The next morning was Sunday 18th December, World Cup final day! I did watch the final in my hotel surrounded by some very enthusiastic Ecuadorian supporters who VERY much wanted the South American team to win; it was Argentina all the way. The celebrations after the penalty shootout finished were loud and long and raucous.
I made my way to Yana Cocha that afternoon. Yana Cocha is an institution that Inigo works for. It is a place which cares for, manages, protects and rehabilitates victims of illegal wildlife trafficking in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Yana Cocha receives animals brought in by staff from the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, which have been confiscated from illegal trade, or donated by their “owners”, who had raised them for various periods of time as pets. These animals are first evaluated by specialized and experienced staff to see if they can be returned to their natural habitat, but if not, they are given the best conditions to live, as close to their natural habitat as possible.
Inigo was there to receive me and showed me to my accommodation. My first night was to be in the shared cabins used by the volunteers and as I was the only male volunteer at that time, I had the place to myself.
Inside the cabin were six beds, with one made up for me. For the rest of my stay I would be in a separate cabin normally used by the park’s vet but she was leaving in the morning to return to Spain. Inigo also showed me the toilet/shower block used by the volunteers. Whilst pretty basic it did have hot water…usually!
There is also a communal dining area for the volunteers with Wi-Fi access, the only place in site where it is accessible. Three meals a day are provided Monday to Friday and the volunteers make their own provision for the weekends. They can order food in, go out and eat in the town or they can cook basic items in the kitchen area of the communal area.
I think at this point I should pass on some information about the volunteers. They come from all over the world to spend as much time as they are willing to pay for (approx $180 per week for board & lodging); one week; one month or in some cases three months. This is usually arranged through companies in Europe or the USA that specialise in placing people for this type of activity. Others book directly with the park. Many of the volunteers were backpacking around Central and South America and stopping off here to break their journey and learn about animal conservation. The day to day interactions between the volunteers was conducted mainly in English but outside the park it was Spanish all the way.
Inigo had secured the position of volunteer co-ordinator after spending two weeks as a volunteer earlier in 2022 through Kendal College. He had been working here for four months by the time I arrived. The park is owned by a single family and the day-to-day management is under the control of a lovely chap called Raul, a native of Barcelona who has an academic background in animal conservation. He is also married to one of the park owner’s daughters.
On the Monday morning I found out what is required of the volunteers. A 7.30 am breakfast followed by a run down of the days’ duties. Depending upon how many volunteers there are at any time, they are split into teams; for this week as there were only a few of us, teams of two. Each team is assigned an animal group for the day who they will have to feed, clean out if required and in some cases engage with the animal to prevent loneliness and promote activity. My first day was spent under Inigo’s wing.
I had monkeys and nocturnals. Generally feeding is done twice daily and cleaning once. The work starts in the cutting room where the food is prepared. Each animal in the park has a daily food schedule based on the animal’s age, size or specific needs. In the cutting room we prepared the fruits, seeds, meat etc to each schedule and went out, prepared buckets in hand to meet the animals.
The monkeys round involved squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys and chorongos (better known as woolly monkeys). To get to the squirrel monkeys involved taking a raft over to their island.
The chorongos were wonderfully playful and clambered all over us.
The spider monkeys liked to engage with the volunteers but we had to be very careful when working with them. They are very strong and can be unpredictable so we were not allowed to be in their enclosure with them and had to ensure that they were secure behind a locked gate before we could enter their feeding enclosure. The spider monkeys in the park were a family consisting of two adults and their offspring, a two-year-old and an infant of four months old. The adults had been rescued from a circus where they were ‘trained’ using electric shocks and suffered terribly. Raul had nursed them back to health and with the children arriving things were going well; until the week before my arrival. The male adult became sick and within 24 hours had died. An autopsy showed no signs of attack by another animal; his stomach did not have any undesirable foodstuffs in it (a possibility as visitors sometimes try to feed the animals). It was thought that some form of toxicity was responsible; maybe from a poisonous insect or possibly a poisonous frog. It was a real shock to the staff. The next problem was the female adult. Rosy, was still nursing the infant but the loss of her mate hit her terribly and she would not engage with staff; she would not eat despite everybody’s best efforts. Rosy died of grief the second day I was there. Whilst this second tragedy hit everybody hard our efforts now had to be to take care of Juanita, the two-year-old and Lpecita, the infant. Lpecita was taken into the quarantine area where she could be fed and kept warm overnight. (We may have been on the equator but at night the temperature can sometimes drop to 10 degrees C and babies can die of the cold). Also, Juanita had no experience of caring for an infant and could easily be too rough and hurt Lpecita.
Ayla with Lpecita in the quarantine area.
Each day I experienced interactions with the many animals in the care of Yana Cocha; mammals, birds, carnivores. I think my favourite was Yala, an Andean Fox who was so happy to see the volunteers each day that she became like a puppy, jumping up on our backs, demanding tummy rubs and kisses. Yala was also in need of activity so we would run around her compound letting her chase us so that she did not become too sedentary.
