El Oriente

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July 24th 2013
Published: August 2nd 2013
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This blog is quite long and took a few days with travel and illness intervening. Sorry it took so long to publish and we do hope you enjoy it. There are almost 80 photos attached so don't give up too soon.

Well, we went to El Oriente this week after having promised ourselves we were not going to Malaria/Dengue fever country. We have made these kind of promises before (In Thailand we did not take hiking boots and found ourselves hiking the Burma Border in sneakers after a similar ...no we are not going on a trek in the jungle). Ya think some day we might learn. At least we were equipped for this one and...for what it's worth, we did not catch either Malaria or Dengue....whew!!!

Our trip started with getting up at 0530 to catch a 0730 flight that did not leave until 0930...oh for 2 more hours of sleep. We arrived in El Coca a bit after 1000 and, were supposed to be met by folks from Sani Lodge. Not happening. After about 30 minutes of waiting...well not really patiently, we started making some phone calls. Another 20 minutes and the guide showed up
Oil rigOil rigOil rig

One of many
in a taxi, piled us in it and we were off to the public boat ramp. Xavier was our chauffeur, orientation speaker, organizer and all around nice guy. Another hour waiting for another late flight couple and the 12 of us finally got to board a 12 meter long motorized canoe (2 100 horse power Yamaha 4 cylinder engines). I got the idea these guys were serious about traveling on the Napo river.

The Napo river is long (as in 100's of miles) running from the high northern Andes into the south with it's confluence in the Amazon River. The Amazon from Peru to the Atlantic ocean. The current is about 7 MPH and the canoe can go, at full speed, 35 MPH and we were at full speed all the way. The trip to the trail where we would disembark and walk to a lake for the last part of today's journey is 75 Kilometers and takes about 2 hours. Lunches were packed earlier and passed out and we got to sit and enjoy the scenery. It doesn't change much. The jungle rises about 100 feet or more and comes right down to the waters edge. There are
RIver Boat Hotel for TouristsRIver Boat Hotel for TouristsRIver Boat Hotel for Tourists

Travels Brazil, Peru and Ecuador on Amazon and Napo rivers
occasional buildings at waters edge or somewhat back from the river, but no villages (more on this later). What we did see ,and it disheartened us, was, oil rigs...lot's of them. When we asked about their effect on the ecology, Xavier tried his best to be a bit neutral but didn't succeed. As we spent more time with him and our guide during the week we learned a lot more about what lies ahead for this rich diversity of flora, fauna and cultures.

As we rode, we continually passed very large barges being pushed up and down river by river tug boats (different design from harbor or sea going..very tall to see over the barge). I asked where they were from and was surprised to learn that they come from as far away as Brazil, Peru and Chili. The river is a primary for of transportation of goods and people and, as oil rigs grow, the only transportation of crude to other places for refining. Most of the barges were loaded down with Oil tanker trucks, bull dozers and graders for building more roads...one of the major issue for wild life and indigenous cultures in the Amazon.

We finally arrived at the Sani boat ramp and loaded up packs to walk into the lake. Can say no more than WOW!!!. The canopy turned an otherwise sunny day to twilight in minutes. Most of us were so tired we did not have our cameras out and didn't want to slow down to get them. We marched in single file for almost an hour and arrived at the lake, well actually at a very small stream that runs into the lake. 15 minutes in this exceptionally quiet stream (none of us spoke a word so we only heard the slap of the paddle and sounds of nature as the canoe maneuvered up stream). The lake is about 1/2 km wide and about 7 Km long. It is shallow, reaching at most to 3 meters. Because there had been so much rain recently, the Napo had backed up in to the stream and the lake raising the water about 10 cm and spreading 10cm of water across the forest floor, turning normally muddy trails into small streams. The lake was bustling with fish...yes some are Piranha and birds. Trying to get photos was a challenge and would prove even more so
DSC_1207 - CopyDSC_1207 - CopyDSC_1207 - Copy

Javier and our motor canoe Captain
as the days passed.

Finally we reached the lodge, a series of thatch roofed buildings that included a social area with a bar (it overlooked the lake to the west), a common dining hall and large kitchen, a building with 8 sleeping rooms and shared showers, 9 thatch roofed private cabins on stilts, each with hot shower and bathroom and a camping area with large tents set up on platforms and stilts. We had cabin #3. It was lovely and the beds were comfortable. No TV, radio, Wifi or magazines. It is what folks here call "muy tranquila". So quiet and restful after QUito that most of us lost track of time.

