When Jessica first mentioned visiting the Amazon during our trip through South America, the hairs on my arms stood up. I immediately thought of all the creepy crawlies and vicious reptiles that were waiting there patiently to eat us. I grew up in a household that didn’t really do things like go on wildlife tours deep in the rainforest of South America. Then she showed me where and how we’d be experiencing the Amazon rainforest, and I began to ease up a bit. When we looked at the Napo Wildlife Center’s itineraries on their website, I even got a bit excited. “Wow! There are actually legitimately safe and equally exciting ways to explore the vast Amazon,” I thought. Still, I did some digging and confirmed what animals we were most likely to come across and how likely they were to harm us, but that’s just me!
Napo Wildlife Center is an ecolodge in the Yasuni National Park of the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest. They offer group and private excursions and stays at their extraordinary location. They’re mission is to provide conservation-based ecotourism to people eager to have an authentic experience in the wilderness of the Amazon.
They also have the Napo Cultural Center, at which visitors can stay in the Añangu’s village. This excursion is more culture-based where you can have an in-depth experience learning the customs and ways of the Añangu people. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic the cultural center was closed during our travel dates.
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Now let’s look at what four incredible days spent in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador looks like!
Day 1: The Journey to Yasuni National Park
Once you’ve corresponded and scheduled your trip via email or text with the Napo Wildlife Center representative, you’ll receive the address to the first meeting point. East of Quito, Ecuador there is a small town called El Coca, which is the last place visitors go before traveling to the Amazon rainforest. Your guide will instruct you on the day’s activities, followed by a two hour boat trip down the Napo River toward the Yasuni National Park.
Leaders of the Añangu community will assist you and your group to switch over to the eight-person canoes. Your guide and his partner will then row you further up a narrow channel for two hours toward Añangu Lake, which is situated in the Yasuni National Park.
This is truly a Jungle Cruise experience like no other. On the peaceful journey through the dense rainforest you’ll see squirrel monkeys, capuchins, and several kinds of birds. Oh, and if you’re lucky you or your guide may spot a black caiman lurking in the dark waters! Despite the close contact we came with these beasts, they hardly budged when they saw us.
If you don’t have much luck seeing wildlife on your way to the lodge, don’t worry! There are plenty of chances that you will be rowed down this shallow river to spot your favorite little monkeys.
Day 2: Visit the Parrot Clay Licks & Añangu Community
Day 2 of our visit to Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rainforest was probably mine and Jessica’s favorite day. We woke up around 4:30AM to begin our canoe trip along the river. It was misty and a bit chilly, giving it a sort of haunting Jurassic Park feel. Use your imagination for a few seconds and you can almost hear the velociraptors creeping behind the trees. Finally, you’ll land at the boat-swap dock, where the group will hop onto the motorboat to head over to the clay licks.
A parrot clay lick is a particular area full of clay with an abundance of minerals which the parrots flock to at a particular time of day. They eat the clay as a digestive aid to help neutralize toxins from the food they’ve already eaten. It also is a sodium-rich resource for them to feed on when food is scarce. We observed from our boat a mass of green parrots and parakeets feeding on the clay. It was really cool to see and learn about.
Our next activity of the day involved going to visit some of the Añangu community at their main village. First, our guide, David Grefa, told us about the community’s efforts toward conserving the rainforest. They have trash collection and recycling systems in place. They’ve also prohibited all hunting in order to protect the endangered animals of the park. They have primary and secondary schools for the children, as well as water purification systems to clean and make the river water drinkable.
We were greeted by about eight of the village women with a traditional welcome song and dance given to visitors. The songs they sang had messages centered around chicha, a fermented beverage from the yucca root. Chicha is a medium of connectivity for the Añangu people, as they often socialize over a bowl of chicha while chatting or sharing their dreams from the previous night.
They then took us to the next typical structure, a large enclosure built of wood and bamboo from the nearby forest. This room held their kitchen, and they were smoke-cooking something that smelled delicious. Little did we know the kabobs that were cooking were of weevil larvae and plantain chunks! To our surprise, it was mouthwateringly tasty and crunchy…like an amazonian bacon. Something you’d only try deep in the rainforest with Amazonian natives! The lead of the local women described their cooking methods and food storage techniques. It’s amazing how ingeniously resourceful their community is. They utilize all components of the forest and river while keeping conservation at the forefront of their lifestyle. Modern civilization should take a hint!
Afterwards you’ll be able to visit a shop where the handicrafts of all shapes and sizes are sold. All the items are either inexpensive or at a fair price. They are even tagged with the name of the local artists, of whom you are likely to have met or crossed paths with during the activity. This souvenir shopping wraps up the time at the Añangu village, and it’s on to the next parrot clay licks!
The second round of visits to the parrot clay licks are held on land, at a viewing station about 50 meters from their feeding grounds. We had to stay especially still and quiet since we were so close. For about thirty minutes we sat in silence allowing the birds to fly down, undisturbed, and aid their little bellies. After this, we ate lunch at the nearby boat swap dock and headed back to the lodge to spend a relaxing afternoon until dinner. By the way, the food that is served is consistently delicious with a variety of options! The chef, who is David’s brother, went to culinary school and prepared awesome meals with his team (they also had vegetarian options as well).
This was an excellent full day of learning, exploring, and adventuring. But it wasn’t quite over yet! The finale was a twenty minute night walk through the forest behind the Napo lodge led by our guide David. He had a powerful flashlight with which he’d spot all the creepers of the night. Some of them we saw were millipedes, giant crickets, stick bugs, sharp nose toad, and the rocket tree frog.
Day 3: Birdwatching Tower in the Amazon Rainforest
Day three was birdwatching day. We rowed to a different dock across the lake and then walked about thirty minutes into the forest. The destination was a twelve story watch tower from which we’d spend a few hours spotting several different kinds of birds. Some of the birds we saw were macaws, parrots, parakeets, toucans, and hawks. Some soared through the sky, and this time we were able to see them at eye level. Others perched on the branches of nearby trees, as if they were modeling to see who would get the best photo. We hadn’t been birdwatching like this before, and we had an absolute blast.
We then walked back through the forest with David, who shared with us information on the flora of their portion of the rainforest. He showed us the trees that they use to build their homes. Since they also prohibited logging and deforestation, they wait until the trees fall naturally before taking the wood.
David had a keen eye and ear for wildlife, and was also able to spot tiny frogs and insects. He also recognizes the animals in the distance by their sounds. He could literally tell us what kind of monkey or bird we were hearing from far away by its call. My impression was all the guides are both trained and skilled in wildlife knowledge and detection. They offer a wealth of knowledge to their visitors. Our tour was in English, which we set up prior to our visit. Napo has tours in both English, Spanish, and other languages which can be arranged for private tours. Just make sure to clarify your language preference during your registration.
Later that day we went on another canoe ride, this time in search of an anaconda. Probably to our good fortune, we did not find one. What we did find was a black caiman resting, and a family of giant otters. The otters were in a tight group protecting their young, and even got a bit defensive when they first noticed us. Then they quickly swam away, maintaining their closeness to the group.
In the evening, David showed us a short documentary filmed at the start of the project in 2001. The community members talk about the original ideas for the ecolodge. In the video, we saw how the structures were built by materials from the forest which were carried along the same river channel which we canoed along during our stay. It was a truly inspirational film, and we appreciated getting a deeper look into the origins of Napo Wildlife Center.
Day 4: Farewell and Thank You
Day four we woke up at 3:45AM, packed up all our gear and left it outside our lodge doors for the crew to load up. We were on the canoe at around 5:00AM to head back to the boat swap dock. By 6:00AM, all groups were on the motorboat and heading back to El Coca. Tips were given privately to our tour guides and boatmen. Those tips meant for the chefs, cleaning crew, and other staff were placed in a box by the bar to be distributed accordingly.
All in all, the trip to Yasuni National Park with the Napo Wildlife Center crew exceeded our expectations. Sure enough, I was relieved and pleased to have survived four days in the wilderness among wild monkeys, birds, amphibians, caimans, and giant otters.
Here’s a list of some of the beautiful animals and wildlife we came across!
- Birds: Oropendola, Dusty Headed Parakeet, Blue Headed Parrot, Hoatzin, Cobalt Winged Parakeet, Slate Colored Hawk, Blue and Yellow Macaw, Many-Banded Aracari, White Throated Piping Guan, Channel Billed Toucan, Tiger Heron, Green Oropendola, Kingfisher
- Monkeys: Wooly Monkey, Squirrel Monkey, Capuchins, Howler Monkey, Red Howler Monkey
- Other Animals: Black Caiman, Giant Otters, Caiman Lizard
Napo and the Añangu community began in 2001 with a mission to create an ecotourism project that stayed true to its ethical roots. They hoped to build something that would benefit the public, their community, and their precious home, the rainforest. With persistence and hard work, their vision materialized into an amazing ecolodge offering remarkable experiences to their visitors.