Middle Age Miles

Guest Trip Report – The Amazon: Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

A beautiful sunset in the Amazon – Laguna Grande, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Middle Age Miles hopes to provide additional travel inspiration and insights through guest trip reports and interviews, where friends of Middle Age Miles can share their experiences and tips on their recent travel.  This guest interview is from Middle Age Miles daughter Maria, who recently explored the Amazon rainforest.  Maria was participating in a study-abroad program in Quito, Ecuador, and she and some friends took advantage of a long holiday weekend in their program to travel to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in February 2018.

Maria has some great stories of the adventures and experiences she and her friends shared on their journey to the Amazon.  Please enjoy her Guest Interview and Trip Report:

(1)  What was your destination, and who was in your travel party? 

My destination was Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest. We stayed at Nicky Amazon Lodge, an eco-lodge located within the Cuyabeno reserve.  My travel party included my girlfriend Alicia and three of our friends from our study abroad program, Summer, Yirong, and Maddy. We are all 20-21 year old college students who speak Spanish at an intermediate to advanced level.

Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador (Maria comment: The whole gang in front of a 500+ year old kapok tree. These are considered sacred by the indigenous communities, and the shaman is said to get his wisdom and power from the kapok.)

(2)  How did you choose your destination? Were there certain things you wanted to see or experience, or some other reasons?

After researching specific places within the Ecuadorian Amazon to go, I ended up with a choice between Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, which contains many rivers, lakes, and “floating forests,” and Yasuni National Park, touted as the most biologically diverse spot on earth. Although I wanted to go to Yasuni a little bit more, I decided on Cuyabeno because the eco-lodges were significantly cheaper (as in, $300-$400 vs. $800-$1000 for a four day package.)

(3)  What resources did you use for travel planning? What was most helpful, and was there anything you checked that wasn’t helpful, which you might ignore next time you plan? 

I looked mainly at top 10 lists and lots of reviews on TripAdvisor.com but I also used amazonadventure.net to find ideas for Budget and Mid-range Amazon Jungle Lodges. Because this is an extremely specific type of trip, sites like booking.com, hotels.com, and hostelworld.com didn’t even have listings for eco-lodges.  But TripAdvisor was crucial.

(4)  How did you get to your destination(s)? How much did it cost? What were your other options? How did you choose? 

All five of us booked an overnight private tourist shuttle through Nicky Lodge from La Mariscal Sucre in Quito to Lago Agrio, the main gateway city to the Amazon. This cost $20 each way, while the public bus would have cost $16 each way. We figured it was definitely worth an extra $4 for better safety and comfort on the private shuttle. There was also the option of flying from Quito to the tiny airport in Lago Agrio, which only takes about 45 minutes but cost $200 roundtrip. Being five college students, we went with the overnight bus. Transportation between Quito and Lago Agrio was not included in the price of our Nicky Lodge eco-lodge package, but all other transportation was. This included a two hour bus ride from Lago Agrio to the riverfront and then a 3-4 hour canoe ride from there to the lodge. It was a long travel day to get there!

[Middle Age Miles note: Google Maps says it’s about 6 hours from Quito to Lago Agrio]

[Middle Age Miles note: Google Maps can’t get you from Lago Agrio to Nicky Amazon Lodge! As Maria said, it’s about 2 hours on Highway 10 to reach a river, to then canoe to Nicky Lodge.]

(5)  Where did you stay? How much did it cost? What were other options you seriously considered? Why did you choose your accommodation over other alternatives? 

I decided to book with Nicky Lodge because its name kept showing up in my searches for best eco-lodges in Cuyabeno. It had a high rating and great reviews on TripAdvisor, and the price was well within my range ($310 for a shared room or $330 for a private room for the “Laguna Grande” four day, three night package, which includes all food, drinks, guides, and even rubber boots for jungle walks). Nicky Lodge also had a nice, legitimate looking website (something that can’t be said for all the eco-lodges I looked at) and their customer service through email was very responsive and helpful.

