Dipping a toe into Amazonia

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June 13th 2012
Published: July 2nd 2012
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The statistics for the Amazon Basin are mind-blowing, even in what was, briefly, our infinitesimal part of it.

Only 1.67% of Amazonia falls within Ecuador’s borders, yet it comprises just over half of Ecuador’s landmass.

One hectare may contain more species of tree than the entirety of North America. The whole area contains approximately 5% of the world’s plants.

More than 600 of mainland Ecuador’s over 1,600 identified species of bird have been seen here, about half of all species of bird found in the entire Amazon basin.

There are more than 4,000 species of orchid.

Of the 410 species of mammal, 165 are bats and 15 are monkeys.

With over 450 species of amphibians, Ecuador is third in the world in terms of diversity of amphibians, and is seventh in diversity of reptiles with approximately 400 species recorded.

And so Juan continued, the numbers rattling on until my brain was whirling. We had only gone a hundred yards downriver.

Sani Lodge, on a lagoon just off the Río Napo, Ecuador’s largest Amazon tributary, is a new addition to the Dragoman itinerary. At the cost of approximately US$400 per person for three days (camping and full board), it is out-of-kilter for the kind of sums usually involved in their schedules, but being community-run, with all profits being ploughed back into the local community, is firmly within their ethos. Neither Anki nor Ross had yet visited; it was to be an adventure for us all.

We had been in Ecuador a week. The crossing from Peru was unexpectedly straightforward: the Tumbes border post has had a bad reputation for delays, corruption and scams in the past, but has recently been scrubbed up on both sides of the border with new buildings, uniforms and attitudes. We’d spent the first night in Cuenca, the modern incarnation of the old Inca city of Tumebamba, a pretty town of narrow streets, gorgeous churches, and plazas ripe for people-watching, and then scuttled up the road to the stunning Quilotoa Loop, pausing only for a necessary overnight stop in the old railway town of Riobamba. The tourist blurb promised that our five-hour hike back from the incredible green of the Laguna Quilotoa to Chugchilán and our delightful Cloud Forest Hostel would be “the most beautiful trek in all of South America”. We were sceptical: that’s a very tall order for this continent. Certainly, the walk was dramatic and pretty, a welcome last chance to stretch our legs at altitude, but the claims are, in my mind at least, just a touch overstated.

From Quilotoa and its surrounding volcanoes, we’d dipped slowly towards tropical rain forest with a few days at the aptly-named Pequeño Paraíso, just outside the town of Baños, where I’d slept for Scotland despite heavy rain pattering on my tent the first two nights. This trip was proving to be the most intense travel I’d done since scampering round the world in 1993/94, and my batteries were running low; recharging them seemed to take longer every time.

The kicking off point for Sani Lodge is the regional capital of Coca, or, as it is officially known, Francisco de Orellana, and it was here that, at lunchtime, we would meet our guide and the boat into the jungle. This schedule was going to require us to hit the road very early: wheels were rolling at 5 am, the earliest of the entire trip. Mindful of the unrelenting rain, those of us still camping (the number of people upgrading to “real” beds from tents was increasing with
Catedral de la InmaculadaCatedral de la InmaculadaCatedral de la Inmaculada

Plaza Abdón Calderón, Cuenca
every campsite: only a few of us hardened – or tight purse-stringed – campers remained) packed up our tents the previous afternoon, and sacrificed our hard-core independence for the practicality of a dorm bed and an extra few minutes’ sleep in the morning.

But the reward was huge. By lunchtime, our luggage for the next 3 days, together with a couple of just-in-case tents and the first aid kit, was piled up at the meeting-point hotel on the banks of the Río Napo. Some of us happily gathered round a big-screen TV for the kick-off of the Germany –v– Portugal match in the Euro 2012 championship, and others for the live, on-the-spot entertainment provided by a couple of semi-tame squirrel monkeys, a lugubrious tortoise and a skitterish tamarind monkey.

