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Amazon April 2014 trip


Rcfengen

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I will note that this report is about a trip that my son and I took in April 2014.

I was working in Bogota, Colombia and Quito, Ecuador for a year or so and decided we should go and see the Amazon while I was in the area.  There are certainly no shortage of things to see and do in Colombia and Ecuador but the Amazon would be special and it was.

I would spend a week in Bogota and then I would fly to Quito for the weekend and Monday and Tuesday then fly home for a few days and then back to Bogota the following Sunday starting the whole cycle over again.  I far preferred Quito to Bogota.  Quito is very pretty and very old.  There are many interesting things to do and experience in Quito, I highly recommend it.

Both cities are situated at a very high altitude and this seems to disturb some people during their first few days of a visit (headaches and nausea), it never seemed to bother me.  Bogota is 2,640 meters and Quito is 2,850 meters.  To me the most interesting thing is that your aircraft still fly at roughly 10,000 meters so the decent to the airport is very quick.

My son flew from Vancouver down to Bogota and we spent a few days in Bogota.  I am not really a fan of the city but there are many who love it.  Maybe the most famous place to visit in Bogota is Andres Carne, the party restaurant.  There are four locations, one large one in the centre of Bogota and then the original (which is huge) located about thirty or forty minutes outside of the city, this is the one to visit.  Hire a driver for the night and have fun.  The menu is probably the largest I have ever seen and the food is really good.  Order a Mojito (the house specialty) and a good time is guaranteed, two Mojitos and you will have a great time, three or more Mojitos it will not matter - no way you will remember.

One thing that I found interesting during my time in Bogota, lemons are limes and limes are lemons???  The yellow citrus fruit that is known as a lemon in North America is called a lime in Colombia and Ecuador.  So what do they call the green citrus fruit, a lemon of course.  Now I am sure someone is going to explain this is wrong, but it fascinated me and so I asked many people this same question and they all called lemons - limes and limes - lemons.  The other great thing was the price of the limes/lemons.  The picture below was taken in Ecuador where they use the US dollar as the local currency, so the price is a nickel per lime/lemon.  I bought one in Vancouver this week, it was more than a dollar.

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After a few days in Bogota enjoying some great food and drink we flew to Quito.  The old town of Quito is a World Heritage site.  The city was founded in the 1500’s on the ruins of an Inca City.  I recommend spending some time in the Old Town as it is fascinating, also going up to the El Panecillo gives a great view of the city.

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If you do make it down to the Old Town and if you have always wanted a Panama hat this is your chance.  Panama hats are actually from Ecuador, there is a long story about why the world knows them as Panama hats (has to do with the building of the Panama Canal and the fact the Roosevelt was photographed in one at the Panama Canal).  The world’s finest Panama hats come from Ecuador and although the best are found in some villages and smaller cities you can get very nice ones at Homero Ortega in the heart of the Old Town.

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There are some great restaurants in Quito and the local favourite at most of them in Ceviche and it is excellent.  It is almost always served with popcorn and the two go together very well.  Quito is not on the coast but the seafood is fresh and the ceviche as good as you will find anywhere.  Normally I like to eat the local cuisine no matter where I am but every other Friday night I was in Quito alone and always had dinner at Carmine Gastronomia.  Carmine was always there to take care of everything and the food was as good as you will find outside of Italy.  Cannot recommend Carmine’s highly enough, good wine list also.

If you visit Quito make sure that you have some time to spend in the surrounding areas as well as the city of Quito.  A short thirty minute drive from Quito is the equator and there are monuments and markets all around as well as the usual parlour tricks that you find at all tourist equator sites.  Interesting side note, the equator is actually a couple of hundred meters down the road, someone messed up.

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On the road to the equator there are also a significant number of road side stands that are grilling meats.  Throughout Ecuador most it is pork and beef with some lamb and sheep also found, it is all very good, think Argentina type grills.  The one I found unusual is Guinea Pig which is a delicacy in Ecuador and available at many restaurants serving local cuisine.  I tried it and found it to be a little greasy and difficult to find much meat but certainly not the worst thing I ever ate.

Most of the guides who take you to the “Middle of the World” will also take you to the Pululahua Crater one of only two craters in the world where people actually live in the crater.  The view is incredible (if you can avoid the fog) and the fauna very unique.  There are more than sixty species of Orchids that grow in the crater.

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Another worthwhile day trip from Quito is a visit to the market town of Otavalo which hosts one of the largest markets in the region.  The market seems to take over the entire town and you can find almost anything you are looking for.  There are some nice wood products (bowls, cutting boards, kitchen tools), jewelry, art and of course Alpaca wool blankets.  A nice Alpaca blanket will cost $200 and up in North America.  If you buy in quantity and negotiate hard you can buy them for around $20 at the market.  Please do not tell me I overpaid, even if I did.

