Preserving the Ancestral Land of the Kichwa

Preserving the Ancestral Land of the Kichwa

“Wait! Stop!” I whisper, barely managing to keep my voice down. Fabian, the native Kichwa park ranger, doesn’t understand English but he gets the idea. The canoe glides to a graceful standstill. Roberto, the Ecuadorian guide who has just flown with me from Quito speaks excellent English, but is too polite to ask the cause of my excitement. All he did was to casually point out a bird a few feet away in the thick jumble of rainforest; a large bird  that looks like a chicken on a bad hair day  and has an excessive fondness for fluorescent turquoise eye shadow. “The bird. It’s a hoatzin,” I exclaim. He confirms matter-of-factly. He clearly fails to grasp the significance of the moment. So does the bird that has by now been joined by two of its brethrens, the three of them now engaged in a raucous argument while enthusiastically devouring the foliage.

Amazon hoatzin bird.

Hoatzin birds on the shore of Anangucocha Lake.

I explain that on a previous Amazon adventure several years ago, thousands of miles from here in Peru, I had spent a whole week (including a steamy half-day hike in spongy, mosquito-infested underbrush, I omit) in hope of seeing a hoatzin. All I got for my efforts was to hear its screechy cry and ponderous take-off as it disappeared into the forest canopy. “You’ll see plenty of them here,” Roberto assures me. Then, after I have photographed the trio to my heart’s content, he points behind me to a large russet-colored heron, still as a stump to better blend into the undergrowth, “and we have rufescent-tiger herons too,” he smiles.

Saki Monkey Anyone?

 

Ecuador -Napo Wilderness Lodge

The Napo Wildllife Center eco-lodge streches along the shore of Anangucocha Lake.

We resume our upstream journey under an arch of tangled mangroves and vines, along the narrow channel that connects the Napo River, a major tributary of the Amazon, to Anangucocha Lake. We are in the heart of 21,400 hectares (82 square miles) of conservation land located on the ancestral territory of the Kichwa Anangu community in the northwest corner of Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve regarded by scientists as one of the highest bio-diversity areas on the planet. We stop for several additional notable sightings, including a three-toed sloth and saki monkeys, my first ever sighting of these tiny white-faced primates, before we reach the lake.

Amazon - Ecuador's Napo Lodge.

Welcome to the lodge. My bungalo is the bottom left one.

The persimmon-colored adobe bungalows under peaked thatched roofs of the Napo Wildlife Center eco-lodge are scattered around a gentle slope rising from the far side of the lake. The lodge and the conservation land are wholly owned and managed by the Kichwa Anangu community. They are the touchstone of a groundbreaking program initiated over 15 years ago to improve the quality of life of the Anangu people while preserving the integrity of their ancestral territory and culture, and provide them with sustainable employment.

Wi-Fi in the Jungle

Equador - Anangucocha Lake turtles.

Turtles enjoy the midday sun on the the lake.

The lodge is designed to meet the high expectations of international visitors, including airy individual bungalows with well-appointed bathrooms and generous hot water pressure. There is round the clock electricity and WiFi connectivity throughout, including the hammock on my private terrace overlooking the lake. Soaring observation towers at the top of the hill and deep in the forest offer a unique perspective of the lake and the rich bird life above the forest canopy.

 

Ecuado - Napo Wilderness Lodge

My bungalo is a haven of creature comforts by the lake.

After almost two decades of unrelenting preservation efforts and community education, the conservation land offers some of the most pristine rainforest environment I have come across anywhere. Thanks to strict anti-poaching policies and enforcement, wildlife abundance and variety are outstanding.

 

 

Ecuador - Amazon Owl Butterfly.

