Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Post #131 - Amazonian Ecuador and the Napo Cultural Lodge

In my last four Ecuador posts, I focused on the highlands northwest of Quito. This time we are going to make a dramatic move to the east and the Amazonian lowlands. Just to get you oriented, here's another view of the topographic map that I showed in the first Ecuador post. I've also included a larger map that should help to put this into a larger, continental context. Ecuador's Amazon represents the extreme western edge of the Amazon basin and is just a tiny slice of the largest river system on the planet!

Andes are the brown/gray stripe
right down Ecuador's middle

When to visit
We visited in late-December and it was pretty ideal. It was close to 90F on the first of our five days, but rain in subsequent days cooled things down nicely. The dry season runs from November to April, so you're probably going to want to visit in that window. We had at least some rain each day, but only for more than 30 minutes on one occasion. Those interested in reptiles and amphibians might want to come when it is wetter. We didn't see a single snake in our five days which was a bit of a bummer (Sonia would disagree). There were mosquitos, but no more than anywhere else that I've been in the tropics. I really can't imagine there is a bad time to visit such an amazing place, but I could be wrong.

Getting there
As far as I know, there really isn't a good way to drive to Amazonian Ecuador; We flew 45 minutes from Quito over the eastern portion of the Andes to reach the Río Napo at Coca. From there it was into a large and very stable powered canoe for another 2-2.5 hours to reach another 50mi/80km downriver (east). That ride is absolutely fantastic and wonderfully relaxing. It's really cool since the river channel shifts everyday depending how much water is flowing, so navigating everything is a real art! Everything, flight included, was booked and organized by our lodge, the Napo Cultural Center, as part of our package. So far as I could surmise, that's the way all the other lodges (Napo Wildlife, Sacha, Sani, La Selva, etc) do it as well. There aren't casual accommodations (i.e guest houses, local motels, Airbnbs) that far downriver, so your really need to go through a lodge. It is not cheap, but the experience it well worth it.

Speeding down the Napo

View from the speeding boat
I selected this lodge for three reasons. The first was price. Napo Cultural cost significantly less (like $1000-$1500 less for 5 days and 4 nights) than any of the other Amazon lodges, the closely related and most expensive Napo Wildlife Center included. The second reason was cultural. Napo Cultural is run completely by native Kichwa people, and all of the money the lodge generates goes directly into the community (rather than lining the pockets of foreign investors as it does as some lodges - do your research!). The third reason was that Napo Cultural has fantastic canopy access. That access was great for both birds and jungle vistas but does require you to climb over 200+ steps to reach either of two observation platforms. It was a workout with my scope and camera!

Climbing 1 of the 2 Napo canopy towers

The view from the top

What is the difference between Napo Wildlife and Napo Cultural?
In the most general terms, Napo Wildlife is more about luxury accommodations and Napo Cultural is more about immersion with native peoples - at least to my eye. From my perspective, Napo Culural was plenty luxurious, and I'm not exactly sure what beyond our already very comfortable experience Napo Wildlife (or any of the other competing lodges) provides for effectively double the price. 

Plenty nice for me.
We had one of those fancy rain showers too!

It's also worth nothing that Napo Cultural is set right on the Río Napo. That makes it very easy to move up and down the river and access different regions of the adjacent and incredible Yasuni National Park. Napo Wildlife is located an additional 1.5 hours - by hand-paddled canoe - up a small creek and into the forest, far from that main river artery. So, for those that want maximum chance to explore the area, Cultural might be better. For those more into staying close to the lodge, Wildlife might be better. As far was I know, there's nothing you can do at Wildlife that you can't do at Cultural (and vice versa), but the river access of Cultural really tips the balance for me. For example, the various parrot licks are 1.5 hours from Wildlife versus 10 mins from Cultural.

***as always, click photos for larger, better views***

Mealy Parrots and Blue-Headed Parrots on 
a clay lick. Minerals in the clay neutralize
toxins in the foods that they eat.

