13 October 2023

The Amazon


First curious creature of our first hike through the jungle.  Great camo!  We would have missed it's nearby presence completely if Raoul hadn't pointed it out.

The last leg of our Ecuadorean adventure - a four night stay in The Amazon Basin.  

Booking a lodge in the Amazon Basin by internet felt like a crap shoot.  All very similar, all with pretty good to great reviews.  We chose Sani Lodge for a few reasons.  First, it required a three hour motorized canoe ride down the Napo River followed by a 45 minute hike through jungle, followed by a 30 minute paddled canoe ride on a narrow river to a peaceful lagoon where the lodge was situated.  The journey sounded like an adventure in itself and meant that, unlike other lodges, it was far away from any oil company's industry.  Sani is also owned and run by the local Kichwa community which gave it a more authentic vibe and a promised visit to the Kichwa women's community centre and collective made it an obvious choice.  We were not disappointed.

Another lodge's much larger but less comfy motorized canoe docked at Coca waterfront in the sandy Napo River.  We waited for our boat on a large river boat turned working reception centre mainly for staff, food, mattresses, mosquito netting etc. and us.

First was an hour flight from Quito to Coca, a boom-to-bust mining, frontier town on the Napo River.  Here we were met by our resort guide.  Like our hiking trip, and although the resort was occupied by other groups, we had our own personal guide assigned to us for our entire stay. He provided a boxed lunch.  After a lengthy wait, we climbed aboard a "motorized canoe" with multiple rows of airplane like seats, ancient but functional.  Life jackets donned and we were ready for take off.  

The Napo, a tributary of the Amazon, is an estimated 1.5 km wide but very shallow and dotted with shifting sandbars.  The pilot was on constant alert for logs as well as reading the currents for shallows usually at full speed and with constant, sometimes sharp and sudden veers and turns.  Between marvelling that we were in the Amazon Basin, admiring the beauty on shore and keeping an eye on the pilot, it was an exciting trip.

Our motorized canoe at the landing sandbank.  Note the ever shifting sandbanks in the river.

The beginning of our 45 minute walk to the next canoe, initially through Amazon-size grasses and then jungle.

We walked for about 45 minutes first through giant crops (as you imagine, everything grows to full capacity in the Amazon) and then through jungle, arriving at another landing on a narrow river, canopied by lush growth.  We settled into a paddled canoe, at the bow was our English-speaking guide, Raoul, and steered by our second nonEnglish speaking, Kichwa assistant guide, Jose.  We sat on bench seats, one behind the other, in the centre without paddles - strange to be so catered too but more able to enjoy the amazing surrounds.  At one point a very large tree had fallen across the river just the night before.  Being the only way in or out of the lodge, the staff had worked all night and morning to clear it enough for navigation.  

About to climb aboard our second canoe.  We were in the centre two benches, me first, Peter behind.  Raoul was at the bow and Jose, the brawn of the expedition at the stern, steering, paddling, pushing.  His homemade paddle can be seen in the photo.  The blade of all the paddles were elm tree leaf shaped with a pointed tip for pushing through mud.


After a serene yet awe-inspiring 30 minute paddle, the river opened up to a lagoon.  The multiple buildings of the lodge were in the distance. The resort was made up of several thatched buildings - a bar and observation deck, a dining hall and about a dozen cabins with one or two guest bedrooms.

Sani Lodge is located in the Yasuni National Park and Cuyabeno Reserve.  It includes 103,784 acres of primary forest.  The land is managed collectively and entirely protected mainly from the oil companies that have had devastating effects on the Amazon Basin.  The property hosts over 1,450 species of trees, 550 species of birds, 13 species of monkeys and over 1,000  species of butterflies.

No swimming in the lagoon.  Piranhas, small but with those big white teeth.  And the common black caiman, with a maximum length of around 5 to 6 m (16 to 20 ft) and a mass of over 450 kg (1,000 lb), is the largest living species of the family alligatoridae was another deterrent for swimming.

Our welcome drink, fruit salad, empanadas and other appetizer like things with introduction by the manager about our next four days.  They kept us very busy, getting up predawn, hiking or trips all day, dinner, and then a hike or paddle each evening.  It poured with rain when we were scheduled for a night walk.  Missed it.  Might have to go back.

The only cabin they had that wasn't shared was "The Honeymoon Suite" so we took it.  Greeted by swans.  The cabin was octagonal with large cracks in the walls.  The mosquito net kept us safe from all critters including scorpions.  We had a bathroom and balcony overlooking the lagoon.