And then the rain came back, with a vengeance. Not for nothing do we call this kind of area rainforest, we ruefully acknowledged. Out came waterproofs, including the Machu Picchu trek Liquorice Allsorts rain-capes. While Juan-Dos (as we nicknamed him to differentiate him and our bilingual guide of the same name) and Wilson packed up the boat, Juan battled the weather and football for our attention to introduce himself
Volcán Chimborazo, near RiobambaVolcán Chimborazo, near RiobambaVolcán Chimborazo, near Riobamba

aka the point on the planet furthest away from the centre of the Earth, thanks to the bulge at the Equator... one for all you trivia fans!
and outline our journey to the lodge. We’d be travelling by motorised canoe for the first three hours, then walking through the forest for quarter of an hour, and then boarding a paddle-canoe for the remaining half-hour to Sani Lodge where we’d meet our campsite and the main lodge facilities where, most importantly, dinner would be served.

It was a long and wet trip downriver. Jo slumped forward over her daypack, perfecting her new skill of falling asleep in challenging positions and places. I zoned out, hypnotised by the currents and eddies of the surprisingly fast-moving river around us. Occasionally the forest-lined, muddy-watered monotony would be interrupted by other river traffic or a weather-braving bird. After a couple of hours the sky tried to clear a little, but conceded defeat to another heavy downpour just after we landed at the crossing-over point. We were thankful for the raised boardwalk through the forest: below us the water was at least a foot deep, and we hadn’t yet been issued with the Lodge’s gum boots.

Out on the lagoon, the rain finally gave up. At last we could raise our heads and enjoy the tranquillity of our surroundings to the
flowers and a viewflowers and a viewflowers and a view

on the trek from Quilotoa to Chugchilán
accompaniment of the soft splosh of the men’s paddles. I felt a resurgence of previously rain-dampened excitement. As we rounded a corner, we caught sight of a large two-storey, open-ended structure with tents already erected on its raised base. Was this our new home? Sure enough, the men turned the canoe into the reeds, pulling up at a partly submerged wooden pier, and we got out and stomped muddily up the track to a clearing. To one side were several small open-sided huts, tents on their raised bases; on the other side was the huge edifice we’d seen from the river, tents cheek-by-jowl, with crisp white bedding already made up as neatly as in the most expensive African lodge, complete with towels tied in decorative shapes. When a tray of cocktails appeared, I felt a brief Alice-in-Wonderland moment – mud and white linen, tents and waiter service, scruffy backpacks and luxury – but practicalities soon took over. We had boots to fit, tents to choose and bags to unpack, before the men paddled us across the lagoon to the Lodge for dinner.

The two communal rooms in the Lodge, the bar and the dining-room, are in large separate rondavels,
checking out the new arrivalschecking out the new arrivalschecking out the new arrivals

squirrel monkey at the Coca hotel
thoughtfully connected by a covered walkway: rain is no stranger here. Bungalows for “posh people” are scattered either side of a path beyond. During the three days of our stay, we were to be treated to an endless supply of delicious food, with three courses at lunch and dinner, and a buffet and eggs-to-order for breakfast. The staff seemed positively keen to push food at us. When I sheepishly asked to try both of the desserts on offer one night, the waiter beamed at me, “Claro que si!” I had set a trend, which Zoe took to new lengths at lunch the next day, managing five portions of cake before finally declaring herself sated.

That evening, the hard core stayed behind to prop up the bar, but the rest of us were spent. It had been a long day. But here in the rainforest your adventures aren’t over until you close your eyes. To get back to the campsite, we had to be paddled back across the lagoon, and now, in the inky dark of a moonless night, the lagoon belonged to others. The bobbing white light of fireflies skipped above the water, the flitting black shadows of bats tantalised the edge of our vision, and pairs of red glints reflected our torchlight on the surface: caimans were noiselessly patrolling the waters. Two nights’ later when we went out “officially” caiman-spotting, the water levels were higher and only a single specimen came out to play, the giant of them all, a black caiman, the surface of the water broken by snout and eyes and the spine-nubs along his 2.5-3m length.

