– Cost $400 + $20 ‘entrance fee’–per person. Included transport, accommodation, food and guide for 4 days.
Choosing a tour operator
Despite already having been to South America previously, we hadn’t yet experienced the jungle. We decided to plan a trip over the Christmas holidays 2014 when we had the time off from our teaching jobs in Zamora. Ecuador is just one country offering great trips into the jungle, but you can also do this in other parts such as Peru or Bolivia. So look around and see which place is best for you.
There are hundreds of tour operators, which made it hard for us to choose. In the end, we went with Shiripuno Lodge, which had received good ratings and was recommended by many on Trip Advisor. It’s important to do your research when choosing a reliable and safe tour operator. You need to ensure that they are fully-licenced and well-experienced, but more importantly, are providing a service that is ecological and ethical. Choose a tour company who care about the preservation of the rainforest, the wildlife and its people.
We started off in the town of Coca in the northeast of Ecuador. We arrived the day before we were due to meet with our guide. To get there, we came from the city of Cuenca in the south and changed buses in Riobamba. The journey is 6 hours from Cuenca to Riobamba and then it’s another 11 hours to Coca. An alternative route is to go all the way to Quito (Cuenca to Quito is 10 hours) and then get a 9 hour bus to Coca.
Coca is an interesting city. It’s situated along the river Napo and is the last sizeable town before heading deeper into the rainforest. It’s a principally commercial working city with not a lot to offer in terms of tourism. It is, however, a stop-off for many tourists heading into the jungle, so there is an adequate amount of hotels, restaurant and bars. Along the main road, there are many shops and a supermarket where you can stock up on things before heading on your trip to the jungle, e.g. a bottle of wine or two. There are a couple of tour operators based in Coca where you can organise trips, however I would definitely recommend you booking in advance on the Internet or from a tour agency in Quito.
Getting to Shiripuno Lodge
On the Tuesday morning, as instructed, we waited outside a hotel on the main road in Coca. Here, we met our tour guide and group, who were an Ecuadorian family of 4 and a French couple on their honeymoon. We got in our taxis and were driven about 2 hours to a further point on the river. During this car journey we went deeper into the rainforest. Half the route was paved, half just dirt track. We passed lots of small villages and the vegetation got thicker and it got more humid as we went further. One thing that was hard to miss were the miles and miles of piping that ran alongside the road. We saw quite a few big trucks and lorries on this route too, all coming and going from the big oil companies who had set up in that region. We passed a couple of these businesses, clearly visible from the huge open flames constantly burning. It was sad to see that this beautiful region was being exploited.
We arrived at the bridge by the river. We were given our packed lunch and got to know our group whilst we waited for our boat to arrive. It finally came, but a little late due to the low river level making it harder to travel. It was a simple long wooden motorised boat that carried all our luggage, supplies and our group of 10 people to our destination. It was about a 4-5 hour journey through the lush green rainforest, which was a fantastic opportunity for us to observe and take it all in. We got a bit of rain, but luckily nothing like the downpours you might expect in a tropical rainforest. As we were turning a bend of the river, we went past a riverbank and were lucky enough to spot our first Caiman before he quickly dived back into the water!
At one point we stopped on a riverbank where a tribe, the Huaorini, lived. There were lots of small children, most of them running around naked and barefoot, who came to welcome the boat. As we were entering into this tribe’s territory, we were asked to pay the $20 ‘entry fee’. We had been advised of this fee and had agreed to pay in advance. It was nice to see it went directly into the hands of their community. From what I could tell, it did seem that they were getting a good deal out of all these tourists coming to visit.
Arriving at Shiripuno Lodge
We arrived at Shiripuno Lodge in the late afternoon. It gets dark about 6pm in Ecuador all year round, so it gave us enough time to find our rooms and unpack. It was a great little place to stay. We had our own little room with bunk beds. They were simple, wooden rooms set on stilts with netting for windows. The roof was a high pointed roof covering all the rooms, so it was as if we had just room dividers between each of us. Each room had its own bathroom that was a simple flushing toilet, sink and shower. The water came directly from the river. There was no electricity in the rooms at all, so we had to do everything by torch and candlelight as soon as it got dark.
Across from our rooms was the main building with hammocks and the dining table. We had two guys as our cooks for the week. The kitchen was the only place they had an electric light, which they powered using the generator. Every morning we were given a great breakfast either with egg or pancakes, with bread, fruit and yoghurt. For lunch and dinner, we were served full three-course meals with generous portions of soup, meat, vegetables and rice or pasta, and a pudding. There was always tea and coffee available too. We felt very well looked after. Our guide always sat with us at the table and was happy to chat and answer our questions in whatever language we wanted. We got on really well as a group, which made the whole trip much more enjoyable.