View down the lagoon from the bar/observation tower.  The canoes are the cargo ship equivalents.  All dry goods were brought in the same way we came.  When a cargo canoe arrived, all male staff arrived at the water's edge to heft the contents to storage or kitchen.  When we were there a very full load of new mattresses arrived.

A tree among the cabins covered with pendulous Oropendola
 nests.  Quite something when we saw them but became rather ho-hum, a common sight.

Within minutes of our welcome drink, we were fitted for rubber boots, shown to our honeymoon suite to drop our bags and were off on our first jungle walk guided by Raoul and Jose.  So many creatures, plants and trees.  Absolutely amazing!!

Lacey mycelium and moss.

A splash of brilliant orange, signifying "don't eat me or else".

Like cocoa but not.  Large drop-shaped pods hanging directly of the trunk.

The hoatzin bird.  About the size of a pheasant.  Another that we thought was amazing when we saw it the first time but they are a dime a dozen.  Not considered very special.

Our first walk was followed by dinner with Raoul who ate each meal with us and was a bottomless source of information.  He had lost his job as naturalist tour guide at a competing lodge when covid struck.  He made ends meet for a large family by waiting tables near Quito.  He had just been hired by Sani and our tour was his first gig.  He was very excited to be back in the jungle and expected to stay at least six weeks, sending money home to his family.

After dinner, still day one, we were taken on a very slow and silent canoe ride through the lagoon.  Raoul occasionally swung the beam of his flashlight around.  On one swing we saw two glowing eyes just above the waterline and only a couple of meters away.  Caiman!  We were spellbound.  No rocking the boat!

The edge of the lagoon.  Perfect home for a caiman.  We only saw the one pair of eyes on our night paddle but others saw them during the day.  The water was so murky that they could've been very close by.  We've seen enough crocodiles and alligators on our travels.  The eyes were enough for me.

Day two: A paddle down the lagoon and hike through the forest.  The boots, supplied for every guest by the lodge, kept feet dry, clean and sting and prickle free.

A climb up to a bird observation tower.  The platform was built around the tallest tree around.  Neither platform nor steps up impregnated or harmed the tree.

Many, many birds of were pointed out by our knowledgeable guides - parrots, toucans, macaws to name very few.  The beauty of the green lush canopy extending the distance of the view was almost better.

Raoul giving me a lesson.  We were on the platform with a group of about eight very serious birders.  Their excitement sent them scurrying about, from side to side, binoculars pointing, counting the birds, checking off the varieties.  They were as titallated by the feathers as we were amused by them.  Each evening they would sit around a table in the bar, laden by books, notes and lists, very seriously tallying their sitings.  They were headed to Peru next.  

A mycelium fairy gown

Centipedes.  A reason to wear rubber boots.

On our many hikes, Jose was an incredible source of information.  He did not speak English so Raoul translated but the scope of natural history knowledge was amazing.  As we walked - at quite a slow pace - he was always on the lookout for some flora or fauna to show us.  He would suddenly stop and look up into the dense canopy.  Peter and I would follow his gaze, of course, and see only a sea of green.  Sometimes in minutes, sometimes sooner, Jose would point out a monkey or bird.  The same went for the jungle floor.  He would suddenly leave the path, walk 50 m., and use his ever present machete to cut a leaf, stalk, vine or bark, bringing it back to demonstrate or tell us how the Kichwan people used it - usually for medicine, food or to make something.  In this case he cut some giant thorns with sticky backing to show us how the kids amused themselves.

A heron.

A vine, carefully cut into strands for basket weaving by Jose, with his machete.  Delicate work with a giant device.  Every child, male and female, learns to use the machete for all their vegetation needs.  It is an essential tool and wielded with dexterity. 

Day 3:  Back to the Napa River muddy landing for a three stop excursion.  Speeding through the sandbanks in the motorized canoe, the first stop was a float off a clay cliff or clay lick at the river's edge.  Every morning hundreds of parrots flock to the lick to eat the clay.  One theory, favoured by Raoul, was that many of the seeds in the parrots diet are toxic and the clay neutralizes the toxin.  Another is that the clay is sodium rich which the parrots need in their diet.  Only parrots in the western Amazon Basin eat clay.  We floated by the lick for about an hour waiting.  We could see and hear hundreds of parrots in the trees surrounding the lick waiting for the one beside them to go for the lick.  They are hesitant because among the parrots are birds of prey who would rudely attack while the parrots were eating.  If one or two parrots took the plunge to the lick, others would follow - safety in numbers.  Unfortunately, none were brave or foolhardy enough to feed on the morning we went.  And so, no pictures.

