If following any of the security advice from the British government web pages (www.fco.gov.uk), then I would never have undertaken a trip to Reserve Faunistica Cuyabeno, an area of 'pristine' natural beauty situated in the north east of Ecuador, deep in Sucumbios Province. A province widely known to be under the influence of migrating Colombian guerrillas who have escaped the fumigation practices of their coca crops.
From my experience the information offered by the British government is normally very much on the cautionary side. Indeed they now even warn against the riding of the Nariz del Diablo Riobamba train after two Japanese tourists standing on the roof were hit by cables and fell to their deaths. In such incidences I think common sense is best used, and besides, if I was going to get kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas, locals suggest they would probably use my services to teach English for a year or two, something I have gained quite a bit of experience in over the past few months of living in Ecuador.
My trip started with a rather luxurious night bus journey from Quito to Lago Agrio through the bus company Occidentales (Calle 18 de Septiembre and Calle Manuel Larrea, near the La Mariscal district), seen as many to be the best bus company in Ecuador. I certainly had no complaints sleeping through much of the twisting, bumpy journey, only awaking once to see us pulled up next to a Loja Internacional bus, whose passengers were sitting on the roadside looking slightly shocked, one young boy even had blood covering his face. I'm not sure exactly what happened, and with no damage to be seen to the bus, it remains a mystery. Maybe it was one of those armed hold-ups or hijackings that many people warn against?
By the time I was waking up, we were already pulling into the outskirts of Lago Agrio, and the humidity around was torturous, especially when no Ecuadorians like to ride a bus with open windows. There must be some law against this. Doing so sparks violent reactions from other passengers. Pulling into the bus station at 5.30am, I realised we had arrived an hour early, meaning a nice five hour wait until Nomad Trek (www.nomadtrek.com) the tour company I booked this excursion through would be coming to pick me up. Luckily D'Mario Hotel, the pick-up point for the start of my tour were nice enough to let me sleep on their kitchen floor for a few hours for the ludicrously cheap price of $2, which also included a rather filling and very welcome breakfast as well. After reading that gun shots through the night are regularly heard here I was more than relieved to find somewhere safe and quiet. Unfortunately I paid the $2 to the security guard, who left shortly after I had ordered my breakfast and sensing that non of the staff knew I had already paid I was relieved to see my tour company pull up outside, and with all staff members carrying freshly bought bags of grain to the storage at the back of the hotel, I made my getaway.
Expecting to leave for the jungle there and then, I was a little disappointed to hear that the scheduled TAME flight into Lago Agrio was two hours late, meaning I was left with two maniac paedophile Beavis and Butthead look-alike bus drivers, who for more or less the duration of this time drove through the pot-holed streets of this uninspiring town beeping their horn violently at any young girls they came across, some I’m sure were still young enough to be in diapers. The only rest bite I got from this was watching the police confiscate a bus full of passengers from the very frustrated and angry owners. I was very happy to be leaving here and starting the 3 hour bus journey to the entrance to Reserve Faunistica Cuyabeno.
There were two things I noticed more than anything else on the drive from Lago Agrio to Reserve Faunistica Cuyabeno and neither of them were positive. Firstly, was the huge military presence in the area. With the high levels of drug and weapon trafficking taking place, I completely understand why. Being asked to leave the bus by a squadron of heavily armed Ecuadorian soldiers during a torrential downpour, guns touted in all directions was something I hadn't yet come across in this country.
The other negative aspect of the ride, and something I also hadn't come across in Ecuador, were the copious amounts of oil companies and enormous utility pipes lining the side of the road. Both seemed to last for the duration of the three hour journey and as the trucks rumbled past carrying heavy duty oil machinery it was hard not to feel disgusted and appalled at how such a beautiful natural environment could have been turned into such a horrible dirty and highly unappealing sight. In fact it would be very hard to believe that you were currently in the middle of the tropical Oriente, as small patches of trees were all that now stood from the once proud jungle. It seems sad that such an activity is taking place at such increasing frequency. Some believe that in another 10 years all the oil will have been sucked dry from the ground.
With such distasteful sights on offer, I was starting to wonder what lay ahead, but on arriving at the entrance to Reserve Faunistica Cuyabeno the oil companies and the naked burning flames glowing in the dull afternoon cloudy sky disappear into the distance and you suddenly become surrounded by nothing but jungle. Now I was getting a little excited and with the prospect of another three hour journey ahead of us by motorized canoe I was about to get my first full taste of jungle life. As if by magic, as we pulled away from the entrance, the heavens opened once again and for the duration of the trip we had nothing but pouring rain to contend with. This was actually a blessing in disguise as this time of the year sees the river levels drop to almost non-existent levels. If I had come just a week earlier the rivers were only 30cm high, which made driving a canoe almost impossible. Luckily now they were slightly higher, but it was still slow going over the numerous trees that had been swallowed by the evil clutches of the river, some giant enough to block the river completely. There were enough strong men (not including myself!) with us to help manoeuvre the canoe over and under such obstacles.
The jungle welcome was made complete with a pretty impressive selection of animals and wildlife viewed. A selection of squirrel monkeys crossing the river on fallen trees, poisonous snakes draping from tree branches, basking in the cooling wet weather, a few small Cayman crocodiles and numerous bird species made for a very encouraging start to this trip. Even more encouraging was the high quality of Tapir Lodge (www.tapirlodge.com, booked through the tour agency Nomad Trek), where I had the pleasure of staying for the next six nights, although I had somehow managed to forget from my time spent working on a coffee farm on the edge of a cloud forest in Costa Rica, the amount of creepy crawlies, especially the lightning fast cockroaches that like to call your home their home. It wasn't long though before I was able to switch off from the various insects scuttling around my room under the cover of darkness and fall into a deep sleep helped by the soothing jungle sounds around me. After setting out on my travels here almost a day earlier I was in need of some peace, rest and a good night’s sleep.