There’s a fork where the rio Napo and the rio Arajuno meet and their waters converge; warm lowland water meets the icy flow from the Andes. As we glide over the spot in our thin motored canoe, I trail my fingers in the water to feel the change. Nature astounds me.
My Amazon trip is a bit of a snap decision, stemming from a convenient long weekend and a strong desire to avoid the heavy party nights of Montanita after a solid month of fiesta. Eight of us pack our little backpacks and hop a bus from Montañita to Guayaquil, then a night bus to Tena, which overall is an unremarkable, mildly uncomfortable experience consisting of alternating periods of freezing air-conditioning and fuggy confined heat.
I arrive groggy after the sleepless night, and it makes the damp air and cloud-cloaked mountains even more astounding in the thin early morning sunlight. We wander around for a few dizzy minutes, appreciating the opportunity to move our limbs, before heading across town to take a bus to the rio Napo. From the bus we take a long, motored canoe across the river, then pile into the back of a utility truck that takes us jolting through the town of Ahuano to our accommodation at Gaia Eco Lodge. It’s a bit of a mission to get here, but this picturesque and well-kept little corner of the wild rainforest, and the dripping gardens and winding stone paths make me feel instantly that a weekend isn’t going to satisfy me. I’m overcome with the desire to lose myself here between the cacao trees and huge hanging flowers.
We find breakfast ready for us, and it’s welcome. Afterwards, we throw on swimsuits and trek down through the thick growth to the river, pile into another canoe, and motored out against a strong flowing current to search for wild monkeys, which emerge to follow us along the river banks. Our guide, Jaime, throws an echoing call to them with years of practice. When we come to a little island beach at a point where the current ebbs we throw ourselves out into the cool, murky water. I’m on a high from the sleeplessness and the wilderness, swimming in the Amazon jungle. My lungs feel fuller than usual with the fresh air.
I eat termites straight from the nest and sample tiny ants that burst with intense lemon flavour. We lick the strong, bitter sap of a tree called sangre de drago — dragon’s blood — that promotes healing. Jaime shows us how to weave a thatch roof from palm, then picks up a spiny branch and says the sting is very painful but good for the circulation. He takes volunteers, and seems surprised at our enthusiasm.
We visit the Amazoonico animal sanctuary in the pouring tropical rain, looking through the mist at monkeys, birds, tapirs, and wildcats that have all been rescued from adverse conditions at the hands of humans. Some will be released when they recover, and some are too mentally or physically damaged to ever leave. The animals look wet and miserable. So do we. The volunteer guide tells us that the sanctuary used to have a caiman, but he escaped when they were cleaning the pond. We all look sideways at each other, unsure whether to take him seriously. But this is Ecuador, so I can only assume it’s true. I spend the rest of the time scanning for a small square head and beady eyes in the wide brown puddles that swamp the trails.
Canoe is our main mode of transport on the Napo. We push over to the small river island Isla Anaconda, the home of some traditional Kichwa families and several small caimans in a still muddy pond. But no anacondas. We blow darts from a long traditional dart gun and I manage to hit our target of a little foam owl. Traditionally, the darts would be dipped in a natural tranquilliser to stun prey.
Next we’re taken upstairs into a large stilted house of wood in which a fire burns slowly and sends smoke spiralling up to the blackened palm weave of the roof. A local woman shows us how she makes chicha, a fermented alcoholic drink that is traditionally made from yuca sweet potatoes here in northern Ecuador. The flavour would take some getting used to for me, but it’s the drink of choice in the Kichwa culture. We sit around the edge of the room and drink it from a small round bowl, passing it carefully hand to hand.
On our final afternoon, we drop eight old black inner tubes into the river and plonk ourselves inside, and tumble quickly through a patch of rapids. Then we all drift slowly downriver, separating and coming together with the flowing current, listening to the birds and monkeys and the gentle hiss of an afternoon rainshower hitting the Napo all around.
The reason I try to be kind to the planet is here, between the lush forest trees, in the delicate curl of ferns, in the dripping finger leaves of palms. It’s in the splash and croak of frogs, the rush of the river, and the beckoning whistle of hiding birds, in the sheer density of thriving life, and I will never cease to hear it even in the tumbling machinery mess of the city.
Generally, folks might not think Ecuador when they think Amazon. They’d be all about Brazil and Peru and Colombia. And I’m grateful for that — it means we have the vast stretch of river and the thick jungle to ourselves. Floating down the otherwise empty river in awestruck silence, followed by monkeys and misted with rain, is a feeling I won’t soon forget. Get there quickly before everyone figures it out.
If you’re planning a trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon, Gaia is worth checking out. They’re a partner in the traveling classroom, so if you’re looking to learn Spanish, this is a tranquil place to do so.