As bucket list adventures go, venturing into the Amazon jungle, the world’s largest rainforest, is definitely up there.
Maudie in our Latin team recently traveled to Ecuadorian Amazon and shares the diary of her journey from the Andes to the Amazon.
The clouds cleared and the crumpled expanse of the Andes cordillera spread out beneath us, mist covered peaks and contours smooth out into the sweeping concrete jungle of Ecuador’s capital of Quito. We drive to the decadent luxury of Casa Gangotena in Quito’s Centro Historico. Afternoon tea with warm humitas (local corn bread) and rich hot chocolate is served on the terrace views over the Plaza San Francisco.
My spacious suite displays restored Spanish frescos, with every luxury granted, and windows overlooking the court yard of palm trees and fountains. Old meets new to create an award winning hotel, and in the colonial heart of Quito it makes a wonderful base from which to explore Ecuador’s capital.
A short walk away – escorted by a Gangotena concierge – we take a table at Vista Hermosa. Located behind the presidential palace, it’s a local place for drinks al fresco on the terrace with spectacular 360 views of Quito’s glistening, softly lit skyline.
A short 30 minute flight from Quito, the plane touches down in Coca, a town dominated by oil. On the fringes of the Amazon, Coca serves as the gateway to Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest, for business and for tourists alike. I knew this was going to be an experience of a life-time. We are a small group of six, accompanied by four friendly staff from the Napo Wildlife Center. Our next mode of transport is a motorized canoe, we are seated in arm-chair like seats, given a tasty packed lunch, and our knowledgeable guide talked us through the region and what we will be seeing on the river. Oil and mining companies jostle for business along the Amazon – especially in Coca – creating big challenges for the forest and its people. Our guide spoke with refreshing honesty about the cons, and the pros, of big business in the Amazon, painting a picture of how Napo sits within it.
Napo Wildlife Center, our final destination thankfully sits on 21,000 hectares of protected Yasuni National Park Forest and is well beyond the reach of roads. The highway is the river and our two hour ride down river was hypnotising. Tall green palms, tropical birds-of-paradise and candlestick flowers line the river, cotton-wool clouds hang above in Azure sky and the sound of the wind and the river rush by.
Arriving at the Napo dock, we change onto our final vessel, a dug-out canoe, this time powered by our Napo team of two able paddlers. The river tributary changes to a deep, murky black water due to the rich sediments of the forest. The river narrows and the canopy changes to water loving trees such as swamp palms, water lilies’ and tendril-like vines. Now we begin to look out for wildlife. Along our 7km paddle, we spot a shy Caiman Lizard, a gigantic spider, a yellow-bellied snake, metallic Morpho Blue butterflies among others, and numerous birds of which our guide spots for us.
The handsome Tiger Heron and the pre-historic looking Haotzin are my favorites. With only 20 per cent of the forests wildlife living on the forest floor, we’ve done pretty well to have spotted these in our short time paddling up stream.
The tributary starts to open up for our arrival to Napo Wildlife Center and we are greeted by a beautiful mirror lake with casitas on the horizon. It truly is paradise. We cannot believe we get to spend three nights here in this isolated spot, a hotspot of biodiversity and a natural wonder.
At dawn, we board our dug out canoe and cross the mirrored lake toward the tributary listening to the forest coming alive. We are en route to one of the park’s two Clay Licks, an area that attracts large amounts of parrots and parakeets on a daily migration to peck away at the mineral rich clay, essential to their daily digestion. Before long we have seen herons and hummingbirds, a couple of pairs of bright shiny eyes belonging to some nocturnal monkeys nesting in the hollow of a tree.
We are relaxing into the morning ride until our Anangu indigenous guide signals to our Jairo the naturalist to pull into the shore. He has seen something. Suddenly an otter’s head appears from behind a fallen tree in the water, then a strange horse-like snorting sound begins and a high pitched hum, suddenly there are four Giant River Otters in the shallows of the river bank talking to each other, then they dart through the water and curiously rear their heads high to reveal white chests, before diving back under. The light made photography impossible, but video footage captured that moment perfectly. (Click for video).
Boyed by our lucky spot, we continued on towards the Napo River and the Clay Lick, to be greeted by an entire flock of parrots and parakeets pecking away at the clay wall or perched in the surrounded canopy. Fluro green Amazon Mealy Parrots and Dusky headed Parakeets abound. After 40 minutes observation, the flock start to squawk and scarper, we get lucky and see the cause of the alarm, three Tarpy’s stalk through the clearing. Land faring cousins of the Otter and a rare sighting we are told.