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If you are an adventurous type, venture over to the other side of the highway, to the animal market.  You will see almost every type of animal you can imagine being bought and sold.  I am not making any statements about what may take place later in the day but I did not see any animals being killed at the market.  Local farmers bring what they want to sell that day and stand beside it offering it for sale.  Not a lot of tourists in this area but I found it fascinating.

The final recommendation for a trip outside of Quito is a visit to Coatacachi, which is known as the leather town.  The town itself is very pretty and full of leather merchants.  You can walk down the main drag and find just about everything that can be made out of leather and probably a few things that should not be made out of leather.  The prices are very reasonable and of course the price written on the item is merely a suggestion.  There are probably a hundred stores so if you do not find what you want or do not like the price, there is always another shop.

Before we start on our journey to the Amazon I will make one comment.  I was in Colombia and Ecuador working with an oil field services company (they drill oil wells).  As you may or may not know there are a lot of oil reserves in Ecuador (and Colombia).  To this point Ecuador has not really capitalized on this resource.  Ecuador is a poor country and there is considerable strife between the capitalists who would like to produce more oil and the environmentalists who do not want to destroy the natural beauty of the land.  As I say they do produce some modest amounts of oil presently but not nearly enough to enjoy the riches that abound in the ground and potentially make life better for the citizens of the country.  After visiting the remote areas and forests of Ecuador it breaks my heart to think that this could all be destroyed.  However witnessing the poverty that is rampant in the country also breaks my heart.  I hope that Ecuador can find a way to enjoy some of the riches which are available without destroying their land.

That brings me to Napo Wildlife Center.  When I first decided I wanted to visit the Amazon I started to look for where to go.  Since I was spending considerable time in Quito I asked as many locals as I could and Napo was the most recommended place I heard about.  I went and met them at their offices in Quito and learned more about Napo, I was impressed.  Napo was built and is owned by the natives of the Kichwa Añangu Community.  The more you learn about these people and their commitment to their lands the more you will like them.  When they decided to build the Wildlife Center in the middle of the Yasuni National Park the leaders convinced the natives that in order to ensure there was abundant wildlife for visitors to see and experience they needed to give up both hunting and fishing and they did.  I was hooked on Napo and would return again and again.  The other good news item about Napo is that it is so inexpensive compared to other places around the world you can visit to see wild animals, birds and fauna.  We ended up visiting for three nights and four days and the cost for food lodging and everything was $1,840 USD.  We also booked our flights from Quito to Coca through Napo and that cost $206 USD each.  Finally we paid an extra $320 USD to have a private guide during our stay.

At Napo you have the option of getting a private guide or to go with a group.  If at all possible go with the private guide.  When you are in the large canoes you may be eight or ten people back when something is spotted, chances are it will be gone before the people in the back of the canoe ever see it.  In the private canoe the paddler spends his time getting the guests into the perfect spot to see things, easy when there are only two of you impossible if there are ten.

So we left Quito and flew around a couple of mountains and landed in Coca.  Coca is really an oil town, most of the oil companies have offices and yards in the town.  So again a big split, lots of jobs from the oil companies but also lots of encroachment on the land.  When we landed in Coca we were met by Napo representatives and they threw our stuff into pickup trucks and drove us the five minutes over to the Napo River.  We were given a short briefing provided with a box lunch and lifejacket and loaded into what they called motorized canoes, there were probably twenty of us.

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Out into the fast moving Napo River for a fairly uneventful couple of hours.  There was a lot of debris in the river and the captain had to pay attention weaving back and forth across the river to avoid low spots and large tress floating down the river.  After a couple of hours we slowed and turned into a small tributary of the river.  Almost as soon as we turned into what I later found out was Anangu Creek we stopped at the Napo Welcome Center.  Out of the motorized canoes to stretch your legs and look around at the jungle a bit.

Then we were loaded into smaller canoes this time powered by people, no engines.  The setup in the canoes is interesting.  In our case there was my son and I and we sat side by side in the middle of the canoe.  In the back of the canoe was the paddler, a young very fit member of the tribe who did not really speak much.  Directly in front of us was our English speaking guide, who was a trained biologist and unbelievably knowledgeable about everything we saw and did.  More on him later.  In the very front of the canoe was the “local” guide who was/is a member of the local tribe that owns and operates the lodge.  He did not speak any English but he sure spoke local jungle, he seemed to have eyes everywhere and spotted probably ninety percent of everything we saw on the trip.  He would tell the English speaking guide what he spotted and then the English speaking guide would shine a laser pointer a foot or two below whatever it was so that we could spot it, a very efficient system.  Without the local guide we would have seen almost nothing.

