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Ecuador’s Other Amazon – Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Ecuador is blessed with several ways to access the Amazon Basin. The most well-known and most popular way is via a river town called Coca and then along the Napo River (which is a major tributary of the Amazon River) where travelers find a wide range of tours, river boat hotels and the most upscale Amazon lodges in the country. Those seeking a more affordable and, in some ways, more intimate Amazon experience should head to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve instead. Here’s why, including our drone aerial travel video over the area.

Sunset Cuybeno Reserve Ecuador

A sunset paddle on the Cuyabeno River in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

Exploring Ecuador’s other Amazon

Founded in 1979, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve covers 1,490,000 acres (603,380 hectares) and is the second largest preserved natural area in Ecuador. Most of that area is tropical forest which goes through annual cycles of flooding and then receding water. In the wetter season (which varies from year to year), thousands of acres flood. In the dryer season (December to March) the water recedes.

Paddling waterways of Cuybeno

The river is the road through the vast Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

The only road through the Cuyabeno area is the Cuyabeno River itself. It’s much narrower than the Napo River which gives a more intimate feeling since the banks of the river are much closer together and, therefore, the wildlife is much closer at hand. Unlike the area around the Napo River, the Cuyabeno region has not been opened up for oil exploration so animals are much more plentiful as well.

There are also far fewer visitors to Cuyabeno than the number of people who visit the Amazon basin via the Napo River, so other boats and other travelers are few and far between.

Cuybeno Lake

Entering Laguna Grande.

The wild animals of Cuyabeno

While humans are scarce there is no shortage of other animals. The number of registered bird species in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is under currently being debated. Some say 530 species exist in the area while others believe more like 580 species have been observed. Suffice to say, there are a LOT of birds. There are a lot of other critters in Cuyabeno too like the lowland tapirs, two species of deer, all of the Amazon cats, including jaguars and pumas, capybaras and two species of river dolphins (one is vaguely pink).

Blue & Yellow Macaw Cuybeno

Like all macaws, these blue and yellow macaws mate for life.

Juvenile Potoo Cuybeno

We spotted a juvenile pygmy potoo bird at night while in Cuyabeno – one more species we saw for the first time while in the reserve.

White Throated Toucan Cuybeno

A white throated toucan in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.

Hoatzin Cuybeno Ecuador

Hoatzin birds along the Cuyabeno River.

There are also manatees and two types of river otters including imposing giant otters. Monkeys are everywhere as well with 10 species living in the area. There are dozens of species of rodents and bats, 350 fish species (including massive and delicious paiche), two species of caymen, boa constrictors and anacondas plus many vociferous types of frogs and toads.

Saki Monkey Cuybeno

Ladies and gentlemen, our first Saki monkey.

Black Manteled Tamarin Cuybeno

A black mantled tamarin.

Pigmy Marmost Cuybeno

This little guy is a pygmy marmoset – the smallest monkey in the world. We saw one for the first time in Cuyabeno.

Spis's night monkey Cuybeno

These are Spix’s night monkeys – the only nocturnal monkeys in the world. I think we were interrupting their daytime beauty sleep.

We visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve during low water and saw dozens of different species. Though we’ve spent a lot of time in jungles around Latin America we also saw many species for the very first time including Saki monkeys, a pygmy potoo, Spix’s night monkeys (the only nocturnal monkey in the world) and tiny pygmy marmosets, the smallest monkeys in the world, which were busy sucking sap from tree trunks.

Insects Cuybeno

We have no idea what these insects are but they sure are pretty.

Frog Cuybeno

There are frogs and toads of all shapes and sizes in Cuyabeno and at certain times of the day they make the jungle sing.

Spiders Cuybeno

Um, spiders.

The people of Cuyabeno

Humans also live in the Cuyabeno area including members of the Siona, Sequoya and Cofan indigenous groups who were allowed to stay in their villages and maintain their way of life even after the reserve was created.

Sona people of Cuybeno

Locals on the Cuyabeno River.

So, in addition to hiking on dry land and paddling in small boats through the Cuyabeno River, tributaries and flooded forest areas to see wildlife, it’s also possible to visit villages and see a little bit of the local ways of life. We visited a village where a woman demonstrated how to make a cracker-like bread from yucca that’s been grated and pressed into a kind of flour before being cooked on a massive clay disc. It’s a labor intensive but delicious staple of the diet.

Preparing Yuca bread Cuybeno Ecuador

This woman made it look easy, but making yucca bread is a real process which involves grating fresh yucca root then squeezing the water out to create a kind of flour which is then cooked into a tasty flat bread.

Shamans remain an important part of life in most villages and we also had the chance to visit one while in the Cuyabeno reserve. We’ve had many encounters with shamans over the years but our time with a shaman named Tomas was the most informative and authentic yet. As a sudden rain storm opened up overhead, Tomas happily described his journey to shaman-hood in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and answered all of our questions.

Amazon shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

Tomas the shaman.

Tomas also performed a “cleansing” for one of the members of our group. This involved a thrashing with a bundle of sticks, blowing and other rituals meant to expel bad energy from the body. We were the only tourists there and we never got the feeling that Tomas was “putting on a show” for us.

Curado shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

Tomas concentrates and works his medicinal branches during a cleansing ceremony.

Where to stay in Cuyabeno

The dozen or so Amazon river lodges in Cuyabeno are simpler and cheaper than the lodges located along the Napo River. A few Cuyabeno lodges are located on Laguna Grande, but see our travel tip below before booking. The rest are scattered along the banks of the river. Lodge rates include meals and guided exploration of the reserve.

