The Back Door of the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador
Story and photos by Sneed B. Collard III



A birding family heads to the Amazon Basin of Ecuador and encounters a birdwatching paradise...mixed with companies serving the planet's insatiable appetite for oil.


Hoatzin in Ecuador

Instructions for eating a live beetle grub:

1) Grasp the grub between thumb and forefinger.

2) Carefully insert the head end into your mouth and use your incisors to bite behind the grub's scissor-like mandibles.

3) Pop the entire grub into your mouth and chew it to oblivion.

4) Swallow.

Tuscany garden founder designerFor as long as I could remember, eating a live beetle grub in the jungle had been on my list of things to do before I die, but the older I got, the less likely it seemed I would ever get the opportunity. That also could be said for visiting the Amazon rainforest. In my early twenties, after all, I had assumed I'd eventually travel everywhere, and over the next three decades I'd given it a good shot. But as every traveler knows, there are just so many places and so few dollars.

South America had never drifted within my grasp. Once I married and had kids, I pretty much wrote off the Western Hemisphere's great southern land mass once and for all.

Fortunately, life keeps surprising.

One of my wife's and my goals for raising children was to give them an extended experience in a non-Western culture, and for years I had imagined all kinds of places to take them. Once we came down to actually having to decide, however, our limited budget suddenly propelled South America to the top of our list. After further narrowing our destinations to Ecuador and Peru, the long-dormant desire to visit the Amazon leaped like a pink river dolphin back into my brain.

As I began considering details of our trip, I realized just how accessible the Amazon is—not through the more obvious portal of Brazil, but through the basin's back door in Ecuador. Still, Amy isn't quite as adventurous as I, and our kids were only ten and fourteen respectively. Was it wise to expose them to the possible dangers—especially tropical diseases—that we might encounter? Amy could go either way, but it was my teenage son, Braden, that clinched it. In the last several years, he and I had become avid birders, and as every birder knows, the Amazon basin is Earth's "leafy grail" of avian diversity.

Crossing the Concrete Frontier

Our TAME flight from Quito landed in the frontier city of Coca, Ecuador early on April 1 and a driver shuttled us through town to the docks. Driving through Coca, also known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana, I felt grateful we hadn't decided to stay there. Home to 45,000 people, it displays the same ugly concrete architecture, lack of planning, and spiderweb of power and phone lines one can find in boom towns the world over.

It largely owes its current manifestation to oil companies, the town serving as the major transport and transit center for an industry that still generates vast wealth—and poses one of the greatest threats to the Amazon's future. Coca also provides the major jumping-off point for tourists such as ourselves who want to experience the delights of the world's largest tropical rainforest ecosystem.

At the river's edge, we boarded a narrow, twelve-meter boat powered by gutsy twin outboards—along with our guides and half a dozen indigenous men, women, and children who were catching rides back to villages downstream. Once we'd clambered aboard and cargo had been stowed, our pilot fired up the engines, backed up, and pointed us down river. Minutes later, we passed under an impressive new suspension bridge and, just like that, burst out into the main current of the largest river I'd ever traveled on, the Rio Napo.

Oil installation on Amazon River

The Rio Napo is only one of dozens of tributaries that feed the immense bulk of the world's largest river system, but even staring across its expanse to the far shore, it was everything I expected the Amazon to be. Roiling and muddy from several straight days of rain, it stretched a couple of kilometers across, and was lined by tall tropical trees. For the first few miles past Coca, houses, military bases, and oil installations punctuated the shoreline while dozens of boats carrying goods and people dodged floating logs that could have instantly smashed them to bits or sent them to the bottom. The farther we got, however, the fewer other boats we saw and the more the shorelines settled into uninterrupted walls of tropical forest.

As a pair of macaws flew overhead, I turned to Amy and the kids. "Can you believe this? We are in the Amazon."

Sani Lodge With the Kichwa People

Those wishing to visit the Ecuador's Amazon have many options of tours, lodges, and access points, including simply taking a ten-hour bus ride from Quito and booking an experience through a local agency in Coca. Some of these options are decidedly more adventurous than others, and had I been single I may have just paddled deep into the jungle with a native guide. Taking Amy and the kids along definitely steered me toward outfits offering comfortable beds, safe food, and private bathrooms, and I quickly narrowed down my choices to several lodges adjacent to the immense Yasuni and Cuyabeno National Parks. I ended up choosing the Sani Lodge, both because it was owned and operated by indigenous Kichwa people and because it offered a happy medium between price and comfort.