Our guides wanted to be out in front of all the other boats so we hurried to get situated and took off at a pretty good clip.  As I said earlier the water we were on now is a creek and that is a good name for it in places it was probably no more than ten feet wide and it meandered here and there. 

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We had not been on the creek for more than a few minutes when we had our first of what would turn out to be many monkey encounters.  First we heard them and then they come into view.  It was magical watching them literally run through the trees. They move very fast and make a lot of noise, very special to witness, more difficult to capture with a camera for a number of reasons.  They are high up usually, they move quickly and are almost always heavily backlit since you are looking straight up which is where the only light is coming from. 

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I have so much respect for the people who can remember the names of all the birds, the fauna, the guides and everything else.  I have trouble remembering what I had for dinner last night and birds from a few years ago forget it.  So I offer pictures without even trying to name them.

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The paddling trip up the creek took about two and a half hours with numerous stops to watch things in the forest.  Finally things get considerably brighter and the creek opens up into a lake.

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You can see the Napo Lodge on the left hand side of the lake and we paddled towards it.  As you get closer and can see more of the Lodge and the cabins it is hard not to be impressed, we are a long ways from civilization.

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We docked and were given a very quick orientation and shown to our cabin for the next couple of days.

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We sat down in the deck chairs which were probably twenty feet from the edge of the lake and this was our view.

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We explored the area around the grounds a little bit and decided it was time to go for a pre-dinner beer, the bar/dining room is right above the boat dock and so gives an incredible view over the lake.  One of the first things we noticed were these bats on a log thirty feet away from us.

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It is impossible to not notice the birds, they are everywhere you look.  We were told by someone that one half of the species of birds in the world call the Amazon basin home, not sure if it is one hundred percent accurate but there are certainly a stunning array of birds.

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While you are at Napo you do a combination of things which include canoe rides (you take a canoe everywhere), visit to clay licks, visit to canopy platforms and both day and night jungle walks.  I will start with the canoe rides as we spent most of our time in the canoe.  While in the canoe you can move almost silently and so get to hear the sounds of the jungle as well as approach unsuspecting birds and mammals quite closely.  One of the highlights of Napo is the abundance of Giant River Otters around the lodge.  I do not think we ever came or went from the Lodge when we did not see the Otters.  They are incredibly playful and seem to love to put on a show for the guests, we literally spent hours watching them play and feed.

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Of course the birds were never far away either

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One afternoon while paddling through the creek the local guide pointed way up in a tree and said Sloth.  It took binoculars and a few minutes for the rest of us to finally make out what had been so easy for him.

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Another great view from the canoe was the many turtles that were all along the banks usually sunning themselves.

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The English speaking guide who was a biologist used his iPhone and an external speaker to make bird calls.  He would call up a bird call on the iPhone and then play it on the speaker, seconds later we would start hearing the same call coming back to us and shortly thereafter he would point it out using his trusty laser pointer.  The local guide and paddler would snicker every time the English speaking guide would do this and then they would make the bird sounds without electronic help, a bit of a competition between the high tech and man.  Not sure that one method was appreciably better than the other, they both seemed to work.

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Of course the monkeys were never too far away, I think all in, the guide counted that we saw seven different species of monkeys during our visit.  In total we saw many hundreds of monkeys including a family of more than a hundred getting ready to bed down for the evening around dusk, they were incredibly active and super noisy getting ready for bed.

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Late one afternoon while paddling along we looked into the water (normally you are looking up in the trees) and swimming right alongside of us was a giant Arapaima.  It must have been almost two meters long and glistened orange and black.  Unfortunately no time for a picture but certainly one of the highlights of the trip. We saw quite a few of these huge spider webs as we floated down the waterways, they were quite spectacular and made us wonder the size of the spider that can spin a web that was five meters across. 

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Each time we came back into the lake we were welcomed by the Black Caimans.  They did not seem to mind us coming right up to them as they floated around the lake.  At one point we counted twenty of this endangered species floating on the lake.