Orientation included some strict guidelines:

• No swimming in the lake unless you are prepared to make friends with local Caimans, an anaconda or two and Piranhas. That took care the old bathing suite.
• No walking on any trails without a local person for protection and guidance. Poisonous snakes, spiders, and frogs, boas, wild boars, jaguars, spotted bear and other assorted wildlife can and do use the trails as well and preparation and protection are required of all.
• Always wear rubber boots (provided) as the
Typical River BargeTypical River BargeTypical River Barge

Crude Oil trucks
earth here is soaked and muddy all the time.
• Fishing is welcome but remember that Piranha bite out of as well as in the water. Your caught fish will be cooked for your dinner.
• Do not feed the squirrel monkeys in order to keep them wild(and probably out of your hair...literally).
• If you find a critter in your cabin, room, tent...call a staff person. Remember this forest belonged to the critters first.
• Day hikes leave at 0600 and breakfast is at 0530. So please get up at least @ 0500. UGH!!!
• Night hikes leave at 2000 and return at 2200 (now remember what time you have to get up for the day hike).

Exhausted, sweaty and in need of a beer, we soon left for our cabin, a shower and change of clothe , then back to the bar. Since we had arrived late, todays short hike (2 hours) was called off. Instead, those who wanted to would be taken on an evening Caiman hunt. Mike was up for it and Katy was up for a nap.

Dinner was splendid. We were divided into hiking groups of 4 or 5 or by family and met our new
River freightRiver freightRiver freight

Motorized Canoe is normal means of transport here.
partners at dinner. Two young medical students from Bern Switzerland. The tables were set with china, wine glasses and silver. Buffett was the style but the food was excellent. When Mike indicated he was diabetic and needed to restrict carbs, they made special stuff for him and did not add sugar to the constantly available fruit juices. Really thoughtful. Waiters dressed in pseudo chef outfits, explained what we were eating and seemed always to have extra.

We met our guide for the week, Jose. The lodge is owned by the Sani community and they are members of the prevalent Kichwa tribe. The Kichwa people stretches from Northern Peru to Central Ecuador and has roughly 35,000 members in about 300 communities. They do not live in a village structure. Rather, each family seeks out and establishes a private piece of land, builds a house and other buildings and settles in. These private plots are generally in and around the community to which you belong and each community builds and maintains a community center. These usually include a school, a meeting place, a "party house" for celebrations etc. Work to maintain the place is shared.

When we asked how long the Sani community had been in this area, Jose said a couple 100 years. They were originally from Peru but, a long time ago 10 families struck out on their own in search of more fertile land. Traveling for months along the Napo in dugout canoes, they came on this place, decided the land was fertile enough and they would stay. They found some flowers near the river the shade of bright pink. The color is called Sani, so they named the community after the color.

Jose is a senior guide at age 30. He has been working at the lodge since he was 13. He started as a dugout paddler and learned from the older men (women do not seem to be guides). He began hunting with spear and blow gun at age 7. He has bee to the US twice, invited by birder groups to teach folks about Amazon birds and what is happening to the forest. It is interesting that we had thought of this place as jungle but now see it as a forest. Jose speaks English well and has a smattering of French which he is trying to learn. Other guides speak French and German and all speak English. That was god since our big group consisted of our Swiss hiking partners, an Israeli family, an Italian family, some Germans, a few Londoners and another Swiss couple. Quite a mix. Ages ran from 72 (Mike of course) to 9.

Jose informed us that we would be going to the "tower" tomorrow early. He asked us to be at breakfast before 0530 so we could leave before 0600. Movement in the forest is restricted to about 4 hours in the morning and 2 hours pre sunset so seeing wildlife means you gotta get up early. We skipped the welcoming drink and Katy went to bed early. Mike went on the Caiman hunt and actually saw 3. One was just under 3 meters. Photos impossible with black Caiman in black water in the black of night so you will just have to believe him. Jose said,when the river finally drops, the water will recede from the lake and many more Caiman will return. With the high water, the Caiman prefer to slip into the shallower waters in the forest to hunt prey. Piranha do the same as do the snakes.

Breakfast the next day

One of 20 varieties
was splendid with lots of good Ecuadorian coffee, tons of fruit, eggs to order, pancakes and juices. We were really hungry so ate a lot. Got fitted with rubber boots...well as fitted as they can be, stocked up on purified water and zum (tablet electrolytes), raincoats, sun glasses, hats, plastic bag to protect our camera, deet, chapstick, sunscreen and piled into our canoe, primarily paddled by Chuco...guide in training and very efficient paddler. The tower was about 30 minutes by slow paddling and then a 20 minute walk in the mud. Lot's of birds along the way as well as turtles. This was the frustrating part. Photo taking in the Amazon is an art. You really have to wait long periods quietly in order to get a good shot( having a 1000mm lens and tripod doesn't hurt either). During the whole trip we took over 700 photos and have culled that down to about 100 of the best for clarity. Best does not necessarily mean good.