Wildlife has no thought for human (well, my) sleep needs, something I’ve wryly regretted in the past. We were woken early the next morning for a swift breakfast before the next of our forest adventures. Sani Lodge has erected a 45m lookout tower on its land, close to the border with Yasuni National Park. Ascending a 14-storey metal-stepped frame and crossing a walkway takes you onto a large wooden platform assembled, like an open-sided and roofless tree-house, in the upper boughs of a massive kapok tree. From here, the forest spreads out uninterruptedly in all directions, a myriad of greens and leaves, punctuated by the occasional arboreal monster. Juan erected the Lodge’s Zeiss telescope, and scanned the endless green around us. In no time, we were looking at
Liquorice Allsorts, once againLiquorice Allsorts, once againLiquorice Allsorts, once again

on board the canoe to Sani Lodge
a pair of lazy red howler monkeys, perched distantly near the top of their tree; earlier we’d been enchanted as a troop of squirrel monkeys effortlessly bounded through the trees above our path. Juan picked out no fewer than four varieties of toucan. A kite kept lookout nearby. Vultures circled in the distance. A distant kingfisher relation watched us from a higher branch of our own kapok tree. Juan showed us parts of the tree’s own ecosystem, including two of the country’s staggering number of orchids.

On our way back to the canoe, and again on a later walk that morning, and again that night, we encountered all kinds of forest life, mainly from the insect and reptile/amphibian worlds. The perceptiveness of Juan and Juan-Dos’s vision amazed us, their ability to spot in the undergrowth tiny frogs and lizards that were dwarfed by our fingernails, and insects so well camouflaged to their surroundings we had to stare hard even when told where to look. The forest isn’t kind to those looking for birds or mammals. During the daytime, we could hear a panoply of bird calls, but the chance of spotting their source was small. At night, we heard
a l-o-n-g way up...a l-o-n-g way up...a l-o-n-g way up...

the capoc tree that forms Sani Lodge's canopy lookout
a crashing through the undergrowth and a loud grunting, but the source – probably a capybara or tapir – kept itself hidden from our eyes. Instead, we were startled by the size and aggressive appearance of several lobster katydids and various species of spider. Frogs varied from small tree-frogs to an enormous, if distant, relation almost perfectly camouflaged to the undergrowth. A lizard held itself immobile, waiting for our torchlight and camera-flashes to move on. A butterfly snoozed in the branches, unmoved by our attention. Owls hooted in the distance. Back at camp that night, we were lulled to sleep by a chorus of insects and frogs.

The next day, a different challenge awaited us. Sani Lodge is owned by the Sani Isla community, and it was the village itself that we were to visit for an introduction to its way of life, and to see the causes to which Dragoman was contributing in our name. But this was going to be no pedestrian experience: we were going to be put to work! After a brief introduction to some of the women from the women’s co-operative, we were taken over to a partially-cleared patch of land, issued with a
camping in the forestcamping in the forestcamping in the forest

campsite, Sani Lodge
variety of machetes, hoes and shovels, and put to work clearing marked-out plots for vegetable cultivation by the community, including hacking out tree-roots and clearing the vegetation rubbish from the land. While no right-thinking person approves of rainforest clearance per se, the land where we were working is part of a larger area communally-owned by the village so as to be able to benefit from communal farming and ensure that at least part of their land can remain untouched. I found myself mentally addressing similar issues to those I had encountered in Africa with regard to sustainable development: the arrogant demands of Western tourism which stem from our cosy, insulated existences, must be tempered by local considerations and ways of life. With the right regulation, animals in Africa can – and, indeed, sometimes must – be culled; equally here, indigenous people must be allowed to continue their traditional ways of life, but in a way that allows them to see the benefits of preserving their environment.

But it wasn’t all hard work (though, three weeks’ on, my blistered hands have only just recovered). When we got back to the communal building for well-earned (or so we hoped) cold drinks
funky bugfunky bugfunky bug

near Sani Lodge
and snacks, we found retail therapy and a cookery lesson awaiting us. Extensive samples of the women’s crafts were laid out on trestle tables: simple pottery with traditional designs, and jewellery and bags made from locally-grown reeds and seeds. Once even the most-hardened shopper was satisfied, we were invited into the other half of the building where the delights of Sani cuisine was about to be introduced to us, coals were already hot on a raised concrete platform. First, we were shown how to wrap fish fillets and chopped palm hearts in banana leaves for baking on a grill over the fire, then we were taught how to strip the green skins off plantains and how to peel cassava.

