A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador

A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador

 

 

 

 

A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador

When our guests travel with us to Ecuador it’s normally via Quito to the Galapagos Islands, but I wanted to see what else there was. So, from the history and culture of Quito, I took a short domestic flight to Coca in the Amazonian part of Ecuador.

© Shutterstock – Goran Safarek

© Shutterstock – SL Photography

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.

 

© Shutterstock – Mark Richard Waller

It is worth noting that the Sani Community face constant pressure from oil companies to sell parts of their land for oil exploration, pressure which they continue to resist as they protect their way of life and environment. Their aim is to promote sustainable practices so that travellers like myself and like you can experience their way of living in harmony with the forest. They are incredibly friendly and genuinely enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge and stewardship of the forest in conjunction with sustainable ecotourism.

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.

© Shutterstock – Dr Morley Read

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.

© Shutterstock – Magda Chonillo

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.

© Shutterstock – Zaruba Ondrej

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.

©Shutterstock – Luis Louro

Recreate Rory’s journey with our five-day Sani Lodge Amazon Discovery trip, or enjoy a three-day cruise on the upper Napo River, Ecuador’s primary Amazon tributary.

To explore even more of mainland Ecuador, take a look at our 15-day Highlands and Amazon holiday – or why not enjoy the classic combination; a 15-day Rainforest and Galapagos adventure?

Do not miss out on Quito, gateway to the Galapagos

Do not miss out on Quito, gateway to the Galapagos

Don’t miss out on Quito – Gateway to the Galapagos

Quito is not a place on the wish list of most travellers but as gateway to the Galapagos Islands, it’s an opportunity to see a little of Ecuador.

We receive a lot of enquiries from clients who visit our Galapagos Specialists website and, as you might imagine, the focus of these enquiries relate to visiting the Galapagos Islands.  To get there you do have to fly into Ecuador first – usually Quito or Guayaquil – and it seems a pity to miss the fantastic often unthought-of gem which is the Ecuadorian mainland and the city of Quito.

 

© Shutterstock  – Alessandro Pinto

Most Tribes’ guests fly into Quito first, and often have just the one night there. You are likely to be surprised on arrival at how modern the airport is. It was only opened in February 2013 to replace the old airport which sat in the middle of the city and could no longer safely handle the increasing volume of larger aircraft and passenger numbers. It sits about 11 miles East of Quito (at 0 degrees Latitude on the Equator) To make this easy for you, we generally have a representative meet you in the arrivals hall to guide you through to your private transfer for the 40-minute journey (a little longer at peak hours) to the city centre.

Quito itself, a UNESCO World Heritage City, sits at 2850 metres (9350 feet) in a spectacular setting. It is quite something when coming from the mainly flat Suffolk, where I now live and work, to be surrounded by mountains (and an active volcano) on all sides.

I looked around at residential houses on different hills and, while they are only separated by short distances in a straight line, getting from one to the other looked like a game of snakes and ladders. I asked my guide how people visited each other, to which he wryly replied, “Down, around and then up.”

It’s also a pretty good description of walking around Quito, either going up or going down, but the architecture and views are certainly worth it. I did a little online research before leaving and read that, “The historic centre of Quito has one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centres’ in the Americas”, and it is a sentiment I can certainly agree with. I was fortunate to be accompanied by a genuinely interesting guide who clearly possessed a depth of knowledge of Ecuador’s pre- and post-colonial history, people and culture.

© Shutterstock – Papa Bravo

Two things which fascinate me – and travel provides the opportunity to experience them – are nature and culture. I was glad to have a good guide in Quito so that when we visited the Church of La Compañía de Jesús, a Baroque style church begun in 1605 and built by Native Americans, he was able to point out some things which he knew would interest me.

The church itself took 160 years to build; men spent their entire working lives on it and went to their graves never seeing it completed. Inside, the whole church is profusely decorated with gold leaf, the attention to detail is something that must be seen to be believed. I am not religious at all but found it to be quite moving.

My guide wanted to show me something at the high altar and, as he pointed out the different figures, he asked me what I could see above them all. It was the symbol for Inti, the ancient Incan Sun God, so I asked him how it got there in a Catholic church.

“That’s how the Spanish encouraged the native people to embrace Christianity. They said ‘Look, even your own Sun God shines down on our religion.’”, he replied. Right there above the altar was the historic intersection of two very different cultures 400 years ago, preserved in gold leaf. I would have easily missed it without my guide, instead it turned into one of the memorable moments for me where a work of art brought history and culture alive.

There is so much more to see and do that I wished I had longer there myself. One night is definitely not enough to do justice to the culture and architecture of this amazing city. A gateway to the Galapagos, yes. But also a destination in its own right.

© Shutterstock – SL-Photography