One of our favourite parts of travelling is seeing animals in their natural habitat, and exploring areas of extraordinary biodiversity. South America offers two of the worlds most unique environments with the Galápagos Islands and the Amazon Rainforest. We couldn’t plan a trip to South America without seeing both!
The Amazon Rainforest is the largest rainforest in the world, and covers 5.5 million kilometres squared, or about one third of South America. It contains the largest variety of plants and animals in the world. Nine countries in South America share the Amazon Rainforest, so you have a wide range of options of where to explore it from. We chose Ecuador for a few reasons: accessibility and cost. Ecuador is the only country where we didn’t have to fly to get to the Amazon, instead we could take a bus. This make travelling there easier, and in turn it made our trip cheaper. We were worried that we wouldn’t be deep enough into the rainforest to really experience it, but we can assure you after this trip that that was not the case. We saw tons of unique animal and plant life, and were blown away by how surrounded and engulfed in the jungle we really became. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.
The best backpacker budget friendly option to explore the Amazon is to book a tour through an Amazon lodge. We also talked to Gabby at Ecuador Family Tours (recommended by Hostel Backpacker Quito, the great hostel we stayed at in Quito!) who was immensely helpful. You first have to choose an area of the Ecuadorian Amazon to visit. The two main choices, if you really want to get into the rainforest, are Cuyabeno Reserve and Yasuni National Park. The latter tends to house more expensive eco-resorts, and takes much longer to get to. We went to Cuyabeno Reserve. You also have to think about when you want to visit, although there are benefits to both seasons. Flood season runs most of the year, from March to November. This is when the basin fills up, and the rivers and waterways are deep. You have a better chance to see pink dolphins during the flood season, and more waterways are accessible by boat. Dry season is short, and runs December to February. It still rains during this season, but the waterways are much shallower. This gives you a better chance to see Caiman Alligators, but restricts navigation in some waterways.
The four main lodges that we looked at in the Cuyabeno Reserve were the following:
- Pink Dolphin Lodge ($250 USD) – This is the cheapest option, and the biggest drawback was that it didn’t have a lookout tower like the other lodges. We were also told that some of the guides here weren’t the best.
- Guacamayo Lodge ($260 USD) – This is the one we booked! It was still a more budget friendly lodge, but had a lookout tower, which was really awesome. We spent a lot of time hanging out at the top watching monkeys swing by, and toucans and macaws hang out in the trees! Definitely worth the extra $10 USD. The food was amazing (which we’ll tell you about further down), and the accommodation was way better than what we were expecting in the middle of the Amazon.
- Caiman Lodge ($260 USD) – From what we were told and gained through research, this lodge was very similar to Guacamayo. However there was construction being done on some of the rooms during the time we wanted to be there, so if there was a full house some people were being housed in the lookout tower, which was really noisy. Guacamayo’s lookout tower didn’t have rooms in it, so that wasn’t a concern.
- Nicky Lodge and Siona Lodge ($280) – These lodges were obviously a bit more expensive, and from what we could tell, the only differences was they had better food and accommodation. We were super happy with our food and accommodation at Guacamayo, so we were happy to have saved the $20 USD.
We were told that the guides from Guacamayo, Caiman, Nicky and Siona were all very similar. We’re not sure if that’s true or not (let us know about your experiences in the comments below if you go!) but we weren’t 100% happy with our guides. We still had an amazing time, and we’re probably being a little picky, but we always strive to be honest! Our Guacamayo group was pretty big, so we were split into two groups to be transported in boats from place to place. We ended up with the main guide who spoke very good English and was very knowledgeable. The other group’s guide didn’t speak much English, but both boats always stayed close together so they got information from our guide. However, our guide was pretty disinterested at times. We spent our boat rides scanning the trees for cool animals, and sometimes he was looking too, but he was also often on his phone. The other guide seemed to be much more involved in searching out animals to show his group. Just a warning that the tour may not be perfect! We also can’t promise the guides at the more expensive lodges will be any better.
You stay should include at least 4 days and 3 nights, as the first and last day consist of a lot of travel. The costs listed above include accommodation, food (except for breakfast the first day, and dinner on the fourth day) and guided trips. There’s also an additional $5-$8 USD donation to the Amazon village you visit (bring exact change). Lastly, you need to get yourself to and from Lago Agrio (also known as Nueva Loja).
Getting to Lago Agrio
While we were in Quito we stayed at Hostel Backpacker Quito. It was a great old building with spacious rooms, and a rooftop area with free breakfast, movie nights and a pool table. It was a short walk from the Cathedral and The Old City, and was a perfect spot to check out Ecuador’s capital city while prepping for our Amazon trip!
You can take either a bus or plane to Lago Agrio from Quito. Flights are obviously the more expensive option, but take a lot less time. You’ll pay about $145 USD for a round trip ticket, and the flight takes less than an hour. That definitely sounds nice compared to the 6 hour overnight bus ride we took, but we took the hit to stay on budget!