Walk in the jungle 1
We woke up at about 7.30am and headed out on the boats at about 8.30am. This time we went with a local Huaorani tribesman called Oso, or Bear. We were told that he was the best person to lead us through the jungle and to be able to spot the wildlife. We stopped at a riverbank somewhere downstream and started our walk through the jungle. Straight away Oso showed us tracks and fur of a puma which had been hunting there the previous night. From then on, Oso never ceased to amaze us! It was as if he were a hawk and could spot things from a mile away! It was just amazing! He would lift over a leaf because he knew there would be a huge alien-looking caterpillar underneath. He would suddenly stop and point to something on the ground, which when we bent down and searched for several minutes, we would eventually realise was a frog about 1cm in size! He also found the world’s most poisonous frog, the Dart Frog, which is about 3cm big and beautifully colourful. It is also very rare and in danger of extinction so we were extremely lucky. We saw all kinds of crazy creepy crawlies and fascinating plants. We were also very fortunate to see some woolly monkeys up in the trees above us. There was a big group of them shaking the trees and howling at us, trying to show off their presence. Just to mark their territory even more, one even decided to pee on me!
Walk in the jungle 2
That afternoon, after lunch, we went on a walk around our camp. First though, for a little fun, we painted our faces with tribal markings! We used a natural red dye called Annatto, which covers the seeds of the Achiote plant. Ready, our faced painted, we set off on our walk. We didn’t see too much in the way of animals on our little walk, but we did come across many different plants and insects. There are lots of plants used for medicinal purposes, which are fascinating to find out about. We saw lots of beautiful butterflies, some with transparent wings and vivid colours, caterpillars, spiders, frogs and other unusual bugs.
That evening, we were all sat at the table eating our dinner. Something caught my eye on one of the beams in the roof. I pointed it out and everyone quickly got up to have a look. It was the biggest tarantula ever. It was enormous, chunky and hairy, bigger than the size of my hand! It was an interesting beast to see, but I was certainly not willing to get much closer to have a look. I knew I was going to have nightmares for the next few nights. And then our guide happily went on tell us more about it – that it was very poisonous and could run really quite fast and, best of all, it could jump. It was certain, I was not going to sleep for the next two nights.
After the eventful dinner, our guide suggested doing a night walk. Really, this is my idea of a nightmare – going out in the pitch-black in search of creepy crawlies. However, I felt I didn’t want to miss out or be a spoilsport. In fact, it turned out to be one of the most frightening things I had ever done and I’m ashamed to say that I’m not sure how much I really enjoyed it. I’m glad I went though, because at least I could say that I had faced my fears. We saw some fascinating things on our trail too. First, we saw another tarantula in the tree, which I wasn’t so thrilled about. I was happy, however, about seeing the owl and the glow-in-the-dark mushrooms! It was a unique experience, being led into the forest and then being told to stop and turn off our torches. We were stood in complete and utter darkness listening to the noises of the jungle. Then, after a few seconds of our eyes adjusting, we started to see these fluorescent mushrooms appearing all around our feet! It was really surreal and magical.
That night, I was so exhausted that I did manage to sleep, but I definitely had a few nightmares.
Early-morning boat trip
We woke up nice and early on our third day, at about 5am. We set off on our boats just as the sun had risen in the hope that we could spot more wildlife. The first hour or so, we didn’t have much luck. We didn’t see much, but it was the most relaxing peaceful feeling to simply float down the river listening to the bird calls and admiring the greenness surrounding us. There were always huge electric-blue butterflies fluttering beside us, which we never got bored of. The jungle is certainly a beautiful and mysterious place, which makes it just so fascinating.
After maybe a couple of hours, things got more exciting. We spotted lots of Hoatzins , which are more commonly known as hideous or stink turkeys, poor things. We preferred to call them jungle turkeys. These jungle turkeys were interesting birds, about the size of a turkey with reddish-brown feathered wings and a spikey crest of feathers on their head. Apparently the only reason these birds are not extinct is because they smell and taste awful.
We saw lots of Caciques too, which are striking black and yellow birds. They imitate the call of other birds, so you may see them flying beside, or perhaps attacking, other types of birds. Perhaps my favourite bird was the Toucan. The ones we saw were quite small, usually purple, red, yellow and brown in colour, but so distinctive from the shape of their large arched beak. The most spectacular bird we saw was the Spectacled Owl. It was so hard to spot and would’ve been impossible without the help of our local friend, Oso. The owl was enormous, about half a metre tall, but fantastically camouflaged in the leaves. Nearby, Oso pointed out the Great Potoo bird. It took us a good 5 minutes to realise that he was referring to what we thought was a branch on a tree.
For us, the most beautiful birds to watch were the Macaws. We saw many types of parrots, but these were really special. They were so vibrantly coloured red, yellow, green and blue, which made them appear like fireworks swooping across the sky. They would fly in groups squawking at each other and then perch on the tops of the trees, so they were quite easy for us to spot. A few times, we were lucky enough to see a couple playing together and ‘kissing’ in the treetops.
