There’s something a little oppressive about the Amazon jungle; the shroud of humidity, the entangling undergrowth, the inky black as we paddle silently in a dugout canoe along a mangrove-lined creek before dawn.
But a breathtaking climb up 200 steps into the branches of a mighty kapok tree reveals the jungle at its most expansive – a 360-degree view of uninhibited, virgin wilderness. Here, at the top of a 43-metre observation tower, we are above the dense canopy; a soft mist envelops the basin as an orange fireball pops over the horizon, greeted by the hypnotic wind-rush call of a distant howler monkey.
The birds, too, have woken, their chorus permeating the still air. Heard, but not seen, is the delightful golden-tailed oropendola, its call like a falling water droplet. Meanwhile, through our binoculars, we spot an iridescent spangled cotinga, a bat falcon on the prowl and two yellow-banded toucans, grappling beak-to-beak as they battle for territory. The sun’s rays reveal a pop of colour among the kapok foliage, with epiphytic bromeliads and delicate orchids enlivening the endless sea of green. I have experienced many an impressive sunrise in my time – but this truly magical morning in the Ecuadorian Amazon is one of those rare ‘pinch me’ moments, forever imprinted on my soul.
This sensory journey into the deepest, darkest jungle is courtesy of Latin America specialists Chimu Adventures, with three nights at Sacha Lodge – a 2,000-hectare ecological reserve near the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador’s Amazon basin. As remote as you can possibly imagine, just getting here is an adventure, involving a flight from Quito to the town of Coca, a two-hour motorised canoe trip up the Napo River, a 20-minute walk along a jungle trail, and then finally another short paddle in a dugout canoe.
Perched on the edge of a surreal, black-water lake, the lodge itself is a revelation – breezy and welcoming, with unexpected luxury in its 26 treetop thatched cabins. Each one comes complete with flushing toilets, hot showers and screened picture windows for an immersive jungle experience, minus the bugs.
The passion project of a Swiss entrepreneur named Benny Ammeter, Sacha Lodge (meaning ‘forest’ in the indigenous Quichua language) was conceived in 1991, with the original 500-hectare purchase on the edge of Pilchicocha Lake established as a sanctuary for flora and fauna. Additional purchases over the years have increased its ecological importance in a region slowly being decimated by petroleum ventures and palm oil cultivation, with the lodge taking a leading role in scientific studies and conservation efforts in conjunction with eco-tourism.
The biodiversity of this region is staggering – every step reveals a fascinating array of creatures, from caimans lurking under the pylons of the alfresco lounge, to a rat-like agouti foraging in the undergrowth near my cabin. Squirrel and capuchin monkeys scurry along branches above the river; while the reserve is also home to a family of adorable pygmy marmosets (the smallest monkey in the world) – the subject of a long-term scientific study conducted in conjunction with a university in Quito (see breakout box).
Jungle walks – scheduled at dawn and dusk to beat the heat – are accompanied by dedicated lodge guides as well as two locals, Donaldo and Ernesto. The former has lived in this region his whole life, while Ernesto previously worked as part of an exploration team for an oil company. Both have deep knowledge of the local flora and fauna, and pause often to explain medicinal and practical use of plants, as well as to share stories about shamans and jungle spirits, such as ‘el duende’, a leprechaun-like creature who wears a floppy hat and lures naughty children into danger.
They are also blessed with eagle eyes, spotting distant birds and animals without binoculars or telescopes – which are carried on every excursion, allowing guests a close-up view of jungle life. During a sunset hike along the lodge’s treetop Canopy Walk – a 36-metre-high, 275-metre-long suspension walkway – they point out three crested owls, a crimson-headed woodpecker, some yellow-headed vultures, a laughing falcon and a spectacular white-throated toucan, with its curved, multi-coloured bill.
Of the 1,600 bird species found in Ecuador, we’re told 37 per cent have been seen at Sacha Lodge – that’s almost seven per cent of the species in the entire world. This really is a twitcher’s paradise, with flashes of colourful plumage illuminating the dense green with vivid regularity.
Returning after sunset, the jungle reveals its more sinister side, with Donaldo’s torch revealing tarantulas the size of your hand, scorpions and poison-dart frogs – not the most cuddly creatures, but each holding a crucial place in the ecosystem.
Nocturnal water excursions are also on the agenda, tranquil paddles under a brilliant night sky to spot caiman, their eyes glowing red in the torchlight. Oddly, there are very few mosquitoes to contend with while among the silent mangrove canopy, as the black water of Lake Pilchicocha is too acidic for larvae to survive.
I’m reassured, however, by the mesh cage enclosing the resort’s unique lake pool, protecting guests from who-knows-what lurking in the inky depths. A lunch buffet featuring an impressive selection of traditional Ecuadorian food – including a huge zebra catfish and a local species of piranha, a cachama – gives me some indication of the lake’s marine life, which I’m happy to give a wide berth.
Experimenting with a range of unique local flavours and ingredients – including yuca (a cassava root), palm hearts, local fungi and even some species of ants – is a feature of chef Julio Avendano’s innovative and delicious menu, with a twice-weekly Ecuadorian lunch a popular feature. Originally from Peru, Avendano is excited to bring his big-city techniques to the Amazon, with his team of 10 chefs fusing international cuisine with traditional Ecuadorian dishes. It’s surprises like these – fine dining in the jungle, sunsets over the lake, a refreshing dip in a black lagoon, or being lulled to sleep by an orchestra of cicadas – that make Sacha Lodge so alluring, an oasis of comfort in one of the wildest places on the planet.
But above all, it’s the passion of Sacha’s staff, their love for the environment, and their genuine dedication to preserving this delicate, vulnerable wilderness that constitutes ‘the lungs of Earth’.
“I feel things are changing,” Ernesto tells us through a translator. “The seasons are drier, hotter, less predictable. The animals don’t have as much food, the trees don’t fruit, and I notice changes in the monkeys’ behaviour. There’s a lot of talk about the oil companies, and the impact they are having on the Amazon basin. But in my opinion the palm oil industry is worse – there’s no such thing as sustainable palm oil, you have to destroy the forest to plant those palms, and they deplete the soil.
“Working for the exploration team (for the oil company) paid good money; but I much prefer to be working in tourism at Sacha Lodge, knowing we are guardians of the jungle rather than destroying it.”
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