[Middle Age Miles note:  Nicky Lodge does not have WiFi. If your college-aged kiddo is staying there, you won’t hear from her for a few days!]

Nicky Amazon Lodge – Private Room (Maria comment: The beds were comfortable and room service came to turn them down and set up the mosquito nets in the late afternoon. Electricity was turned on in our rooms for 4-5 hours each evening.)

Nicky Amazon Lodge (Maria comment: The bathroom in our hut had a nice shower with hot water, a sink, a toilet, and towels. Room service came every day to clean it.)

Nicky Amazon Lodge – Private Room (Maria comment: The front of the hut was all mesh so that breezes could blow through. The hammock was awesome and we really enjoyed it!)

(6)  What was your travel journey like? Was there anything special or unusual about the journey itself? 

The journey was honestly pretty rough. The overnight bus was comfortable, but there wasn’t a bathroom.  So, the bus made 2-3 stops at gas stations along the route for bio-breaks. The frequent stops coupled with my inability to sleep sitting up prevented me from sleeping almost at all, so I was already exhausted when we arrived in Lago Agrio at 6:30 am.

The bus dropped us off at a restaurant so we were able to eat, but we didn’t know that the bus taking us from Lago Agrio to the riverfront wasn’t coming until 9:30, so we had to kill three hours. When we finally reached the river after that two-hour bus ride we thought we were almost there, but we had to endure a 4 hour canoe ride in the hot sun before we finally got to the lodge. We had guides on the canoes already pointing out animals to us and telling us about the jungle, but we were all so exhausted at that point that we just wanted to be at the lodge. Suffice it to say, I was so tired when we finally got to the lodge that I felt sick.

The trip back was definitely shorter because we didn’t have a guide stopping the canoe to tell us about animals and we didn’t have to waste three hours in Lago Agrio. However, that bus ride back to Quito was harder than on the way there because no one could sleep and we got really bored.

(7)  Did you use any miles, points, or other program benefits on your trip? If so, what did you use and generally how did you accumulate the points or achieve the benefit? 

No, sorry!

[Middle Age Miles note: This would have been a tough one for using points and miles.  Rather than break up the flow of Maria’s trip report, I’ll include a note at the bottom of this post discussing this subject.]

(8)  Day by day, what did you do and see? 

On the first day, we arrived at the lodge in the late afternoon. The staff gave us drinks and snacks to welcome us, showed us around, sized us for our rubber boots, and let us relax until dinner. After dinner, we went on a 45-minute night walk in the jungle with our guide Evi. This consisted of everyone following Evi into the pitch black forest with flashlights, looking for interesting insects, plants, or animals so that Evi could tell us about them. It was amazing how short of a distance we covered in that time because we kept stopping to talk about the fascinating wildlife we encountered every few steps.

On the second day, we woke up early to go on a morning canoe ride with Evi while we drank our tea and coffee. Our morning canoe rides were peaceful and beautiful, and we saw tons of wildlife because that’s when everything was waking up. Then we came back and had breakfast before heading out on the 3-hour guided jungle walk. On this walk, Evi told us about many different trees, some of them sacred, medicinal plants, insects, birds, snakes, monkeys, and the culture and practices of the indigenous communities that live in Cuyabeno. We got to eat termites and lemon ants that we found on a tree, and Evi even mixed a solution of garlic bark he scraped from a tree with water and showed us how to snort it the way the indigenous people do to treat colds and the flu (it was pretty painful but did in fact clear my sinuses). We went back to the lodge for lunch, then took another canoe ride where we saw several different species of monkeys and many colorful birds. Then we took one more night jungle walk before dinner. After dinner, Alicia, Maddy, Yirong, Summer, and I stayed in the dining area to have some drinks at the bar before going to bed.

