09/13/13: Sacha Lodge, Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest
Zipping down the Napo River in a large motorized canoe, we had little idea what was in store for us, but already knew it would be an adventure. One year prior, when we’d decided to go on a round-the-world trip, we chose Ecuador as our first destination and immediately knew we had to visit the Amazon Rainforest. It’s one of those mythical places you see in pictures, or replicated in films, but never think you’ll actually visit. Knowing that our first stop would be in a country where we didn’t speak the language, we decided to do a tourist-friendly trip to the Amazon in order to ease our transition. It worked like a charm.
There are many options when it comes to visiting the rainforest, ranging from fairly cheap to very expensive. Guess which option we went with? Wrong! We chose the expensive one! Since this would be our first excursion into the wild, we wanted it to be a good one. We didn’t want to worry about transportation, food, or whether or not the guide spoke English. After reading numerous reviews, we settled upon Sacha Lodge. It met all of our requirements and each review was filled with glowing praise. We weren’t disappointed with Sacha Lodge. In fact, our experiences far exceeded our expectations.
We met a Sacha representative at the airport and then took a short plane ride to Coca. In just half an hour we went from the high elevation Quito to the low elevation of the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest. As our plane descended I watched the Napo River flowing below us. On either side was flat green terrain spreading out as far as the eye could see. Only one road stretched out from the town of Coca. Few roads exist here. The Napo River acts as a highway in this region, transporting goods and people up and down river all day long. For most, this is the only way in and out of the rainforest.
The heat gripped me as I stepped off the plane. Humidity was nearly 100% and the temperature was in the high 90s. Following the hustle and bustle of the tiny Coca airport, we boarded a bus and threaded through town before arriving at the Sacha office. After a quick sojourn, we boarded a motorized canoe and sped down the Napo River. A 2+ hour journey lay before us. The milky-brown water flowed by swiftly while thick green foliage rose up on either side. In some spots the river was a mile wide, but the water is low this time of year, and there were several sandbars rising up from the center. Our driver navigated the boat in a serpentine fashion, crisscrossing over the water to ensure safe passage through the deepest areas. As the water sprayed out to either side, we sat safely under a green canopy stretched tautly overhead, protecting us from the hot midday sun. It was a glorious day.
Two hours in, we pulled over to eat a boxed lunch and visit a small museum hidden in the jungle. It was an unexpected sight, this little museum resting in a small clearing just off the waterway. Inside, our guide Daniel explained each exhibit, which showcased the different native tribes of the Amazon region. We were exposed to traditional weapons, burial rites, clothing, and even the practice of shamanism. It was all very interesting and a good introduction to the world we’d just entered. Because of the shade it provided, I felt relief when first stepping into the building, but soon that comfort evaporated away. We were all pulling at our collars by the time we left. It was hot.
Before departing, we visited the on-site bathrooms. The building had no doors, there were no toilet seats, and a large brown creepy-crawly bug dawdled in the entryway. It seemed to be walking in slow-motion and didn’t mind us milling about taking photos. We happily left it behind to board our boat and continue downriver.
After landing at Sacha dock, we trekked for 45 minutes through the forest on dirt road and elevated wooden walkways. Giant termite nests peppered the trees. They were the size of stuffed knapsacks. I was surprised some of those trees could hold the weight! We stepped over a pack of leaf-cutter ants passing by. They were carrying small bits of leaf to their underground nest, which Daniel pointed out to us: a 10’ x 10’ area that, despite its size, was very unassuming. You could walk right by and not notice it; just some bumpy, light colored dirt. An impressive home.
By now the heat was penetrating me. I was covered in moisture from head to toe. Thankfully, we soon reached a small dock resting on the edge of a lagoon. Here we entered a wooden canoe that Daniel paddled from the front. We all grew quiet and observed our surroundings. Vegetation boxed us in from either side, like a tunnel. Murky water splashed against the sides of the boat. Wild bird calls sounded all around us. Then the green opened up and we poured into a serene black lake. This was Lake Pilchicocha and Sacha Lodge lived straight across on the other side, nestled in the trees. The calm water rippled as we pulled up to the thatched roof lodge where a friendly man waved in greeting. “Welcome to Sacha Lodge,” he said, before helping us onto the platform.
