My First Visit to South America and Exploring a Tropical Jungle

I'll leave you with this last sunset photo from my first time in the jungle

Let’s go back to my first time traveling to South America…

It was back in February and March of 2014. Let’s start by establishing that my travel experience at the time was quite limited, and this would be my first time, ever, in such environments. It was sure to be an experience I would never forget. I had just finished a semester abroad in Madrid and flew straight to the United States – for the second time ever – to do a conference tour through the midwest, in the dead of winter. Quite cold, as you can imagine. SO, you could say I was really excited about the upcoming adventure to the tropics… Not only to escape the cold but also to set foot in a brand new continent.

The adventure started with a direct flight from New York to Guayaquil. I was thrilled about the venture ahead, but I must admit, I was also a little nervous, after all, at this point in my life I wasn’t the avid and daring traveler I am today. 😉

I had also read a lot of bad stuff about Guayaquil, so I was a little anxious on the way there. I distinctly remember thinking, “it’s not a very safe country… maybe something will happen to me”. Thankfully, all these thoughts and worries vanished on the taxi drive from the airport to my hostel.

By the time I arrived at the hostel, I was a bit tired and jet-lagged, so I took a quick nap to recharge. A few hours later, I was ready to explore Guayaquil. Luckily, I knew people in town through an organization I was part of during my studies: Students for Liberty. I made contact with the local chapter and had dinner with residents who were courteous enough also to show me around Guayaquil.

If you’ve never been to Guayaquil, you should know it’s a coastal city and the second-largest city in Ecuador. It is also the nation’s principal port, located on the west bank of the Guayas River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean at the Gulf of Guayaquil, near the equator. Along the river, there is a promenade with heavy security; it is called the “malecón.” It is a restoration project to revive the historic Simón Bolívar Pier; the project took place in the early 2000s. This area has become the symbolic center of the city, with a nice mix of green areas, food, and shopping.

I walked along the Malecón taking pictures of the memorials and the statues. I visited Parque El Seminario, home to hundreds of iguanas, quite an exciting thing to find in the middle of a city.

Seminario Park, also known as Parque de las Iguanas (Iguana Park) for the large population of iguanas it houses.

I later arrived at the northeast corner of the city center to “El Barrio las Peñas” – it’s the artistic hub of the town, many of the area’s 400-year-old houses converted into art galleries, and several notable artists have their studios in this neighborhood. Adjacent to Las Peñas, there is a hill called “El Cerro Santa Ana” – it is covered in really colorful houses that run through the slums.

I went up this hill through the main path, made up of 444 steps that go from the main entrance, all the way to the top of the hill. These steps are clearly marked, and police heavily guard the route, you can spot them every couple of meters. At the very top, I found a small chapel, some statues, a lighthouse, and some great views of the city.

View from the top of El Cerro Las Peñas

Side note: If you divert from the marked path and go up any of the side alleys, you might get lost in the favela pretty quickly. This happened to me, but friendly people promptly pointed me in the right direction, and nothing terrible happened.

However, I had a friend who actually got drugged and mugged on that hill. The story goes that an Ecuadorian girl approached him and started talking to him. As they were saying goodbye, he kissed her on the cheek (the normal thing to do when saying hello and goodbye in most Latin American countries), and she had some powder on her cheeks, which made lose consciousness within minutes. While he was passed out, she robbed him of everything he had.

This horror story was one of the first stories I heard of Guayaquil before going there, no wonder I was anxious! I don’t really know if this particular story was true or how much of it was true, but I made damn sure to be very vigilant while in Guayaquil, and thankfully, there are no horror stories from me.

Leaving Guayaquil, expedition to the jungle part 1:

The next leg of my trip began the following morning. I went to the massive, central bus station in Guayaquil to take a bus to Baños de Agua Santa. Baños is a city in eastern Tungurahua Province of Ecuador, it is the second-most populous city in Tungurahua, after the capital Ambato, and is a famous tourist center. Located at an elevation of 1,820 meters (5,971 feet) on the northern foothills of the Tungurahua volcano. The city is also known as the “Gateway to the Amazon,” as it is the last city still located in the mountain region before reaching the jungle and other towns located in the Amazon River basin.