A Mealy Parrot surrounded
by Dusky-Headed Parakeets

Scarlet Macaws - Ara Macao
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Scarlet Macaw - Ara macao
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/200 at f/4 ISO 1600

Whoa! These White-lipped Peccaries came storming
in while I was photographing the macaws. I had my rig 
on a tripod so I just hit record to get this!

As for the cultural component at Napo Cultural, it is really cool. Upon arriving, we were assigned a pair of local guides that who took us through the various activities - canoeing, kayaking, hiking, observation towers, etc - during our 5D/4N stay. They were both very knowledgable and friendly, and beyond them we met all sort of other local folks, almost all of whom have ties to the lodge in some capacity (guides, cooks, staff etc). We sampled native food (though most was fairly Americanized), explored local customs and art, and even participated in some traditional Kichwa dances. I really felt as though our stay contributed to the economic well-being of the community. 

Local food

How are the days structured at Napo Cultural?
Napo Cultural (and I assume Napo Wildlife and all the other lodges) are different from the places we stayed in the highlands in that you can't just wander off the property and explore things on your own. Everything is coordinated around shuttling people up and down the river in the canoes. When you arrive, you are randomly assigned to a group for the days of your stay, and you do a bunch of pre-fabricated and awesome activities with that same group. What that means is that much of your experience will depend on how adventurous your group is. Our group was made up of two wonderful natives guides, Venancio and Silvia, and only one other person, a very friendly and adventurous guy (Coleman), also from the Bay Area. Since we were all up for anything, we were able to do and see more than larger groups where some people had less energy or lower tolerances for rain showers, for example. We also saw a ton of animals since we didn't have any loud people or children with us, and I suspect that our experience would have been very different had we been lumped in with the family of 9 and their many kids that arrived at the same time we did. So, if you're coming to bird, be clear that you want to be grouped with other birders rather than general family vacationers. Our guides actually bent over backwards to do a whole bunch of extra stuff with us since we were so enthusiastic!

Canoeing Blackwater Creek - 
this is actually the creek that connects 
Napo Wildlife to the Río Napo.

Sonia (wife), Silvia (guide), Venancio (guide), Coleman, Big Ugly

How is the birding at Napo Cultural?
Very good - with a few caveats. As I had never been to the Amazon Basin before this trip, virtually every bird I saw was a lifer. I wasn't so much into finding every elusive antbird as I was just enjoying the Amazon. We saw lots of birds, but I didn't bird or photograph with nearly the same intensity as I did in the highlands. If you've never been to the Amazon before, you're going to have a blast and see all sorts of cool stuff no matter what you do. With the structured activities, Napo Cultural is also a great destination for families. If, however, you've been to the Amazon before and/or are coming mainly to list specific and/or elusive species, you might get a bit frustrated by the structure of everything. One option is to hire your own guide from outside Napo Cultural and bring him/her with you. That way you can do your own thing with someone who knows his/her way around the area. It also worth noting that there isn't any real photography infrastructure (i.e set-ups, blinds) at Napo (I don't know about the other lodges though), so all my my shots were from the field. My eBird checklists from at Napo Cultural:

Hoatzin - Ophisthocomus hoazin
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Southern Lapwing - Vanellus chilensis
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1250 at f/4, ISO 800
**fastest shutter in my 2 weeks in Ecuador**

Many-banded Aracari - Pteroglossus pluricinctus
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/125 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Wow, that's a lot more than I thought I'd write. Hopefully I've left enough up to the imagination that you still want to visit. I think I've included everything that I wanted to cover, but if I forgot something please feel free to ask a question in the comments section.

That's it for Ecuador! I'm headed back to Colombia in late-June to lead a birding tour with a photography slant for Alvaro's Adventures. There still space if you're interested, and I'd love to have some blog readers along to enjoy the trip with me!

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