Travelblog LA#4: Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve – Ecuador

27th – 30th April, 2023


Day 1

I arrived in Lago Agrilo in the morning after a long and rocky journey from Quito. I did sleep a little but it was broken by all the twists and lurches as the bus snaked through the Andes. Looking out the brightening window, I could already see that I was within Ecuador’s tropical realms by the vegetation around me. I was back in the Amazon again for a tour of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve (close to the border of both Brazil and Colombia).

This was not part of my original itinerary – I have already done an Amazon tour four years ago in Peru – but during my time at Merazonia Refuge other volunteers gave this place such glowing reviews that they inspired me to make a detour.

For this trip, I was also joined by two other Merazonia veterans, True and Lucian.

Our names were the first the conductor called out when the bus stopped at a little café down a dirt track road. I was somewhat relieved that – out of the entire bus full of gringos – only five of us were destined for Green Forest Ecolodge, whereas the others had all booked their tours with other jungle retreats. We drank tea as we waited for another minibus to pick us up, and it was only an hour or so later that we reached the dock, where we met Tamara, one of our guides. After loading our possessions onto the boat, we were soon making our way down the river. Our tour had begun.

It only took a few minutes for us to start seeing wildlife. Our first sighting was some hoatzins, also known as ‘stinky jungle turkeys’. They are one of the most commonest sightings whilst cruising through the rivers on this part of the Amazon, but I never got bored of seeing them in the days that followed because of their unusual appearance. Their diets consist almost entirely of leaves that they eat straight from the branches of trees hanging over the waters.

We were also lucky enough to see a grey-headed kite that afternoon.

Blue and yellow macaws.

As well as a monk sakis.

Two hours later, we reached Green Forest Lodge, were we assigned dorm beds in one of their jungle huts and unpacked our things. Whilst getting our bearings, we were delighted to discover they had a bird-watching tower; a place I frequently returned to during my free time. In that first afternoon alone, True and I were lucky enough to spot a gilded barbet, a squirrel cuckoo, and some tamarin monkeys.

Shortly before sundown, we met Elvis, who would be our guide throughout most of the next two days. He took us out on a boat to a lagoon to watch the sunset, and on our way there, spotted two different breeds of sloths and yet more monkeys and birds. We also caught our first sightings of dolphins.

Swimming in the lagoon at dusk turned out to be a daily activity of this tour. It was always a refreshing way to finish a hot and sweaty day in the jungle, but the first evening was cloudy, so I will instead share photos from the following two days, where the clearer skies meant we got to see some spectacular sunsets.

What did change with each event was the activity after the sunset on the lagoon. The first night we made our way back to the lodge slowly on the boat and saw some of the Amazon’s nocturnal animals, including a caiman and a tree boa.


Day 2

The main activity of this day was a jungle walk, where Elvis proved himself very knowledgeable about flora and fauna. I will not tell you about everything we saw that day – as it would simply take too long – but instead give you some highlights.

An Ecuadorian poison dart frog: so named because of the poison that seeps from its flesh is often used by indigenous people to coat their darts to paralyse their prey when hunting.

A goliath ‘bird eating’ tarantula, which Elvis managed to cleverly draw out from its hole using a stick (video here).

Howler monkeys.

And, finally, a family of night monkeys.

That night we once again went to the lagoon at dusk, but after the sun had set, we made our way back to the lodge quickly – matching pace with a group of bats along the way – so that we could put on our wellies in time for our night walk, during which we saw spiders, tarantulas, and lots of frogs, including this glass frog.

And a HUGE – and very grumpy looking – bullfrog.


Day 3

We spent most of this day in a little paddleboat, and Elvis took us to another lagoon.

We didn’t have quite as much luck with wildlife that morning, but I think that was due to the weather being a bit wet.

Despite this, this was probably my favourite day of the tour. We had the entire lagoon to ourselves – there was not another tourboat in sight – and the lack of engine made for a peaceful ambience (and also that the wildlife we did see we managed to get closer to). This was the closest I ever felt to living in a David Attenborough documentary during this trip.

The lake was also very still, almost turning it into a mirror.

And we saw some beautiful orchids and bromeliads.

We weren’t completely unlucky with the wildlife either. We did see quite a few birds, including this blue-crowned trogon.

Some red cardinals.

And last – but certainly by no means least – we came across a group of woolly monkeys later in the afternoon. This was something that I was especially happy to see after working with these species quite closely at Merazonia Refuge.

In the evening (after our customary swim in the lagoon), we were taken on one last boat tour, where Elvis found yet another caiman in the swallows outside one of the other lodges, as well as a tarantula and another tree boa.


Day 4

We rose early and met Elvis at the top of the tower to do some birdwatching before we had our last breakfast. With the help of his telescope, we managed to tick many more birds from our list, including a group of toucans and a pair of yellow-headed vultures.

After that, we packed our things, said our goodbyes and made our way back. We were once again with Tamara on our way out of the park, and we told her that our tour exceeded our expectations in almost every way. We seemed to have been lucky with the wildlife and (mostly) the weather.

The only thing that we wanted to see before we left was an anaconda – something that is a fairly common sighting for those who visit this park – but seemed to have eluded us so far, despite our luck elsewhere. Tamara said she would do her best.

And for the first hour or so of the boat ride, it did seem that our luck had run out. We passed by several hoatzins, ingas and tiger herons, but these were all things we had seen plenty of over the last few days and almost – but never quite – grown bored of. We didn’t even bother to slow the boat so that we could take photos but simply continued.

It was just as we were getting close to the dock – and the tour was almost over – that Tamara suddenly rose from her seat and yelled at the boatman to stop. She seemed excited about something, and when the boat halted and she pointed up to the trees, we saw why.

So, you have probably noticed that this is not an anaconda. It is something much rarer; a harpy eagle. Tamara claimed this was one of only a handful of times in her career.

The perfect end to our tour.

Overall, I was very pleased with my experience with Green Forest Ecolodge. They have good facilities, the food was great (considering the setting), and the guides are very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Several different lodges are working in this park, so you often come across other boats during your tours, and I happened to notice that a lot of the others had bigger boats with louder engines and filled with more people (which means their experiences were probably less personal and they probably didn’t see as much wildlife).

If you are interested in booking a tour with them, their website can be found by clicking here.

If you would like to see more photos (and there are many on this occasion) click here.


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