The markings of the Owl Butterfly are intended to keep birds at bay,

To ensure visitors make the most of this exceptional environment, Napo Wildlife Center guides come in pairs: a highly experienced bilingual, state-licensed guide and a native Yasuni park ranger who, in addition to his first-hand knowledge of the habits of the local wildlife, is also a fount of information about Kichwa cultural traditions and botanical medicine. One evening, we take a nighttime canoe ride along the maze of convoluted channels that surround the lake. We use a dim spotlight to view nocturnal critters, a rare experience that hadn’t been available during previous rainforest explorations. A memorable close up sighting of this nocturnal escapade is a rather large caiman that glares its disapproval at our intrusion before silently fading into the swamp.

Getting to Yasuny

Ecuador - Amazon parrots and salt lick.

Large flocks of parrots pay a daily visit to a riverside salt lick.

In spite of its secluded location deep within the Yasuny National Park, the Napo Wildlife Center eco-lodge is relatively easy to reach. From Quito, the capital of Ecuador (also the connecting point for flights to the Galapagos Islands), a 45-minute daily-scheduled flights deliver travelers to Puerto Francisco de Orellana,  Coca for short. Located at the confluence of the Coca and Napo rivers, it is the spot where in 1542 the Spanish explorer who gave the town its name departed on the nine-months river expedition that would take him all the way to the mouth of the Amazon; and earned him his place in history as the discoverer of the Big River.

Ecuador - Amazon dugout canoe.

Dugout canoes are a main means of transportation among local people.

Getting around is a lot easier these days. A representative from the lodge meets me at Coca airport and escorts me to the modern pier where a motorboat awaits to whisk me on a two-hour scenic ride down the Napo River. The thoughtful staff has even packed a boxed lunch for the trip.

Green Heron.

Green Heron.

 

 

 

 

We turn into a narrow channel and enter Napo Wildlife Center conservation land. Here we exchange the motorboat for a dugout canoe (no motorized crafts allowed in the conservation area) and silently glide upstream under the thick rainforest canopy echoing with birdcalls. The 2,5 kilometer (1.5 mile) ride to Anangucocha Lake takes a little over one hour. Hoatzin bird reception not guaranteed.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Napo Wilderness Center Eco-Lodge

Darwin and Me – A Galapagos adventure

Darwin and Me – A Galapagos adventure

It all started with a ship. How else could it start when the destination is the Galapagos Archipelago? One hundred and twenty eight islands, most of them just slivers of sun-baked volcanic rock, sprinkled over 45,000 square kilometers (17,000 square miles) of Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) to the west of mainland Ecuador. Of the 21 large enough to deserve recognition as actual islands, only five are inhabited to varying degrees. So, as Charles Darwin had already figured out, there had to be a ship. For him, a young man fresh out of Christ’s College (University of Cambridge) in 1831, the choice was simple. It was a berth as the naturalist on the Beagle, a 27.5-meter (90 foot) sloop with a crew of 74 men on a survey expedition along the coasts of South America, or nothing. He chose the Beagle. His momentous visit to the Galapagos has captured the imagination of adventure tourists ever since.

Royal treatment

The M/Y Grace at anchor against the vivid backdrop of Bartolomé's red lava cliffs.

The M/Y Grace against the vivid red lava cliffs of Bartolomé’s.

My own visiting options were less obvious. There are literally hundreds of crafts plying the waters of what is now the Galapagos Marine Reserve, vying for the attention of more than 150,000 yearly visitors. A tedious process of elimination ensued. Ships that could accommodate up to 100 guests (the maximum allowed by park regulations)? No thank you. My enthusiasm for following in Darwin’s footsteps did not include embracing his crowded cruising conditions. A further look at said regulations revealed that access to some of the most prized islands such as Genovesa, the ultimate birdwatchers paradise, and Bartolomé with its iconic black lava rock spur Pinnacle Rock rising from a tranquil aquamarine sea, was restricted to much smaller ships.

Galapagos - M/Y Grace.

The upper deck lounge was a favorite spot to enjoy cooling sea breezes.

The list of desirable vessels was dwindling fast. Then I came across the M/Y Grace, a striking 44 meters (145 feet) classic yacht with a crew of ten, that could accommodate a maximum of 18 passengers in its nine luxurious staterooms Visions of exploring Darwin’s Enchanted Islands in relative solitude were dancing in my head. I had found my ship. I was on my way.

