Ecuador Day 14: Arrival at Sacha Lodge

      Palabra del día: canoa

We wake up, eat breakfast, and head to the airport to catch our flight to Coca and the Amazon Basin. Sacha Lodge has an agent at the ticketing desk who tags our luggage and sends us through the security line. We discuss our trip thus far as we wait for the plane to arrive. It is only as we are boarding the bus to the tarmac that we learn we are supposed to have met another guide and a group of 19 giggling, excited girls on our way to the lodge. Oh, boy.

The flight, though short, is beautiful. The plane richocets in a vaguely drawn parabola over the Andes before landing at a small tropical airport. We wait for our luggage while it is pulled directly off the plane, then catch a bus to the lodge office. We meet the first few of the large group traveling with us, apparently on a summer course from a midwestern Catholic university. The bus drives us past a weekend meat market; we stop around the corner at the gated Sacha office. After a cup of tea and some chocolate, the group finishes our migration toward the Rio Napo, a large tributary in the northeastern portion of Ecuador. We load onto a large motorized canoe for the ride down the river. The boat is loaded from back to front, so we hang out at the back of the group to get front row seats. For about an hour and a half, the Other Half and I watch for life on the river. All we see is a single cattle egret and some small birds near the edge of the shore.

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For lunch, the group stops at an old Jesuit mission founded on a large island in the center of the river. The box lunches contain almond cookies, an apple, orange juice, and a chicken sandwich. Even the “vegetarian” meals have chicken in them. The group tours the mission’s  small museum, which has native artifacts as well as a summary of some of the area’s exports. Some of the guide’s information is inaccurate, and the enclosed area makes me claustrophobic, so I busy myself outside taking pictures of the fauna until I am told I must stay with the group. We don’t know it at the time, but this side trip causes us to miss out on two guided  hikes on Sacha’s grounds.

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When we arrive at Sacha itself, the afternoon sunlight has already begun to filter through the trees. There are restrooms at the dock, and while everyone else is taking their time, we decide to walk ahead with one of the native guides so that we can see more wildlife. The girls are noisy and have coated themselves thoroughly with citronella, making it unlikely for us to see any large fauna while they are with us.

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We see two species of monkeys on the walk to the lodge: the shock-headed capuchin and the common squirrel monkey. The guides tell us it is rare to see the capuchins, but one of the reasons we chose this lodge was the high probability of seeing multiple primate species.

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I am starting to get the feeling that tourist guides like to make you feel as though each encounter you have is especially unique, even if it’s an everyday occurrence.

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Echinosaurus horridus, literally “Horrible scaly lizard”

The walk terminates at a dark lake richly colored from tannins in the water. We meet our native guide for our stay and board another canoe, this time hand-paddled, to get to the lodge proper. Once we reach the lodge, we are taken upstairs for welcome snacks. The host is handing out cocktails to everyone from two different trays. I have to ask for a drink ‘sin alcohol’ (without alcohol) since I don’t partake; I notice that the other lodge employees are also getting orange juice instead of a mixed drink.

Our hosts tell us where to be and when, and we disperse to our respective cabins. The lodge puts your luggage into the cabins before you get there. Our cabin, 17, is at the end of a bank of cabins set away from the lodge. The furnishings are sparse but well-made and tidy. A mesh screen running around three sides of the duplex cabin doesn’t move the humid air well unless the fan is turned on.

After we arrange everything and test out the porch hammock, we head up to the observation tower which tops the lodge. It offers a nice view of the lake and the mid-level canopy around the lodge. We see the ever-present troupe of squirrel monkeys eating fruit in the trees, as well as a few bird species. Several pairs of hoatzins, a prehistoric bird our guides constantly refer to as ‘stinky turkeys’, nest just outside of the tower. We walk downstairs to grab our rubber boots for the trip. Unfortunately, my pair has what appear to be chiggers inside the lining; my calves are thoroughly splotched with welts by the time I realize the problem and attack the culprits with a thorough dousing of insect repellent.

Our assigned guide is helping guests select their boots and introduces himself to us. He is a young man with an easy, shy smile whom we had talked with a bit earlier on the ride to the lodge. The two of us are delighted to find that we have him to ourselves for the better part of our stay. He offers to practice Spanish with us if we will practice English with him. This results in a garbled Spanglish which our guide and I understand perfectly, but which our native guide and Other Half can barely follow along with. We sit with him for dinner, an artfully planned buffet with a mind-boggling variety of choices. The menu is posted on a white board nearby just after breakfast; one of the employees adds a beautiful drawing of one of the area’s fauna every night. Tonight we dine on creamed tomato soup, potatoes au gratin, green beans, beef, chicken, pork, rice, fried zucchini, beet salad, tomato and cucumber salad, and cabbage. On the dessert counter is babaco pie, which is so sweet that everything else tastes like water, and cheesecake, blackberry mouse, and fruit.

After dinner, we run into a pair of girls outside their cabins. We walk up to speak with them and realize that they have two large geckos framing their doorway. After a flurry of photos, everyone runs back to their cabins to see what night life awaits. We have a resident gecko ourselves as well as a large tree frog which forlornly waits outside for moths to show up.

We return to the lodge after changing into our boots, clambering into a canoe to look for spectacled caiman. We see the tapetal reflection of a large caiman, but it disappears before we can approach. We do see several small caimans near the shore before it begins to rain on us. After we return, our guide takes us to the kitchen area; it turns out that there is a group of 4 young adult caimans which hang out underneath the kitchen to catch leftovers. They appear outside the dining area during lunch to sun themselves and beg for more food.

I’ll spare you my “don’t feed the wildlife” lecture if you promise to not feed the wildlife. Ever. Capiche? Ok, moving on…

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We only return to our cabins after having a short night walk of our own, finding several tarantulas and large insects. We are almost too excited to sleep, knowing we’re going to be heading out early in the morning to see the parrot clay lick at Yasuni National Park.

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