Deborah and Don have just returned from four days deep in the Amazon rainforest. They stayed at a lodge owned and operated by the Kichwa Community of Anangu, located within Yasuni National Park. They’ve agreed to a share some trip highlights with our readers.
DON: When we were deciding which lodge to visit, we avoided those in the province nearest the border with Colombia – the Canadian government recommends against travelling in the rainforest anywhere near Colombia – and focused on what was available along the Napo River. When we read that the Napo Wildlife Center was owned and operated by the local Indigenous community, and met a variety of eco-tourism standards (and was well-reviewed by TripAdvisor contributors), we were sold. We later also learned that as soon as they decided to embrace eco-tourism as a community development tool, they banned hunting in the area in order to allow wildlife to flourish and be less afraid of people. Motorized boats are not allowed within the tourism zone around the lodge, so people and materials are hand-paddled in and out (one hour with the current heading out, two hours against the current heading in!). Each tour group includes a freelance naturalist and a guide from the community, and all lodge staff are hired from the community. The lodge itself features 16 cabins, some duplexes, built on stilts with thatched roofs, an open-air dining room, and a small observation tower. The cabins are spacious, and the beds come with mosquito netting, although as one would expect, creepy-crawlers do make their way into the cabins. All in all a wonderful place to spend three nights!
DEBORAH: We usually travel alone and visit most places by ourselves, so this was a real treat to hang out with the same people as a group for the whole visit to the Napo. We were introduced to Danny, our guide, as we got off the plane in Coca. In our paddling canoe we met Meliton, our community guide. As tourists, we finally introduced ourselves to each other over dinner the first evening. In our group were Emma and Waheed from Australia, and Cynthia and Bruce with two of their sons, Aaron and Jason, from Southern California. It was a very good group to be with. Everyone was very engaged and loved being in the rainforest. Thanks to all for helping to make it a magical experience!
DON: After ten days touring the Galapagos Islands, canoeing and hiking through the Amazon rainforest was a completely different experience. While vegetation on the Galapagos is mostly twisted, sparsely distributed, wind-sweep scrub-bush, the rainforest is extremely lush, dense, and diverse. We were told that hundreds of species of trees can be found in every square kilometre, and 10s of thousands of species of insects lie in wait to buzz and feast on visitors – and we have the bites to proof it, DEET repellent notwithstanding. On the Galapagos Islands, one has to step over or around the birds and animals that are lounging everywhere – they pay tourists little attention, going about their daily business of eating, sleeping, and doing mating dances. In the rainforest, hikers have to search long and hard through thick vegetation to find the monkeys running along branches just below the canopy, or the birds perched on the top branches.
The birds and monkeys in the rainforest move amazingly fast – so not only is it hard to spot them, it is even harder to aim and focus a zoom lens in the right direction as they zip by. The wildlife in the Amazon is exceptionally diverse, but few and far between. We were really fortunate to see a great range of monkeys and birds, only some of which are pictured below.
DEBORAH: One of the most off the wall, humorous moments of the trip occurred when a young guest ran up to the lodge dining room, where we were talking and having coffee, to tell us he had spotted Giant River Otters. I looked through my binoculars and sure enough, they were in the lake just in front of the lodge. The group of us ran down to the dock. On the way, Danny joined us and confirmed the sighting of the otters. We asked Danny if we could take one of the 20-foot canoes and we jumped in (no cushions but with 4 paddles). Danny was at the back, with Aaron at the front and five of us in between. We did our best to get to the otters. Unfortunately, no one except Danny had experience in this type of canoe.
It was quite a site for the observers on the shore. We spun around in circles, went right when we wanted to go left and then left when we wanted to go right. We learned that our best paddling was in reverse. Can you imagine this group trying to get across a lake paddling backwards! It was quite delightful!
Anyway, we did not get to the otters, but spotted a caiman, a relative of the alligator. We then put our efforts into getting close… not a chance… we were really pathetic. At one point, the order of canoeists changed… it was really scary… out of seven people… three decided to stand up at the same time… I was sure we were going to tip and end up in the lake. Fortunately, they devised a plan for safe movement. It really didn’t help our canoeing though.
We heard really cool, loud noises coming out of the brush just in front of us… it sounded like the otters were having an argument… perhaps children disagreeing (there had been three of them). Danny encouraged us to go down a stream off the lake to see if we could find the otters. We then waited awhile and the otters did not come any closer, so we decided to head back… it was so much easier, we could paddle backwards really well and got back to the lake in no time.
I don’t know whether it was because we weren’t chasing anything or if we just got better, we glided very smoothly back to the dock as if we really knew what we were doing.
It was such a lark, such a spontaneous thing to do, and for me one of my most entertaining highlights of this trip.
DON: An amazing aspect of the Amazon rainforest is simply how big it is. We paddled and then hiked to the lodge’s well-placed observation tower – attached to a massive Kapok tree like a fire escape at the back of an old building. More than 200 steps up you reach a platform braced between the tree’s massive branches, the perfect place from which to enjoy a commanding view that reaches to the horizon in every direction. And this is only a small part of Ecuador’s tiny share (2%) of the Amazon rainforest. Our tour guide (Danny), and community guide (Meliton) worked together to find and point out birds hiding in the trees or perched on the top branches. Meliton was particularly good at spotting solitary birds perched hundreds of feet away. Two types of brightly-coloured macaws treated us to a fly-by, while toucans and others made us work harder to see them, sometimes only with the aid of a powerful birder’s telescope Danny brought with him. We saw about 20 different species of birds as well as a three-toed sloth, the only creature that day that stayed still for more than a few minutes!