View from Tapir Lodge Cuybeno

Tapir Lodge has a bamboo and thatch tower of rooms right on the riverbank. This could be the view from your room.

We stayed at Tapir Lodge which has solar panels and a back up generator, good food and a great tower of simple thatch roof rooms with private bathrooms near the bank of the Cuyabeno River. Though rooms are well-screened, some critters do get in. There was a (relatively) small tarantula on our ceiling until Karen insisted that someone give it its own room…

Tarantula Tapir Lodge Cuybeno Ecuador

One of us really, really, REALLY wanted this guy out of our room.

The best amenity at Tapir Lodge is owner Kurt Beate. He’s been exploring the area for more than 40 years, first as a guide and later as the creator of Tapir Lodge which he opened almost 20 years ago. It was one of the first lodges in the area and the very first to offer private bathrooms, hot water and electricity based on solar power.

Kurt’s enthusiasm for the region has not dimmed over the years and you really want to be at Tapir Lodge when he is on site and available to explore with you, which is about 70% of the time. Ask if Kurt will be at the lodge when booking.

For more Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve and Tapir Lodge inspiration check out our drone travel footage, below.

Cuyabeno travel tips

Be wary of booking a lodge that’s located on Laguna Grande. The lagoon is beautiful, but during dry times the water level can drop to the point where boats can’t enter the lagoon. That means you’ll be in for a long, hot slog to and from your lodge.

Here are some other things to ask before booking a Cuyabeno lodge:

Is there 24 hour electricity and is it supplied, at least in part, by solar power?

How many guides will be available and what is their certification and experience?

Do you provide binoculars and/or spotting scopes to your guides?

Do you provide real coffee or instant coffee (most adventures start early in Cuyabeno)?

Do your boats have lightweight paddles or heavier wooden paddles?

Do you provide drinking water to guests?

Oh, and we heard Cuyabeno pronounced two different ways: “Kwai-ah-ben-oh” and “Koo-ya-ben-oh”. Go figure. Really. Go figure it out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsgf8w5CAtM

This massive jungle tree is a major jungle attraction. It even has its own sign. Climbing up its vines: optional.

Getting to Cuyabeno

From Quito you can fly, drive or take a bus to the dismal oil town of Lago Agria. Then it’s 1.5 hours by road to the Cuyabeno bridge where your roughly two hour journey on the river in a motorized canoe will begin to reach your lodge in the reserve. In times of low water the trip takes longer. Entry to all parks and reserves in Ecuador is free except for the Galapagos Islands National Park.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including cruising the Amazon River in Peru (in luxury and in a hammock), playing with gunpowder in a bar in Colombia and sky biking through the treetops in Ecuador (don’t miss our Amazon drone footage). Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2015, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2015, the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and we drove 7,210 miles (11,603 km) doing it. Want more geeky road trip numbers like how much money we’ve spent on gas and how many borders we’ve driven over? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page on our website.

And now, in no particular order, here are the…

10 Best Adventures & Activities of 2015

 

Best walk through the tree tops: It’s more than a third of a mile (500 meters) long and up to 115 feet (35 meters) above the ground. It sways and creaks as it connects more than a dozen different platforms. It’s supported by enormous rain forest trees and there’s nothing else like it in the Peruvian Amazon basin. We’re talking about the Ceiba Tops Canopy Walkway at Explorama Lodge from which you can see toucans, tree frogs, monkeys and more all at eye level. Check out our Amazon drone footage from above the Canopy Walkway, above.

 

Caceria del Zorro horse race - Ibarra, Ecuador

Best insane horse race: Every October the town of Ibarra in northern Ecuador hosts a race that includes hundreds of horses and riders who parade around town, then leap down a series of steep cliffs (see above) before taking part in a track race in pursuit of a rider dressed as Zorro. Yes, that Zorro. It is breathtaking in more ways than one. Learn more about the annual Caceria del Zorro in our story about Ecuador’s craziest horse race for Afar.

 

Cock-of-Rock

Best cock sighting: The national bird of Peru is called the Cock of the Rock. It is a crazy looking thing, but not how you’re thinking (check it out, above). It’s also pretty rare and seeing one is not a guarantee. Seeing five in one day without a guide is pretty extraordinary, but that’s exactly what happened when we hiked the trail to the Gocta Waterfall in northern Peru. Just after reaching the 4km mark on the 5km trail we heard a really weird noise–like alien frogs. We stopped and looked around and soon saw a bright red flash in the rain forest. We hung around and looked and listened some more and then we saw three male Cock of the Rocks in the same tree just off the trail. They hung around for more than five minutes before flying off. On our way back out we saw another Cock of the Rock alone in a tree around the 3km trail marker. Our advice is to keep your eyes and your ears open on this trail. And even if you don’t see any Cock of the Rocks the waterfall is worth is. At 2,530 feet (771 meters) Gocta Waterfall is one of the tallest free-falling waterfalls in the world.

 

Amazon Ferry Iquitos Peru Hammock

Best bare bones Amazon River trip: At an average up river speed of less than 10 miles (15 km) per hour, it takes more than three days to travel up the Amazon River by cargo ferry from Iquitos to Yurimaguas, Peru (you can hack off a day or so going downstream in the other direction). We slept on the deck in hammocks (Karen is demonstrating, above), spent a lot of hours spotting blue and yellow macaws and pink river dolphins with our binoculars and generally slowed down to river time. It was like taking a multi-day trip on the Mississippi but with rarer wildlife.