One of several barges making the trip with trucks carrying oil, ironically needed by the oil companies on the river.  The river was, indeed, the only highway in or out.  

Next stop, a walk through a national park.  More natural wonders including this wild looking vine and flower 

Wild and wonderful

Although the jungle was alive with their chirps, we didn't see many of the frogs.  This one was so well camouflaged, you can understand why we missed them.

And more

A butterfly with translucent wings.  

Sani Warmi
Traditionally, in many local communities, jobs and economic freedom for women are limited. While many lodges in the Amazon do not hire women as an employment policy, at Sani Lodge, all members of the community are included. When Sani Lodge opened, the guests asked to visit the homes and villages of the Kichwa community to see how they lived.  The women in the community were, unsurprisingly, not keen on having tourists point and gawk at them and their homes.  Instead, they recognized the understandable curiosity of the tourist as an opportunity.  Sani Lodge partnered with the SANI WARMI project, empowering the women of Sani Isla to run their own business cooperative, making and selling artisan crafts constructed from local seeds, vines, and fibers, growing the medicinal plants crops of a typical village garden, cooking lunches in a kitchen set up in a similar fashion to a home kitchen and providing special guest artists and teachers for the community.  This business provides a sustainable source of income for the women and their families while encouraging the protection of over 42,000 hectares of pristine rainforest from outside intrusions, particularly oil companies.  

The community business was set up beside the Kichwa school which was unfortunately closed for holidays.  We were able to look in the open windows of the primary classrooms.  Only the most basic of equipment was available - blackboards, desks and chairs.  But the walls were decorated with colourful student art like classrooms anywhere.

Our guide through the gardens of the cooperative.  Using her machete, she whacked off branches, seeds, pods and flowers to show us.  This was a palm for thatching.  

Brownea grandiceps.  The fresh bark of the tree is used as an anti-hemmorhagic and applied to wounds. Most interestingly, it is also used to stimulate blood flow to the uterus in order to stimulate menstruation and abortion.  Amazing!

The flower of the Brownea grandiceps.  As big and bold as it's uses!

The women's cooperative kitchen.  The open grill is the common method of cooking. Our lunch of grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves, plantains, and a special treat.

An artist had come to the cooperative to give a painting lesson to anyone interested.  People of all ages and talents were enjoying it. 

Our guide offering a grilled plantain.

We even got a cocktail.  A toast to cava - a tea from the root of the plant, having a sedative and disinhibiting effect.  We felt neither but it was worth a try.

The special treat was first presented to me as a gift wrapped in a banana leaf.  The women watched with big smiles I took as a signal of a surprise meant to startle.  I was forewarned.  Upon opening the wrap, I found three large, white, squirming larvae about two inches long.  I kept my cool, even laughed, but these big guys were thrilled to be freed and moved in pulsating waves to the edge of the leaf and my hand.  Seeing my consternation, the guide swept it back onto the leave.  I could laugh again.

The special treat.  These larvae love rotting palm tree wood.  The Kichwa drill holes in the trees and then harvest them or find them in fallen trees.  Yum, yum

Ready, set....

....Go.  Crunchy on the outside, soft and mushy on the inside.  Not a lot of taste, except for a grilled skin effect.  A great source of protein, I'm sure.

The women's collective also manages a freshwater turtle reinsertion project with the intent of reintroducing this endangered species into the wild.  We adopted two little guys which I held in a banana leaf bowl all the way back by motorized canoe, hiking, and paddled canoe to the lodge where we let them swim into the lagoon.  (So many uses for banana leaves)

Our final hike was a long one with lunch provided at a research outpost on the property.  Again Jose and Raoul excelled at pointing out monkeys, birds and all kinds of flora.  Here is a puma track!  

A cool poison dart frog.  

A bird's nest on a leaf just above the forest floor.

The sap of this leaf can be used as nail polish or whatever.

A teeny, weeny frog spied by Jose.

And yet another weird and wonderful something or other.

I loved our short but awe-inspiring time in the Amazon Basin.  It was, aptly, at the end of our incredible Ecuadorean nature adventure.  For me, it was my favourite stage in a trip where each phase was unique and wonderful.  Our guides, whether for Galapagos day trips or our longer Andes hike and Amazon explore made it a multi-faceted education.  

We were so lucky to enjoy Ecuador before the political tumult of just weeks after we returned to Milly.  

Thank you Gill and John for initiating the journey with your invitation to crew with you!