Napo Wildlife Centre…the one in the jungle, the mighty jungle. A wimba way, a wimba way…
Ecuador is the second smallest country in South America but it is one of the most diverse. It splits into four distinct environments; the Andes, the Coast, the Galapagos and the Jungle. We spent 5 nights in the Amazon along the Rio Napo in the Yasuni National Park at Napo Wildlife Centre. It was A-MAHY-ZING.
To get there you have to travel 4 hours from Coca, the nearest town, 2 in motorised canoe, and 2 in a dugout canoe. To save some money, and to fit in a side trip on the way, Jon and I had decided not to fly to Coca, but to take the bus. First, we went with Sheila to the hot springs in Papallacta. We got up nice and early so we would get there before the holiday rush but turned out everyone had that idea, with a couple of hundred of other Ecuadorians there for their first dip of the New Year. Although busier, the Ecuadorian hot springs were hotter and prettier than their Peruvian competitors, and had a particularly cool plunge pool (literally and figuratively). After breakfast Sheila drive us another hour or so through the mountains where we had planned to flag down a bus along the side of the road for another 3-4 hours to Coca. Because it was holiday season, we passed many many buses returning to Quito, but managed to catch a Coca bus just before after it had pulled out. The busboy promised Sheila he had seats for us, and would point us in the direction of our hotel in Coca. He just forgot to mention that someone else would be in the seat for the first hour and a half. To be fair, an entire family had fitted into 2 seats - a mum, dad, two children and a small dog. We were the only non-Ecuadorians on the whole bus, so we got stared at a fair bit.
But it was a very authentic travel experience as we wound through the mountain then made the descent to sea / jungle level. This made many of the Ecuadorian children quite ill, and one standing next to Jon only just missed him with his projectile vomit. This highlight was topped very shortly afterwards by the child behind him who pooed himself. I missed most of this, I was at the back of the bus, wondering whether to lean against the back window as it was fairly cracked and I had visions of going straight through it on a hairpin turn. On the way back from Napo we took the plane which took 15 minutes from take-off in Coca to landing in Quito but with no bodily malfunctions from our fellow passengers it was far less fun.
Coca is a big oil town on the edge of the Jungle. It's hot, dusty and has allegedly has high levels of crime, drunkenness and prostitution. There are virtually no tourists there. For that reason I stayed at the hotel and sent Jon out to get some money from the ATM. He made it back eventually and in one piece, and we spent a nice afternoon at the hotel swimming pool and bar until the resident giant bunny rabbit kept trying to steal our chips so I went to bed. We met up with a Napo guide the next morning (despite less than clear instructions from our travel agency - we had to call a man to confirm the time, but he didn't speak English and I can't do numbers, so Sheila had to call him from Quito to intermediate…) and got the executive motorised canoe downriver to the Yasuni National Park.
Napo was created about 10 years ago in a joint venture between an NGO and the Anangu tribe, the local jungle Quichuan tribe who took over the sole running of the centre after only 4 years. The park is one of two UNESCO biodiversity sites globally, and has one of the highest concentrations of bird, reptile and plant density and variety in the world. Napo Wildlife Centre itself has a strong community and tribal education slant with many of the men from the local community employed or running the lodge. There is a community centre that you are taken to as part of the visit, but spending time with the guides was much more valuable way to get a sense of the culture and traditions in the park.
We were in a small group with an American family and 3 other men - two Australian brothers and the Canadian lover of one of them. We couldn't figure out which. The guides arrange a variety of wildlife spotting activities for you over the course of the stay - looking for birds from observation towers, dugout trips round the streams etc. It's like a giant extended nature walk at school, or a jungle based safari. Each group is assigned two guides; a local guide from the Anangu community, and an Ecuadorian bilingual guide. Our guides were Danny who come from the highlands, but had been working in the jungle for a year or so, and Melitong who I think only pretended not to speak English (he certainly spoke more than I speak Spanish. I bet he can count and everything). Melitong's Dad is one of the other guides at Napo. He has 11 children, and I suspect is distantly related to Chair Chaski from our Inca Trek as he is small and portly and always always smiling. He was my favourite person there. My second favourite was a gardener who was always smiling when he saw me, despite only having one leg (the other was amputated after he was bitten by a snake). I think he was mostly laughing at me because he was watching when I somehow managed to whack myself round the face with my happy place hammock.