My other favourites were the toucans. Yana Cocha has three, one of them, Tuco, is a real naughty chap who will try to bite you every time you enter his enclosure but he was a real character (fortunately toucan bites do not hurt).
The interactions with the animals were wonderful but we were there to work so at the end of the day the cleaning of cutting room, the chopping boards and feeding buckets had to be done.
It wasn’t all work though, one evening the kids (my term for the volunteers who ranged in age from 19 to 37) decided to go out clubbing in town. The local town, Puyo, was a $3 taxi ride away. If, like us that evening, there needed to be multiple occupancy of the taxi then the Ecuadorian solution was a taxi pickup truck, with 4 people inside and as many as you could fit in the back (not sure this was strictly legal in Ecuador but it’s what happens). The evening skies turned amazing colours.
Puyo is a town with a population of 36,600 and does have its own pub/club area. We started off with shots in a bar called Leprechauns (the most unIrish, Irish bar I’ve ever been to) before getting our groove on in a club called Mambo.
It is many years since my clubbing days and I’m pretty sure I was the only pensioner in there! But it was great fun and to my surprise I was able to get up for the 7.30 breakfast call the next morning.
My final Saturday was Christmas eve and the owners asked if we would like to go to their other site called Tamandua, which was an ecolodge set in 70 hectares of primary Amazon rain forest that was also used as a release site for animals that were deemed suitable for returning to their natural environment. We would travel there in the afternoon and stay overnight and have a Christmas day breakfast there. We would also experience the release of a three toed sloth back into the jungle. Most of the volunteers said yes (it was going to cost $40 each) and we bundled ourselves into another pickup taxi for the hour’s drive to the lodge. We could only get to within 1 km of the lodge by vehicle so we walked the extra distance. The setting was spectacular and the views stunning.
The lodge only has electricity between 6pm and 10pm so after that we had to make do with firelight until the early hours of Christmas morning.
Unlike my fellow travellers I managed to get up early to watch the humming birds visiting the flowers and bushes around the lodge (unfortunately they were too quick for me to get any good photographs of them). After breakfast we assembled for the release. Inigo took us into the jungle a short distance from the lodge and scouted out suitable trees on which to let our sloth go. Finally he was satisfied and we brought the basket to the tree and opened the cage door…our sloth was having none of it! It took nearly a half hour of coaxing and tipping of the basket before it decided to grab hold of the tree trunk, but once it did it was off, up into the canopy like…like someone who had all the time in the world.
All too soon it was Monday morning and I had to say my goodbyes to Inigo and the volunteers. I was full of admiration for these intrepid travellers who with varying degrees of Spanish had been jumping from country to country with confidence and a desire to find out what was over the next horizon. I was also full of admiration for Inigo who had taken on this job 9000km away from home with scant knowledge of Spanish but has thrived. He organises the volunteers’ daily duties, acts as a right hand to Raul and obviously cares very much for the animals in his charge. His understanding of Spanish now is also impressive. I would like to thank him and the rest of the volunteers I worked with for their understanding because despite my thinking that preparing and distributing food to the animals would be fairly easy, it is in fact very physical and early in the week I was exhausted by the end of each day. By my last rounds I found it much easier but I could not have done it without everyone’s support.
On leaving Yana Cocha I once again undertook the 5-hour journey by taxi to Quito. This time in daylight in a car whose brakes worked (thankfully) … but the driver still drove like a man possessed. I had booked an hotel in the Centro Historico area of Quito, the capital of Ecuador and it is regarded as the least altered and best-preserved city centre in the Americas. It started out as a conquistador town called San Francisco de Quito in 1534 with many buildings from this period still there today. The area while being the home to many thousands of locals is very much a tourist destination with many bars, cafes and restaurants to be found. The position gives quite wonderful outlooks.
The city of Quito sits at nearly 3000m above sea level, the second highest capital city in the world. This means that altitude sickness can be an issue for sea level dwellers like me. I did not suffer from any sickness fortunately but even walking up small inclines caused me to get short of breath and when I decided to walk up to the Basilica del Voto Nacional that was on the top of a steep set of streets, my lungs really struggled to catch a breath (I needed a 10 minute sit down before I could continue). A strange experience even for a seasoned traveler like me!
One thing to note from my time here was the security situation. All around the Centro Historico was an enhanced police presence; there seemed to be police officers on every corner. At one point I was approached by a lady from the tourist police who asked where I was from and advised me to stay within this area as it was not safe for tourists if they wandered into adjacent districts.
Was this area safe due to the large police presence, or, was it so unsafe that it needed a large police presence. Maybe both were true. Comically, on my last day I saw some police officers doing filming on the street. I stopped to watch and one of the officers approached me and asked if I would do a piece to camera with them. I of course agreed and three takes later it was in the can. I was told it would be uploaded onto the Policia Nacional Facebook page the next day. It appeared five days later, but my part was cut. Maybe my passing resemblance to Walter White from Breaking Bad had something to do with it.
I spent three nights in Quito and used it to relax, sit in some lovely cafes and watch the world go by. A great ending to an unforgettable experience.
For additional information about Yana Cocha go to: