Looking Down on the Rainforest of Ecuador

By Ben Box

“Oscar,” I whimpered, “I cannot stop.” What I didn’t say was that if I stopped I would probably be too paralysed with fear to move any further. Oscar the guide and I were 36 metres up in the air. He was leading me across a swaying bridge between two towers of a canopy walkway at Sacha Lodge in the Amazonian rainforest of Ecuador. He had paused on the crossing to point his telescope at a distant bird, but the floor we stood on was wire mesh, far too flimsy, my brain was telling me, to support us or prevent us plummeting to the ground below.

By looking straight ahead and nowhere else, willing my legs to keep going, I reached the second of the three towers and all the fear drained away. It was early morning, misty, and the jungle was waking up. With Oscar’s keen eyes directing the view, we saw a dozen species of bird at the middle tower and another ten at the third (the second span was no easier to cross than the first). Highlights included the many-banded araçari, families of black-headed parrots, purple honeycreeper, spangled cotinga, a migratory plumbeous kite and three types of oropendola.

The walkway was just one feature of a 4½-hour morning nature walk. It took 60 people two years to build it, all the steel for the structure, the cement and the cables being brought in first by canoe, then manhandled to the spot in Sacha’s 2,000-hectare private reserve on the north shore of the Río Napo, three hours downstream from the city of Coca.

On the walk we saw three types of primate: a pair of nocturnal monkeys spying on us from their daytime nest in a hole in a tree, black-mantled tamarin and the pocket-sized pygmy marmoset. We learnt about medicinal plants: the ajo del monte (sacha ajo), which smells just the same as garlic but which has far more uses; the coagulant blood leaf yahuarpanga; the muscle relaxant barbasco, which used to be put into the river to catch fish (and was the preferred method of suicide for those wishing to escape an unhappy marriage), but which is now outlawed by the government.

Oscar and his companion guide Shanshu are very earnest when explaining their culture and their intimate understanding of the forest. Keeping up with the Joneses has no meaning for them. Neither does planning for tomorrow. Traditionally, they live for the moment: “No tenemos tiempo, nosotros” (we have no clock-time). Every so often, though, the seriousness is interrupted by a bout of hilarity. Shanshu enumerates the uses of the balsa tree: for aeroplane construction, building rafts, carving model birds for the handicraft trade, for making la Mama Cuchara, the big spoon that stirs the cauldron. “I am scared stiff of la Mama Cuchara,” he says. “If I put a foot wrong my wife will beat me with it.”

But many indigenous people are now “nueva gente” (new people). They have done military service and remain in the army reserve. They understand the discipline of the clock. Just as well since Sacha Lodge is run almost to a military regime: up at 5 am, breakfast at 5.30, first activity at 6… and so on until after dark. (But with plenty of siesta time too.) One of the restaurants overlooks a magically peaceful lake, the other is in the tall, wood-and-thatch main building, below the bar. The cabins, also thatched, are spacious, comfortable and have hot water. Each room has its own terrace with hammocks for a nap within touching distance of the forest. And lodge life is accompanied by the sounds of birds, insects and amphibians 24/7.

In one morning we learn a bit about everything, from the tiniest poison frog and the most delicate fungus on the forest floor to the uppermost branches of the jungle canopy. And once in a while there is a “special surprise”. As we trudged homewards for lunch, Oscar and Shanshu suddenly deviated from the path a few metres into the thicket. Turning to our left and training the telescope and binoculars back towards the track that we were just walking along, we saw a pair of crested owls on their daytime roost scrutinising us as we passed. Eyes wide and unblinking, feathers blending perfectly into the shade of the trees, it was as though they challenged us to a staring match. Who would yield? We were here first, the owls seemed to say, you move quietly along and leave us to our rest. 

Ben Box and Sarah Cameron were guests at Sacha Lodge, T+593-2-256 6090 (US and Canada 1-800-706 2215), www.sachalodge.com. The lodge offers tailor-made, 4-day, 3-night and 5-day, 4-night programmes and can combine with visits to Quito and to the Galápagos.

For information on protecting rainforests in Ecuador, check out Rainforest Concern.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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