One of the weirdest things we saw when we were out on the rivers was the Hoatzin bird. Imagine if someone took a chicken and cross bred it with a punk rocker and a dinosaur. These birds are incredibly nervous and incredible stupid. When they get nervous they start doing this rasping breathing noise which then sets the bird next to them off. Then the first bird gets scared by the second bird. They are really bad flyers (a bit like chickens) so the noise they make flapping around trying escape from the whatever spooked them will then spook more of them. They also smell really bad, and are known as 'stinky turkeys'. In fact they are stupid I almost forgot to be scared of them.
I think the highlight for both me and Jon were all the monkeys we saw, just hanging out in the trees, doing their monkey business. There are 10 types of monkeys in the amazon, and we saw 7 of them. On the way to Napo we watched a bit group of Squirrel monkeys for 15 minutes as they climbed and travelled through the trees. These are apparently the most intelligent of the monkeys, and can be trained. So they are the ones that will steak someone's wallet in a film, or appear in episodes of Friends. We also saw a couple of groups of Howler monkeys; which are big, reddish apes which make one heck of a noise. I'd not given much thought to the noise before, but I supposed they howled like dogs. They don't, it's a low howling noise like wind whistling really loudly and ominously. It's a bit creepy, and they use it to mark their territory in the morning and at night - it freaked me out a bit at dusk the first time I heard it as sounds like the background track in a film just before disaster strikes.
We were out at dusk to look for a family of night monkeys, who - unsurprisingly given the name - come out to look for food from dusk til dawn then go back to bed. A bit like many of the Australian gap year travellers we have met. We were also looking for Caymans which come out after dark. The guide had shown us a couple of Cayman lizards in the day - they looked a bit like iguanas to me, so I didn't mind going off to spot them. It was pitch black, and we were in the dugout and the guide had a spot light which he would shine up river and we were trying to find the red reflection of a Caymans eye. There was a very bright moon that night so many of the Caymans would slink away before we got there, although we saw a baby one among the reeds. Next day though as we headed out there was a Cayman in the lake. Cayman's are bloody crocodiles. Huge giant things that grow up to 15 feet long. The one we saw was 9 foot long and had lost an eye in a fight with another Cayman. Therefore Caymans are vicious. I'm glad no one told me we were looking for 9 foot vicious relations of crocodiles the night before while we were floating around in a dugout canoe.
The dusk canoe trip was not as disconcerting as the night time nature walk though. Firstly our guide forgot to tell us to bring a torch - and it gets REALLY dark in the middle of the jungle. Then he showed us a variety of bugs all of which could kill, maim or cause great pain if they bit you. Then we walked round in the dark some more, not knowing where they were. Then we saw a 4 inch long cockroach. I was glad we had to finish early for dinner…
One of the big attractions of Napo is the Parrot and Parakeet licks they have on their land in Yasuni. The plants and leaves that birds eat in the Amazon have lots of toxins in which can kill the birds if they aren't neutralised. Parrots and do this by eating special clay at 'licks' in the jungle, and the parakeets eat the clay, or drink from streams of water which also contain minerals needed to neutralise plant toxins. They have to go to the licks every four days or the toxins will finish them off. So on a lucky day on the observation tower you might see a group of three or four parrots. But on a lucky day at the licks there will be over 500 parrots feeding on the clay. You get to the parrot lick by boat, and observe from the boat as it is along the River Napo. But the parakeet lick is half an hour trek into the jungle, and you watch from an observation hut. As this was explained to us over dinner, I began to get a bit freaked out. I have got brave, and am OK watching the odd bird in the distance through a pair of binoculars. But we were going to be about 20 feet away from up to 500 birds. Right.