Sani Lodge dock in Amazon

It proved a good decision. After two-and-a-half hours on the Rio Napo our boat pulled up to a spot on the northern shoreline. Our guides Danny and Jorge handed us rubber boots and we took our first steps into a forest I had fantasized about visiting all my life.

We followed a kilometer-long path to a small quiet river where we climbed into a canoe and began paddling. In timing our trip, we'd tempted fate somewhat. April was still the rainy season and we wondered if our days would be inundated by insane tropical downpours that rendered hiking and birding impossible. Indeed, as we paddled, I could see what other writers meant by "the flooded forest" as water reached into the trees in all directions. Fortunately, the weather gods smiled on us. The heavy rains of the days before seemed to have wrung out the heart of the wet season and almost immediately, the Amazon's wildlife began revealing itself, beginning with a flock of thirty-five Greater Anis flying overhead. These were joined by White-winged Swallows, bizarre turkey-like birds called Hoatzins, and oropendolas, birds that knit elegant basket nests that hang like ornaments from tropical forest trees.

Soon, the lodge itself came into view, its thatched-roof buildings beautifully poised at the edge of an oxbow lake.

An Uneasy Deal With Oil Titans

Sani Lodge has an interesting history, resulting from an agreement with Occidental Petroleum to allow construction of a pipeline through Kichwa lands in exchange for building an eco-lodge that local peoples could use to earn cash and promote conservation. After tying up to the dock, our guide Danny—who had met us at the Coca airport—invited us to relax in the open lounge over fruit juice drinks and appetizers while the lodge manager and staff greeted us. Braden's head was already pinballing back and forth between the jacamars, tanagers, and swifts that flew in and out of the trees only meters from where we sat, while our daughter Tessa was making friends with a rare Gray-winged Trumpeter named Apasha that had adopted the lodge as its home.

Apasha in Ecuador

Soon, we were shown to our quarters, a rather dark, but clean and comfortable room on the ground floor of an attractive wooden building a hundred meters from the lounge. After a short rest, our adventures began.

It didn't take long for us to discover the most delightful aspect of Amazon adventure—canoeing. Beginning our first afternoon, Danny and his fellow guide, Jorge, loaded us into a boat and paddled us to half a dozen destinations on and along the tiny river the lodge sat on. We learned that being on the water relieved us of some of the intense humidity and heat we felt within the forest itself, but even better, it proved a wonderful way to observe wildlife. That first afternoon, we spotted Ringed and Green-and-Rufous Kingfishers, a variety of parrots and macaws, and even a familiar osprey. A troop of squirrel monkeys traipsed through the trees above us while a couple of howler monkeys intently watched from a couple of hundred meters away. As we paddled, sudden splashes startled us—black caimans disappearing underwater—but the most astonishing thing was a long, slippery creature appearing at the water surface.

Amazon monkeys

"What is that?" I asked Danny, visions of the Loch Ness monster slithering through my mind.

"A fish called an arapaima," he explained. "They can grow up to three meters long."

Braden and I gaped at each other. Only months before, we'd seen this species featured on the show River Monsters. We never imagined we'd see one for ourselves.

After a delicious dinner of beef, fried palm hearts and asparagus soup, we took advantage of a clear sky with a crescent moon and went for a night hike through the forest. This had been one of my favorite things to do in other tropical forests, and tonight did not disappoint. As we followed a narrow trail, our headlamps illuminated the complex tangle of trees, shrubs, and vines around us. The rich smells of damp, rotting vegetation saturated our nostrils and a wall of animal sounds pummeled our ears. One of the great things about night-hiking in the tropics is that it's easier to see insects, and we paused frequently to examine cicadas, katydids, and walking sticks perched on leaves. The kids and Amy were less excited by the largest tarantula I had ever seen, but an adorable rat-like rodent and large bats with eighteen-inch wingspans soon made everyone forget the Mordor-sized arachnid.

View From the Top of the Kapok Tree

The next three days flew by, each packed with astonishing experiences. We'd wake before dawn, eat breakfast, and then set out in the canoe for some marvelous destination. Our first morning, Danny and Jorge, knowing our interest in birds, took us to an enormous tower that had been built next to a kapok tree forty meters tall. Kapoks are classified as emergent trees because they rise above the rest of the rainforest canopy, and the local lodges had constructed the tower with a wide observation platform spanning the crown of the tree. As we climbed the 202 steps to the top, I stopped to observe how the layers of plants were structured by height in the surrounding forest, and especially studied the bromeliads and other epiphytes clinging to the trunk and branches of the kapok and surrounding trees. Each bromeliad, I discovered, held a resident tarantula of its own.




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