The tower took 3 years to build. Selecting the gigantic Kapok tree to attach it to took almost 6 months of hunting to find the right one. To see wildlife you must have just enough canopy (125 feet or more) epiphytes growing on the tree, fruit bearing trees nearby and sturdy vines for monkeys, especially the 100 pound howlers. It also had to have a place to build a flat platform holding up t 15 people. The tower it self is metal steps circling around and around so you don't have to climb straight up. It is secured to about 20 trees in the forest to prevent it from falling down. Remember the ground is perpetually wet.

So up we sleep deprived folks went. The 2 Swiss guys flew up, we meandered. At the top was a fantastic view of the forest, stretching much further than a 300 mm lens could see. The first animal seen was a "Bat Falcon". It perched about 30 meters away, great hunting place. Its colors were splendid, running from deep red/orange to black and white. It is about the same size as a Peregrine. Next came a night bird. This is bird,similar in build and height to a large owl at home. It is not a raptor, having no clamping claws but rather a stealth bird. It waits all day and night for an unwary snake or bird to approach and catches it in powerful jaws. He rarely moves and is almost impossible to see unless you know exactly what to look for. We spent almost 4 hours on the platform seeing howler monkeys and squirrel monkeys in the distance, parrots landing in trees almost too far to photo and once we even fantasized a cat on the forest floor under the tree. Not!!

Next we took a longer hike (1 1/2 hours) back to the lake. The trail wound around and around through an incredible mix of palms, kapok, wild papaya and mango. vines that grew to the ground to help feed the tree and scores of plants we cannot name or describe. I was the "jungle " we had envisioned when we decided to go and more. Simply beautiful. Our hike was interrupted by flora and fauna lessons such as seed pods for palms, centipedes, spiders, huge green bugs resembling very large grasshoppers,scorpions and tarantulas (you see more of these at night). There were also some very strange trees that grew roots above ground that resemble large male organs. The shoot goes into the ground to suck up nutrients and water. There is also a walking palm. It doesn't actually walk but continues to push out roots that make it appear to move.

After slip sliding in lots of mud, crossing a very wet place on logs, and getting deluged in a brief but powerful rainstorm (couldn't get our ponchos on fast enough) we reached the lake and floated quietly back to the lodge, ready for a hot shower, dry clothing and at least one beer.

Lunch was exceptional with lots of fruit and veggies from the forest, a creamed soup and pork. after lunch, we decide to skip the short walk before dinner. We were really tired and did not want Mike's nagging cold to get any worse. The bar had...JACK DANIELS.... really! Manna from heaven. We spent the afternoon and early evening reading, watching the lake, dozing and talking to other guests. At dinner that night we learned we would be going back to the Napo river the next day to view clay eating parrots and possible a boa or two who hunt the parrots. After that we would go to the Sani community to learn about their efforts to maintain an ecologically vigorous forest, a way of life and a dream of being free of oil. Our lunch would be traditional native food (or if you haven't the stomach for the exotic, a box lunch prepared by the Lodge).

Wake up @0500. Rush to the shower. dress quickly. Wolf down heaps of fruit, eggs, pancakes and coffee. Put on rubber boots and make sure we have the survival kit and load onto canoes. Paddle to the trail. walk 45 minutes to the Napo. Climb in the big canoe and take off for the island that fronts Yasuni National Park across the river from Sani Island...yep, a huge island in the river. One hour of high speed canoeing and we disembark on to a sand bar in the river. The parrots are already there...by the 100's. We have been told that the Parrots primary food is a palm nut that has a toxic center. When they inadvertently eat the toxin, they come to the rivers edge to eat clay. Apparently the clay neutralizes the toxin. They certainly eat a lot, and fight and squabble and put up quite a racket of Parrot squawking.

While watching the parrots, Jose spots a Boa lurking on a branch high above

Stingless honey bees
the birds. He is almost indistinguishable from the branch. Jose has a very expensive spotting scope and we all take a look. It takes a lot of patience to finally see the head and part of the body. A photo of it is included here with magnification such that you can see it if you know what you are looking for (a change in the size of the branch and a kind of spotting unlike the tree.This Boa is curled in circle with head pointing forward. Jose believes it had caught and was digesting a parrot. A couple hours here and we are headed for the community center upriver.

The Sani community sits back off the river about 50 meters. It is a large open space including a full size football (soccer) field, a large community center building for meetings and celebrations, two new schools, a womens artesanias group center and a, believe it or not, cyber center complete with internet courtesy of a very large sat dish. The mix of old culture and modern world is both fascinating and frightening. There is both much to gain and much to lose. The challenge to the Sani is to try and find a balance.There are a number of projects going on including a new turtle farm, a bamboo curing process and a community demonstration garden. The turtle farm came about as people realized that the population of river turtles was dropping and so were the eggs and meat the Sani depend on for food. Sani's built a sand box about 12 x 12 feet and 3 feet deep. Next to it is a fresh water pond and stream. In a month or so, they plan to harvest turtle eggs, plant them in the sand, grow babies and put the babies in the pond. Since on turtle can lay 300 eggs, they should be able to have enough to eat and renew in the 1st year, enough to sell eggs in the second and enough to restock turtles to the river in year 3.