We also spotted some more monkeys. A group of howler monkeys were still sleeping in the trees above the river, so we got a good look at them. Later that day, we also caught sight of a gang of squirrel monkeys who were being very rowdy and running up and down the branches of the trees.
After lunch, that afternoon, we went in the boat on the river again and stopped off at a spot that was supposedly good for fishing. Fishing for piranhas. We were given a couple of rods made from a large stick and a piece of string tied to the end with a metal hook. We put a chunk of red meat on the end of the hook and cast out of lines. We tried for a good couple of hours. We definitely felt small ‘nibbles’ at the meat, but none of us managed to catch anything.
After a bit of an uneventful time fishing, we did something a little bit more exciting! Tubing! They took us about an hour upstream and then in our rubber tubes, we floated back down to our lodge. It was great fun floating about peacefully down the river. I was a little nervous at times when I felt a twig or some plant brush up against my bum underwater, but most of the time I felt pretty safe. The caimans only came out at night and I was told that the piranhas had better things to eat than us!
When we finally reached the lodge, we spent the rest of the evening playing on the rope swing. The cooks, who were also local guys, and Oso were fantastic, like monkeys clambering up the tree and then throwing themselves into the water with no problem at all! We were a little more cautious and not so nimble, but we still had a lot of fun.
New Years Eve celebrations
That night was 31st December 2014. We sat down for dinner exhausted and shared a glass of wine or two. The Ecuadorian family were so friendly and had also brought some ‘jungle’ grapes, which are traditional to eat on New Years. These grapes were very different to those we were used to – they had a really thick skin that you had to peel off. They were delicious and sweet though. In Ecuador, it’s also traditional to burn an effigy of someone you don’t like. The guys at the lodge had made a stuffed model of their boss and so at midnight they burned him! Unfortunately, most of us didn’t get to see it. Our group was exhausted and most of us headed to bed at about 9pm! It was definitely our quietest new years’ celebrations we had ever had.
Our last day, or half-day, was a little more relaxing. After breakfast, we packed our things and got everything together in the boat. We said goodbye to the lodge and set off for our mornings activities on route back to reality.
Ceibo giant tree
Our first stop was to visit the Ceibo tree. We were told it was about 350 years old, and still going strong. The oldest reported Ceibo tree was apparently about 700 years old. It was an absolute giant. It spanned about 12 metres wide and I-don’t-know how tall. We were told that its wood is not particularly strong, this being the reason why it’s been untouched and not cut down.
Visit to the Huaorani Tribe
We then moved on to our last, and sadly, the least favourite, stop of our trip. We made a visit to the Huaorani tribe.
We were shown one of their typical homes that they had made from bamboo and reeds. Also, it was interesting to see the traditional tools that they used to hunt and they showed us how to use a dart gun, which was a lot trickier than we had imagined! They even had a macaw, a couple of monkeys, a cat and a puppy, which naturally attracted the attention of us gringos. We were then led to a place where the local people had laid out some of their handicrafts for us to buy.
Unfortunately, for me, the whole thing felt set-up and staged for the tourists, which made it rather awkward. We didn’t learn much about the people living there or what their real life was like. And that was fine, and I completely understand that their community is not a tourist attraction. For this reason, I think this part of the tour should have been left out altogether. From having been in the secluded natural environment of our lodge for 3 nights to be taken to a tourist set-up felt a little disappointing.
Apart from trying to sell us things, there was another reason we made a stop to the Huaorani community. When we got back in the boat, so did a load of children and their mums from the tribe. It was their lift out of the rainforest and across to civilisation, perhaps to the nearest towns or even to Coca city. From what it seemed, they made this trip regularly to stock up with supplies, such as clothes and food. The community relied on lots of modern products and services, but also retained their own traditions and customs. They did also receive some help from the state. When we visited, we saw that they had recently built a modern looking school. A great idea if they had the teachers to teach. The school had not been used.
We sailed down the river, back to the bridge where we first set off from, and there we met our taxis for our return to Coca city.
Reflections of Shiripuno Lodge
The negative part first. As I said above, the only criticism of the Shiripuno Lodge jungle trip was the final day. For me, the visit to the Huaorani community was unnecessary and felt a little awkward. It was simply to fill an extra day and to sell it as a 4 day tour.
However, apart from that, it was undoubtedly a fantastic and unforgettable trip. We felt very lucky to have spotted all the varieties of birds and insects, and to see the monkeys and caiman. The macaws, spectacled owl and toucans were the highlights for me.
I’ve never been in such an isolated and remote place before. Being in the middle of nowhere with no electricity or internet, with just water from the river, and no other people or traffic around, was truly amazing. I loved the peace and calm of being surrounded by beautiful plants and wildlife. Such a rare experience today. Definitely recommended.