First sighting on Baños

Some of the most notorious tourist attractions in Baños are the waterfalls, hot springs, and an Instagram famous swing at The Casa del Arbol; this is where you can swing over the edge of a mountain with an active volcano in the background – it’s supposed to be quite scenic.

Naturally, I had to see it for myself, so I took a taxi up there and got to know some Ecuadorian’s from the area in Casa de Arbol. We drank some local rum, and I took my picture with the swing. Sadly, it was a foggy day, so I wasn’t able to see much of the volcano. All-in-all it was still a fantastic thing to experience.

Locals hanging out by Casa de Arbol (tree house)

This picture is proof of my adventurous and free-spirited side 😉

Swinging of the side of a mountain in Baños

While in Baños, I also took a guided tour to see the waterfalls and bathe in the hot springs. Here you can see photos, although my camera wasn’t the greatest then. Keep in mind these were taken with a real camera and not a mobile camera. Either way, they’re still fun memories to look back on.

My only photo of the waterfalls in Baños

This is the river that runs through Baños.

Hot springs in Baños

Baños was just the first stop on the way to the jungle, so to continue my journey, I took a bus to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. We made our journey during the day and were stopped and checked by the Ecuadorian military several times along the way. They searched for drugs and anything illegal they could find.

These stops took a long time, so much so that the bus ride was supposed to be 8 hours, but with road conditions and military checkpoints, it ended up being well over 10 hours. I should note that you really shouldn’t do this drive overnight, the road is quite hazardous and not safe to endeavor in the dark.

Finally, after the 10+ hour journey, we arrived at the last stop before heading to Cubayeno. It was a small oil town called Joya de Los Sachas, located in the north jungle nearing the border with Colombia. The town was very industrial, and I remember it being an interesting contrast with the dense nature surrounding it. We spent one night there before heading to the jungle proper the next morning.

I should note that I could have taken a much faster flight from Quito, but I opted for the adventurous route. Back then, I was a proud backpacker with a small budget of 30-40 USD per day. So, I stayed in hostels and chose long bus rides as a mode of transportation.

Journey to Cubayeno Reserve Lodge… Expedition to jungle part 2:

The next morning we did a 2-hour off-road drive through the jungle with 4-wheel-drives. The rode took us to the edge of the river, where we boarded a boat and embarked on another 2 hours, this time boat ride, to our lodge – The Cubayeno River Lodge.

This lodge is located in the east of the Cubayeno Wildlife Reserve National Park, right by the Amazon River, and quite close to Colombia. The Cubayeno Wildlife Reserve is the second largest reserve of the 45 national parks and protected areas in Ecuador. Precisely located at the foothills of the Andes, it is different from any other Amazon protected area in the world. Not only for its biodiversity but also for its unique climate.

To paint a better picture of our accommodations, I should mention it was a backpacker lodge. I had never been to something like this before. I was never even in the jungle previously, this was my very first day and the first time ever in an environment such as this. Naturally, I was very curious to know what this “jungle experience” would be all about.

Oh, I should mention that I had quite the ice-breaker into the jungle life when I found a big tarantula spider crawling on my bed that evening, and later, when I checked the bathroom, there was a bat ‘hanging’ out in the shower *pun intended*. As you can see, I was basically living among wildlife right from the start.

Finally, the jungle experience…

While at the lodge, we had a boat tour scheduled every day. Sadly, there wasn’t much walking to be done thanks to the dense, impenetrable jungle on land. So when searching for wildlife, we moved mainly by boat.

I should mention that we had three land stops: The first was to visit the equator line since it runs through the national park. The second land adventure was a night walk through the jungle, which I felt was adventurous, even though I didn’t see many dangerous animals. The third was a day tour to a nearby village – more about that visit in a little bit.