Napo Wildlife Center has achieved a fine balance between a wildlife and cultural operation. The Anangu (meaning ‘worker ant’ in Kiwcha) tradition of being hard workers is reflected in the women in the community having a desire to become involved in the lodge. They have set up a cultural center which we are invited to visit, we watch the women dance and play instruments, and soon we are invited to dance too, and there is no one there not on their feet throwing caution to the wind.
We are told about the Indigenous people’s previous way of life by the head woman of the tribe and what they have left behind in order to preserve the rainforest under the Napo guise. Hunting was abandoned only 15 years ago, and trapping and hunting techniques that are no longer used are kept alive here. If left in the jungle with a blow gun, from my new experience at the center, I would definitely go hungry. We try the traditional tea and the fermented chicha made from forest Yuca and drunk at celebratory occasions. It is passed round the group in a bowl, as tradition dictates. The experience manages to feel genuine and everyone, especially the community, are enjoying themselves.
Returning back to lodgings means we must again canoe upstream. It’s around 2pm and in the heat of the day. Our paddlers are working hard to propel us upstream and we are not expecting to see too much wildlife. Instead our eagle-eyed guide makes this journey upstream unforgettable. In the canopy top we spot a Boa constrictor, a big billed Toucan, and the stars of the show, an entire troop of monkeys swinging overhead. It is at this moment, I truly feel I am in the jungle.
At first some large lumbering Monk Saki monkeys make the troop noticed, sitting up high their weight causes the tree to crack catching the attention of our guide. These large, fluffy fellows are soon they are followed by the adorable Squirrel monkey in abundance, flitting from trees and devouring fruit lower in the canopy. Next to cross the river were the Capichun’s, with their looped tails swing with agility from tree to tree. We are surrounded by what feels like hundreds of monkeys and we sit and enjoy the show from the comfort of the canoe.
As the sun rises, we cross the mirrored lake spotting a pair of giant caiman as we paddle. We enter a creek into the jungle, the water levels are low and we must disembark and walk 20 minutes into the forest. It hasn’t rained for over a week, Hugo our community guide tells us the weather patterns are changing here in the Amazon and rain has not been as plentiful as it should be. In the rainforest, it only rains about 180 days of the year. We walk through the forest, spotting a troop of shy tamarin monkeys eating palm fruit. The monkeys are a distinctive orange color; they are the symbol of Napo and endemic of the Anangu land.
We walk on, arriving at the buttressed roots of a spectacularly giant Caypoch tree; the roots are so large you can disappear inside them. The king of the canopy towers 40 meters into the sky and provides a tree-house like platform for the viewing tower. We take the winding stairs to the canopy top; the view is nothing short of spectacular. With the help of several guides and a telescope we are lucky enough to see yellow-turquoise macaws flying overhead, a flock of toucans feeding from tree to tree, a troop of sleepy howler monkeys can be seen the branches of a far tree.
With the help of the telescope we can see some impatient juveniles trying to wake their sleeping parents, and with patience, we see them succeed. Birds I have never heard of such as the blue spangled cotingo, a jewel-like turquoise he receives much admiration. The canopy contains as much as 80% of life; rich in insects and fruit, the animals move through the canopy in search of food. No one tree looks the same; there are 400 types of tree in one hectare alone. The lungs of the world, the flora of the Amazon Jungle provides 70% of the earth’s Oxygen. Vividly green and seemingly endless from our tree-top spot, they are the stars of this show.
At 4pm we decide to take another canoe trip into the creeks. We enjoy looking for wildlife on the banks of the creek, a white frog that is so well camouflaged he looks like a leaf and a green and yellow tree frog does not object to having his photo taken close-up.
We spot a tarantula in her nest in a curled lily pad leaf, the perfect home for snaring insects. As dusk falls the caiman rear their heads above water, the flash light helps us pick them out by the red-glare of their eyes. We paddle down a narrow creek and the flashlight in the clear water lets us see the aquatic life not seen before including an electric eel. As it turns pitch black we witness the spectacle of the largest of Amazonia bats, the fish-eating species swoop along the creek alley-way one after the other in a train, and back and forth they go in search of pray.
Back at the lodge and we enjoy dinner with our guides, expert naturists and biologists they provide such a wealth of information, it is a pleasure to be in their company. Our group concludes how fortunate we feel to have been able to visit the Amazon like this – with such expert and passionate guides and with such top-notch service from all at the Napo Wildlife Center.
Another 5am wake-up call and with a heavy heart it is time to depart from the lodge back towards Coca. We sleep on the motorized canoe on the giant Napo River and then it is a short flight back to the highlands to Quito.