Ecuadorian Eco-tourism at its best

Anticipation was high as we awoke on the third day of the South American leg of our annual Expat Research Destination Vacation. Planning only a single day of sightseeing in Quito, we left the jackets and long sleeve shirts behind and headed for a totally different climatic zone. Realizing Ecuador’s boundaries include a large chunk of untouched Amazonian jungle, we jumped at the chance to experience our third different rainforest adventure. Freshly embedded memories of Borneo’s jungle excursion remained strong and having already visited Costa Rica in 2002, that leaves Madagascar as the only rainforest we have yet to explore. Probably too far and expensive for early retirees in Malaysia, we’ll settle for orangutans over lemurs.

Sunset at Sacha Lodge

Sunset at Sacha Lodge

Understanding human encroachment remains the biggest threat to the world’s rainforests, there’s a handful of lodges that personify sustainable ecotourism at its best. Not to be missed, Sacha Lodge, in Ecuador’s Napo Valley Region fits the bill. Located on a pristine piece of privately owned land and bordering Yasuni National Park, one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, the lodge is accessible only by navigating the Napo River for 50 miles, hiking inland on an often muddy boardwalk and crossing a scenic lake. Beginning the journey in Quito, Diane and I boarded a 25 minute flight over snow-covered peaks to the small town of Coca where guides met us for the start of a 4 day, 3 night adventure that exceeded our expectations.

 

Although rainforest takes up only about 11% of the Earth’s surface, over 50% of every species on Earth lives there. Comprising five nations and exploited to dangerously irreplaceable levels by all but one, the rainforest region known as The Amazon covers an enormously large chunk of the South American continent. Fortunately for Ecuador, companies conduct most oil production outside its borders allowing it the title of the most bio-diverse country on Earth for its size. Offering five or six incredibly beautiful lodges, its rainforest remains a relatively unknown attraction in Ecuador and sadly, most Americans choose The Galapagos Islands and then venture to Peru and beyond, unaware of the pristine beauty that lies so close to the capital city.

sacha birds

one of the first birds we saw at Sacha

Having experienced torrid heat and humidity in Borneo along with adventure filled days that begin before dawn for prime wildlife viewing, Diane and I chose a 3 night, 4 day program. Slightly longer options exist at Sacha but I guarantee you’ll see and do almost everything on the bucket list and the extreme climate makes its seem longer.  Venturing out from Quito, Byron dropped us off at the airport for the short flight on Tame Airlines where we traveled with a few other lodge visitors and a heap of relaxed oil field workers returning to Coca, a town founded mostly as a base for the small petroleum industry supported by Ecuador’s government.

 

Arriving in Coca, Diane and I greeted a friendly representative who drove us to a small staging area and served a small boxed sandwich lunch. Adjusting to the 25 degree temperature difference took awhile and we read some literature and studied some maps explaining the local geography. Feeling the local flair of a town created mostly for the benefit of petroleum workers, its hard to gauge the correct attitude towards exploitation of such a beautiful country. Looking at the local population, we wanted to feel sympathy for a poor group promised a share of industry profits that actually received next to nothing.

heading up the Napo River

heading up the Napo River

Noticing the pathetic billboard that reads Bienvenidos a Halliburton, the evil American company that made Dick Cheney famous and owns a gated compound for its overpaid employees, we quickly put political opinions behind as we headed to the dock and boarded a motorized canoe for the two hour ride upriver. Carried by hand, everything that comes into Sacha and all the lodges comes back out via the river. Relatively boring except for some egrets and local residents waving hello on another boat, the river presented us a chance to relax before all the activity and we slept most of the way with the cool breeze helping wipe away the sweat.

Two hours later we arrived but the journey wasn’t over yet. Hiking on a wet, dark and often muddy boardwalk reminiscent of a scene from Apocalypse Now, the advice to keep a pair of Keens or light hikers proved smart despite the dripping sweat puddles emanating from wet feet. Reaching a dock after thirty minutes, a small canoe awaits for the last leg of the journey. Crossing a spectacular lake that surrounds the lodge without the noise of a motor, we experienced the true serenity of the beautiful surroundings.