 

Aria Amazon river boat - Iquitos, Peru

Best super luxe Amazon River trip: On the extreme other end of the Peruvian Amazon River Trip experience scale you will find the Aria Amazon river boat. This floating luxury hotel and fine dining restaurant lived up to the substantial hype with some of the best food we’ve had in Peru so far (the menu was created by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima), exceptional service, chic rooms with floor to ceiling windows, great guides and, of course, all that Amazon. Did we mention the air conditioning and the hot tub?

 

Playin Tejo - Salento, Colombia

Best explosive bar game: It’s called tejo and it involves a heavy metal disc (called a tejo) which you toss underhand toward an angled board covered in wet clay. Your goal is to hit pieces of paper stuffed with gun powder which are arranged around a metal ring pressed into the clay. You know you’re doing it right when the reaction between your tossed tejo, the gun powder and the metal ring causes an explosion. We played it in the otherwise tranquil mountain town of Salento, Colombia at the Los Amigos bar where they have a massive open air tejo area set up in the back. Pay 1,000 COP (about US$0.40) per person, grab a cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.00), choose one of the half dozen or so tejo set ups and start tossing. You earn one point for the tejo which lands closest to ring. You get three points for an explosion. You get six points for landing in the center of the metal ring and causing an explosion. You get nine points for landing in center of metal ring without causing an explosion. The first person who racks up 25 points first wins. Though Karen hates loud noises, she somehow won anyway. Check out her winning form, above.

 

Masphi Eco Lodge sky baike jungle canopy

Best place to bicycle through the air: Masphi Eco Lodge in Ecuador is remarkable for a number of reasons, including top luxury deep in the rain forest and breathtaking architecture. Mashpi is also home to the only sky bike in the country. What is a sky bike? It’s an ingenious contraption that allows you to pedal your way across a taught line high above the ground (above). Think of it as horizontal zip lining on a bike. At Mashpi they’ve installed their sky bike through a particularly lovely patch of cloud forest and a leisurely round trip between two platforms gives sky bikers eye level views of the tree tops and the flowers and critters that live there.

 

 

Best death road: There are two ways to travel between Macoa to Pasto in Colombia: via a normal highway or via something called the Trampoline of Death. Guess which one we chose…To assuage her nerves, Karen crushed the pre-drive to do list. Water bottles were filled. Tire pressure was checked. The oil level was monitored. We were ready for the steep grades, blind corners, narrow stretches where two vehicles can’t possibly pass, potholes, rock slides and whatever else something called the Trampoline of Death might have in store. What we weren’t ready for was a recently graded surface, helpful safety signs and guardrails. Guardrails? We still had fun on the road and it is still challenging and requires even more concentration then usual, but the moral of this adventure is: don’t judge a road by its nickname. Check out the time lapse video from our death road drive, above.

 

Animals of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Best Amazon adventure destination in Ecuador: Ecuador is blessed with a number of different areas from which travelers can access the Amazon Basin. We spent weeks exploring the Amazon along the Napo River out of a town called Coca which is the most popular gateway. Then we visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin and it blew our minds. The waterways in the Cuyabeno area of Ecuador are much smaller and they flood and recede throughout the year. There are also far fewer lodging options in the Cuyabeno area then there are along the Napo which means fewer humans. This means the animals are more common and much easier to see. In three days we saw pink river dolphins, the smallest monkey in the world (the pygmy marmoset), huge tracts of primary rainforest, toucans, a pygmy potoo (look it up) and more. We saw so many animals we had to make a wildlife montage for you, above. Lodges in the Cuyabeno area of the Amazon Basin are fairly basic with varying degrees of electricity, hot water, etc. We recommend Tapir Lodge where the food is great, the solar and generator electricity is reliable and the private rooms are clean and comfortable. The biggest asset at Tapir Lodge is Kurt the owner. He is passionate about his slice of paradise and works hard to make sure his guests fall in love with it too.

 

Kuelap Fortress archaeological site - Chachapoyas, Peru

Best first Incan archaeological site: During the course of our Trans-Americas Journey we’ve explored more than 100 archaeological sites through the US, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. None of them have been Incan sites, however, until we crossed into Peru and headed straight for the Kuelap Fortress, which is actually a pre-Incan site that was built by the Chachapoyas people in 1500s. The massive stone wall that encloses this site is nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) long by nearly 400 feet (119 meters) wide. In places the wall is 62 feet (19 meters) high (check it out, above). Kuelap held thousands of people at it’s peak in distinctive round stone houses with thatch roofs. Despite its name, some archaeologists believe that Kuelap probably wasn’t a fortress at all but more of a sacred area used for ceremonies and rituals. Visiting Keulap is about to get even more adventurous. In late 2015 work began on a massive cable car system, the first in Peru, which will transport visitors from the village of Tingo Nuevo to the Kuelap site covering 2.5 miles (4 km) and rising more than 2,400 feet (730 meters) in 20 minutes. The new Kuelap cable car is expected to be finished in 2017.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2014

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving with whale sharks and hammerheads in the Galapagos Islands, rescuing a drowning monkey in the Amazon and being spit on by a shaman in the Andes. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2014, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2014 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia and Ecuador and we drove 7,074 miles (11,385 km) doing it. Want more road trip numbers? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page.

