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Ecuador, Sani Lodge - part I
December 2013

Six years ago, we were very fortunate to go along on a private boat trip down the Rio Napo and up Rio Aguarico with a few friends. It was quite an amazing experience - traveling by canoe and camping on various pristine lagoons. With recent news that Ecuador is close to giving up protecting Yasuni National Park from oil company drilling, we knew we had to return before all was ruined.

On the recommendation of a friend, we decided to stay at Sani Lodge located on an oxbow lagoon off the Rio Napo. We didn't enter with a lot of expectations, just the desire to enjoy hiking through the jungle, seeing some new birds and maybe some monkeys.

We flew into Quito and stayed at Su Merced, a hotel that was only 10-15 min away from the new airport. The hotel was quaint and nice. The owner picked us up at the airport and dropped us off the next morning to fly out to Coca. Coca seemed bigger when we arrived at the airport. The airport was remodeled and there were a lot more taxis by the airport. Things had changed in the past 6 years since we had been there. And most likely this was caused by the oil companies drilling on the Rio Napo. We met the Sani Lodge guide who took us to the docks and loaded everyone on the boat. It was a 3-3.5 hour boat ride down the Rio Napo. We past the oil drilling areas - marked with the flame of natural gas being burnt off. We also past many barges taking supplies to the drilling areas. Ironically they were often painted with animals such as hummingbirds or the giant otter - perhaps as vestiges of what they destroyed.

The boat docked at an unmarked landing (as all landings for the lodgings seem unmarked), and we proceeded to our next leg of the journey - a short hike on a boardwalk through the jungle. On the walkway in, I spotted a Golden-mantled Tamarin skittering down a tree. Things looked incredibly promising already. At the end of the walkway, we loaded into a canoe that the guide and staff paddled up the creek, which connected the lagoon to the Rio Napo. The vegetation grew thick on both sides of the creek and opened up to a beautiful lagoon. Across the lagoon was the lodge, where we were greeted with colorful cocktails at the bar.

After a brief introduction to the lodge and we settled into our cabin, which would become our home for the next 10 nights.

The lodge

The lodge was comprised of several structures all connected by covered and uncovered wood walkways. Above the dock, the bar sat closest to the water's edge and offered a great view of the lagoon. The dining room was equally large and hosted our 3 meals each day. Farther away from the lagoon were the 8 or 9 cabins with beds and private baths. A larger house structure hosted the guides and rooms with shared baths. Behind a cluster of trees were the staff quarters, laundry room, etc. A short canoe ride away was the campground on the adjacent side of the lagoon. The campground was also connected via a hiking trail, which we never took (at least not with the intent of going to the campground). All of the structures had thatch roofs and local rainforest hardwood was used throughout. The grounds were well-groomed, which I think contributed to the lack of biting insects around and in the cabins (super bonus!). Mosquito nets were still provided in each room, but we never used ours. During our stay, electricity was limited to two time windows - one in the morning and one during the evening. We only had one outlet in the room, so we had to carefully plan charging all our batteries (for cameras and our headlamps). Still we never experienced a time where we desperately need electricity.

We stayed in a cabin, which never really got hotter or cooler than the outside temperatures. It was well-ventilated with the screen windows and allowed the sounds of the rainforest to drift in each night. The first night there the sounds of the rainforest seemed overwhelming - with frogs, toads, cicadas, crickets, and a whole menagerie of insects contributing their chirps, tinks, and buzzes to the constant night song. Occasionally the Tropical Screech-Owl, Ferruginious Pygmy-Owl, Common Parauque, and Common Potoo would join in the chorus. As the nights progressed, however, the sounds became a comforting background noise to the point where we didn't even notice it.

The food at the dining room was good. Definitely not the typical, traditional Ecuadorian food, but more of a pan-American-Ecudaorian cross. Breakfast was the typical American continental style including choices of eggs, toast/bread with marmalade, and granola. Each day was started with a nice plate of fresh fruit (including papaya, pineapple, mango, cantaloupe, kiwi, and a new one for us - pitahaya or dragonfruit). Breakfasts and lunches were always served with a nice cool pitcher of fresh made juice. Lunches and dinners started with a soup (e.g. chicken noodle, spinach, yuca, quinoa or tomato ceviche) served with bread or popcorn and plantain chips. Once for lunch it was a nice ripe avocado stuffed with tuna salad and on another occasion a cheese empanada (I think my favorite). The main course was generally meat (pork, chicken, fish, or beef) with steamed vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower), sometimes a vinegar-pickled salad of cabbage, carrots, or palm heart, and then a starch of potatoes, rice, hominy, yuca, and/or plantains. Then all this was followed by dessert - cake with a yogurt dressing, fruit prepared in a simple syrup, rice pudding, or a fruit-based mousse. Needless to say we were well taken care of during mealtimes.