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There is a strict no swimming policy at the Napo Lodge and when you look at this beautiful lake it makes you wonder why.  On the first canoe ride into the lodge we asked the guide why no swimming was allowed.  He just changed the subject and moved onto another topic.  After we entered the lake and saw the Caiman we were pretty sure we knew why no swimming but were curious about the guides reaction to our original question.  One of the interesting and enjoyable things at Napo is that you share all of your meals with your English speaking guide, another reason for getting a private guide, lots of time to ask questions and get to know them a little better.  One night after a few beer with our dinner I again brought up the subject of swimming.  This time he told us a story of a young couple from a few years earlier.  A young girl (early twenties) was swimming when she was attacked by a large Caiman right near the boat dock.  Her boyfriend jumped into the water to help and was also attacked.  The girl was in bad shape when they got them both out of the water.  Now remember where they are, a two hour paddle to the river and then another two hour boat ride to a hospital.  The guide said they wrapped them up put them into canoes and had four paddlers in each canoe to go as fast as possible to the river.  They both made it and are still alive but that was the end of swimming at the lodge.  That night lots of noise from the edge of the lake in front of our cabin.  In the morning we decided to check out to see if we could see what was making all the noise.  Always good to remember we are simply guests.

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The next day it was really important to the guides that we get off on our own away from the other canoes.  We had built some decent rapport with the guides and they seemed more excited than us that we had spotted the Arapaima the day before.  This sighting had led to lots of fish talk about salmon and halibut up in our neck of the woods.  We asked lots of questions about what other fish were in these waters, they of course told us Piranha.  Once we were away from all the other canoes the local guide produced some fishing line, a hook and some meat.  Now remember the tribe has officially given up fishing and hunting so this was a big no no. He threw the meat into the water and within a second or two pulled this up.

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I was astonished at how quickly he had caught it and asked if it was simply good luck, he threw the meat back in and pulled this out a couple of seconds later.

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He repeated this a few more times each time catching a Piranha in mere seconds.  Mental note - do not dip toes or fingers over the side of the canoe.  I would not have believed it if I had not seen it.

After logging many kilometers in the canoe we were taken to a canopy tower.

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Basically this is scaffolding which is secured to a large tree and rises something like forty meters into the air with a platform on the top which is just above the canopy of the jungle.  The climb up is fascinating but the real action is once you reach the top.  Instead of being on the ground looking up you are now at the top looking across.  The guide had brought a powerful scope which he set up and then focused on birds and such which were a long ways away.  He would then have us take a look.  We saw a beautiful family of Toucans, some monkeys and parrots.  All were too far away to photograph but it was interesting to see them.  Unfortunately the weather was bad (rainy) and so not much wildlife was around, still a beautiful and unique view.  We did manage to run into this little guy putting on quite the show up at the top of the tree.

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We talked to a group who went up to the canopy the next day and they told us that as they were climbing they saw a giant Anaconda wrapped around the tree.  An Anaconda was the one thing we really had wanted to see but did not manage during this trip, reinforces that you are not visiting a zoo.

The next stop was at the famous Parrot Clay Licks.  I knew nothing about what a Clay Lick was and found it absolutely fascinating.  It is said that parrots lick the clay because of its great power as an antidote and antacid.  Parrots eat a variety of berries and toxic fruits and the mineral the clay contains counteracts toxicity. The existence of these licks is critical for parrots and macaws to survive. How all these birds figured this out is rather remarkable.  The first lick we visited was a bit of a bust, we had been joined at the Lick by a large family including a bunch of children, my experience is children are not that good at being quiet, these were no exception.  The guide suggested we leave rather quickly.  When we got to the next Lick I understood why.  We sat in silence for about forty minutes waiting for the birds to arrive.  It seems they are extremely cautious and the area needs to be silent and free of movement for quite some time before they will come down to the viewing area.  This would never happen with children moving and making noise.

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Of course you do a lot of walking around in the jungle whether it is on the way to the steps up to the canopy or to the Clay Licks or just walking around to see things.  The lodge provides you with a pair of rubber boots for this purpose as the trails do get muddy.  Every time you stop moving to look at something or for the guide to explain something they make you do a little dance of stomping your feet to get rid of any insects that may have crawled onto you during the stop.  The insects that were the most fascinating to me were the ants, I did not know that so many different species of ants existed.  You see armies of them everywhere and many of them have nasty bites, hence the reason for the little dance to dislodge them.

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The one ant that the guides seem to be the most wary of is the Bullet Ant as its bite is akin to being shot and the pain lasts twenty four hours.  The guide told us that the locals use Bullet Ant bites as part of a rite of passage for young boys to become men.  The English speaking guide said that he got bit so he could tell of the experience, he did a good enough job describing it that I could not convince my usually up for anything son to give it a try.

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A couple of comments about the guides (both English speaking and the local guide) they are extremely knowledgeable and are more than happy to share their knowledge if you show interest.  Anytime we asked any type of question they would stop usually pick up what we were asking about and then explain in great detail whatever it was that we wanted to know.  Below is a shot of an insect (a millipede I believe)

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My son found it interesting and asked a question next thing you know the guide had picked it up and was explaining everything in detail.  You can also see the local guide behind them searching high up in the trees for something else.