But first, you should know that most of the unique wildlife we saw, we spotted from the water. For instance, we got to see a big anaconda, multiple crocodiles, and other beautiful animals…

I don’t have great pictures of the pink river dolphins, since they are tough to spot and capture with the camera, but they were the highlight of the trip.

Small tease of the pink river dolphins I spotted

Interesting Fact: Our guide told us that when you spot pink river dolphins, even if from afar, it means it is safe to jump in the water. Basically, if there are pink river dolphins in the water, there are no pirañas, no electric eels, and no ‘penis fish’ around… Yes, you read that correctly: penis fish. Our guide actually caught one and showed it to us.

If you don’t know about this fish, it’s a special kind of fish that implants itself inside the human body through a rather unusual entryway – the human penis. The fish swims up the penis into the urethra – upstream, which is an impressive feat for such a small fish – where it latches onto the walls with barbs. Meaning: you should never pee in the Amazon River.

Sadly, during our expeditions, we didn’t see any jaguars or other big cats, but we did see plenty of other animals, such as monkeys, sloths, and other animals featured in the pictures below.

Crocodile sighting during our night jungle expedition.

Large and unique butterfly.

Massive anaconda sighting.

Sloth sighting in the trees.

Life at the lodge…

Our camp accommodations were very basic; there was no internet, obviously. We had limited electricity, some solar power, the bare minimum to charge our prehistoric devices. So most of my time at camp, I spent relaxing in a hammock, reading an actual book, and talking to the other guests at the lodge. It was a nice mix of backpackers from around the world, and of course, the resident guests: tarantulas that hung out everywhere throughout the camp.

Our guide liked to tease us for being scared of the tarantulas. Below I show you a photo of him with a tarantula walking across his face; it even went into his mouth at one point. Naturally, he made us touch the tarantula, which I agreed to… Sadly there is no photo evidence of this brave moment.

Our guide at the lodge showing us how silly we were for being scared of massive tarantulas

Aside from the wildlife highlights, another essential experience that took place during this trip was my first Ayahuasca Ceremony. All the details about this in another post, but I should at least mention how the experience came about.

On one of the day trips, we visited a local village that was about an hour away by boat. At the village, we got to speak with the locals in my broken Spanish (back then, my Spanish was quite bad, even for German standards). They showed us how they lived, how they planted yuca and made bread, things of the sort.

They also introduced us to the village Shaman. When he came to talk to us he invited us to take part in an Ayahuasca Ceremony. I had never heard about Ayahuasca at this time, and due to the lack of internet, I couldn’t even google it to find out more. So, I was just there with the others, some knew little about it, and we collectively decided to take this chance and participate.

This is a cute little girl from the village we visited.

It wasn’t really a ceremony, and it didn’t require significant preparation, he just said: “if you want to participate, I will come tonight to your lodge, please don’t have lunch and don’t eat anything until then, and you’ll be fine.” So, we paid a few dollars, the Shaman came in the evening and guided us through my very first psychedelic experience. I should note that this was my very first time experimenting with any drugs or anything of the sort, but that’s content for another post!

Beautiful sunsets at the lodge

So, all in all, my first time in South America was a memorable and overall great experience. Beyond the highlights mentioned above, I enjoyed the time I spent at the lodge. I forgot to mention I spent a lot of time looking for the house crocodile – a little camel crocodile that would come up to the hostel from the river and would stay 1 meter below my room. Even with this visitor, it was still safe to swim in the river in the mornings – Which I often did since there were no piranhas near the lodge!

Morning swim in the river by lodge

Finally, after five days at the lodge, I began to backtrack my way out of the jungle. First the 2 hours by boat and then another 2-hour jungle drive with 4×4’s to La Joya. However, this time I didn’t take the 10+ hour bus ride back to Guayaquil, I flew from La Joya to Quito on a one-hour flight. But that’s the beginning of another story!

I'll leave you with this last sunset photo from my first time in the jungle