Mar 26 2008

Welcome to the Jungle

Published by at 6:00 pm under Amazon Basin,South America

For the last leg of our trip in Ecuador, we went to Sacha Lodge, a lodge in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. That last description is a bit misleading. The t-shirts all say “Amazon – Ecuador” but the Amazon doesn’t actually flow through Ecuador. The lodge is really on the Napo River which is a major tributary of the Amazon. If you call them on it, it turns out that they meant the Amazon Basin. Hmmm. Anyhoo. To get there, we took a 25-minute flight from Quito to Coca and then a 2-hour canoe ride down the Napo. I say canoe but this has ten rows for 3 people, is covered, and has two motors. This is the 747 of canoes.

It’s a nice ride. You learn quickly that straight lines are not desirable here. The river is very shallow and there are many sandbars hidden just under the surface. The boat’s pilot knows where they are though and he weaves all over the place, sometimes all the way to the opposite side of the river to avoid them. He was pretty good but there were two occasions where everyone on the boat had to help rock back and forth to work it loose from where we had just run aground. Oops.

The jungle, erm, sorry, rainforest scenery along the river was a refreshing change from the Galapagos and the highlands near Quito. And because you’re moving quickly, there’s a cool breeze in your face. And that was the most misleading of all. You see, the Galapagos were very hot and humid. But you’re on a boat a lot or snorkeling so you have ways to cool down. But in the rainforest, it was even hotter and even more humid. Have you ever been somewhere so hot and humid that you’re never really dry at any point in the day (or night)? You get out of the shower and dry off only to realize you’re already sweating again. Two showers per day was the norm and there was a day in there that required three. Luckily they had laundry service.

Activities at the lodge were pretty mellow. They usually involved a walk in the forest, a canoe ride (normal size canoes this time), or watching birds from a platform. Sacha Lodge is known for its canopy walk, a set of three towers that rise to the level of the forest canopy and have a suspended walkway between them. The idea is that since the canopy is where most of the birds – and some monkeys – spend their time, you gotta go there to see them. When we were up there, we saw a few colorful birds including some toucans and, in the distance, some howler monkeys.

Oscar, one of the naturalist guides, looking for birds.

Meredith on the canopy walk’s suspended walkway.

Typically there was time after lunch to rest a bit before the late afternoon activity and you could swim in the lake next to the lodge to cool off. There were piranhas in the lake but it turns out there are a lot of myths and in the end, they’re scavengers so if you’re alive and don’t have any open wounds, they won’t touch you. Lots of people swam and had no issues. Still, I thought it was a better bet to take a guide up on his offer to take us out on a canoe and go piranha fishing instead. And if we got one big enough, we could take it back to the lodge and eat it. Apparently, piranha is a tasty fish. There were four of us in the boat: Meredith, myself, another guest, and our native guide (you had two types of guides: a naturalist guide who spoke English and a native guide from the area). We didn’t catch a lot – I caught one and our guide caught two.

Dave and his Super, Giant, Man-Eating, Scary Piranha.

The guide showing us the piranha’s teeth.

I asked the guide if the piranha has upper teeth as well to match the lower teeth you see in the picture. It turns out they do. I know this because, when he reached in to pull back the piranha’s upper lip , it bit him deeply on his finger. He said it was only the second time he’d ever been bitten by a piranha. He was bleeding a lot. Remember what I said about piranhas being scavengers? We didn’t stay out fishing much longer. 🙂

One of the other unguided options the lodge offered was a butterfly farm with many local butterflies and moths. This wasn’t unique to the rainforest but still pretty cool nonetheless to walk through huge numbers of them flying around you. See the Ecuador gallery for a few pictures of those!

On our walks through the forest, the native and naturalist guides would point out birds, insects, reptiles, etc. The picture below shows a large ant on our native guide’s arm (he put it there intentionally). It’s called a Bullet Ant because when provoked it bites you and then immediately stings you too. Supposedly the first English speaker to whom this happened decided it felt like bullet.

A Bullet Ant climbing our native guide’s arm. Before you ask, no, it didn’t bite/sting him.

A typical scene of a canoe activity through the rainforest.

Crossing the lake towards a creek that heads into the forest.

A typical view of the rainforest from a canoe ride. Very lush and dense.

Another view of the forest.

Ivan, our native guide, was excellent. Very friendly, knew so much, and loved sharing it with us. In addition to picking up harmful insects (see above), he showed us medicinal plants and told native stories about plants and animals in the forest. He even created a trap from scratch with trees and vines, set it, and triggered it to show how they would catch small animals. It worked! Now I feel like I could survive if I were stranded in an Ecuadorian rainforest. In the above picture, he’s fitting Meredith with a crown made from a palm frond.

Another great thing is that, after hearing me and another guy in our group joking non-stop for a few days about blow-guns, he brought one out with some darts and a target. He set a papaya up on a stake about 30 feet away. He then loaded a blow gun with a dart and we each took turns with target practice. The gun’s barrel was pretty long – harder than I thought it would be to keep steady. After a couple of misses, I was able to hit it just off-center with the dart going through the papaya. Surprisingly lethal!

All in all, we had a good time at the lodge and we’re glad we went. It is a little unfair to compare it to our experience in the Galapagos since there we saw more wildlife and much closer but the rainforest has its own look and feel which made it worthwhile. Now if they could just turn down the heat…

– Dave

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