And now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2014

Best river trip: First of all, its nickname is the “Liquid Rainbow.” Second of all, it’s in an area of Colombia that’s only recently became FARC-free enough to visit. Third? Who needs a third? In 2014 we made it to this one-of-a-kind river on assignment for BBC Travel with Eco Turismo Macarena. The destination lives up to the hype with flowing water filled with waves of vibrant reds, greens, yellows and blues caused by a water plant unique to this area (check it out, below). We were also impressed with the quality of the local guides, the environmental protections that are in place and the truly community-based tourism that’s going on in the gateway town of La Macarena.

Cano Cristales Colombia

Best adventure destination: 2014 was the year that we got to travel to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador not once but TWICE. During the first visit we spent nine days in the islands including a week on board the M/Y Grace yacht so that we could produce a story about the yacht, once owned and honeymooned on by Grace Kelly, for the Biography channel’s website. A highlight of that trip was the discovery of the best snorkeling site of the year: Punto Vicente Roca off Isabela Island where we bobbed in the water as sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, dozens of species of fish, a shark or two and much more investigated us and went about their watery lives all around us. It was like being in our own interactive aquarium. Our second visit to the Galapagos Islands took an even more adventurous turn with a week on board the very, VERY good value M/Y Eric followed by a week on board her sister ship, the M/V Galapagos Sky live aboard dive boat. That’s when we discovered the best SCUBA diving site of the year: Darwin and Wolf Islands, in the far north of the archipelago, where we spent hours underwater with hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks and, incredibly, even a few whales sharks and manta rays even though it wasn’t prime season for spotting those species. We’d go back in a minute because we’re sure this wonderful place has many, many more adventures in store.

Galapagos Islands Blue footed booby, penguins, marine iguana

Best under-visited national park: Ecuador has more than 30 national parks, ecological preserves and wildlife refuges. In 2012, President Rafael Correa waived the entry fee to all of them (except Galapagos Islands National Park) in an effort to get more Ecuadorans out into their wild spaces. It’s a great idea and we certainly appreciate breezing right through the entry gates to national parks, but many parks in Ecuador are still virtually visitor free. Take El Angel Ecological Reserve in northern Ecuador, for example. Despite containing some of the country’s most gorgeous high-altitude páramo (pictured below), including three of the four species of Seuss-like frailejon plants on the planet, and the world’s only known stand of a certain species of polylepis tree, we saw a grand total of five other people in this stunning park.

Parano El Angel park  Ecuador

Best wild animal rescue: We were motoring slowly along the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin, happily observing a large troupe of squirrel monkeys in the trees at the water’s edge, when we heard a small splash followed by frantic screeching. For a moment it seemed as if a child had fallen into the fast-moving, current-filled river. Then we saw a tiny monkey being swept down river. Our guide, Fredy Alvarado, who operates Pangea Expeditions and was working as our guide on the Anakonda Amazon river boat we were traveling on, dipped an oar into the water just as the monkey was pulled underwater once again. When it’s drenched, furry head finally popped up the animal reached for the oar in exactly the way a drowning human would. Safely on our boat, the dripping monkey scrambled to a far corner as we motored to the shore where his troupe was waiting for his return. Fredy had to pry the frightened monkey off the boat in order to release him and he got a bite on the hand for his trouble. However, we are happy to report that both monkey and guide are fine.

Monkey rescue Napo River Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure in alternative healing: Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel, near Otavalo, Ecuador, is a rare example of eco-friendly construction (living roofs, rain water collection, solar panels, tire foundations) and a posh yoga and wellness retreat all in the shadow of massive volcanoes. The innovative owner has also harnessed the power of the local Kichwa community’s holistic healing traditions and guests can sign up for a cleansing by a local female shaman named Rosa.  Karen took off her shoes as Rosa arranged the tools of her trade: volcanic rocks, river rocks, kindling, two huge bunches of local herbs and branches, a pot for burning aromatic wood, a small gourd with liquid in it and two plastic bottles. Rosa spit liquid into Karen’s face and gently whacked her with herbs and branches. Wood was burned and smoke was read to determine the amount of “bad energy” that needed to be cleaned out (apparently, a lot) followed by more spitting before Rosa put some oil on Karen’s scalp and clasped her head while chanting about strong, clean energy. The whole thing was over in 15 minutes and was oddly relaxing despite the smoke and spit.

Andean Clensing Sacha Ji Ecuador

Best reason to get up early: Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge, built, run and managed by members of the local Kichwa Anangu community in the Yasuni region of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador, offers many ways to get close to the toucans, giant otters, caimans and monkeys on their vast jungle property. One of the best is their canopy observation platform. A 10 minute canoe paddle and 15 minute jungle walk takes you from the lodge to the foot of a 130 foot (40 meter) tower. Climb the metal stairs to the platform at the top, carefully built around a massive ceiba tree, and you’ve reached the perfect place to look into the tree tops and down into the jungle (below). In the early morning hours we saw ivory billed toucans, a three-toed sloth, blue and yellow macaws in flight, squirrel monkeys, white front capuchin monkeys and more. Bring your binoculars and take advantage of the spotting scopes provided by the guides.

Napo Wildlefe Center Ecolodge canopy platform

Best national park drive: It’s not every day that you get the chance to drive your vehicle to over 15,500 feet (4,724 meters). To put that into perspective, that’s more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) higher than the top of Mount Whitney which is the highest point in the lower 48 in the US. In Los Nevados National Park in Colombia you can drive that high while checking out the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano (one of the most active in the world) and Andean condors (many of whom were transplanted from the San Diego Zoo to repopulate the park) soaring overhead.

