A quick 35-minute flight takes you from the hustle and bustle of Quito right onto the doorstep of the world famous Amazon Basin (spanning approximately 7 million km2), but this is somewhat easier said than done. Our pilot needed to carefully navigate the aircraft, an Airbus A319, between volcanoes, taking off from the highest capital city in the world at over 3 000 m above mean sea level and landing at an altitude of just 300 m. One cannot reach the necessary height to fly directly over the volcanoes on such a short hop, so you are forced to fly around them.
A wet, but very welcome, arrival
The runway was very wet when we arrived in Coca, the rain was bucketing down and the visibility was minimal. We soon discovered that it is called a rainforest for a reason … there are only two seasons there on the equator, wet and dry. We were each given an umbrella as we disembarked the aircraft to walk to the terminal, something none of my family had ever experienced on our travels before. Just 10 minutes by bus took us to a jetty where we were to board a motorised canoe, clad in ponchos, which took us 90 minutes downriver to our vessel, with 2x 50hp outboard motors at full throttle.
Whatever floats your boat
A simple design, but with all the luxuries and amenities of a modern hotel, the Anakonda Amazon Cruise is a luxury boutique ‘floatel’ and it really is the perfect way to explore the Napo River, one of the 1 100 tributaries that flow into the Amazon River. Bar, lounge, dining room, observation deck with jacuzzi … what more could one ask for? Floor-to-ceiling windows in spacious cabins with generous ensuite bathrooms allow guests to enjoy views of unsuspecting wildlife as you silently pass them by.
This novel floating accommodation option ensures guests can penetrate deep into the rainforest. Furthermore, being right on the river, and often navigating while on board, we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of insects. However, if you would prefer a more stationary place to sleep, the Napo Wildlife Center is a tranquil eco-community situated on the banks of the Napo River and in the heart of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.
A large part of what is now the Peruvian Amazon once belonged to Ecuador. The two countries fought bitter wars over this land, yet we were interested to learn that only 2% of the vast Amazon Basin is found in Ecuador. What makes this area unique is that it isn’t far from its source (of the infamous river) being in the eastern Andes, yet the wildlife is still abundant.
This tributary is well over a km wide, so it actually came as no surprise to learn that the mouth of the mighty Amazon is over 200 km wide. In 1979, the Yasuni National Park was formed and then declared a UNESCO biological reserve just ten years later. This enormous park, at 923,000 hectares (2,280,000 acres) boasts staggering diversity. To put it into perspective, in just 1 hectare, studies show an average of 644 tree species. This is more than what can be found in the whole of Europe, while in the whole of North America, some 680 species occur. As if this isn’t enough to boggle the curiosity of the mind, the Amazon also has 191 mammals, 650 bird species, 630 fish and 180 amphibians and reptiles.
A few highlights
Each morning and evening, when the jungle is most alive, one can embark on a range of exciting excursions. Shore nature walks, motorised canoe rides, night walks complete with spotlights, as well as interacting with a local family and schoolchildren (here you can try chica, a traditional tea) to learn about their jungle life.
A definite highlight for those visiting this part of the Amazon is the opportunity to watch birdlife gather at clay licks at dawn. Bare patches of soil along the river banks laden with mineral salts attract hundreds of squawking, squabbling parrots. Some patience rewards birdwatchers with a magnificent display of colours and a cacophony of calls. The night walk was one of our favourite memories, truly displaying the extent of life within the Amazon, some literally crawling right beneath your feet.
Towering over the Amazon
Most wildlife and birdlife is seen from the canoe on the slow flowing water along tributaries to the Napo River. Fauna, flora, insects and butterflies can be seen while walking, day and night. A fitting finale of our short stay was climbing the observation tower. Beautiful views and brilliant birdlife were waiting up on the platform after climbing the 221 steps, 45 m high in the canopy of a Kapok tree. Seeing the outstretching wings of a flock of blue-and-yellow macaws in flight was simply sensational.
Your guide can make or break the experience
A special mention needs to be made of our two guides, Avel and Juan. They were exceptional. Certainly, amongst the most knowledgeable and talented we have been lucky enough to meet over the years. In just five days, we saw a multitude of monkeys, including the pygmy marmoset (the smallest monkey in the world) and the golden-mantled tamarin (endemic to the area).
We were also fortunate to see a brown-throated three-toed sloth, as well as glimpses of the Amazon pink river dolphins. Given the sediment-rich murky water, it is extremely difficult to get photographs and views of these passive creatures, which seem to favour a confluence of two rivers as their fishing hotspots.
We also saw over 100 bird species, their colours so vibrant that, dare I say it, make ‘our’ African birds look rather plain or dull in comparison.
If you are wildlife enthusiasts like us, you will find this visit a life-changing experience.
By Andrew Nicholson
&Beyond Brand Manager for Southern Africa & South America