Finally arriving at the lodge’s small entrance, the staff greeted our group and offered us a quick snack before a short briefing. Mentioning that Diane and I prefer individual private guides, understand that rainforest lodges generally don’t work like that. With most lodges set far from civilization, staff usually lives in their own area of the lodge and accommodating every guest privately wouldn’t make financial sense. Often positive but sometimes negative, deciding group assignments for the trip’s duration is the prerogative of each lodge.

Understanding what your preferences are is an important factor before shelling out a sizable chunk of your online income (earned from your phenomenal blog). Most websites explain group assignments in some capacity. In our case, we teamed up with two British couples and we all clicked well but there was a chubby and boisterous Aussie guy with his 12-year-old kid. Placed with some senior citizens, this clearly annoyed the guy who tried to hang out with us every chance he got. Solution? Look younger than you are and be fit for your best chances at a younger group.

DSC05111Stating on their website that preferences will be given according to the interests of each party, all we got was a small form with very little opportunity to specify much so we think they choose the guides according to the order of youngest, fittest and most fun looking. Apologies to those that don’t fit into this category but hey, that’s one reason I’ve spent a year at the gym while engaging in my House Husband duties.

Probably the most important part of your trip is the guide. Assigned to spend almost every waking minute with you, most rainforest lodges don’t allow for an excess of free time and trails are often restricted from use without a guide for everyone’s protection. (To the non-Americans: We have seen guests at zoos, parks, preserves and other places engage in activities so stupid we understand why restrictions are necessary). Luckily, we received the most enjoyable, highly personable, interesting and intelligent  guide we’ve ever had. Here he is below paddling us through the canals

Well traveled and educated overseas, Andres Holguin Naranjo remained our Facebook friend until he mysteriously dropped off my friend list. Having lived in Alaska and trekked all over the world, his advance knowledge of flora and fauna make the trip better than we could have expected. Assuming he no longer works as a guide there since we last heard he was living in Tasmania, we hope the lodge was able to find someone as good as him. Look him up and let us know what he’s up to if you find him.

Completing the briefing and after meeting Andres, they took us to our cabins and we had about an hour before meeting back at the lodge for a Wellington Boot fitting. Unlike Borneo , there are no leaches in the Amazon and the boots come in handy on muddy trails or during wet weather even though they weigh more than my whole foot. Providing excellent rain ponchos at no added cost, the lodge goes out of their way to help keep you dry (albeit blazing hot) and on some days, hikers or Keens will suffice.

the lodge grounds

the lodge grounds

Reasonably sized and adequately furnished, all the cabins are the same size and come with a beautiful deck with hammock for wildlife viewing. Driven by power generators, the shower was surprisingly good and the room has a safe for valuables. Comfortable but firm, the beds were fine and most people plop down from heat and exhaustion after a complete day. Ceiling fans give a small breeze and you can’t flush paper products in the toilet , a common theme throughout rural Ecuador.

For those unfamiliar, many rainforest lodge excursions involve a lot of hiking, often in rough terrain. Fortunately, Sacha Lodge’s setting in a lake environment flanked by canals allows for maximum wildlife viewing without as much hiking. Taking us out for a canoe trip on the first day, the weather held up and we set off up the tributaries in search of Amazonian creatures on land and in the water. Itineraries always vary so bear in mind you might get something slightly different from ours but you will not come away disappointed !!

Spotting a green viper only fifteen minutes in, Andres told us they’re elusive and he hadn’t seen one for a while. Adding to the awesomeness of this lodge, every group also gets the services of a local indigenous guide that lives in the surrounding area and assists the primary guide with spotting. Technically considered “naturalists” by the lodge, “Owen” was ours and he spoke little English but sure knew how to spot animals. Considering the cost is much less than Borneo Rainforest Lodge, the attention to detail appeared to win out. But no orangutans of course.

