A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador
Within a couple of minutes, a young Tapir comes out of the jungle and stands on the bank looking at us.
The flight is only about 30 minutes but the starting and finishing environments couldn’t be more different. The altitude and more rugged habitat of the highlands and mountains is replaced by the humid and lush Amazon rainforest, which couldn’t be more evident than when you step off the aircraft. As you step down from the aircraft a waft of dense humid air welcomes you as you walk from the aircraft to the arrival’s terminal in the newly rebuilt airport, only opened in early 2019.
A 5-minute taxi ride took me to the boat dock where you don a life vest and board the long, covered canoe like boat for the river journey to the lodge. It is a great way to start this part of the journey as within about 15 – 30 minutes of arriving you are travelling down the Napo river amongst the other everyday river traffic. You begin to get a sense of the jungle on either side of you as you pass villages on the river banks and see the winding expanse of river stretch ahead of you.
After about two and a half hours on the river we arrived at the dock where my bags were taken for me on a hand cart and while we walked along a raised wooden walkway into the jungle for about 10 minutes. At the end we board a smaller hand paddled canoe, our bags go in another, but before we set off our guide stops and listens, then begins to call out. Within a couple of minutes, a young Tapir comes out of the jungle and stands on the bank looking at us. “That’s Tony.”, the guide says and while he is wild, he is also quite friendly and curious. I’m 10 feet away and it is probably the closest I have been to a wild animal of that size (like a large pig) in its’ natural environment. Tony seems a little non-plussed and ambles off to do Tapir things.
Our canoe is then paddled through a mangrove swamp for about 10 minutes and at this point you can really start to smell the aroma of the jungle, hear birds, insects, monkeys and other wildlife, which belies a stillness underneath it all. It is easier to experience than describe but the jungle seems to draw you in and hold your attention as if you are listening through the natural sounds to the heart of something.
We come out of the mangrove swamp to Lake Challuacocha, where Sani Lodge is nestled among the jungle canopy with its’ more traditional wooden structures. It is owned and run by the Sani Community who are an indigenous people of around 600 inhabitants with stewardship over about 40,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest.
I lived in the Amazon jungle in Northern Peru not far from the border with Ecuador for three years, and I developed a close feeling for it mixed with a lot of respect. So I was pleased when my Sani guide took me on a tour through the jungle to the tallest tree in the area, where the Sani staff have built a covered metal tower stairway that takes you to the top of the tree canopy. At the top there is a metal gangway which reaches out to a wooden platform the staff built into the tree. From this platform, 45 metres (150 feet) from the ground, you can see the tree canopy of the forest stretching out into the distance as far as you can see in all directions.
After walking through the forest floor below for over an hour, the view from above is impressive. There is not a single man-made structure (except the stair tower!) to be seen anywhere but neither can you see the ground beneath you, just the canopy of thousands of jungle trees. Primary tropical rainforest is vertically divided into at least five layers: the overstory, the canopy, the understory, the shrub layer, and the forest floor. The overstory refers to the crowns of emergent trees which soar 20-100 feet above the rest of the canopy. The platform I was standing on is in the ‘Overstory’ and the view is breath-taking, we sat up there for an hour and chatted.
When I say chatted, I mean I asked about a hundred questions and my guide, thankfully, responded with the same enthusiasm. What impressed me is their intimate knowledge of the jungle and all the different life in it. They know how to walk through the jungle as part of it, where you and I would hack and stumble and likely get lost. They know which plants are food and which are medicine. They know the signs and trails of creatures, when and how to keep their distance from those with young. Intimate is the correct word for their knowledge as they do, in a real sense, share an intimate and living connection with it.
There is an entirely different pace and feeling in the jungle. If you have just come from Quito you might likely just lay on your bed after sunset, which happens around 6pm everyday and is quick, and listen to the night sounds. There are few things like the sound of a jungle at night, a feeling of mystery and the unknown, that may sound a little poetic but it is true for me. We are used to different sounds in the UK, often man made but natural ones also, the jungle chorus at night sounds a little alien but entirely natural and is quite compelling. For me it becomes like a lullaby and eventually puts me to sleep.
The amount of life is also quite compelling, there’s barely a millimetre of space in the jungle that isn’t supporting life in some way. If you walk 50 metres, you’ll pass dozens of different flora and fauna, some of the most important of which your guide will point out and explain. Many jungle plants are studied by pharmaceutical firms for their medicinal applications, for the indigenous people the jungle is their pharmacy and this is part of the cultural heritage they are seeking to sustain and protect.
A visit to the Amazon jungle is quite safe if approaching this environment in the proper way, taking light weight trousers, boots (provided by the lodge), long sleeved shirt, a hat and following the advice of local guides. Moreover, the rewards are worth it. It is an environment that along with the diverse and abundant wildlife and plants which can be seen, also takes you away from 21st century life in to a remote place which seems, certainly at night, otherworldly yet undeniably natural.
My time here, sadly, finishes and I take the river journey back to Coca and the short flight back up to Quito.
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