For the pièce de résistance, a volunteer was requested and Di gamely stepped forward, not knowing what she was to do. A banana leaf was laid out on the floor and a covered box appeared: could she please put the box’s contents onto the leaf. She took the lid off the box to reveal its wriggling contents. There were gasps of horror from the gringos around the room and giggles from the Sani villagers watching for our reaction. Inside were

near Sani Lodge
the fat white larvae of Rhynchophorus palmarum, otherwise known as the South American palm weevil. To continuing shrieks from the more squeamish of us, Di carefully placed the larvae, one by one, on the banana leaf, an ongoing process as her victims made sporadic bids for freedom. In the meantime, Juan explained that these were an expensive delicacy. Harvested from the trunks of palm trees cut down three months earlier, their price could range from US$0.50-1.00 each, and could be eaten raw (and live) – to our gasps of horror – by biting off the head first before its mandibles could nip you, or grilled on skewers. Yes, you’ve guessed it. More volunteers were requested to sample both processes. London took on Melbourne as Ross and Colin stepped forward to test their mettle with the raw version. To be fair, Ross had done this before and calmly selected his victim. Colin, meanwhile, was struggling even to retain his grip on one of the squirming grubs, and squealed as it wriggled up through his fingers, the grub seemingly able to move its body out through his fingers independently of its harder white carapace. Having picked one up by its middle, Colin

near Sani Lodge
found he was now holding only one end as the rest of the body shuffled out of his grip. Our shrieks alternated with giggles as Colin tried again and again to pick one up and keep hold of it. Finally the two grub-victims were ready for the chop: we called out encouragement and cameras shutters clicked as the boys took a bite. Zoe led the charge for the next round of volunteers. Together with Errol she seemed to take great delight in squishing the grubs’ heads to kill them and then spearing them lengthwise onto skewers. Ugh. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s not a food that’s going to make it onto my top ten any time soon, either raw or barbecued.

Lunch was served on a tablecloth of banana leaves on the floor, with us all sitting around cross-legged. The fish and palm hearts combination, with cassava and two varieties of plantain on the side, was delicious. Despite having declared, “I don’t mind killing them, I just don’t want to eat them,” as she skewered the weevils earlier, Zoe decided she’d sample the cooked version and declared it perfectly agreeable. Jo and I wimped out, I have to confess.

After a tour of the vegetable garden, where we met the still-growing versions of some of the vegetables we’d eaten and seeds for the jewellery we’d bought, it was time to leave. Farewell speeches were made on both sides, and then the music was switched on. Expecting a dance from the villagers – we’d seen some of the young girls getting ready earlier, or so we thought – we gathered round the open area. But no, we were expected to lead the way, our gum-booted feet notwithstanding. In the baking afternoon sunshine, we clumped through a song or two, villagers and gringos grinning happily at each other. Now, at last, we were free to go.

As we prepared to leave early the next morning – we had a long day ahead of us, with the boat back to Coca and then a hot drive into the evening traffic of Quito – I was not alone in wishing we could have stayed longer. This is a challenging but incredible environment, and having the chance to camp in the rainforest for a couple of days, with our nighttime chorus of frogs and insects, had been an enormous privilege.
watery paradisewatery paradisewatery paradise

en route from Sani Lodge to the Río Napo

As and when I make it back to Ecuador for a much-talked-about/hoped-for Galapagos trip, I’ll certainly come back to this part of the country too.

Additional photos below
Photos: 38, Displayed: 34


checking out the lemonade beakerchecking out the lemonade beaker
checking out the lemonade beaker

juvenile Napo tamarind monkey, Sani Isla

2nd July 2012

love it!
Love the shots of the butterfly and the kadydid!! Your blogs let me travel the world each day! I just got back from a few weeks in L.A. Cool, Foged over and misty at the beach - a nice break from the summer heat of Albuquerque!

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