“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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.