A viper and a rare spot

We spotted a viper

Gliding through the jungle in a canoe always fascinates me because the sounds never stop even if they’re not as prominent as monkeys howling and soon dusk turned into nightfall making it seem almost spooky but wonderfully serene. Caimans are smaller versions of crocodiles and we spotted a few by the side of the boat as well as some colorful little frogs. After dinner we returned for another nighttime ride down a different canal. Blissfully quiet, we all jumped suddenly at the unexpected sight of an anaconda that almost jumped into the boat. Sadly, I am too slow with the camera and have no proof (This is why Diane is the official photographer of The Experimental Expats.)

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Sleeping like babies despite the heat, we looked forward to the first full day of activities and before we knew it, the wake up call came at 5:30 AM (a knock on the door). Rainforest excursions are NOT for anyone that hates mornings. Wildlife hates the heat as much as you do and 6 AM starts are essential for optimal viewing. Normally constructed at any jungle lodge, canopy walks are a standard feature in any rainforest. Allowing unlimited visibility above the treeline in clear weather, Sacha’s canopy walk is by far the best one we’ve seen.

 

Enjoying a highly unusual crystal clear day with endless blue skies, we took advantage of the rare tropical event and spotted families of beautiful toucans.  Additionally, we saw lots of agoutis, squirrels, Capuchins, tamarins and titi monkeys. Apologies again for not having photos that match my descriptions; we hadn’t yet purchased a good camera and who knew I’d like blogging so much? After lunch we took another hike and saw some amazing insects and heard some of the craziest bird sounds I’ve ever heard.

DSC05055

DSC05054

An Agouti

Housing one of the most extensive butterfly collections anywhere, they take part in partner programs with organizations worldwide and send specimens overseas. Although not exactly as fun or interesting as monkeys, it’s educational and we came away with a better understanding of their life cycles. Spotting totally different creatures hiking than in the canoe, the second evening’s hike featured large tarantulas, scorpions and a toad the size of a small dog. (no kidding- sorry; wasn’t fast enough for a picture and apparently my blog photographer wasn’t either- but here’s the butterfly farm)

Sidenote: Andres recommended we watch the movie “The Big Year”. Featuring an all-star cast, the movie follows tow bird enthusiasts competing in an annual contest for title of spotting most species in North America. Enjoying birds immensely, we finally rented this movie and thought is clever and cute, Highly recommended after a trip to the jungle.

If you don't like insects don't visit

If you don’t like insects don’t visit

Waking up on day three, we already felt like we’d gotten our money’s worth and couldn’t even visualize what lied ahead in The Galapagos Islands. Owning to proximity, one advantage of Sacha over the other lodges is the trip to Yasuni National Park. Encompassing one of the most biologically diverse forests in the world, the park is home to healthy populations of jaguars and is home to some of the last indigenous people still living in isolation, the Tagaeri and The Waorani.

Severely restricted, visitors are not allowed to hike into the undeveloped park alone. Instead, we took a boat trip to a “parrot lick” where thousands of beautiful green birds lick the minerals. Thinking it’s to aid digestion, scientists are not 100% sure what attracts them and it’s often a long wait in the boat until they arrive but we did spot a large boa constrictor on the rocks waiting to eat one of the young birds. Once they arrive, it’s a sea of green and a sound we still remember to this day. Supposedly it’s $20 extra but nobody ever charged us.

Housing a “tree house”, the third afternoon featured another hike where we saw a super cool little owl, some termite nests and more monkeys. Providing a 360 degree view of the area, they let us stay as long as possible until darkness almost set in and it was time to go due to difficulty navigating the trail at night. Fully satisfied, we ate our last dinner with all the groups and they cooked a fabulous bar-b-q while thanking everyone for coming.

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Speaking of food, I want to reiterate that almost everything we ate in Ecuador was fresh and delicious. Unlike some other rainforest lodges, meals are all served at the same time in a small but comfortable dining area and they tell you what time to arrive. Smaller than the luxurious Borneo Rainforest Lodge, it has all the necessities for a comfortable stay including a small bar and gift shop that lets you run a tab.