Galapagos - sea lion and pup.

A sea lion cow faned herself as she nursed her pup.

 

The elegantly streamlined silhouette of the Grace gave me an odd sense of déjà vu, a disconcerting thought since luxury yachts have never been part of my universe. Further research validated the flash back: throughout the spring of 1956, the yacht had been front-page news on all the French magazines and movies screens and in the fantasies of a generation of schoolgirls. It was named Deo Juvante then (Latin for with God’s help), the motto of the house of Grimaldi, and its owner was Prince Rainier III of Monaco. The yacht was a frequent backdrop in the celebrations of his wedding to American movie star Grace Kelly, and the couple’s floating honeymoon cottage for a seven-week cruise around the most romantic spots of the Mediterranean.

Galapagos -al fresco lunch.

Galapagos al fresco lunch on the stern deck.

Now this glamorous vessel, renamed M/Y Grace in homage to its most illustrious owner was the property of Quasar Galapagos Expeditions, and I too could call it home for a fabulous weeklong exploration of the Galapagos Archipelago, princely matrimony not required. And best of all, its current owner Eduardo Diez, a man with a passion for classic yachts, had undertaken a complete overhaul of the vessel to include such twenty-first century amenities as a state-of-the-art stabilizer system for smooth sailing, a hot tub on the sundeck and air conditioning throughout. Darwin never had it so good!

The rarest wildlife on the planet

Galapagos - Nazca booby.

On Genovesa, a nazca booby shades her eggs from the searing sun.

My Galapagos cruise delivered on all my Darwinian fantasies. It began just as his had, on San Cristobal Island (then Chatham Island). By some fortuitous happenstance, we were only seven lucky passengers to enjoy the unfailing pampering of the crew. Our outstanding naturalist guide, Rafael Pesantes, Rafa for short, ensured that we hardly ever encountered any other visitors during our shore excursions. A third generation native of the islands and an ornithology graduate from San Francisco University in Quito, Rafa coupled an encyclopedic knowledge of the fauna, flora and geology of the islands with the familiarity of one who has explored from an early age the crystal waters of its most secluded coves.

Galapagos-green turtle.

Galapagos green turtles were frequent companions during our snorkling expeditions.

Our daily land outings were filled with close encounters with some of the rarest wildlife on the planet. We wandered on white sand beaches festooned with colonies of sea lions and hiked along black lava rock paths to observe at close range the courtship ritual of Nazca boobies and waved albatross. We rode our panga to the edge of vertical cliffs teaming with blue-footed boobies and tiny Galapagos penguins, and watched frigate birds and brown pelicans nosedive for their breakfast. For me, however, the highpoint of the day was invariably our snorkeling expedition. Island after island, Rafa led us to a dizzying abundance of exotic marine life. A few minutes into our first swim, we sighted a hammerhead shark (that mercifully showed no interest in us). We swan surrounded by so many giant sea turtles that it was a challenge to keep out of their way.

On Isabela, the base of the cliffs were covered with bright coral formations.

On Isabela, the base of the cliffs were covered with bright coral formations.

Then there was the flightless cormorant that settled on my back, doubtless having mistaken the zipper pull of my wetsuit for a juicy eel, and expressed its disapproval by repeatedly pecking at my arm. Sharp beak!

Galapagos -Lonesome George.

Pinta Island giant tortoise Lonesome George was the last survival of its subspecies.

Toward the end of the week, I had blissfully lost tract of time by then, we stopped in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. With 15,000 inhabitants, it is the largest of the three cities in the archipelago and the home of the Charles Darwin Research Station where we paid a de rigueur visit to Lonesome George, considered to be the rarest creature on the planet. Believed to be over 100 years old, Lonesome George was the last known specimen of the Pinta Island giant tortoise subspecies. I was saddened to hear of his demise a few months after our visit.

Location, location, location!

Bartolome Island, Galapagos Island, Equador