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When you walk around in the Amazon jungle you quickly realize that everything is massive in size and that most everything is poisonous.  However this did not stop the guides from picking things up.  At one point they grabbed a tiny little tree frog and explained that it was very poisonous, it was sitting in his hand as he was explaining this to us.  The thing we saw that scared them the most was a snake called a Common Lancehead.  The local guide was leading our four man parade when he jumped to the side of the trail and yelled something.  We all saw the end of the snake leaving the trail and going into the more dense bush.  They then explained that it was a Common Lancehead and they called it the hundred step snake, if you are bit by it, you will die before you take one hundred steps.  I tried for the picture but all I got was undergrowth.  We did see another snake, this one was not dangerous.

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Back to the large size of things, here is a worm we came across, you would need a large hook for this one to take him fishing

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Other interesting creepy crawly things we saw while walking around on the jungle floor.

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One thing that I was not aware we would see so many of was the moths and butterflies, they seemed to be everywhere and some were very beautiful.

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We found these bird nests to be interesting and plentiful

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Which probably means that I need to show some more pictures of birds.

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These termite nests have a unique dual purpose, as well as being home to amazing amounts of termites the locals break pieces off and rub it on themselves as an insect repellant.

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I wish I could remember the local guides name, it was something like Ugo I think.  He truly was amazing.  At one point he went straight into the bush and came out with a green pod type thing in his hand.

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They explained that it was the fruit of the Cocoa plant which was used to make chocolate.  He cut it open and exposed the edible part of the fruit which he shared with all of us, it was very good.  They explained that all of it went into the production of chocolate and so it was difficult to find places that sold the fruit, always interesting to walk through the jungle with knowledgeable people.  This next photo still amazes me as I have no idea how he spotted this, it was behind him and yet he found it.  In hindsight I assumed that this is where the owl lived and so he knew that it would almost always be there.  But in the heat of the moment it was impressive.

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There are so many fascinating and interesting things in the jungle.  The trees are beautiful and varied, some growing to hundreds of feet high and supporting whole ecosystems.

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This one tree with very unique bark is used by the locals for a variety of things from a food grater to a back scratcher.  We actually bought one of the back scratchers from the Cultural Center.

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One of the places we visited one afternoon was the Cultural Center which is run by the local woman.  It was not nearly as bad as I expected that it might be.  They gave brief demonstrations on life in the villages including preparation of food and shared the local fermented alcohol (the Scottish have nothing to be concerned about if this recipe gets out).  It ended with some traditional dancing and then the opportunity to purchase some trinkets made by the local village.

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One of the interesting things we noticed at the Cultural Center were some of the “friends” the locals share the area with.

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As we were leaving the Cultural Center we got to watch some locals fishing for dinner, they were very successful in a very short period of time.

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We also witnessed some local discipline.  A mother did not approve with how her son was behaving and so she grabbed some Stinging Nettles and gave his legs a good thrashing.

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On the way back to the lodge of course there are always many monkeys present

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Of course arriving back at the lake which the lodge is on is always breathtaking a truly beautiful spot.

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Another of the many highlights of the visit to Napo Wildlife Center is the Night Walk which they take you on.  You put headlamps on and venture off into the jungle near the lodge.

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At one point they have everyone turn off their headlamps to show you just how dark it is, simply amazing.  We saw some very interesting things however it was difficult to get great pictures given the conditions.

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The last shot gives a good idea of just how many insects are around at night.

Final shot from Napo

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Then we were off for the long paddle back to the welcome center and then into the motorized canoe for the trip back to Coca.  From Coca we flew back to Quito.  Napo had included (free of charge) a night at a hotel near the airport as part of the package we purchased, so it was really four nights not three.  The hotel they partnered with was called Hotel Casa de Hacienda La Jimenita and it is really a special place.  It is family owned and operated and we were the only guests the evening we spent there.  We were picked up at the airport by the father who took us to the property and left us in the capable hands of his son.  The property is very large and has farm animals wandering around.  There is an interesting “Archeological Tunnel” which has been discovered on the grounds which they will happily unlock so you can explore.  The next time I go to Quito I will definitely plan to spend a few days here as it is very beautiful.

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Here is the entrance to the Archeological Tunnel

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Then it was home for my son and back to Bogota for me. 

 

Hope you enjoy the report.

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  • 2 years later...
shouldbewriting

Absolutely loved this. A few years ago we took a week long cruise on the Peruvian Amazon and your account brought back many happy memories. Thanks so much!

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