Most of the eastern half of Sucumbíos Province falls within the beautiful Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve ($20) of unique flooded rainforest that spreads out over more than 6,000 square kilometers east of Lago Agrio all the way to the Peruvian border.
The Río Aguarico, which translates as “rich water,” carves its way through the reserve, and countless tributaries offer unforgettable canoe rides to hidden lagoons. There is astonishing biodiversity of plants, trees, mammals, and, in particular, aquatic wildlife: pink freshwater dolphins, white and black caimans, and giant otters can be observed here.
In the west, terra firma forests stay dry most of the year, while seasonally flooded areas of low-water marshes border permanently flooded forests to the east.
More than 200 species of trees per hectare have been recorded here, including many species of palm, guava, and native trees like the zapote silvestre (forest apple), uva de arbol (tree grape), and cerezo de tierra (ground cherry).
Birders won’t be disappointed because Cuyabeno contains at least one-third of all the bird species in the entire Amazon basin (500 recorded species at last count). Raucous blue-and-yellow macaws fly overhead, and the ringed kingfisher, the largest of five kingfisher species in the reserve, is often startled from its riverside perch by passing canoes.
Mammal species include the fisher bat, which snatches fish from lakes and rivers, and saki monkeys with long furry tails.
Unfortunately, exploitation of the black riches underneath Cuyabeno have done huge damage to the western part of the reserve. There were at least six recorded oil spills in the region in the 1980s, and legal action against oil companies is ongoing. The Ecuadorian government expanded the size of the reserve in 1991 in an effort to compensate indigenous people and protect even more of the Río Cuyabeno’s watershed from colonization. The eastern section is only reachable on a day-long motorboat ride, a remoteness that will hopefully help to protect it.
The Siona-Secoya people inhabit the upper reaches of the Río Aguarico near the Río Cuyabeno. Groups of Lowland Kichwa are occasionally encountered downstream, along with a small enclave of Cofán at Zábalo. Two Shuar communities have recently moved into the far eastern part of the reserve.
The only way to experience the reserve is by going on a tour or staying at a permanent lodge. Access is via the road southeast from Lago Agrio, where groups board motorboats at Dureno or Chiritza to be whisked downriver.
The range of lodges in Cuyabeno is more limited than those near Coca and Tena . One of the best-known is Cuyabeno Lodge, near the refuge’s Laguna Grande, run by Neotropic Turis (Pinto E4-338 at Amazonas, Quito, tel. 2/252-1212, fax 2/255-4902, www.cuyabenolodge.com ). These comfortable bungalows are built with natural materials and have private baths. Some of Ecuador ’s finest naturalist guides lead hikes and canoe trips into the forest in conjunction with indigenous Siona people; expeditions of four days ($350 pp) and five days ($430 pp) don’t include transportation from Quito .
Tapir Lodge, run by Nomadtrek (Juan León Mera and Wilson, Quito, tel. 2/290-2670, www.tapirlodge.com , $580–725 pp) is the other good quality lodge in Cuyabeno.
Dracaena (Joaquín Pinto and Amazonas, Quito, tel. 2/254-6590, www.amazondracaena.com ) runs two basic lodges in the area that are more camps than actual lodges. Tours to the Nicky Lodge cost $170–200 pp. The lodge has an observation tower, and there are Secoya and Kichwa communities close by. Four-day ($240 pp) and five-day ($280 pp) stays at Dracaena Camp Site include tours to the local Siona communities.
Jamu Lodge (Calama and Reina Victoria, Quito, tel. 2/222-0614) is another, cheaper option, with four-day ($245 pp) and five-day ($285 pp) stays.
For extended visits with the Cofán people, contact Randy Borman at Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán (tel. 2/247-4763, kimreyanna [at] gmail [dot] com, www.cofan.org ). Trips range 4–10 days (from $100 pp per day) with accommodations in the Cofán community of Zabalo in the Cuyabeno wildlife reserve. A minimum group size of four is required.