Passage Note #56: Part 2 - The Oriente: Ecuadorian Amazon
Napo Wildlife Center, Yasuni National Park (Lower Napo River)
There are so many choices of varying Amazon lodges/experiences - how to decide? Options included three different Amazon environments with divergent quality and price of accommodations, including a Flotel (floating hotel). We did extensive research and comparisons.
Napo Wildlife Center (NWC) is one of only 2 lodges inside Yasuni National Park. It is rated as one of the top 5 lodges and is quite luxurious and comfortable. Wholly owned and run by the Añangu Kichwa, the community made the extraordinary decision to halt all fishing, hunting or farming 13 years ago. So Lake Añangucocha, where the Lodge sits, and surrounding territory is incredibly pristine and biodiverse, healthy enough to be able to support three top predators: caimans, anacondas, and the giant river otter. In addition, two phenomenal parrot clay licks are located within their property.
Linda had stayed in another top-rated Lodge twenty five years ago - nearby La Selva Jungle Lodge - and had wonderful memories of her experience there. As the oldest lodge on the lower Napo River, La Selva is now owned by a Norwegian-Ecuadorian family and was in the process of being renovated and upgraded.
Although the award winning NWC is expensive, in the end we thought the Yasuni location, connection to the local native community, environmental sensitivity, wildlife access, and quality of the guides would give us the National Geographic worthy experience we were after. We were not disappointed.
The Trip down the Lower Napo River
Getting there was an adventure in itself. From Yachana Lodge further upstream, we took a small motorized canoe down the narrow Napo River for two hours until we reached the jungle transport center of Coca - unavoidable Coca. Known officially as Puerto San Francisco de Orellana, Coca is the hub for the comings and goings of oil workers and starting place for the majority of Amazon lodge tourists. It is not a pretty place. Linda remembered Coca - the small river settlement of dirt roads with few buildings - from her previous visit in 1990, about the time the oil industry began transforming it into what it is today - a large and chaotic boom town.
In Coca we met our NWC guide, donned life jackets, and boarded a large 25 passenger motorized canoe with blue canopy for an additional three hour trip downriver. Our luggage had been covered in waterproof tarps and we departed the dock, floating under the new suspension bridge and down a different looking Napo River. After Coca the shallow Napo River changes character, becoming very wide and light brown (think coffee-with-milk) in color and looking more like the major tributary of the Amazon River that it is, draining the Andes’ western flanks and flowing eastward until meeting up with the great river near Iquitos, Peru. Along the way we were given a sack lunch and sheltered from a brief intermittent rain shower by plastic side curtains. We criss-crossed the watery thoroughfare deftly avoiding shallow spots and sandbars.
The river banks were lined with green leafy jungle forests with occasional signs of human settlement - small indigenous houses with laundry drying in the moist breeze, little wooden dugout canoes (cayucas) used for transport, fishing or gold panning pulled up on shore, or the more sinister evidence of oil exploitation - men in hard hats and blue jumpsuits, rigs and towers, the new pumping station of Pompeya with its wells and tall stacks of flame-burning gas, and the start of the intrusive Via Maxus. Roads like Via Maxus and the controversial Via Auca are especially harmful, thruways that pry open the green Amazon landscape and clear the way for colonists, cattle ranching, agriculture, logging, and illegal bush meat markets - all activities which inevitably follow the creation of the initial red dirt wound, rapidly expanding the environmental ulcer.
All of this seen under impossibly blue skies. Sharp crystal blue with clouds that are so densely white they look solid.
Towards the end of the 3 hour trip, early in the afternoon, the south shore of the Napo River became the boundary of Yasuni National Park and we disembarked at Añangu Welcome Station, just off the Napo River. This staging area consisted of a thatched hut at a concrete landing, a larger thatched hut restaurant, and bathrooms. Colorful butterflies flit everywhere and alighted on the mineral-rich silt by the edge of the narrow stream we were now on.
Among the high dense tropical vegetation that walls us in now is an especially tall palm tree with sock-like oropendula nests dangling like earrings from its branches, and trees with yellow flowers emerging right out of their trunks, too anxious to bloom to need branches. The water color has suddenly transitioned from dirty-looking light brown to clear black (hence the term black-water). This is due to the tanins from decaying plant matter which fortuitously also create an acid mosquito-inhibiting condition.
We were greeted with a cold fruit drink and introduced to our two guides - one a Kichwa man with an incredible eye for spotting things who knows all about the native traditional relationships to the jungle; the other, Miguel, a professional from Quito speaks english and can tell us about the science behind what we see. The two of them were highly competent and a powerful combination. Miguel ate his meals with our small group of 6 - besides us, two American women birdwatchers and a young Chinese (annoyingly chatty) couple from Amsterdam. The food was always plentiful, varied and of good quality.
