From the Andes to the Amazon Jungle

Between Quito and Lago Agrio, the first leg of my journey, there are about 159 miles and a difference in altitude of 8,366 feet. I decided to take this trip as a mini road trip with some friends. We started off in Quito.  Its altitude of 9,350 makes it the world’s highest capital.  La Paz, Bolivia is higher, but it is only the seat of government, not the actual capital city.

From Quito we traveled east, passing through Cumbayá and the eastern cordillera. The streets are narrow and wind their way around the mountains of the Andes. Although there are not more than 159 miles between Quito and Lago Agrio, the ride takes six to seven hours. You pass through numerous very small towns and you should drive carefully because more than once cows were blocking the street.

After about two hours, we reached Papallacta (10,827 feet), a small town with hot springs and the ideal opportunity for a little stopover. Here you can choose between the spa and the normal hot spring pools. The entrance to the spa costs a bit more, but there are fewer people. The entrance fee to both places includes the use of hot spring pools. There are pools of different sizes, shapes, and temperatures. All around, there is green as far as the eye can see and mountains in the background.  If it’s clear, you might see the snow-covered Antisana Volcano.

After this relaxing break, we continued our trip to the east of the country (El Oriente in Spanish). After a while, we reached the highest point of the journey at 13,123 feet. At this altitude, the vegetation you find is typical of the páramo, an ecosystem above the continuous timberline but below the permanent snowline and characterized by being high, tropical, and montane.  In the páramo, there are very few high trees and many bushes. From here on we went downhill. At Baeza the road separates, one forks off to go to Coca and the other to Lago Agrio.

Waterfall of the Malo River

At the waterfall of the Malo River in Napo province we made another quick stopover. A small dirt road goes from the main road to a river and from there you have to walk to see the waterfall.  The water falling down the rocks with such immense power is an impressive spectacle of nature.

Along the same road there is another impressive waterfall, in fact, one of the largest in South America, the San Rafael Waterfall, at the border between the provinces of Napo and Sucumbíos. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to see it close up.

After over six hours driving through a constantly changing landscape, we finally reached the destination of the first stage of our trip, Lago Agrio (984 feet). The actual name of this city is Nueva Loja, although no one actually calls it that. Lago Agrio (or simply Lago) is the capital of the province of Sucumbíos and the most populated city in the Ecuadorian Amazon with 63,000 inhabitants. It is located only twelve miles from the Colombian border and became famous due to the oil industry. Lago Agrio means “sour lake” and is named after the Texan city Sour Lake that used to be the headquarters of Texaco. Lago is not a particularly nice city and it doesn’t really offer many touristic attractions, but it is the starting point for all trips to Cuyabeno Reserve.

Lago Agrio

Let’s take a little digression to the history of this city: Lago was founded in the 1970s due to the need for a place of settlement for the workers of the surrounding oil fields. Between 1964 and 1992, the American company Texaco drilled some 5.3 billion liters of oil in cooperation with the Ecuadorian state-owned company Petroecuador. During that time the company allegedly dumped 68,000 liters of toxic waste in the rainforest. This resulted in a decimation of the local indigenous populations and the destruction of the ecosystem. Moreover, the number of miscarriages and cases of cancer rose dramatically. In 1993 an American district attorney sued Texaco/Chevron for $6 billion in a class-action lawsuit representing 30,000 Ecuadorians. The New Yorker district court decided it did not have jurisdiction and the case was moved to Ecuador in 2003.  In 2011 a ruling was finally made and Texaco/Chevron had to pay out $19 billion.  This was truly a milestone in environmental law.

But now back to my trip. When we arrived in Lago Agrio, we checked into our rooms at Hotel Di Mario as this is the pickup point for all tourists going to Cuyabeno National Park. At night we took a little walk around the city center. There is not too much too see, just many little restaurants, cafés, and a few night clubs, including a few shady ones.

The next morning we were picked up by a bus and after about a two-hour ride, we arrived at the puente, a bridge over the Cuyabeno River where all the canoes from the surrounding lodges do their pickups and drop offs.  We were met by our guide, Guiliver, who told us that then we would embark upon a journey in a motor canoe. The ride took us for about two hours through a magical rainforest.  We stopped quite a bit, each time Guiliver spotted an animal.  He amazed me many times with his expert knowledge and incredible sense of sight and hearing!  The canoe ride to the lodge was an experience itself. We saw a snake relaxing on a tree and a horde of monkeys swinging from one tree to another.

Cuyabeno

After arriving at Cuyabeno Lodge, we had a delicious lunch. In the afternoon we went on an exploration tour with our guide. Apart from many bird species, we also saw a 23-foot-long green anaconda. Until then, I’d only seen this snake from the safety of my own home on a TV screen like in the movie Anaconda. So I was a bit concerned when we approached the animal in our canoe, getting so close that we were just three feet away from the giant.  Guiliver calmed me down by saying there was no need to worry because anacondas are actually peaceful and unlike in the Hollywood movie, human beings are not part of their menu. We were really lucky to see an anaconda on our first day – many people spend several days or even weeks in the jungle without spotting one.

In the evening we had a delectable dinner of sautéed strips of meat in a sauce with fried yucca and vegetables.  Yucca is a staple in the Amazon, and it is delicious!  After that we climbed up three stories to a terrace on top of a building to look at the stars. This is how an interesting day, full of new impressions, came to an end.

Cuyabeno

The next day we went on a canoe tour again in order to look for animals. Swimming in the lagoon was on the itinerary in the late afternoon and after that we watched an amazing sunset.  The following day we visited an indigenous community in the jungle where we made yucca tortillas and learned to use blow guns. We also learned about the plight of the indigenous people to preserve the areas in which they live.  That night we went for a walk in the jungle.

Unfortunately, the adventure came to an end for me at that point because I had to go back to Quito. However, most visitors stay in the Amazon for longer and get to undertake many more interesting activities, such as hiking in the rainforest where the guide explains everything about the jungle and its wildlife, medicinal plants, and indigenous history. If this adventure sounds interesting to you, why don’t you come to Ecuador and explore the Amazon jungle yourself?!

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