DEBORAH: We had to get up at 5am the first morning we were at the Napo. Breakfast was at 5:30 and we were on the canoe at 6am down the Anangu Creek, which was our major waterway in and out of Anangu Lake and our lodge. It was a two-hour paddle to what they call “The Warehouse” where workers and goods are transferred from motorized boats to canoes for taking to the lodge. We hopped from the canoe to a long boat with motor and headed to the Napo River to see the clay lick on the shore that attracts large Mealy Amazon and Yellow-crowned parrots, and the smaller Blue-headed and Dusky-headed parakeets to feast on the minerals and salts in the clay at this specific bit of river-bank. Eating this clay apparently offsets the toxic build up from the flowers, fruits, seeds and nuts they eat on a daily basis. Early in the morning on sunny days are the best times to view this really cool activity.
We tried an hour later or so to view the clay lick that is inland about 800 metres. It was a well-kept trail and as we got closer to the viewing area the sound of the parrots was quite deafening. Unfortunately, the birds were very high in the trees as they had been scared by raptors circling the area. We waited in the viewing hut for about an hour hoping the birds would come down to the forest floor, but when we counted at least eight hawks flying about we knew there was no chance that day that the parrots would come down – they only have to visit the clay lick once a week to stay healthy. We left disappointed that nature doesn’t always fit into tour schedules!
That night, with the support of our guide, our 8-person group took a vote and decided we would pass on paddling down a second nearby creek and instead return to the forest clay lick the following afternoon. We were so glad we did! When we arrived at the clay lick we could hear the birds about 40 feet up the trees (the day before they were very much higher). We quietly sat on small stools to watch… with our binoculars and cameras ready. We were encouraged when a group of the birds came down to around 30 feet… then 20 feet… then one of the birds (after about 10 or so minutes) flew down to the bottom of the wall where the clay lick was, then another bird and then hundreds of birds flew down and frolicked in the clay and mud. They were so enjoying themselves, chirping, flapping their wings and rolling in the clay. The noise was really loud… we figured anywhere from 600 to 800 birds participated that day… then the forest got really quiet, and all of a sudden the birds burst forth from the clay pond, many flying straight for and through the viewing hut. Don almost had one fly right into him… it was so cool!!! Danny said they had been frightened by a false alarm that a predator was nearby, evidenced by the fact they returned to the clay lick almost immediately and enjoyed themselves again… fewer birds though. They did the loud chirping, playing and licking clay, then quiet and off they flew again. They came back… again fewer birds. They did this for about four more times and then we had to leave as a large tour group was coming in. It was an amazing thing to watch and apparently it is rare for the birds to return after an alarm has been raised. We were really treated to a special event and all were extremely happy we had decided to go back.
DEBORAH: Our last night at the Napo Lodge included an after-dark canoe ride around Anangu Lake looking for caimans. I wasn’t sure what to expect. We had heard lots of splashing sounds from our cabin (we were right at the lake’s edge) every night as we were going to sleep so I wasn’t sure whether we would see huge angry beasts or what.
When we got into the canoe, Danny had a very strong search light (reminded us of what the FBI might have) that he shone around the edges of the lake in the reeds and grasses. It was amazing to see red eyes show up all around the lake as we moved across the lake. Apparently, caimans are not anything like their cousins the alligator. Alligators would make sure they took some sort of initiative against us, but the caimans were quite kind and did not attack. We got really close to all sizes of caimans. We could see young caimans about two feet long, with their whole bodies visible in the murky water. As we paddled around the lake, some of the caimans dove under the water just before we reached them. We didn’t wait for them to emerge as they can stay under for hours at a time.
The longest caiman we spotted was just before we headed back to the lodge. It was between 12 to 14 feet long. It just floated in the water, with its eyes very red, and let us enjoy its company. They were neither afraid nor aggressive. Another very special experience… I have never been that close to such a great creature.
DON: Visitors reach the Napo lodge by boat from Coca, a small city dominated by the movement of oil workers on their way in and out of the Amazon. About 30 minutes along the Napo River from Coca, on our way to the lodge, we stopped briefly to discuss an oil flare visible from the river (pictured below). Our guide lamented that the practice of burning off excess natural gas was not only a waste of a good source of energy, but represented 24/7 destruction of the environment, something that is not allowed in most western countries. I appreciated that he wanted to point this out to a boatload of tourists, giving us something to think about as we headed into one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world and the purest air on earth. It also brought to my mind the landmark civil suit brought against Chevron resulting from its purchase of Texaco, the oil company that first exploited and terribly spoiled a huge area of the rainforest just north of here (Amazon Watch has the full story).
DEBORAH: This has been our first foray into the amazing Amazon. We will be travelling to Brazil next month and the plan is to spend a couple of days at the mouth of the Amazon and then do a river cruise into the heart of the Amazon. We look forward to more magical times!