PNN Nevados Colombia

Best feeding frenzy: There are a number of clay licks, where birds congregate to greedily eat soil rich in essential minerals, in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. The one that attracts both parrots and macaws requires a short hike inland from the Napo River to a comfortable shelter/blind where we waited silently for two hours while the skittish birds worked up the courage to come to the ground to take in the minerals they need. Eventually hundreds (thousands?) of mealy parrots and some scarlet-shouldered parrotlettes descended. The sound of their wings and calls was deafening and even though the macaws remained safely in the trees above our heads, the spectacle was impressive.

Parrot Salt Lick Nap River Yasuni Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure on rails: Train trips don’t generally fall into the category of adventure unless you’re on a train that somehow navigates its way over a massive stone obstacle ominously called the Devil’s Nose and includes stops that let you meet the last glacial ice collector in the country and watch traditionally dressed women haggle for guinea pigs (aka, dinner) in a local weekly market. Passengers on Ecaudor’s Tren Crucero  (below) get all that and more during the four-day journey from the Andes to the Pacific (or vice versa). More details are in the story we did about our Tren Crucero adventure for the Dallas Morning News.

Tren Crucero Ecuador

Best horseback riding: Hacienda Zuleta, a historic farm-turned luxury hotel dating back to the 1600s in northern Ecuador, should be on every hotel and food lovers’ list. If you’re also a horse lover then make your reservation now. Zuleta’s stable is filled with their own breed, called Zuleteños, which are a mix of thoroughbred, quarter horse and Andalusian carefully crafted over the years to produce smart, gentle and beautiful horses. The tack is all hand made locally, the volcano-filled geography is gorgeous to ride through and the guides are capable and fun to be with whether you’re out for an hour or a week. Bonus: sore muscles are easily soothed by the hot water bottles and bath salts provided in each guest room at Hacienda Zuleta.

Hacienda Zuleta Ecuador Horseback Riding

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More Jungle In the Jungle – Mamoní Valley Preserve, Panama

Nearly 13 years ago Nathan Gray, founder of the ground-breaking Earth Train  peer-to-peer student activism movement in the US, was looking for a new home base for his seemingly boundless philanthropic efforts. A friend recommended Panama as a place with lots of land just waiting for Earth Train to protect it and lots of young people in need of empowerment. So Nathan got on a plane, then he got on a bus, then he got on a truck taxi and soon he found himself in Mamoní Valley. That’s when a Panamanian woman sitting next to him mentioned that her family was selling a chunk of property nearby. Nathan toured the property later that day and soon he was the owner of 198 acres (80 hectares). The Mamoní Valley Preserve was born – part nature reserve, part environmental education center, part eco adventure travel destination.

Mamoni Darien Panama

Earth Train’s Mamoní Valley Preserve works to turn cleared farm and ranch land back into this: lush jungle and vibrant waterways.

From ranch land to reforestation

Like so much of the land in the area, the property had been cleared for cattle pasture so Nathan, a growing Panamanian Earth Train team and a crew of volunteers began reforesting the 198 acres (80 hectares) with indigenous plants and trees. Soon the streams cleared up and wild animals returned.

Bamboo was planted and it quickly began providing building materials for a true environmental retreat and education center where Nathan’s dreams of educating and empowering young people to lead other young people into a better environmental future could be realized.

Mamoní Valley Preserve , Panama

Reforested land around Centro Mamoní is criss-crossed with trails like this one.

Now Centro Mamoní has four two-level, mostly open-air wood and bamboo sleeping structures with room to pitch tents on the upper floor and bathrooms with showers and composting toilets on the ground floor. There’s also a large kitchen and a dining/meeting area with satellite internet all powered by a hydroelectric generator on the grounds.

Centro Mamoní, Darien Panama

One of the two-level, open air bamboo and wood sleeping structures at Centro Mamoní.

Hiking at Mamoní

We visited Centro Mamoní with Nathan and hiked a loop trail that took us up and down through the lush jungle and across creeks. We dove into swimming holes and stopped at lofty viewpoints where we could see the Caribbean Coast and the famed Kuna Yala, homeland of the Kuna (sometimes called Guna) people.

Dart Frog, darien jungle, Panama

We saw this dart frog (named for the shape of its head) while hiking on trails around Centro Mamoní in Panama.

Along the way we saw a dart frog (not a poison dart frog – this one is named for the shape of its head, red spider monkeys, helicopter dragonflies, tiny black frogs, a centipede that smelled like almonds because it protects itself by secreting cyanide (cyanide smells like almonds) and a rare caecilan which is an amphibian that looks like a worm or snake. It amazed us all, even Nathan. Cougars and harpy eagles have also been spotted at Mamoní since reforestation started taking hold.

 caecilan Darien Panama - giant worm

This rarely spotted caecilan, an amphibian which looks like a worm or really weird snake, was spotted on a trail in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama.

You can also go kayaking within the Mamoní Valley Preserve and even hike from ocean to ocean through the preserve since it exists in the narrowest part of the Panamanian Peninsula.

Modern Mamoní

Mamoní now protects more than 12,000 acres (48,567 hectares) including most of the vital Mamoní watershed, six of its tributaries and more than 50 miles (80 km) of streams.

The legendary Dr. Jane Goodall has visited Mamoní and the center has hosted her Roots & Shoots environmental program for 70 students.

bumpy tree Darien jungle Panama

This tree with an odd bumpy trunk is just one of the native species that have been brought back in the Mamoní Valley Preserve thanks to reforestation efforts by Earth Train.

