The Amazon Rainforest

Trip Start Dec 05, 2008
Trip End Jan 09, 2009

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Friday, January 2, 2009

We took the early flight to Puerto Francisco de Orellana (aka Coca) and arrived in the rainforest in the rain.  A guy with a Sani Lodge shirt met us at the airport and put us, along with our new friends Elizabeth and Ryan from California, into a pickup and whisked us off to a hotel.   When we booked our trip we were told that someone would meet us and take us to a place that we could leave our bags while we waited for the rest of the tour group coming in on a later flight.  That place turned out to be a hotel, and rather than just locking up our bags they assigned us two rooms...1st class service! 

We found an internet café nearby and took care of some email chores, then met Ryan and Elizabeth for a bland but salty lunch at the hotel restaurant, and then gathered our stuff to meet the rest of the tourists.  A big...bus (?) truck (?) thing with wooden seats pulled up and a young guy named Jeremy hopped out and introduced himself as a Sani Lodge guide and loaded our stuff on board with a big group of Canadian tourists.  Ryan and Elizabeth got stuck in the hotel lobby, trying not to have to pay for the hotel rooms that we didn't want or need in the first place and that we thought the lodge was paying for (thanks, Ryan, for however you fixed that!).  We used the delay to claw our way up into the bus, which was about a 3 foot step up from the street - no running board for the last available seats.

After a two minute drive - honestly, it took longer to climb up into the bus -- we pulled up along the Rio Napo.  On a clear day, if there ever is one, we would easily have been able to see a 12,000 foot volcano in the Andes to the east and the vast majority of the elevation drop of the Amazon River system.  The Napo River at Coca is less than 1,000 feet above sea level and its water still has two more countries and a continent to cross before reaching the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the world's largest river....amazing.

At the dock we were handed life jackets and loaded onto a canoe....a really big canoe... seating four abreast at its widest beam and sporting twin 100 hp Yamaha outboards.  We were lucky to have gotten seats beside Jeremy who we plied with questions during the trip.  Our first one, probably everybody's first one, was, "how does the boatman know how to find the channel?"  In places the river was nearly a half mile wide and we were zig-zagging perpendicular to the banks nearly as much as parallel to them.  Jeremy said we would travel as much as 100km to reach the lodge, 70km downstream. Our speed fluctuated from full throttle to drifting with the props tilted almost completely out of the water to avoid prop damage. 

Jeremy's answer was that the boatmen used a combination of memory, communication among each other regarding changing channel locations, and an ability to read the surface of the water.  We have some boating experience and were very impressed.  The water was murky and impossible to see into, the current was very swift in places, logs, debris, sandbars and islands were present in the thousands, and the wind seemed to shift around and change the patterns of the water's surface.  Jeremy said a couple of locals (he's from Utah) had been teaching him some of the navigation technique but that much of it was still a mystery.

We passed several other boats, including speed boats ferrying oil workers up and down the river.  Oil is THE industry here.  Environmental abuses in the past attracted attention from some famous people, including Sting, and there are still problems, but we learned that the oil companies have recently begun to partner with the local people to develop sustainable communities and limit environmental damage.

Right on time, as we were beginning to think about lunch, the guides unpacked sack lunches in paper bags.  We had sandwiches wrapped in banana leaves tied with string, some chocolate, and some fruit, including what Jeremy identified as a grenadilla.  He showed us how to break into the hard outer shell, and eat the tasty, gray, gelatinous little brain inside - which was fortunate, as otherwise we might have thought it had gotten into our lunch by mistake, and missed out entirely.

After about 4 hours we reached our destination....almost.  Sani Lodge is built on a lagoon a couple of klicks in from the Napo, but canoeing up the small tributary stream was impossible during low water conditions, so we had a 20 minute walk, which was great despite (or because of?) the driving rain, to a place on the creek where we could board smaller canoes for the rest of the trip.

Sani Lodge is one of the newer eco-lodges along the Rio Napo.  It's owned and operated by the Sani Isla indigenous community.  Members of the community run the lodge, along with a few English speaking naturalists, and proceeds go toward education and other community projects.  The setting is beautiful-thatch-roofed structures perched on the edge of a black water lagoon and surrounded by tropical rainforest.  Our assigned cabin had two beds with crisp sheets and fancy mosquito nets.

We had an excellent dinner with our new tour group members-Elizabeth and Ryan, Mark and Liz (from England, but Liz currently teaching English in Quito before University next year), John and Sybil from Canada, Kyran from Australia (and pretty much everywhere else on the planet), and our English-speaking guide Fredy.  Fredy is unique at Sani because he is native to the community and an English speaker.  His father was one of the primary advocates of the lodge, winning support of the community over an alternative offer from an oil company, and also a shaman, so we felt fortunate to get a guide who was obviously knowledgeable about local society and ethnobotany.  We found out the next day that Fredy is also a very good naturalist.
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