Sustainable Travel Through Ecuador’s Cuyabeno Reserve

Sustainable Travel Through Ecuador’s Cuyabeno Reserve

By Jannan Poppen

Rain brings the rainforest alive, and after the downpour the night before, our guides were ready to see some action. As I set out on the second day of canoeing down the Cuyabeno River, I was keenly aware of my surroundings. Time passed slowly, but amazingly, I wasn’t bored for one second. Instead, my senses were on overdrive. Let it be known that I had done absolutely no research prior to this trip. I had no idea what kind of animals lived in the Cuyabeno Reserve. In retrospect, perhaps it was for the best that I had no expectations because it made what was about to happen all the more thrilling. 

Diego and the other guides noticed a rustle in the forest beside the river. In a flash, a giant, four-legged, thick-skinned, dark gray creature, about the size of a large pig, rushed out of the brush and across the river directly in front of the canoe. Woah. What was that? A tapir, I would later learn. And they are extremely rare to see. Our guides were visibly excited, and their enthusiasm was contagious. 

Later, binoculars in hand, necks tilted upward toward the canopy, a tiny pocket monkey came into view — so named because they are small enough to fit in a pocket. Dozens of the little critters played among the trees.  

We continued on our way down the river, and just as the river’s mouth overflowed into the great Laguna Grande, pink river dolphins nudged the canoes as they came up for air. Bright-colored dolphins and miniscule monkeys may sound like the stuff of dreams but in the Cuyabeno Reserve, they are real indeed. With the arrival to our lodge near Laguna Grande, I felt like I was in a dream. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to wake up. 

Luckily, that wasn’t the end of the rainforest adventure. So the dream continued. Deep in the reserve, there was more to discover — not only more unique animals, but also a community of people and a way of life. In the days ahead, I’d drink water from a tree root, eat coconut-flavored larvae (surprisingly tasty) that turned my tongue blue, and fish for carnivorous piranhas with chicken pieces. I’d uncover a seven-foot boa resting in a tree stump, encounter the most poisonous spider in the Amazon, and brave fire ant bites. 

Visiting a Siona Community

Despite the memorable encounters with flora and fauna, a highlight of the time in the reserve was the visit to a local Siona community. Traditionally, the communities in the park relied on fishing, hunting, and farming, but now many communities, like the Siona in Puerto Victoriano, depend on ecotourism, just as ecotourism depends on them. A family kindly welcomed us into their home for the afternoon, and with that, offered a glimpse into their lives. The wood home, built on stilts to keep the water out, was ingeniously designed to allow cool breeze to flow throughout. The skull of a several large animals, various rocks, and found treasures were perched on a shelf, warding off bad spirits.

They took us out back to the small yuca patch and showed us how to harvest the root. The rest of the afternoon, we worked together to make a nutritious, earthy-flavored bread called pan de yuca. First, we peeled away the thick brown skin to reveal a white interior and grated the yuca. Then, using a rope tool, our new friends squeezed out all of the water to make a flour which was then formed into a flatbread. After a few minutes on the wood-fired grill, the pan de yuca was ready for tasting. While sharing lunch together, Diego translated stories of life in the Amazon.

That night, after watching the sunset over Laguna Grande, Diego spotted a group of caiman (reptiles similar to alligators) along the riverbed. Their glowing eyes seemed to be staring at me. As I looked back, squinting my eyes to see their shadow, I wasn’t sure if I was awake. Or, if with the gentle back-and-forth rolling of the boat, I had nodded off to sleep.

The Calm of the Canoe

The majority of tours in the reserve travel via motorized canoe. It is by far the most common method of transportation for tourists and communities within the reserve. But traveling by motorized canoe does have its environmental impacts to consider. Not surprisingly, motorboats stir up the water, resulting in shoreline erosion, damage to aquatic plants, and changes in nutrient levels. Overuse of motorboats ultimately affects the health of the water and the wildlife and people who depend upon the water source. 

Choosing a canoe over a motorboat not only promotes sustainability for the river and the surrounding communities, but it also has another great benefit — it’s silent. The quiet of the canoe means the wildlife won’t be scared off by the roaring of a motorboat. And, catching a glimpse of uncommon animals is for many, the entire point of a trip through the Amazon. 

The monotonous, quiet of paddling was calming, almost mesmerizing. I felt instantly peaceful and confident as I settled into my groove. I soaked in the sounds of the jungle symphony — chirps, water flowing and dripping, soft laughs of our guides. After canoeing through the Cuyabeno Reserve, I must admit I was pretty proud of myself, if for no other reason that that fact that I used my own two arms. I also came out of the reserve with a profound respect for the incredible biodiversity of the rainforest and a strong desire to continue to protect it. 

The Essentials of Visiting the Cuyabeno Reserve

From Quito, it’s a seven-hour bus ride or 30-minute flight to Lago Agrio, the nearest town to the reserve. From Quito’s 9,000 feet, the landscape changes quickly as the mountains plummet to the Amazon rainforest floor below. Most tour groups have offices in Quito and will meet you in Lago Agrio. From there, it’s about a two-hour drive to the park’s entrance.

In order to enter the reserve, a local guide is a must. In fact, it’s required. Plus, guides know their stuff. They know the hundreds of species of birds, fish, and frogs that inhabit the park, and they know how to traverse the rivers, the semi-permanent lakes, and the wild forests that surround them. By using local guides, you also help contribute to their livelihood.

For a canoe expedition, try Magic River Tours.

Published: 10/17/2016

Jannan Poppen is an educator turned writer, travel enabler, yoga enthusiast, and Giving Coordinator for See Beautiful. Through writing she encourages travel and empowers others to push themselves beyond their perceived limits. Find her latest travel stories and advice at, or connect through Instagram or LinkedIn.