Ecuador, South America
Jatuncocha, Parque Nacional Yasuní
December 12th & 13th
As this was our first trip to Ecuador and South America, we were both very excited about this opportunity. The plan was to meet up in Quito with Brock (Tor’s co-worker or on this trip known as Senior Insectus) and Brett (friend of Brock’s, aka Senior Pescado), who went down to Ecuador in early December. Paola (Brett’s friend), who is Ecuadorian, studied Giant Otters, is fluent in English, and has lead tourist groups before, was kind enough to accommodate us as part of the “tour group” to parts of Ecuador not typically visited or for that matter not accessible to the common tourist. So you could imagine our excitement for the whole prospect of the trip and our anxiety and stress of it almost not happening.
The trip down to Quito went smoothly. Landing in Quito was another matter. We were scheduled to land in Quito around 10:30 in the evening. However at 10:50, when we were still circling Quito, I began to worry. The flight attendants/captain finally announced that Quito was fogged in and we couldn’t land, but we were waiting for a possible clearing. After 20-30 minutes of circling, they announce that we would land in Guayaquil to refuel and hopefully fly back to Quito that night once the weather improved. So we landed in Guayaquil and wait and wait and wait. They made several announcements over this time, but nothing changed. They offer to let passengers off at Guayaquil (but their baggage will still go to Quito). Then they retract the offer because there were no customs agents at this time to let passengers off. In an attempt to placate us, they start playing The Santa Claus. Finally after an hour or more of sitting on the tarmac, they announce that the flight has been grounded in Guayaquil, there would be a 10 AM flight the following morning to Quito, airline officials will be around to answer questions, and we’re welcome to take the pillows and blankets. With a collective groan and frustration, we all deboard the plane and are herded through a security screening and released into the terminal without much information.
By this time it’s 2 in the morning (or night), we worry that we won’t hook up with Paola, Brock, and Brent and basically miss the opportunity to explore the far reaches of Ecuador. Thankfully, there’s a phone place and internet access in the terminal. After 30 minutes of trying to figure out the country codes, we get a hold of Paola (waking her up) and tell her what we know about the flight. She let us know that we have a flight out from Quito to Coca (the town, which situated on the Rio Napo and is used as a jump off point to the Oriente both by tourists and oil companies) at 2:30 PM the same day.
Hoping for the best that we’ll make it in time to Quito, we stake out a couple of benches in the airport (among all the other stranded passengers) and try to get some sleep with the bright lights, bad music, and loud announcements through the terminals. (Later) In the morning, with little and interrupted sleep, we were woken up by the shops opening and a busier terminal. We anxiously wait to see if our flight will leave in time to make our next flight to Coca. I try to pass the time by birding out of the airport windows, which surprisingly wasn’t too bad watched Gray-breasted Martins fly above and a Vermillion Flycatcher that would occasionally perch on the gate signs outside. Our flight managed to leave only 30 minutes late and we finally arrive in Quito. We make it through customs and the baggage check and take a taxi to Paola’s apartment, where we’re ever so happy to see Brock. We made it to her apartment with one hour to spare before our next leg in the journey.
After spending that hour “relaxing,” catching up with Brett and Brock, and being introduced to Paola, we head back out to the airport. Our flight to Coca was delayed (caused by our airplane and others that were ground in Guayaquil the night before), but I couldn’t be happier, just the fact that we didn’t miss our trip with Paola. The flight to Coca was short (30 mintues). Upon stepping out of the plane, we noticed the dramatic difference in humidity and temperature we were definitely closer to the rainforest. We loaded up in a taxi and met César, our native (Quechua) guide for the trip. Because of a mix up with the room types at a hostel Paola had made reservations at, we had moved to Amazonas Hostel across town next to the Rio Napo. The hostel is adequate and cheap, which was more than I could ask for considering we had spent the previous night in the airport.
I spent the afternoon along the Rio Napo, doing a little birding before the daylight faded. White-winged Swallows cruised above the river; a couple of Yellow-browed Sparrows sang and foraged in the grass; Black-billed Thrushes sang from the wires over the town; all these birds were common, but they were good to see for the first time.
The next morning we packed up our gear and ran errands getting permits for Yasuní, fruit, and last minutes supplies to take with us. We loaded up the motorized canoe with our supplies and met Selulo, César’s brother, who owned and drove the boat. Near the boat dock was a small park, which was more like a plaza with a couple of trees. In those trees, monkeys that were confiscated from smugglers were released. There were different types monkeys all of which were very tame. We watched them play and interact with a puppy that didn’t know what to make of them at first; it was pretty cute.
After we were all loaded up on the boat, we headed down the Rio Napo, down the Amazon basin. The river was a lot wider than I expected about 1 km across. It was also very brown from the clay of the rainforest. Going down the river, we were all very wide-eyed and excited watching the trees/palms along the riverbank. The river was pretty low, as it was the dry season and it hadn’t rained for a while. There were quite a few shallow parts and sandbars to navigate around.
It was a little difficult birding from the boat, but we did manage to see many Yellow-rumped Caciques, Orpendulas, and Egrets along the way. Occasionally, we saw turtles basking in the sun on logs. We stopped at the clay licks at Yasuní, but the ranger said the birds have not been there for a couple of days. So we continued down the river and stopped at a small town (if even perhaps a townlet?) called Pañacocha, which consisted of one “street” with a “restaurant” and a “drugstore.” The cook wasn’t in at the time, so we couldn’t have lunch.
Instead, we backtracked slightly up a small side river west of the town to a lagoon by the same name. As we motored up the small river, a flurry of bird activity seemed to happen at once. There were swifts and swallows buzzing the river, a striking Pied Lapwing hunted along the shore, and flashy Red-capped Cardinals flew across the water. It was all very dizzying and enchanting. With the narrower river, I felt like I was in the rainforest the trees stretched above us. Oropendola and cacique nests decorated the tallest trees. The water was clearer and smoother. The whole setting seemed a little surreal to me I kept expecting an animatronic dinosaur to pop out from behind the treeferns.
Before dusk, we arrived at the lagoon; it was truly picturesque. We motored around the lagoon looking for a campsite. There was a lodge on the lagoon, but the person at the lodge didn’t seem keen on having us stay there plus some other excuse he gave. So we motored on around the lagoon. An arijuana (a large fish) swam alongside the boat creating an impressive wake. A large number Nucunda Nighthawks roosted in a tree in the water practically all branches were covered in the birds.
We continued up the river past the lagoon looking for a campsite. On the way up, we met another boat with Swedish tourists and the guide for the lodge on the lagoon; we were told they invited us to stay at the lodge, but once we returned to lodge we didn’t feel very welcomed. Perhaps they forgot about that Ecuadorian hospitality that I’ve heard about? After some discussion by Paola and the lodge’s guide, we were giving a camping platform to stay on.
We set up our camp and started to explore our surroundings in the evening. We immediately found frogs and insects to keep us occupied. In the trees above, we saw eyeshine and movement of possibly a night monkey or kinkajou. It was great being in a place that held a lot of mystery and excitement.