Ecuador's fish dishes are the best I've ever eaten

Ecuador’s fish dishes are the best I’ve ever eaten

Tasting fresh and filling enough for even the chubby guy, almost every meal featured chicken, pork, beef or seafood cooked a different way along with veggies, potatoes (four kinds in Ecuador; all delicious), cold salads and desserts. Bring your own coffee if you need a caffeine boost or deal with instant Nescafe. Unique to Ecuador is a mystery hot sauce that’s served everywhere. Unable to name one specific ingredient as the main one, Andres told us it’s a national dish that everyone makes differently.

Consisting mainly of eggs, sausage, bacon and an omelette option and fruit, breakfast was protein filled and tasty. Changing daily, lunch always includes soup (Ecuadorians love soup) as well as protein and buffet style dinners are the norm. Finalizing the trip with a nice touch, they hosted a bar-b-q on the last night on the deck by the lake. Introducing everyone to all the guides, Andres summarized the perils of rainforest preservation and encouraged everyone to spread the word after returning home. Probably the best guide and obviously the staff leader, we felt honored to meet him and once again received the best guide possible.

This is the canoe we used for wildlife viewing

Working hard, every staff member at Sacha Lodge deserves praise and they’ll do anything possible to make sure your visit is memorable and comfortable. Unlike the cheesy guilt-ridden speech we received on the Galapagos Island cruise, tipping is optional but you’ll absolutely want to give generously, especially to the “naturalists” who probably have the best job of all the local indigenous people in the area. On the last morning they fed us breakfast and almost as if planned, we experienced the first and only real bout of rain on the entire excursion.
⇐This is the canoe we used for water-bound wildlife viewing

Trouncing back to the boat with our ponchos for the first time was almost surreal. Looking totally different shrouded in mist, everything takes on a new light as the animals all scurry for cover and the boardwalk turns into a slippery pile of mud. Arriving back in Coca, heavy rain cancelled our flight back to Quito so Andres bought the group to a local restaurant and paid for lunch out of his own pocket. Being a horrible Californian, my Spanish knowledge ends with adios amigo” so we let him choose our meal.

Hoping the rain would eventually subside, we wondered what happens in the event every flight can’t land. Assuring us nobody’s ever missed their connection, Andres implied they would drive back if all else failed. Meanwhile we enjoyed the friendly monkey that hangs out on the tables begging for food and will steal almost anything you put in front of him. After a few hours the skies finally cleared and Andres helped us all navigate the terminal as he came with us on the flight for a visit back home. Top notch service from beginning to end.

Sadly, he doesn't belong in the town but he's sure cute

Sadly, he doesn’t belong in the town but he’s sure cute

Founded by a Swiss businessman over 20 years ago and still owned by the family, Sacha Lodge is an extremely well run professional eco-lodge that demonstrates positive steps forward when it comes to conservation and preservation of Ecuador’s threatened jungles. Among the best places we’ve ever visited, Diane and I highly recommend a trip to the Amazonian rainforest region of Ecuador. Rather than booking directly with the lodge, it’s easier and cheaper to book a combination package that includes other regions of Ecuador and of course The Galapagos Islands (Assuming you’ve sacked away some of that online income you’ve earned from your fabulous blog.)

Ecuador: awesome country but not for us as expats

Although expats living in Ecuador probably know some travel and budgeting secrets, package tours combining several regions of Ecuador make it easy to navigate everything without much hassle. While pricey compared to other inexpensive options, almost all the expats we met in Ecuador somehow never made it out to the Amazon region. Understanding many folks chose early retirement in Ecuador as an alternative to restarting a career after layoffs in middle age due to low-cost of living, we think it’s sad to choose a destination simply because you can’t afford to be unemployed in your native country. Save some bucks while you still; have a job and make this trip !!

If You Go:

Our tour company of choice is Quito based Columbus Travel. If you are combining a trip to The Galapagos, this website has a plethora of options and will save money compared to companies based outside the country. They have the best relationships with the top cruise companies and know South America inside and out. If you must choose an American based company, we recommend Adventure Life who went out of their way trying to get our business and was very helpful. Ask for Kassandra; details are here.

If you live in Ecuador, please comment on your expat experiences and convince us why we should change our minds and become an expat there instead of Malaysia !!

Coming soon: Galapagos Islands day by day  

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