There are two bus options to get to Lago Agrio from Quito:
- Tourist Bus ($20 USD) – We heard some rough stories about this bus. Apparently it’s not uncommon to overbook it, and people end up sitting in the aisles. If not enough people book it, you might end up in a small bus with a crazy erratic driver, and good luck getting any sleep. Benefits are that the bus will pick you up from a hostel near you, so you don’t have to pay for the extra $10 USD taxi to the bus station.
- Regular Bus ($12 USD plus $10 USD taxi ride) – Just a regular old normal Ecuador bus; so boring. But it’s cheaper if you split the cab ride with other travellers, and from the sounds of it much more regulated. Gabby from Ecuador Family Tours set us up with another guy who had also booked an Amazon tour on the same day to split the cab to the bus station with us, which was great! You’ll need to get to the Southern Bus Station (Quitumbe) in Quito, and buy tickets to Lago Agrio. We went with “Banos” bus company, which had a large sign that said “Banos” but listed Lago Agrio in smaller letters on the sign as a destination. Ticket booths for Lago Agrio are on the second floor on the east side of the building, booths numbered 1-12. Our bus left at 11:25pm and arrive at 5:15am, but we were told that we would be arriving closer to 6:30am. The bus driver barely turned on the lights and called out the stop pretty quietly, we almost missed our stop, so make sure to pay attention! Once in Lago Agrio find a few other backpackers and split a taxi to the meeting spot which your lodge will give to you (we met our group at Hotel D’Mario).
Exploring the Amazon
We had to chill at Hotel D’Mario until 9 am, and the restaurant didn’t open until 6:30 am. The hotel employees were clearly sick of tired backpackers gathering at their restaurant and weren’t the friendliest bunch, but the breakfast was relatively cheap and pretty average. We were told we’d be picked up from there by our lodge at 9 am, but it seemed to take longer than usual for the lodges to find their groups, and we ended up leaving at 9:45 am. The bus took about 2 hours 15 minutes to get to the river, where we transferred into boats. Make sure to have your rain jacket handy, there’s no cover on the boats and you’re heading out rain or shine!
It took us another 2 hours by boat to get to Guacamayo Lodge, but the boat ride was awesome! We saw a two toed sloth, and lots of birds such as the macaw, green ibis, heron, white throated toucan, roadside and black hawks, and hoatzin on the way there! You truly are in the middle of the jungle, it was amazing.
We had lunch at 2 pm right when we got the the lodge (full meals below!), and then had until 5 pm to get settled and check out the lodge before the next activity. Our room was great! It had a big bug net over the bed, and was pretty spacious. We had a private bathroom with a hot shower. It was definitely on par with other hostels we had stayed in during our trip, and we were in the middle of the jungle! Electricity was shut off during the day, but you were able to use lights and charge your devices at night. There was also no wifi, no surprise.
Our first activity was simply a boat ride to the lagoon to watch the sunset. On the way there we saw pink dolphins swimming in the river! Our guide told us that we could go for a swim in the lagoon, and at first we thought he was kidding, but we actually go for a swim! Apparently most of the dangerous animals (piranhas, caiman alligators, anacondas etc…) hang out near the shores so it’s safe? Either way, it was so hot, a swim was almost mandatory!
On our way back to the lodge for dinner we saw lots of fishing bats, and our guide pulled an Amazon Tree Boa out of a tree with a stick! Dinner (full meals below) was just as amazing as our lunch, and we also bought a few beers from the bar on site (bring cash and small bills if possible) Then it was off to bed!
We had breakfast (full meals below) at 8 am then headed out on the boat to the location for our day hike at 9 am. We walked to the top of the lookout tower after breakfast and saw some spider monkeys jumping through the trees! The amount of wildlife everywhere is crazy!
The hike was just over two hours, and we saw lots. Our guide explained the different kinds of trees, we saw huge ant nests, leaf cutter ants, and tamarin monkeys overhead! There was also a very muddy swamp section near the end of the hike, but luckily the lodge has tall rain boots to lend out. After the hike we canoed around to hopefully see an anaconda in it’s hollowed out tree home, but it wasn’t there. So instead we went for a swim! We were back at the lodge for lunch (see meals below) at 1:30 pm. After lunch we went up to our lookout tower and saw a toucan, and tons of scarlet macaws (coincidentally, Guacamayo means macaw in Spanish!).
At 4:30 pm we headed back to the lagoon and saw a three-toed sloth and a cormorant. We saw the sunset and had another visit from the pink dolphins! We then headed to shore for our night hike. We saw a banana spider (most venomous in the Amazon!), tarantula, weaver spider, wolf spider, caterpillar, and a huge bullfrog! Being out there at night was creepy, but we saw lots of things we wouldn’t have been able to see during the day. We were back at the lodge at 8 pm for dinner (see meals below).
