Junglin’ Around the Rio Napo

Close your eyes and travel back to the start of February, when we had just arrived to the gateway to the Amazon in Puyo. We had hemmed and hawed as we ate streetside humitas, reconciling the cost and also departing from the bikes. We’d been taking liberties with the excuse “it’s our honeymoon,” and this liberty took us deep down the Rio Napo to a place only accessible by canoe.

During our first few hours in Coca, our launch point for heading to the Sani Lodge, we slept in the bus station waiting for the sun to rise. Then from the waterfront hotel where we met our guide, we traveled first in a motorized canoe for three hours east along the Rio Napo. During the rainy season, it would have only taken 1.5 hours, but the low water levels forced our meandering course along the deepest channels to avoid the sand bars. Along the way, we passed communities spread lengthwise along the river with dugout canoes pulled up along mudbanks as the only give away. We passed a number of other boats, locals traveling up or downriver and various commerce barges, the most striking of which were the beer barges stacked deep in crates of glass bottles of Pilsener full and empty. Each of these river barges had a hammock slung flanked by deck chairs, a reminder of the calm seas and slow pace of river life. We also passed multiple oil extraction facilities along the river, marked by their huge flames burning away the off gases. Our guide shared that each day roughly 40 pounds of insects are signed to death by these flames. We shuddered at the thought that there must be hundreds if not thousands of these flames burning throughout the Amazon.

We arrived to an access point, where after hiking 20 minutes down a boardwalk, we boarded a paddled canoe and crept slowly upstream to the Challuacocha Lake, a blackwater lake home to black caiman and a fish that will snap your paddle in one bite (3 meters long and 200 lbs, similar to a salmon but that will remain nameless because we forget — three cheers for Americans perpetuating fish myths!).

The lodge manager met us on the docks with fresh squeezed guava juice and wished us a happy honeymoon. Thus began our dip into the Amazonian lap of luxury. For the next five days we woke under the stars at four a.m. to catch the morning chorus. A few of those mornings, we climbed the 30 meter canopy tower that stood atop a sacred Ceibo tree to watch the sunrise and listen to the howler monkeys, while we patiently waited for the hundreds of birds species that would dart into view as the morning progressed. We saw tanagers, woodcreepers, manakins, puffbirds, macaws, euphonias, kites, … the list goes on. One of the peculiar dangers we faced was the ever present bullet ant and its smaller cousin, the tilly ant, which bit James when he braced himself against a railing to look closely through his binoculars. The resulting golf ball-sized welt on his arm stung him for days!

American Pygmy KingfisherWe paddled, hiked, swung in hammocks, gawked at the immense beauty and magnificent diversity, and gorged on gourmet food for five days straight. Our guide’s mother was a healer in the community, and he had a special knack for pointing out the medicinal purposes of jungle plants. One vine he cut open, afforded us all a gulp of fresh water before he filled half his bottle with what remained. Another stem he sliced open was full of lemon ants, which James happily stuck his tongue into to see if the namesake held true. Our favorite trees were the walking palms, which can move up to several meters over their lifetime to get better access to sunlight. Imagine a bundle of uncooked spaghetti, tiptoeing along the jungle floor and there you have the root system of this incredible tree. We had a three way tie for our favorite camouflaged. The winners were long-nosed bats blending seamlessly with the trunks from which they hung, the leaf frog (which, you guessed it), and the great tinamou chicks (and damned if they didn’t look exactly like the ground upon which they laid). Our favorite bird was the American Pygmy Kingfisher, not much larger than a wren, which made us yelp with delight more than once. It darted skittishly by day, but at night we could find it sitting like a wax figurine, as it roosted on branches while we paddled past.

On our third day, we visited the local community, where the majority of the staff, who were locals themselves, lived. An elder prepared our lunch made up of traditonal foods, including grilled plantains, grilled grubs, maito (fish steamed in jungle leaves), and chicha (a fermented drink made from masticated yuca). We ate on leaf mats on the floor of a marketplace where the community’s women’s association sell their handicrafts, then took our leave late in the afternoon.

For both of us, the Amazon had been the stuff of mystery and legends. Even though we only visited a small portion of its immense depth and breadth, it gave us a feeling for how rich and diverse it is as a whole. We’re not counting, but we must have seen over 150 species of birds, four species of monkey, 20 species of katydids, and myriad other wonders. It’s a magical place, and it’s easy to imagine that the rainy season deluge that necessitates canoeing over the hiking trails would be a strikingly different experience. We’ll just have to do another bike trip to fact check that assumption. Thanks again to our friends and family whose generous wedding gifts made it possible to visit the Sani Lodge!