Because Sheila is an avid bird spotter we had been quite diligent in keeping lists and writing down everything we had seen for information / bragging rights. So when I asked Danny how close we had to get to the Parakeets because I was scared of birds he got very confused. I had to explain to him that I don't like birds, I just like writing lists of birds I have seen through a telescope. In fact I really just like writing lists full stop, but that's a different point.
The parrot lick was OK - it was fairly misty that morning and the parrots get a bit nervous as the birds that prey on them have better eyesight, so there weren't as many there as on a sunny day, but Danny reckoned there were about 250. Most of them were green mealy amazon parrots, but there was a little pack of blue headed parrots which were good to watch (from the safety of a motorized canoe through binoculars). The parakeet lick was phenomenal. They make so much more noise that the parrots, and are more colourful with flashes of red, blue and yellow flying around. They were also far greater in number than the parrots. Like the parrots when they arrive at the licks they take their time to come down from the trees to the stream and clay - they are very nervous about being attacked by birds of prey and the young single male birds generally go first to prove their worth to the most attractive females (parrots mate for life from about 2 to up to 75, so they need to get it right). The group who had been the day before us had sat there for 2 hours and the parakeets stayed in the trees - we had been advised to bring a book -but within 10 minutes they started drinking and eating. Hundreds and hundreds of squawking parakeets in the wild until something spooked them. ALL of them. Hundreds and hundreds of birds all trying to make a quick exit from the lick, over, and then through the shelter we were watching from. They came in at least 4 waves, and for me it seemed to last for hours (but it was probably 20 seconds). The guides claimed said afterwards they had never seen anything like it. As pretty as the parakeets were, I would be quite happy never to go through that ever again.
Napo was an excellent way to see the jungle part of Ecuador, and visit the Amazon. There are other lodges in the Oriente but Napo is one of the deepest in the jungle and worth paying a bit extra for. We didn't make it to the jungle in Peru, and aren't planning on going in Brazil so this really was a once in a lifetime experience for both of us. We are going for a week's long lie down at the beach to get over all the excitement…
This week we...
· At Napo Wildlife Centre. As well as the amay-zing activities detailed above, we also had our own cabin with lake view, and a hammock which quickly became my happy place. Not least because before I got in it I would say to Jon - 'STOP! Hammock time…' in the style of MC Hammer.
· At Napo Wildlife Centre. One night I had 3 chocolate mousses. It was good.
· More than I thought I would ever want to know about birds.
· Parakeets poop themselves when scared. So when they poop on me I am supposed to believe that the birds are more scared of me than I am of them. I disagree; I just have better bowel control.
· Our perception of the authenticity of the local shayman was influenced by the fact he was wearing a souvenir Napo wildlife centre t-shirt and jeans. Although he did have no teeth which gave him some more brownie points.
· Just because someone tells you there are no reported instances of Caymans attacking humans doesn't mean that there isn't a first time for everything. What if no one reported it because they were eaten whole?
· Sometimes the bird names that get lost in translation are much better the way I write them down. For example I would rather see a white trotted toucan than a white throated toucan. Imagine, a bird with trotters. Or a square monkey instead of a squirrel monkey. A square shaped monkey would be a much better sight to behold.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH OUR FEATHERED FOE
The list in full goes as little something like this…
Loads of Hoatzin (stinky turkeys)
Blue and Yellow Macaws
Mealy Amazon Parrots
Black headed Parrots
Orange winged Parrots
Yellow rumped cacicque
Plum throated cottinger
White throated toucan
Road side hawk.
Crimson crested woodpecker
Many banded aracay
Blue grey tanager
Yellow billed nunbird
Russet backed oropendola
Great breasted martin
White tailed trogan
Boat billed heron
Rufescent tiger heron
Dot billed antbird
I am going to stop looking for birds after this.