We transfer into a small cayuca and are paddled down the narrow black-water creek by two Añangu men - no motors are allowed past the Welcome Station. Brilliant big blue morpho butterflies flash like inaudible firecrackers around our boat. A heightened sense of adventure and wonder has begun. For one hour we are silently ferried deeper and deeper into the jungle; silently that is except for natural jungle sounds and our hushed “oh and ah” reaction to first sightings of new animals, birds, and plants pointed out by our guide. Like the hoatzin or “stinky turkey”, thought to be related to prehistoric birds because of the fledgling’s claws on its two wing joints. Suddenly the creek opens up onto the Lake and we glimpse the NWC Lodge on the opposite shore for the first time - 13 red huts and a large open community building with steep thatched roofs reflected in the still water like a dream.
Miguel also planned the logistics of our four days - early ones beginning with breakfast at 6 a.m. so that we were on the trails/cayuca for optimum morning wildlife viewing. After we returned to the Lodge for lunch and a much appreciated siesta in the heat of the day, we would go back out into the jungle for late afternoon and sunset wildlife encounters. We had an outing one of the evenings as well. Swimming was not allowed in the lake because of the large crocodile-like caimans and anacondas.
NWC is entirely run and staffed by the men of the Añangu community after initially being helped by a foreign NGO (non-governmental organization) with its construction. The Lodge manager showed us to our sleeping quarters - to our surprise it was one of the four large suites elevated on stilts over the water. The suite had a queen sized bed with mosquito netting, a large comfortable sitting area with a bar refrigerator, a good-sized bathroom equipped appropriately enough with a “rainforest” shower head, an outdoor sofa and hammock in the front “porch” of the suite overlooking the peaceful lake (having a view filled with a snag of cacique nests and perches for stinky turkeys by day and glowing caiman eyes by night), and the piéce de résistance - a jacuzzi tub (!) on a back patio overlooking the jungle filled with colorful butterflies by day and remarkable frog sounds by night. We slept very well.
The Añangu women decided to develop an Interpretive Center as their contribution to the community and we visited one day to be treated to singing, dancing, music, an explanation of food, cooking, gardening and household operation, and opportunities to buy at their craft shop (carvings, pottery, weavings, and jewelry made from seeds).
Some of our unforgettable highlights:
Canopy Tower - Built around a giant ancient ceiba (kapok) tree, the metal tower leads to a wooden platform 30 meters at the top. This is above the tree canopy of the jungle and is a fabulous place for birdwatching. Our two guides carried a spotting scope and we saw a wonderful array of raptors, hummingbirds, parrots and numerous other bird species with their expert help.
Giant River Otters - A family of these rare, seriously endangered mammals (including some young cubs) has a den on the black water creek leading to the Lake and are often seen fishing. They are a top predator and one of the largest carnivores in South America. Early one morning we sat in the cayuca and watched them playing and eating for half an hour before we felt too intrusive and moved on. Very special!!
Parrot Clay Licks - Parrots, parakeets and macaws eat a diet which includes poisonous green seeds and nuts. To counteract the toxins, these birds eat mineral-rich clay from “clay licks” and congregate at these specific areas in great numbers. We visited two - one was a cliff overlooking the Napo River frequented by parrots and macaws and a second one near a creek visited by thousands of parakeets and other parrots.
Marching Wasps - As we rowed close to a wasp nest in a tree by the river bank, Miguel instructed us to yell in unison at the count of 3 and then quietly listen. All you could hear was the sound of soldiers marching in formation - reminded us of the March of the Winkies, the regimental army of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. By beating their wings in unison, they warn an intruder threatening the hive before an attack. Listen to what we heard.
Hikes and trails - Other wondrous things we saw: Noisy Night Monkeys, leaf cutter ants, map frog, variety of monkeys, caimans, fer de lance (most poisonous snake), rare golden-mantled tamarin (the symbol of NWC), bats, yellow heron, eagle, walking palms, strangler figs, and much more.
After four amazing days in one of the most otherworldy and magical places on the planet, we retraced our steps back to the reality of Coca where we caught a bus west headed for Quito.
We had one final stop on our itinerary before reaching Quito - the wonderful thermal hot springs found in Papallacta, two hours southeast of the capital city. At an elevation of 3300 meters, the more than three dozen steamy pools are ringed by beautiful mountain scenery. We treated ourselves to one night at the upscale Hotel Termas de Pappallacta which had a maze of private soaking pools steps away from our cabin door. It also had a Spa with more pools (with jets) and a very fine restaurant. Outside, not far from the front door was an eggshaped sculpture made of stacking stone slabs that looked reminiscent of the famous sculptor Andy Goldsworthy; we asked but no one seemed to know if it was his work or not.
Just across the road from the hotel was the public Balneario consisting of more than 25 pools with temperatures ranging from icy to very hot; through the steam, we viewed a distorted kaleidoscopic garden of orchids, colored flowers and vines while feeling cozily hemmed in by steep green hillsides. Fantastic place!
What a relaxing and luxurious end to our Ecuador adventure!
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #56