Planning an inaugural trip to South America can be a daunting task considering the vast size of the continent. When travel time is limited, and adventure and diversity are paramount, it is Ecuador that rises to the top of the list.
We chose this small country not only for its relative proximity, but also for its geographical and biological diversity. Ecuador straddles the equator on the Pacific coast of South America and is bordered by Peru to the south and Colombia to the north. The country is divided into four geographical regions, three continental and one island. These regions are the Coast, the Sierra (mountains), the Oriente (Amazon basin) and the Galapagos Islands.
We chose to focus our trip on two of these regions, the Sierra and the Oriente. In Ecuador it is possible to experience remarkably different environments in a matter of hours. With so much ecological and cultural diversity, Ecuador can provide plenty of adventures for all types of travelers.
We decided to start our trip with a visit to the Amazon basin. After detailed research, we booked a four-day excursion to the Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge, a luxury hotel. This ecotourism project includes the conservation of approximately 82 square miles of the pristine Amazon rain forest within the Yasuni National Park, an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the largest tract of tropical rain forest in Ecuador. The lodge complex is situated by the Anangucocha Lake, within the ancestral territory of the Anangu Quichua community, and is part of the Yasuni National Park. The Anangu Quichua community built the lodge to provide its community with jobs, as well as to protect the land. The goal was to provide an exclusive, personalized rain forest experience.
It was not an easy journey to get to the remote location of Napo Wildlife Center. We first flew from the capital city of Quito on a small plane to the Amazon town of Coca. Flying over the Andes Mountains was a bit intimidating and turbulent at times, but well worth it as we enjoyed the views of the snow-covered peaks below. After landing at the small airport in Coca, we hopped into a motorized canoe that took us on a two-hour journey down the Napo River, an Amazon River tributary. Next, we were met by a much smaller paddle canoe, which we navigated up a narrow creek for several hours until we reached our final destination.
We were immediately taken aback by the simple beauty of the lodge. The jungle site was lush and teeming with colorful birds and butterflies. Our rooms were within standalone, open-air thatch roof huts that did not spare any comforts. There was, however, no TV, radio or Internet — just the relentless and thrilling sounds of the jungle around us.
Guests were divided into several small groups. Each group was led by a naturalist guide along with several native guides from the Anangu Quichua community. Each day was a new adventure. We awoke before sunrise to start our daily excursions into the jungle. We stayed with our group each day and dined together at night, always looking forward to discussing our day’s adventures with the other guests.
Our first morning we traveled by dugout canoe to the parrot clay licks. At the covered viewing platform we gathered and remained very quiet as the parrots came to the licks for their daily visits. We were treated to an amazing display of hundreds of birds, including many species of parrots, parakeets and macaws, flocking to the licks.
After the parrot viewing we continued in our dugout canoes into the jungle for more wildlife viewing. The jungle was teeming with birds, mammals and reptiles, but one had to keep a keen eye to spot many of them as they were so well camouflaged. Our native guide, Sixto, was our best set of eyes. Raised in the community, he was well trained in spotting wildlife. We saw many species of monkeys, the reclusive sloth, geckos, conga ants, leaf-cutter ants and many varieties of colorful birds. Sixto took us within a couple of feet of a ruby poison dart frog, which carries enough venom to kill 10 grown men. That was as close as we ever care to be to that frog.
On the second day our guides took us on a hike covering several forest trails. These hikes allowed us to appreciate the tropical richness of the jungle, including the bold colors of the plants, insects and birds. Our guides shared and demonstrated to us the medicinal uses of the bark, leaves and seeds of the jungle flora. We also learned about many of the community’s local customs and traditions. The Napo Wildlife Area is home to 11 species of monkeys, along with a vast array of birds including toucans, macaws, parrots and hummingbirds.
One of our most memorable activities was the trip to the viewing tower high above the jungle canopy. The tower was a stainless steel structure rising 125 feet above the forest floor. Not a climb for the faint-hearted, it was similar to climbing up an exposed fire escape on a high-rise building. But even a self-proclaimed vertigo sufferer managed to make it. Once we made it to the top of the structure, we were on a viewing platform built into the canopy of a 155-foot-high kapok tree. From this elevation above the tree canopies, we were able to observe the jungle wildlife from a completely different perspective. It was a bird-watchers’ paradise.
We were taken on one slightly terrifying activity, a nighttime canoe trip on Lake Anangucocha to observe the caiman. These carnivorous reptiles are related to alligators. The particular caiman species indigenous to Anangucocha Lake is the black caiman, the largest and the most dangerous, reaching lengths up to 15 feet. These caiman live on the edges of rivers and lakes and are certainly intimidating to observe from a dugout canoe. Sitting very still in the shallow canoe, we observed the eyes of the caiman glowing red as they were illuminated by our flashlights, just inches from our small canoe.
After four days at the Napo Wildlife Center, we were sad to say goodbye to the amazing staff, guides and naturalists whom we had grown to admire for their dedication to teaching the world about their community and their desire to preserve and protect it for future generations. We returned the way we arrived, by paddle canoe, a motorized canoe and eventually a flight across the Andes once again.
Back in Quito, we had arranged for a guide to drive us to the Hacienda La Cienega near Cotopaxi. The hacienda is a Spanish estate dating to the early 1800s, which has been converted into a hotel. The grounds were magnificent with gardens, stables and a chapel. It felt so opulent compared with our jungle huts the night before. Not being ones to waste time being idle, we arranged for our guide to take us to Cotopaxi National Park early the next morning.
Cotopaxi, at 19,347 feet, is the world’s second highest active volcano. Our guide was able to drive us up the mountain to around the 14,000-foot elevation. The roads up were pretty rough but the views of the Andes’ snowcapped peaks were beautiful. We were told that we picked an excellent day to visit the mountain as the skies were clear, which allowed us to experience amazing views and take phenomenal photos.
When we reached as far as we could go via car, we started our ascent of the mountain with our guide. The air was so thin that it was challenging to breathe; however, we were determined not to give up and to make it to our destination, the Jose Ribas refuge at 15,750 feet. At this climbers’ refuge, there was a two-story shelter with bunk beds, showers and cooking facilities for those who planned to eventually make it to the top of the mountain. When we finally arrived at the refuge, we rewarded ourselves with hot chocolate. Rested and refueled, we decided to see if we could climb the mountain farther, much to our guide’s surprise. When we reached 16,003 feet, as stated on our GPS, we decided that was about as far as we could go. At that elevation we were rewarded with incredible views and an unexpected visit from an Andean fox, a lucky fellow happily munching away at another hiker’s lost lunch.
While driving back to our hacienda, we started to come down with horrible headaches, and we knew that altitude sickness was setting in big-time. Considering that barely 24 hours earlier we had left the near sea-level elevation of the Amazon jungle, only to then be hiking up to 16,000 feet, we knew we were playing high-risk odds for altitude sickness. All of the tourism information had advised us to acclimatize for a week around Quito (9,400 feet) or higher before attempting the ascent up Cotopaxi; our 24-hour reprise did not stand a chance.
Lying in bed that night with the most unbearable pain, we really wished we had listened. Fortunately, our son and daughter did not feel a bit sick, and happily spent the night in the Hacienda restaurant while we agonized in our room. They became further worried by our non-responsiveness and pain, and they asked the front desk if there was anything they could do for us. The Hacienda was not unprepared for guests like us and they promptly delivered coca tea for us to drink. What a miracle! Within 30 minutes of drinking the tea we could raise our heads off the pillow and within an hour we were out of bed. Thank goodness for the medicinal properties of nature.
Our two-week trip took us to other cities as well. We spent several days in the capital city of Quito, enjoying its rich culture and history; our favorite sight was the National Museum. We also went to Otavalo to visit the bustling and colorful markets of the same name.
No trip to Ecuador is complete without a trip to the equator. Standing at the Middle of the Earth Monument, one is able to straddle both hemispheres at the same time. What a thrill it was to stand with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot in the Southern Hemisphere.
Our only regret was that we did not have the time to visit the Galapagos Islands; something to leave for our next adventure. Ecuador is a very small country with a very big dose of diversity and adventure.