Mushrooms darien Jungle Panama

With few visitors and air-tight environmental protection all kinds of species flourish in Panama’s Mamoní Valley Preserve.

Mamoní abuts he Chagres National Park and an area inhabited by the Kuna (also called Guna) people, Panama’s largest indigenous group, and Earth Train works closely with the Kuna Congress (the indigenous group’s autonomous government) to promote environmental protection.

Junglewood, a program run by Grammy award-winning producer Rob Griffin, brings musicians to an outdoor amphitheater on the Mamoní property for outdoor concerts that are truly in tune with nature.

Panama-Flower

Wild beauty in the Mamoní Valley Preseve in Panama.

Earth Train recently opened a campus, designed by a protégé of architect Frank Gehry, near Panama City in order to offer even more environmental education to even more people.

Pre arrange your visit to Mamoní Valley Preserve and Centro Mamoní, just two hours from Panama City, by contacting Earth Train by email at info AT earthtrain DOT org. The cost of your visit will help fund the purchase and protection of more land and the creation of more environmental education programs.

Fireworks-flower-tree-Panama

Bursts of color in the green, green, green Mamoní Valley Preserve.

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End of the Road – Yaviza, Darién Jungle, Panama

For all but the craziest among us (more on them later), driving through the Darién Jungle overland is not within the realm of possibility. But that doesn’t mean you can’t travel to the end of the road in the Darién and visit a town called Yaviza where the pavement of the Pan-American Highway stops and ass-whupping jungle begins.

Welcome to the Darien Panama

Our truck entering Darién Province, home of the Darién Jungle, on our way to the end of the Pan-American Highway in Panama.

The only break in the Pan-American Highway

The Darién Jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, covers 10,000 square miles (26,000 square km) just on the Panamanian side. The region’s dense vegetation and marshy expanses create the only break in the Pan-American Highway which otherwise runs around 16,000 miles (25,750 km) from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia in Argentina along the length of the American Continents.

The 60 mile (96 km) break in the action caused by the Darién Jungle is called the Darién Gap and it’s a pain in the ass for overland travelers like us who aren’t certifiably insane and, therefore, are forced to ship our vehicles around the Darién Gap from Panama to Colombia rather than driving through.

Welcome to Yaviza, Darien Panama - End of the PanAmerican Highway

Welcome to the town of Yaviza where the Darién Jungle forms the only break in the Pan-American Highway.

Oh, sure. Some crazies have attempted to drive through the Darién Jungle. A handful have even made it starting with the Trans-Darién Expedition in 1960 during which a husband and wife team spent five months hacking a “road” through the Darién Jungle and averaging about 600 feet (200 meters) per hour. Good times.

It was 12 more years before another team made it through the Darién Jungle, but just barely. Back axles on Range Rovers driven by members of the British Trans-Americas Expedition broke and new parts had to be air dropped in. Clothing rotted on their bodies from the humidity. About half the team suffered serious injury and illness.

In 1975 some dudes on Rokon motorcycles tried four times before getting through the Darién Jungle overland. In 2015 a fresh crew of crazies plans to attempt to drive through the Darién Jungle and for US$4,400 you can join them. Send a postcard.

Literal end of the Pan American Highway - Darien Gap, Panama

A bit anticlimactic, perhaps, but that’s the end of the road for the Pan-American Highway in Panama.

Mother Nature’s border

“Why don’t they just close the Darién Gap by connecting the highway through the Darién Jungle?” you may wonder. First of all, building a road through a jungle is never easy. Think about it. Then consider the fact that the remote Darién Jungle has proven to be a good hideout for all kinds of bad guys who have moved in over the years and they don’t take too kindly to bulldozers and work crews getting in the way of their lucrative, totally illegal business. So, if the snakes don’t get you the narco traffickers and FARC guerrillas will.

Yaviza Panama end of PanAmerican Highway. Roadless Darien Gap

This bridge in the town of Yaviza goes over the Rio Chicanaque, the longest river in Panama, and marks the end of the Pan-American Highway and the beginning of the Darién Gap created by the road less Darién Jungle.

There are also political reasons why the Darién Jungle remains a vast, road less expanse: it’s Mother Nature’s border and a really excellent buffer zone between Central America and South America.

In the early 2000’s Alvaro Uribe, then President of Colombia, proposed a road through the Darién Jungle to complete the Pan-Am and make trade between nations easier. That idea obviously never got off the ground and we wouldn’t be surprised if there’s never a road through the Darién.

Darien bus terminal, Yaviza, Panama

Someday there will be a bus station at the end of the road in Yaviza, Panama. Someday.

Drive to the end of the road in the Darién

We were in Darién Provence at the end of four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle with Panama Exotic Adventures. Rather than return immediately to Panama City, we decided to drive to the end of the road in the Darién.

Rio Chucanaque, Yaviza Darien Panama

Yaviza at the end (or beginning) of Pan-American Highway in Panama is a port town and villagers bring there produce, including these plantains, to town so the goods can be distributed to other parts of the country.

The road continues until you reach a town called Yaviza, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to. It’s not the predictably lousy quality of the road that makes this little drive hard, it’s the hoops you have to jump through to get there.

Bringing produce to Yaviza on the Rio Chucanaque, Panama

Space is money so plantains are packed into boats like sardines in Yaviza at the beginning of their journey to other parts of Panama.

