Story and Photos by Sandra Kennedy
Ecuador’s Sacha Lodge sits in the midst of 5000 acres of Amazon rainforest—the largest private reserve in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Using this upscale lodge as a base, you can explore the unspoiled rainforest in intimate groups and take advantage of special viewing structures.
Getting to Sacha is the first adventure. Peering through the plane's window, I view 9300-foot Quito nestled into a narrow Andean valley below. Gradually, snow-capped mountains give way to green valleys and dense rainforests with the Napo River coiling through it. Thirty minutes later, our short Icaro flight lands in Puerto Francisco de Orellana, also known as simply Coca, a steamy jungle town on the Napo. Traveling solo, I join travelers from Germany, England and the United States for this 4-day/3-night odyssey. We board an open-air bus to Sacha Lodge's base in town. Here we relax, lunch and grab life preservers for a riverboat ride that will take us two and a half hours into the jungle.
After partially adjusting to the drenching humidity, we walk to the fast-flowing, silty Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. At the port's dock, our Sacha staff assists us into the covered 20-foot motorboat, then hats flap as our boat dodges sandbars and submerged branches. Indigenous communities sit atop yellowish-muddy banks where children wave and mothers scrub clothes in the river below. Several freighters loaded with oil trucks slowly chug by on this highway to the Amazon. I wonder how much deforestation will occur in the years to come.
Two hours later, we step ashore for the 30-minute boardwalk to a Yuca, or narrow stream. Here, we transfer to smaller dugout canoes. Silently, the guides navigate through low-hanging strangler vines and five-foot high spiky grasses. Distinct sounds of chirps, screeches and snapping branches filter through the forest. The brown sediment of the stream gradually dissipates into Pilchicocha, an inky-black lagoon, famed for caiman (part of the alligator family) and piranhas. This black-water lake contains a high concentration of tannic acid that "stains the water like tea".
After crossing Pilchicocha, I have my first view of thickly-thatched Sacha lodge and cabins immersed in lush tropical foliage, trees and vines all around. Sacha's owners have continually bought up surrounding land from investors who would have used it for farming or forestry projects and have left almost all of it in its natural state. The eco-tourism stance also brings local benefits: this is the largest tourism-sector employer in Ecuador's Amazon region.
Into Sacha Lodge
We are welcomed with hors d'oeuvres and jungle juice as our guides announce groups, based on interests and language. Our guides are Fernando, a bilingual naturalist and Miguel, a Quichuan native expert on the jungle. Time to visit my secluded and spacious cabin made of native materials. Slats cover the ceiling. This is preferable to woven-Eucalyptus ceilings, a draw for insects. Hand–carved chairs and tables grace the wooden floors. A bathroom with hot shower is a luxury in the rainforest as is a camera–drying heated cabinet.
Sacha takes its environmental stance seriously though. Plastic bottles and dead batteries are shipped back for recycling in Coca. The drinking water is purified using filters and heat. My jungle suite includes a covered terrace and inviting hammock. As I lie in this hanging bed, a troop of monkeys snap branches and a red-necked woodpecker creates "tap dance" noises. The cabin is a haven at night. After turning off all lights, I listen to the night sounds of a hooting owl, crickets and croaking frogs. Thankfully the screens keep out mosquitoes and apart from nature it's just the humming of a ceiling fan.
Howler Monkeys and Piranhas
A knock on the door at 5 a.m. signals 30 minutes before breakfast. Soon to follow is the thunderous sound of a bamboo horn. Homemade breads, succulent papaya, mango and pineapple are part of the buffet, along with robust Ecuadorian coffee. I see colorful hummingbirds fast-winging it from blossom to blossom. An earthy aroma combines with scents of aromatic flowers. Exotic orchids and hibiscus mingle among giant ferns, palm fronds, liana vines and banana trees.
Fernando and Miguel meet us for a four-hour hiking adventure on the loop trail. On this particular day, we don't wear the provided knee-high boots since trails are passably dry. Our group of three is the perfect size for personal attention, less noise on the trail (helpful in spotting birds and animals) and shared views through a telescope carried by the guides. Groups are never more than six people. Hiking along the leaf-strewn trail, I look down because of jutting roots, buttresses and branches. Leaf cutter ants march in line carrying fragments to their nest. Though the rainforest is teeming with animals, we never know when an anaconda, armadillo or puma may make its appearance.
Walking through this "pharmaceutical jungle," I am fascinated as our guides share knowledge from their ancestors. Medicinal plants are used for curing malaria, infected bites, indigestion, toothaches and baldness. No Rogaine for them. Rounding a bend, we hear this haunting roar like a train thundering through the forest. Looking up, we spot a red howler monkey warning others. A troop of squirrel monkeys doesn't heed the signal. They keep swinging like circus acrobats, from branch to branch. We return for lunch at 1 o'clock. A menu board lists the gourmet buffet dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fresh organic fruits and vegetables, soups, several types of main entrees such as tilapia, chicken, beef, rice and potatoes are followed by luscious desserts.
Piranha fishing is our early afternoon adventure. Debbie, Jerry and I stand on the dock with spindly 5-foot carved poles, lines and hooks with sardine bait. An afternoon storm arrives with a rousing chorus of thunder, pounding tropical rain and lightning as Jerry pulls in a 6-inch silvery piranha snapping angrily at the end of the line.
Hyped by Hollywood as a ferocious killer, most piranhas are vegetarians with razor-sharp jagged teeth useful for cracking palm fruit nuts. I am not buying this theory and ask Fernando about swimming. He replies with a grin, "Yes, swimming in this lake is safe…so far."