There were other tourist at the lodge during our stay. They came in waves, but usually stayed for only 2-3 nights, which didn't seem very long to me. Since there were no incoming or outgoing flights to Coca on Sunday, we were the only tourists over the weekend. It was nice being the only ones there for a couple of days, but really the other tourists didn't impact our stay as the guides coordinated so guests did not have the same destinations each day. Plus our interested and activities diverged from the typical package deal.

Our native guides

We had hired a private guide for the 10 nights we were staying at the lodge. We weren't interested in the typical package deal that most tourists sign up for when they stay for only 2 or 3 nights. Instead we were more interested in hiking the trails and seeing wildlife. When Domingo was introduced as a bird expert, immediately alarm bells went off in my head. I wasn't specifically looking for a bird guide, because we wanted the wider scope. I also worried that Tor wouldn't get a chance to see frogs or do night hikes. I admit I fretted about this for maybe a day or two, but quickly came to realize that Domingo (and our other native guide Mauro) were excellent guides (and frog finders) to satisfy all our needs (and not just focus on birds all the time).

For the next 10 days, we awoke before 5AM, which was well before sunrise. It was a tough schedule, but the sights were rewarding. Domingo and Mauro paddled us across the gorgeous lagoon (especially at dawn and sunset) to the trailheads and lead us on hikes through the jungle. Domingo's super-human hearing allowed him to pick up single call notes and identify that note to the exact species of bird. Using his iPod (or some times just by whistling the call notes or even phishing), he'd call in the bird allowing us to see it, which would be otherwise impossible for most of these understory, cryptic-colored birds. Sometimes it was hard to keep up with all the birds he was listing as we studied a mixed flock together. I definitely saw a lot of new birds during my time with Domingo, but without his guidance I'm not so sure I could identify them again without looking at a field guide (and I definitely can't identify a bird by its song/call notes alone!). Still I had an enjoyable time seeing all these birds. And every day there were at least a dozen new birds to add to the list even during our last days. During our hikes, Domingo would often hear the bird then go blazing off the trail to find it. He always amazed me that he could find the bird no matter how softly it was calling or if it was just walking on the forest floor. Super hearing and sight! Definitely two qualities that create a great guide.

Not only was he good at tracking down birds, but on two separate occasions he was able to track down a troop of wooly monkeys and spider monkeys. We were able to get great views of them swing and jumping through the trees before they scattered off from our presence. The other amazing feat about tracking these monkeys down meant going off into the dense jungle brush (i.e. off the marked trail) and finding the trail afterward. I never felt like he was leading us in the wrong direction. And my faith in his abilities never was contradicted. Mauro was also amazing with his ability to track us down. Quite often Domingo would lead us through a network of trails (that they were obviously very familiar with) or some times off the trail. Mauro wouldn't always closely follow behind us (I'm not sure what he was doing - tending to the boat or doing trail maintenance). But 20 minutes of hiking later, Mauro would be right behind us as if he never was gone. I'm guessing these are skills that they learned while growing up in this environment or why they are guides in the first place.

We were very lucky and gracious for having Domingo and Mauro as guides - they were patient with our desire to see birds, monkeys, frogs, etc. And were very accommodating when we wanted to stop for pictures or going on night hikes after a long day. We didn't always understand each other because of the language barrier (and my inability to understand and speak Spanish well), but I couldn't have asked for a better guide.

During our long stay at the lodge, we hiked many of the trails around the lodge and lagoon. For the most part they were well-maintained, but I don't think I would trust myself without a guide to lead us on them. There were many forks in the trails and none were marked. Often whenever a tree fell a new trail would be built to circumvent the tree, but sometimes it wasn't clear where this new path was or went. It would be pretty easy to lose your sense of direction and become disorientated without a guide or a good GPS (one that could get a signal through the thick jungle canopy). All of the trails were also relatively easy, with little to no elevation gain. The tiring part of the trail was the length or how many times we went off the trail.