On the third day we slept in and had a later breakfast. Then we took a short canoe ride to visit an indigenous Seoqueya community, a small village of the Siona indigeous group consisting of about 35 people on the river. Here, Mama Aurora, an indigenous resident of the village, and her daughter welcomed us and taught us some phrases in their language. Then we ate some delicious fruit that grew naturally there and watched a demonstration of an indigenous medical treatment where Mama Aurora basically beat Evi and a tourist volunteer with a thorny branch to cure their muscle pain (it looked pretty unpleasant but they said it worked). Then we followed Mama Aurora and her daughter to the village’s yucca field where we helped them picked several raw yucca right out of the ground, then peeled them. We took all the yucca to a raised, covered hut where we could sit down and assist in all the steps necessary to make a yucca bread called casave and try some more tropical fruits and even some roasted grubs on a stick. After we ate lunch, some people from the village came to sell us handmade jewelry and then we went back to the lodge for free time until the next canoe ride. This one was special; since it was our last night at the lodge we went to Laguna Grande to swim and watch the sun set over the lake. This was one of my favorite moments of the trip, and the sunset was unforgettable. On our way back to the lodge in the dark, we looked for caimans with our flashlights. When we got back, we ate dinner and went to bed.

On the last day we got up early to take one final morning canoe ride. Then we ate breakfast, packed our bags, and left.

Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador – Drinking hot chocolate and tea on the river

Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador (Maria comment: This is Mama Aurora beating Evi with a branch to heal his back pain. It’s very painful and causes a pretty intense rash and swelling for a few hours. She told us this is because the body is expelling toxins through the skin. Evi swears by this and does it every week.)

 

Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador – sifting shredded yucca to make casave bread

(9)  What activities did you enjoy most, and what did you like about them? 

I enjoyed the 3-hour jungle walk and the sunset on Laguna Grande the most. The jungle walk was just fascinating to me. Evi explained a medicinal or other practical use for almost every plant we came across and we learned so much about native culture, beliefs, and how the indigenous communities have changed in the modern era. The sunset on the lake was an amazing and beautiful experience to have on our last night. We got to row through a floating forest in search of anacondas, look for the famous pink dolphins, and then go swimming and float in the water as we watched the sun set. An Amazon sunset is one you definitely can’t see anywhere else!

Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador – Canoe ride in the floating forest looking for anacondas!

(10)  If you had it to do over again, what would you do that you didn’t, and what did you do that you wouldn’t do again (if anything)? 

If I had more money to spend I definitely would have flown to Lago Agrio from Quito because I was so exhausted from the long journey when we finally got to the lodge that I didn’t enjoy the first day very much. Other than that, I just wish I had packed a little better. I totally forgot to look at the packing list they sent us and found myself wishing I had brought long-sleeved shirts to protect myself from bugs on the jungle walks, plus shorts and t-shirts to wear during our free time at the lodge because it got pretty hot in the middle of the day, especially with the humidity. I also forgot to bring a flashlight and a book to read during down time. If you have a nice camera I would definitely bring it because you can’t really get great pictures of most of the animals you see with just an iPhone.

(11)  What’s a fun fact about your destination that you learned? 

It’s totally safe to swim in the black water rivers even though caimans and piranhas live in them. However, we were warned repeatedly not to pee in the river because the ammonia in urine attracts the candiru or “penis fish.” As a baby this fish is microscopically tiny and if it smells ammonia it will swim up your urethra and grow to maturity inside your body as a parasite. It opens up its spike inside so that the only way to get it out is through surgery or castration. Suffice it to say we did not pee in the river.

(12)  What do you wish someone had told you before you went? 

I wish someone had warned me how long and hard the journey to and from the lodge was going to be. Also pay attention to the packing list and bring snacks to munch on during free time or on the long journey.

(13)  Please tell us a fun story about something that happened on your trip. 

