ecuadorian jungle. Thanks to Tapir Lodge, I was able to visit the Cuyabeno Wildlife Production Reserve, one of the most biodiverse natural areas on the planet, for three intense days. It is a tropical ecosystem made up of a group of rainforest formations, lagoons, rivers and an extensive tropical forest of 600,000 hectares that occupies the entire northeast of Ecuador, bordering Colombia to the north and Peru to the east. To get to the heart of the reserve you must first arrive at the Cuyabeno River dock on a 2-hour trip from Nueva Loja. This is where all the tours start and where all the canoes that take you to the lodges start, in a journey of more than 3 hours along the river, with the possibility of seeing all kinds of wild animals along the way. During the whole tour we were accompanied by Rodrigo, a guide from the reserve who is quite experienced and has good eyes to observe any animal. Arlei or "magic eyes", as captain of the canoe. And finally, a very nice Spanish couple. When we reached the river pier, we got into the canoe and started to sail slowly with our eyes wide open. We were already in wild territory. Thousands of lives around us formed a complex set of green and earth-colored shapes. Here, every individual uses everything it has to survive, making the most of all his resources. Natural selection plays a fundamental role in every way. Our goal, as with any other visitor to the reserve, is to observe as many endogenous wild animals as possible, since they are not found anywhere else in the world. But despite being one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, it is not at all easy to locate this fauna. Every animal camouflages itself using every kind of mechanisms to not being found by other predators. As in every ecosystem, there is always a predator, whether it be air, land or water. The harpy eagle is considered the queen of the sky, there is no flying predator bigger than it. The jaguar is a killing machine and is also found in these lands. And the anaconda is the queen of the waters of the jungle, as it is capable of attacking any prey regardless of size.
As soon as we set sail, Rodrigo located our first encounter, precisely the biggest predator of these Amazonian rivers: the anaconda (Eunectes murinus). What a start! Considered the heaviest and longest snake in existence, this familiar boas reptile hunts its prey by constriction. Its color serves to camouflage itself with the brown waters of the Cuyabeno River and its orange lines and dots already warn us of danger. The sounds were frightening. And both Rodrigo and Arlei recognized them easily: hidden toucans, macaws behind trees and other colorful birds were the main culprits, as well as a multitude of insects and some monkeys calling to their herd or warning of danger.
After a series of encounters (golden vultures, nose-bats, cacique birds...), we came across a group of 90-100 squirrel monkeys crossing the river by means of spectacular jumps from branch to branch. And as with any large group of squirrel monkeys, another smaller group of capuchin monkeys cannot be missed. The capuchins always lead the rest, as they are smarter, bigger and more confident than the squirrel monkeys. Both groups complement each other, help each other, and therefore they often see each other.
We were already arriving at Tapir Lodge, but again Rodrigo spotted a group of howler monkeys in the distance, not as common as the previous ones. They are usually found high up in the trees looking for the juiciest fruits, but they must always be alert as they are easy prey for the harpy eagle.
After leaving our bags at the lodge, we went straight to watch the sunset at Cuyabeno Lagoon, along with more canoes from other lodges. The opportunity to swim in the home of piranhas, electric eels, alligators and anacondas I don't think I will have again, so I took advantage of it and headed to the water. After all, we're here to live experiences, aren't we?
But the luck of the first day didn't end there. The absence of clouds and the little moon left allowed me to observe and photograph one of the most starry skies I have ever seen. Tapir Lodge had an open place to see the sky. Surrounded by hundreds of fireflies, I stayed there for about 2 hours contemplating that incredible sky.
The next day it was time to go downriver to visit Dr. Shaman Tomas to talk about his culture. Before arriving at Tomás' house, we stopped at a jungle area full of ceibos (Ceiba pentandra). The ceibos are the most sacred and largest trees in the forest. It is considered the tree of life, from which the forest was created. It is also the only tree where the harpy eagle, the queen of the sky, will make her nest because it is the tallest.
Tomás belongs to the indigenous community of the Siona, with his own language, which means "towards the garden". According to their culture, the 'yajé' or ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) is the source of knowledge and teaches them about good and evil. The ceremonial use of this sacred plant allows them to see and understand that there is no division between the natural and the supernatural. In addition to the ability to heal the sick, it gives them a sensitivity that allows them to contemplate the spirits of the forest and with it they can perceive the most subtle climatic changes. But to become a true Shaman they must first take the 'peji' or floripondio (Brugmansia suaveolens) in a large, almost lethal dose, so that their soul leaves for a while, since only their body remains prostrate. This is the only way to communicate with Diosu and the spirits of the forest, and finally become the true and only Shaman of the Siona community.
On the way back we stopped in Puerto Bolivar, a small Siona town. There they taught us how to make cassava bread. Cassava is the main food of the jungle and is very easy to grow. We extracted it directly from the ground and with the same branch of the plant it is planted again. Then the cassava is washed, scratched, drained and strained. Finally a white powder is left which is put directly into the fire to make a "pancake" or cassava bread. Delicious!
My stay in Cuyabeno was coming to an end, but I couldn't leave without locating the most peculiar animal in the reserve and the last one you can imagine seeing here. It is the pink dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), a clear example of speciation. Thousands of years ago saltwater dolphins entered the Amazon delta to feed. Little by little, they became more and more specialized until they adapted to these waters by losing their visibility (they only see about 10%) and differentiating themselves into a completely different species. They are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and it was a luxury to see them at the end of my visit. I hope that the next time I return, these incredible cetaceans will continue to swim in these rivers.