As we mentioned before, the Darién Jungle has become something of a hot spot for illicit activity. Therefore, Panamanian officials are anxious to keep tabs (as best they can) on who goes into the region. This means that everyone, including day tripping tourists, have to follow the rules and regulations of Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (Senafront), Panama’s border police.

Loading plantains in Yaviza Darien

We’ve never seen produce packed more precisely than these plantains on their way out of Yaviza.

Senafront officers control access to the Darién region with multiple checkpoints along the Pan-American Highway. At these stops, everyone’s documents are checked and rechecked. At any point a traveler may be turned back.

Luckily, we weren’t turned back though we did have to sweet talk our way past some officials especially when we wanted to park the truck and walk around Yaviza on foot. For some reason officials were worried that we were going to abandon our truck and wander off into the Darién.

Fried fish lunch & Balboa beer in Yaviza Darien, Panama

Lunch of champions (and everyone else) in Yaviza, Panama where the road less Darién Jungle brings the mighty Pan-American Highway to a screeching halt.

Not that there was much to see in Yaviza where reportedly less than 2,000 people live, but, hey it’s the end of the road.

Yaviza Darien Panama

There’s only one way to go from Yaviza, Panama.

A new way to stay in the Darién

It’s not exactly a hotel boom, but it is worth noting that in 2014 the folks behind Canopy Tower and two other hotels in Panama opened Canopy Camp in the Darién Jungle offering luxury safari tents from South Africa and some of the best bird watching in the country.

Canopy Camp, Darien Panama

In 2014 Canopy Camp opened in the Darién Jungle offering travelers luxury platform tents and plenty of rainforest immersion.

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Central America’s Most Infamous Jungle – Darién, Panama

Mention the Darién Jungle or the Darién Gap or just plain Darién and images of impenetrable greenery filled with hostile critters and even more hostile interlopers (drug runners, guerrillas and others) spring to mind. Like most places, however, there’s more to Central America’s most infamous jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, as we learned when we traveled there for four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle.

Giant trees Darien jungle Panama

Things grow big in the remote, road less Darién Jungle.

Plenty to see here

Just because the Darién Jungle is remote, largely inaccessible and little-visited doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see there. In fact, that remoteness and inaccessibility means that the Darién Jungle is a haven for flora and fauna. The Panamanian portion is a lush rainforest with peaks up to 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) high and most of it is protected as the Darién National Park, the largest national park in Central America.

Flowers of Darien, Panama

Though green dominates the palette in the Darién, other colors assert themselves too.

On the Colombian side, the Darién changes into a 50-mile-wide marsh which is even more impenetrable than the jungle on the Panama side. Much of the marsh is protected as part of the Los Katíos National Park.  The two adjoining parks received UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the area is home to more than 450 species of birds and over 500 types of fish. The Darién is also a place where the communities, cultures and customs of the indigenous Kuna and Embera-Wounaan people are preserved.

Exploring the Darién Jungle with Don Michel

Frenchman Michel Puech has found so much to see and explore in the Darién that he’s spent more than 30 years in the Darién. In that time he’s developed a knowledge of the place and a bond with the people that allows him to take travelers deeper in to the Darién. Locals even call him “Don” Michel as an honorific so we were excited to explore the trails and waterways of the Darién with him and his company Panama Exotic Adventures.

Michel Peuch Panama Exotic Adventures, Panama

French tour company operator Michel Puech has spent 30 years in the Darién and earned the honorific “Don” from the locals.

But first, we had to get out of Panama City and reach Darién Province near the end of the road in Yaviza. Unlike the rest of the country, this paved road had a lot of serious checkpoints along it where everyone had to show proper documents and special permits to be in the Darién (Michel arranged our permits). Officials don’t want people entering the area willy-nilly because of the dangers which range from some of the world’s deadliest snakes to some of the world’s deadliest bad guys (guerrillas, drug traffickers, etc).

Goodbye roads, hello waterways and trails

Sabana River Boca de Lara Darien Panama

We give a local Wounaan woman a lift on the Sabana River through the Darién Jungle.

We reached the town of Santa Fe and left the road behind. From there the only way through the Darién was by floating on the waterways or hiking on the trails that criss-cross the vast area. We got into a wooden canoe with an engine and took it to the village of Boca de Lara where the Sabana and the Lara rivers meet.

Old growth trees - Darien Jungle Panama

The few inhabitants of the Darién Jungle have small-scale farm plots for subsistence farming but revere and protect old growth trees like this one.

Boca de Lara is a Wounaan village that was settled by the historically nomadic Wounaan in 1973 after the Panamanian government said any that place with 100 people or more would get a school. Despite the settlement, many Wounaan still go off into the jungle for periods of time.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

In recent years Michel has assisted Boca de Lara in many ways, including building his three room Dosi Lodge here along with the villagers using their traditional architectural style. The employees are Wounaan and lodge guests are customers for their handicrafts too.

Wounaan basket weaving Darien, Panama

Wounaan women work on their intricate, traditional weaving in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

After eating lunch at Dosi Lodge we saw some of the handicrafts made by Wounaan women who traditionally go topless, including elaborate basket weaving using local reeds and natural dyes.

Wounaan woman - Boca de Lara, darien Panama

A Wounaan woman with traditional tattoos in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

Boca de Lara Wounaan woman, Darien Panama

Wounaan women in the Darién Jungle traditionally go topless.