Similar to day 2, we had breakfast (see meals below) at 8a m and headed out at 9 am. We went to the indigenous village on day 3. On the way we stopped to see pygmy marmosets and a big lizard! We got to the village at 10:45 am. The first thing we did was learn to harvest and make yucan bread. Then we ate it with tuna salad and jam, it was really good! We had a to go lunch after that, and then at 1:15 pm we took a short boat ride over to visit with the village Shaman.
Our visit took about an hour, and we could ask the Shaman questions and learn about his life. There’s also the opportunity to volunteer to demonstrate some herbal medicine (basically they brush or hit your back with leaves) but we’d recommend letting others volunteer. One of our friends had a painful rash on his back for a couple days after he was hit on the back with a certain plant! Also lots of local animals like hanging around the village to get food, like this Saki Monkey! The other group also briefly saw a baby tapir!
We were back at our lodge at quarter after 3, and only had activities at the lodge planned for the rest of the day. We made chocolate at 4:15 pm which was very yummy. The area was a little crowded with 24 people making chocolate, but the process was cool to see. We swam in the river out front of our lodge, and launched ourselves in with the giant rope swing to cool off before dinner at 7:30 pm (see meals below).
We had the option to wake up for birdwatching at 6:15 am, or sleep in a bit for breakfast at 8 am. We got up for the birdwatching and saw two species of toucans and a Caracalla hawk, and were able to use our guide’s binoculars for a better view.
After breakfast (see meals below) we headed out at 9:30 am and convinced our guide to go to the anaconda tree again to see if she was home. She was, and she was huge! Crazy being that close to such a deadly snake, our boat was hitting the tree pretty hard while we were looking into the hollowed out tree only about a foot away from the snake! It was a great way to end our Amazon experience.
We got the the bus pickup point around 11:15 am, and headed back to Lago Agrio. We were given a packed lunch (see meals below) on the bus. There were three drop off points once we go to town at 1:15 pm; the airport, a quick stop in town, and the bus station. From there you can buy a ticket back to Quito for $12 USD, or if you’re heading to Colombia you can go to Tulcan (Ecuador border town) for a little more ($15?), which is a 7 hour bus ride. We were able to get on the 2 pm bus ride back to Quito, but it took 7 hours 15 minutes this time around, since we were stopped by a police check for an hour.
The meals at the lodge were great, with more than enough delicious food to fill us up. The packed lunches left a little to be desired, but that’s expected. Note: You can choose a vegetarian option.
- Lunch – pasta with ham, chicken, carrots and onions, fries and beets, rice and peas, and watermelon for dessert
- Dinner – soup, beef, yucan, rice, broccoli, and jello for dessert
- Breakfast – eggs with spinach, cantaloupe, pancakes, and bread
Lunch – stuffed peppers, fish, cucumbers, fried plantain, rice, and strawberries for dessert
Dinner – soup, beef, salad, fried potato, rice, and bananas with chocolate sauce for dessert
- Breakfast – eggs, bread, and yogurt with fruit and granola
- Lunch – packed lunch of rice and chicken and cookies for dessert. Also had yucan bread with tuna salad and jam just before we ate
Dinner – pasta bolognese, soup, and star fruit and our homemade chocolate for dessert
- Breakfast – eggs, bread, and plantain loaf
- Lunch – packed lunch of ham and cheese sandwich, apple and a juice box
What to Pack
Heading into the Amazon can be an overwhelming experience, what do you need to bring? We left most of our stuff in storage at Hostel Backpacker Quito, but most people brought their big packs and the lodges easily accommodated them. It was nice only dealing with our small packs, and below we’ve outlined the essentials for you to pack light!
- Bug spray
- Rain jacket
- Good flashlight – Get something better than your phone flashlight! We were a little left out on the night hike, as others were much better at spotting wildlife.
- Dry sack for valuables (5-10 litres should be fine)
- Long pants
- Portable charger
- Plastic bag
- Rain cover
- Alcohol – A little bit of cheap rum would’ve saved some money at the bar!
You don’t really need hiking shoes. We had to wear rubber boots during our hikes to keep creepy crawlies out of our shoes, and to navigate the mud in some spots. Most of the other exploration is done in the boat! You can also easily navigate around the village in flip flops or regular shoes.
General rule of thumb is to keep it light weight, quick dry but covered. Cover a lot of skin to avoid bug bites!
- 2 light weight shirts
- 1 pair long pants for bugs and night hike
- 1 long sleeve shirt (Devon brought a light weight button up, to block from bugs but to stay airy as it is very humid)
- 1 pair quick dry shorts (easy to put back on over bathing suit when swimming)
- 2 pairs of socks
- 4 pairs of underwear
- 1 bathing suit
- 1 pair light pajamas