We found all kinds of interesting bugs around the lodge including a baby tarantula and a cicada with a parasite. When we were at dinner one night a huge frog came out of nowhere and hit Maddy in the neck before then falling on the table. On a separate occasion a cricket the size of a lobster jumped on Alicia’s head!

(14)  Were there any people who made your trip more enjoyable? How so? 

All of the guides at Nicky Lodge were amazing and really made the experience memorable and fun. Their knowledge and ability to spot animals from extreme distances were astounding and they could answer any question you might have about flora or fauna in Cuyabeno. They were also just nice guys in general and I felt very safe and comfortable around them.

Nicky Amazon Lodge, Ecuador (Maria comment: Goodbye selfie with Evi, our “jungle father”)

(15)  Is there anything else you think the readers of Middle Age Miles would enjoy hearing about your trip that might help them in their travels? 

The food we were served at Nicky Lodge (three meals a day plus snacks) was amazing and some of the best I had in Ecuador. Also, all of the guides can speak both English and Spanish.

Additionally, we found out that all the eco-lodges in the area have to pay rent for their land to the indigenous tribes and that they also rent canoes from the tribes by the hour. Because of this, the tribes are happy to have the tourism industry in the rainforest, and the people don’t really need to work traditional wage jobs. I was happy to hear this because I was worried that the eco-lodges were invading native land or exploiting the people. Turns out they have a great relationship with the native peoples and work to educate the tourists that come through them about the importance of protecting indigenous land and rights.

And one final tip – Bug spray is absolutely essential, and you can’t just use any generic bug spray.  You must use a bug spray with DEET, and the more the better.  Amazon bugs are not deterred by Off!

——————————

Wow – thank you, Maria, for an informative, well-written and highly entertaining guest trip report!  As a small thanks, we’ll be providing Maria with an Amazon gift card (which seems particularly appropriate for an Amazon trip report!).

——————————

And finally …

In response to interview question #7 above, I said I’d discuss possibilities for using points and miles for this trip.  It doesn’t look promising.  Here we go …

Maria says that there were three payment options for the Nicky Amazon Lodge: (1) wire transfer to a bank in Ecuador; (2) Wells Fargo deposit (only for US residents); and (3) PayPal.  Possibly, if you use PayPal to pay, and IF the merchant category code for the lodge passes through to the card issuer, and IF the lodge codes as travel, then a path to a “points” redemption would be to pay with PayPal using a card where you can redeem points for a statement credit toward travel purchases.  Also in this case, the purchase would be foreign (I presume, even though you’re using PayPal), so you’d want to be using a card with no foreign transaction fee.

For payments through PayPal, I do not know if merchant category codes for the actual merchant pass through to card issuers and are used by card issuers.  My research is inconclusive.  Data points are as follows:

  • I can see on a PayPal payment to a travel provider, using our personal Citi AA Executive MasterCard where the “Travel Agency” category did appear to pass through and be used by Citi; however, I’m not 100% certain as there is no differential points earning on that card for Travel that would allow me to determine the category/coding for sure.
  • I can also see PayPal payments on a Bank of America debit card where the merchant category code did not appear to pass through (several payments to different merchants all show the same code).
  • I also found one data point on a Reddit Churning thread suggesting that merchant category codes do not pass through on PayPal payments using an Amex card.

This research leads me to a “firm” conclusion of, “I don’t know, and it may differ from one card issuer to another.”

If the “Travel” merchant category code does indeed pass through, then possibilities for redeeming points for statement credit toward travel purchases (on cards with no foreign transaction fees) would include the Capital One Venture card and the Barclays Arrival Premiere card.

Another card potentially meeting the necessary criteria would be the Bank of America Travel Rewards card (which also has no annual fee); however, as noted above, my research “seems” to indicate that B of A uses a single merchant category code (not travel) for PayPal purchases, rather than allowing the merchant category code of the actual merchant to pass through.  If this is correct, then the B of A Travel Rewards card would not be an option for this purpose.

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