Hiking in the Darién Jungle

Later in the afternoon a Wounaan guide lead us on our first hike in the Darién Jungle. Commercial logging is a growing threat to the Darién but as we left the clearings around Boca de Lara village the jungle immediately closed in around us. The Wounaan have cleared some small-scale, subsistence farms in the Darién they’re tiny and spaced far apart with ample jungle left in between. The massive old-growth trees are obviously revered and left standing wherever possible, even in areas where the undergrowth has been cleared for a farm plot.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village, Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara as seen from a hilltop in the Darién Jungle.

After a brief hike we reached a ridge above the village near the spot where Spanish conquistador and explorer (back in the days when those two things went hand in hand) Vasco Núñez de Balboa saw the Pacific for the first time in 1500s. Balboa is considered to be the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific.

The French later stood near this same area and were inspired to consider the Darién as the first spot for their Panama Canal project because the natural waterways in the area seemed to make an easy route from ocean to ocean. The mountains they later discovered changed their minds and the French shifted focus to the Panama Canal‘s current site (thought they failed to complete it, leaving that task to the US).

Michel told us that this area was also used by the US to install a radar station after the attacks on Pearl Harbor the CIA later put in an airstrip to monitor drug trafficking through the Darién.

Filo del Tallo Lodge Meteti, Darien Panama Exotic Adventures

Buildings of the Filo de Tallo Lodge were built-in a traditional round style with thatch roofs and split bamboo walls. The carved wooden figure on top is traditional as well and it’s considered good luck when it topples off.

Our first day of hiking in the Darién Jungle behind us, we headed to Michel’s Filo del Tallo Lodge which is named after the massive reserve it adjoins. The place has been designed to work well in nature using traditional Wounaan building techniques including round shapes, thatch roofs and split bamboo walls that help keep interiors cool and carved wooden idols on top (it’s considered good luck when the carving topples over).

Poison Arrow dart Frof - Darien, Panama

This pair of poison dart frogs lived in our shower at Filo de Tallo Lodge in the Darién Jungle.

Parrots Filo de Tallo Lodge - Darien, Panama

These parrots live at Filo de Tallo Lodge and they like to be gently scratched.

Interiors at Filo de Tallo Lodge are well-appointed with good beds, mosquito nets and full service bathrooms including gorgeous carved wood sinks.Bonus: we had a pair of poison dart frogs in our shower. Furnished private patios are the perfect place for nature watching and we saw hummingbirds, parrots, toucans right from our patio.

The Darién’s complicated capital

The next day, shortly after day break, we were got back in a boat at Puerto Quimba for a trip up the Rio Iglesia through mangroves to the Gulf of San Miguel.

Mangroves on Rio Iglesia Darien Panama

Floating through the mangroves along sections of the Rio Iglesia, one of the waterways through the Darién Jungle.

Along the way we stopped on some surprisingly sandy beaches and bought some fish fresh off the fishing boat for dinner. We also visited remains of two Spanish-built forts which have been utterly re-taken by the jungle before stopping in La Palma, the Darién’s complicated capital.

Fishermen Gulf of San Miguel, Darien Panama

Fresh fish off this boat was turned into dinner in the Darién Jungle.

Ruined Spanish fort Darien jungle Panama

The Spanish built forts in the Darién Jungle, but the vegetation has long since reclaimed them.

With 4,300 inhabitants, La Palma is the most populous town in the region but that doesn’t mean it has more than one street which boasts a hospital, a police station plus a few hotels, bars and restaurants. Oh, and an airstrip. Michel said that In the bad old days when Manuel Noriega was still in power, planes from Colombia landed here three times a week  packed full of cash which Noriega then laundered in his banks.

La Palma capital Darien Provence Gulf of San Miguel, Panama

La Palma may be the capital of Darién Province but it’s not connected to the outside world by road and can only be reached on the water.

THE street in La Palma Darien, Panama

Downtown La Palma.

Meeting the Embera of the Darién

After another night in Filo del Tallo Lodge lodge we drove a short distance to Puerto Limon where we got into another wooden canoe for a trip on Rio Chucunaque to a trail head for more time hiking in the Darién Jungle. This was the most impressively virgin and dense jungle we’d seen yet and we spent four hours enjoying the silence and size of everything around us.

Canoe Rio Chucunaque Darien, Panama

Our river guide on the Rio Chucunaque through the Darién Jungle.

Exhausted but exhilarated we then visited the village of Alto Playona and met members of the Embera indigenous group before heading back to Puerto Limon and the lodge via the Rio Chucunaque. Howler monkeys and other critters we could hear but couldn’t see serenaded our journey from the river bank.

Alto Playona Darien Panama Rio Chucunaque

The Embera village of Alto Playona on the banks of the Rio Chucunaque in the Darién Jungle.

Peccary jaw bones Embera village house Darien Panama

Peccary (wild pig) jaw bones in an Embera house in the Darién Jungle.

Our toughest (and most snake-filled) hike in the Darién

The following day brought our toughest hike in the Darién. Though it only took two hours, the uphill terrain and need for our guide to machete his way through thick jungle had us all working hard.

Boa Constrictor Darien Panama

Yep, that’s a boa constrictor overhead.

Cuipo trees, with their bulbous bellies, towered above us and strangler figs snaked their way up tree trunks. The thick vegetation made spotting animals difficult, though there was no mistaking a six foot (two meter) boa constrictor in the canopy over head. We also saw two small fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, on the trail before bidding goodbye to the Darién.

Hiking Darien Jungle, Panama

We were delighted to see so many enormous trees while we were hiking in the Darién Jungle.

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