We disembarked and received lime-colored cocktails and snacks while Daniel explained the lodge, the rules, and the daily schedule. Every day we’d have three activities: morning, afternoon, and night. The rest of the day was free time and meals. At the time I didn’t think one way or another about whether the scheduling sounded well paced. In retrospect I can tell you it was perfection.
The lodge is the epicenter of Sacha. It stretches its fingers into the jungle, allowing every walkway to be surrounded by hanging vegetation, flowers, and the natural beauty of the forest. Our hut was a few minutes walk from the lodge, and walking there was a beautiful journey in its own right. Trees waved above us while vines swung below. At any moment you felt like an exotic bird could fly by or a monkey could leap out of the foliage. The rooms themselves were quite nice: they were sealed for bugs, so there was no need for a mosquito net; they had their own bathroom, shower, and ceiling fan; and there was an attached deck that faced out toward the rainforest. On that deck a blue hammock swung slightly in the breeze. I would’ve been tempted to hop in if not for my body heat inferno. Instead, I stripped down and took a cold shower. Ahhhhh…..sweet relief. We could’ve taken a swim in the lake, which we were told is perfectly safe, but we decided to stick with clear, cool water that you can see through.
We had an hour before our boot fitting (rubber boots are a necessity in the rainforest), and we spent that hour sleeping and staying as cool as possible. We then picked out the boots we’d be using during out time at Sacha Lodge before traipsing over to the resident butterfly house (Mariposario). In a small clearing there were three burlap-covered buildings, each with a separate function: housing caterpillar eggs, housing caterpillars, and housing chrysalises and butterflies. What we stepped into was what I’d always envisioned a butterfly house to be: Magic. There were hundreds of butterflies floating around us, sometimes even landing on us, without a care in the world. Various plants were landscaped around the sanctuary, giving it a nice ambience, and there were numerous stands with fermented plantain and nectar available for the butterflies to eat. Sitting in the midst of their food supply were small trees. These trees were there for the butterflies to lay their eggs upon. These eggs are then collected and placed in the other part of the sanctuary to be nurtured into caterpillars. The whole cycle of life was housed within those burlap walls.
We spent an hour fawning over the beauty of the butterflies and their unique chrysalises. My favorite was the owl’s eye butterfly. It was a marvel of camouflage. Its coloration was that of a brown owl with a false yellow eye peering out at you. And if that wasn’t enough, the tip of the wing looked exactly like a snake’s head. I’m sure many animals would be afraid to approach that insect, with its penetrating eyes staring back. One of the best parts of the Mariposario was that we could return to it as much as we liked. It was open all day, every day to all the guests at Sacha Lodge. How wonderful!
Just before dinner Daniel came knocking on our door. “Come quick,” he exclaimed, “A guide had found an Anaconda snake!” We followed him to the staff quarters where the guide had brought the giant snake into an open field. The sun had already set, so we were all shining our flashlights on its slithering body, twisting and turning and sliding across the grass. Being a boa, it wasn’t much of a threat to anyone, since they squeeze their prey to death instead of biting it. After we all got a chance to see it up close, the guide bid us buenos noches and took it back in the tree where he’d found it. Just then I heard a horn in the distance – it was dinner time.
That evening we ate a buffet-style meal. The food was varied and delightful. Unlike when we were in Quito, the entire time I was at Sacha I never worried about the safety of the drinking water, the meat, the fresh fruit and vegetables – it was all wonderful and delicious. After dinner we had our first scheduled activity: a night canoe ride.
The moonlight glistened off the lake as we silently floated along. Daniel scanned his flashlight across the surface of the water, searching. Even at a great distance you can see the red glow of a caiman’s eye. Caimans are semi-aquatic reptiles similar to alligators, and we spotted one right away. When we reached it, we watched it resting quietly at the water’s edge, its eyes and nose just above the surface waiting for a snack to pass by. After the caiman, we traveled into the jungle via a creek named the Anaconda. The thick canopy above blotted out the moonlight, making it incredibly dark. We used our flashlights to peer into the surrounding brush. We spotted one spider, but nothing more.
That night we went to bed early. Deep into the night a thunderstorm passed over us. It pounded the rooftop like a waterfall crashing down. I enjoyed its angry rumble, even though it disturbed my sleep. The storm was gone by morning.