The Bamboo curing was fascinating. Bamboo is the most plentiful wood in the forest and rejuvenates in 10% of the time trees regrow. Sani people are used to cutting hardwoods for housing, cooking furniture etc. They see bamboo as not strong and lasting. So, the project was started to demonstrate the hardness and long lasting capability of bamboo in order to stop the cutting of hardwoods. It will take more than a few years to shift this part of the culture.

Off to lunch. Everything was grilled over a wood fire. It included manioc, ripe and green plantains, river fish wrapped in heart of palm and then in a palm leaf to steam, and the piece de resistance, large grilled larvae. Only the two of us ate the larvae and, surprisingly it was good, a bit chewy but good tasting. The fish was wonderful, the ripe plantains excellent and the manioc...awful and dull UGH!!

After this sojourn we canoed back to the lodge for the now required shower and change of sweaty clothing. Temps today in the mid 30's c and humidity at 85%. We were lucky to have just enough clothes to get back to Quito the next day.

That evening we and a few other folks had a long talk with guides about the future. They were up beat about their vision and what they are trying to do but they need support of the world at large. They hope that educating the young will eventually help them have high profile advocates for keeping the forest alive. But they also know that the call of high paid work in the oil fields, the purely wanton behavior of oil companies and the money they have to back it up will be formidable. We foreigners left this discussion with a less hopeful view. The Lodge is a wonderful thing and is having a desired effect, but it is not enough to stave off big oil forever. With 300 families in the community, the lodge has only 45 employees and no need for more. Jobs are rotated every 6 months to develop experience and talent but there is simply not enough business to support the whole community. Still dependent on Ecuadorean funding and Correa in office (only one more year) the near future is tenuous. As kids get educated, use the internet, see how others live, we all felt the exodus would grow. They may hang on for 20 more years but not a lot longer. We felt privileged to have been allowed to experience the forest and the culture today and realized we were probably also witnessing it's future demise.

The experience was incredible and we have only been able to share a summary of it. We hope the photos will fill in more for you.

Tomorrow we are off to Quito and then Manta and a beach. Still not well physically and beginning to worry..

Ciao Amigos.

Additional photos below
Photos: 76, Displayed: 36


2nd August 2013

I hope that you are going to rest and "Get Well"! Love Mary
3rd August 2013

Guys - I really appreciate the detail in the reports: height of trees, dimensions of turtle sand box, speed of boat, number of outboard motors, etc. These are the kinds of things to which I would also pay attention. Also appreciate the sober reflection re the dubious durability of the culture. Best wishes for good trails.
3rd August 2013

Great pictures of the Bat Falcon!
3rd August 2013

Bat Falcon
Yeah and it was not easy to get on a shaky platform in the wind with the bird over 200 meters away. Thankful for digital and the ability to expand the photo. How are you and how are searches going?
3rd August 2013

Bat Falcon
Yeah and it was not easy to get on a shaky platform in the wind with the bird over 200 meters away. Thankful for digital and the ability to expand the photo. How are you and how are searches going?
3rd August 2013

Bat Falcon
Yeah and it was not easy to get on a shaky platform in the wind with the bird over 200 meters away. Thankful for digital and the ability to expand the photo. How are you and how are searches going?
3rd August 2013

Bat Falcon
Yeah and it was not easy to get on a shaky platform in the wind with the bird over 200 meters away. Thankful for digital and the ability to expand the photo. How are you and how are searches going?
3rd August 2013

Bat Falcon
Yeah and it was not easy to get on a shaky platform in the wind with the bird over 200 meters away. Thankful for digital and the ability to expand the photo. How are you and how are searches going?
3rd August 2013

Bat Falcon
Yeah and it was not easy to get on a shaky platform in the wind with the bird over 200 meters away. Thankful for digital and the ability to expand the photo. How are you and how are searches going?
3rd August 2013

Bat Falcon
Yeah and it was not easy to get on a shaky platform in the wind with the bird over 200 meters away. Thankful for digital and the ability to expand the photo. How are you and how are searches going?
3rd August 2013

Bat Falcon
Yeah and it was not easy to get on a shaky platform in the wind with the bird over 200 meters away. Thankful for digital and the ability to expand the photo. How are you and how are searches going?
3rd August 2013

Bat Falcon
Yeah and it was not easy to get on a shaky platform in the wind with the bird over 200 meters away. Thankful for digital and the ability to expand the photo. How are you and how are searches going?

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