I would consider my travel-hungry family to be pretty adventurous. My mom is always planning interesting trips in her head (currently it is to Rwanda…) and reminiscing about encountering the hippos in Africa. We have done some pretty adventurous things together, from hiking out west to going on Safari in South Africa, so the next natural step was to explore another unique piece of the world together—the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest in Yasuni National Park.
Yasuni National Park is a skip and a hop from Quito. There are two main launching points in Ecuador to visit the rainforest- Tena and Coca. We flew from Quito to Coca, which is one of the farthest eastern towns in Ecuador, as the rest is swallowed up by rainforest. Yasuni National Park is the large rainforest reserve in Ecuador, which is the Ecuadorian Amazon– The Napo River, which is the largest tributary of the Amazon River, runs through the national park. It meets up with the Amazon some thousand miles away. From Coca we took a boat ride down the Napo River for about two hours. Ditching our motorized canoe, we disembarked and hiked for about 1.5 km on a boardwalk through the rainforest. Finally, we took a canoe ride across Pilchicocha Lake to our lodge– Sacha Lodge has to be one of the most secluded and most beautiful resorts on earth.
The lodge was everything that we needed—amazing food prepared for us, beautiful rustic accommodations, a knowledgeable naturalist guide to show us around, and a native Quichua guide who knew absolutely everything there was to know about the rainforest. We were even given wellington boots to keep our feet dry on our excursions. Our daily adventures varied. On any given day we would do two excursions into the forest to bird watch, observe monkeys, or merely listen to the sounds of the forest.
Before dinner on our first night we took a night canoe ride around the lake. Luckily the lake does not attract mosquitoes because of the leaves in the area. When the fall into the lake or river, they act like tea, and an acid leaches out of the leaves, which is not conducive to mosquito breeding. In the pitch-blackness of the night, our guides would shine spotlights into the trees in hopes of spotting something interesting. We saw the red eyes of a few Caiman (small alligators), which was unreal. Being on a lake in the dark in the middle of the rainforest was a surreal experience—time absolutely stood still.
On day two we hiked through the dense rainforest to a canopy walk that was 45 meters high (yikes!). There were three towers connected by suspension bridges. We were quite literally above the canopy and able to observe all of the canopy birds. I am really very afraid of heights, but this experience was too magical to be enveloped in fear. My favorite was spotting the toucan’s large beaks, and following them as they flew from treetop to treetop. We saw a few monkeys through the binoculars, as well as quite literally birds of every single color. Our Quichua guide knew almost every bird from just a brief glance, and was able to mimic all of the calls. When it started to heat up (and it certainly did), we headed back to the lodge to relax until our afternoon canoe ride. The heat in the rainforest was stifling, aided by the intense humidity, so our afternoons were spent relaxing under the fan.
Our evening canoe ride took us down the winding, small river. This was a real rainforest experience, and my favorite thing that we did. Silently paddling down the river, our guide would stop and point out monkeys in the trees above us, or different interesting birds flying by. Thick vines fell from the trees adding to the experience. It was absolutely serene, and the deeper that we went into the forest the more incredible it became. We finally stopped at a giant Kapok tree. This was the most amazing tree that I have ever seen in my entire life. It reminded me of the tree in Avatar, which is not too far from the truth. In Quichua legend, the kapok tree is a source of energy and spirits. The trees can reach 200 feet and are hundreds of years old. This tree put our beautiful redwoods and sequoias to shame. To me, this tree itself was power.
We had another beautiful evening canoe ride the next day, which was even more magical. As we left and were just getting into the river, the sky turned dark and the wind picked up—we were about to experience our first rainforest rain. As we paddled the sky became even darker, and we weren’t able to see as many animals. We arrived at our destination and climbed a 43-meter tower that wrapped around a giant kapok tree above the canopy. Just as we reached the top, the heavens opened up. Unfortunately this brought thunder and lightening, and the worst possible place to be in the entire rainforest during a lightening storm is 20 feet above the canopy. We raced down the tower and back to our canoe, and paddled home through the rain. Again, this was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
Our final day was one of the most interesting for me, as we visited a Quichua community. On the way we paddled down the river to a parrot clay lick. Parrots need the nutrients in the clay negate the acidity of their diets; weekly they must digest some of the clay. Evidentially, all of the parrots go to the clay at once and it is magnificent, but they are also easily spooked. We watched for over an hour as they crept closer and closer, hundreds of them, but never actually licked the clay… next time? The Quichua community was beautiful. We toured their farm and ate a traditional meal on the floor on palm leaves. They made fish wrapped in the palm leaves with heart of palm (AMAZING), chontacuro which is some type of worms which are offered raw and squirming or baked on a stick, yucca, and some local distilled alcohol. Yes, I did eat the cooked worms because why not, and the rest of the meal was wonderful. The Quichua are an indigenous ethnic group that still thrives in the Amazon relatively secluded from modern society. There are something like 10 tribes still in the Amazon. The language that they all still speak—Kichwa, which is widely spoken in Ecuador, defines Quichua. In fact, many of the women that we met from the community did not even speak Spanish. There are also Quichua outside of the Amazon, throughout Ecuador and South America. This is an area that I would like to study further.
We spent the rest of our time at Sacha enjoying Ecuadorian Pilsner, fishing for piranha, visiting the butterfly house, and taking a night walk through the depths of the rainforest.
The entire experience in the Amazon was so much more than I thought that it would be. Spending those few days with my family was so nice, and to spend it in the most diverse ecosystems in the world is definitely something that I will remember for the rest of my life.