The trails didn't have "viewpoints" but rather traversed the terra firma - jungle underbrush with a dense canopy stretched above. Vines, bromeliads, moss, and lichen sprouted at all levels - full of life every direction you looked. The trail behind the lodge went through some disturbed but recovering forest. It also pass through a interesting and open palm swamp. The other trails required a canoe trip to reach the trailheads. A few of the trails we hiked on were not on the cartoon map version of the lodge, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were yet more trails existed that we didn't know about. One day we hiked the long trail on the west end of the lagoon. We started at the trailhead nearest the lodge and ended at a research/camping station on the far and narrow end of the lagoon. It was a long hike, made longer with our forays off the trails in search of bird and monkeys and, of course, the stops to catch frogs and take pictures. By the afternoon, we were all tired and hungry as we reached the camping/research staging area. The packed lunch and cold juice served to us by another staff member who paddled the canoe over was a welcomed sight. After lunch, Tor and I loaded into the canoe. We were happy to relax while our guides did the work of paddling us back through the narrow channel of the lagoon. Of course Domingo's kept calling in birds for us and spotting birds way off in the distance - trying to convince me that the little black and white dot on top of tree 1 mile away was indeed a Pied Puffbird.

On a couple of occasions, Domingo and Mauro took us by motorboat across the river to hike to the Yasuni National Park. We docked at essentially someone's house and plantation (one was a coffee and coca farm and the other was a yuca and maize/hominy field). It felt like hiking in someone's backyard at first (as some Kichwa live between the river and the park), until we entered into the forest, which hosted a different variety of fauna including birds and frogs (I'm sure other things as well, but we were mostly focused on those two things during the trip) than on the north side of the river. One of the trails took us through the middle of a palm swamp. And required us to balance on fallen palm tree trunks that when rotted collapsed into itself. Watching and copying where Domingo stepped became essential to not sinking deep into the mud.

There seemed to be a long supply of options when it came to hiking as we hardly hiked the same trails more than once with the exceptions of night hikes, the hike to the canopy tower (which we did twice), and one of the trails to retrieve the game camera that Tor set up. Even on repeated hikes, things constantly change and move in the jungle so there's always something new to see that wasn't there before - an exciting world in such a diverse place.

The game camera proved how diverse and full of life one small section can be. With Domingo's knowledge of where an animal path crossed the trail, Tor set up the game camera for 4 nights in once location. It captured five different animals. One surprise was an agouti that literally walked by the camera less than 10 minutes after several hikers past by. The most exciting finds were a puma that paused to smell the scent bait that Tor put out. The puma was shortly followed by a tapir, which was more interested in the scent - even stopping to eat one of the leaves with the bait on it.

Night hikes on the trails revealed different fauna. Large crickets, whip scorpions, katidids, leaches, tarantulas, salamanders, snakes, and frogs were found along the trails we traveled at night. And every night was different, even on the same paths. Among the more unusual finds were a roosting tinamou and trogon, a night monkey, an olingo, and a mouse opossum. It's amazing how the cast of characters can change so dramatically between night and day.

Mosquitoes were the most problematic on the trails, in some places more so than others. During the day we used Natrapel bug spray (Picaridin-based), which seemed to work. However, as with any bug spray, it only works where you put it. If you missed a spot, those mosquitoes will find it. I was fairly successful at warding off the biting insects. On night hikes, however, those mosquitoes seemed twice as aggressive. I resorted to using Ultrathon (DEET-based) at night. Though I dislike the feel and smell of DEET it worked well at keeping those especially aggressive buggers off.

Canopy tower
The lodge has a 100 ft canopy tower in a large kapok tree. A metal enclosed staircase leads up to the wood platform that is build into the canopy of the tree. In the morning on the tower, we enjoyed great views of the Mealy Parrots, Blue-and-Yellow and Chestnut-fronted Macaws calling and flying above the canopy. Mixed flocks of tanagers, euphonias, and dacnis gleaned the branches of the kapok tree - for once allowing great (non-backlit) views. We spent two mornings in the canopy tower, watching toucans, aracaris, parrots, and trogons from above. Hawks were perched at eye level and we could look down on the red howler and squirrel monkeys as they munched on fruit of the cecropia tree. The view from the tower was amazing as was the ability to take in a different vantage over the rainforest.

continue onto part II


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