Adventure Tourism on the Napo River

A Visit to Sani Lodge
in Ecuador’s Oriente

Our trip to the Sani Lodge began with a short flight, mostly downhill, from Quito, Ecuador’s capital city perched high in the Andes, to the regional market town of Coca (aka Puerto Francisco de Orellana), at the western end of the Amazon basin.  At the Quito airport, we were greeted by a friendly young man with a pierced eyebrow, a native of Riobamba who introduced himself as a Sani Lodge guide.  He gathered together the fourteen guests traveling to Sani Lodge on this day, then took charge of loading our luggage and shepherded us onto the airplane.  Around the waiting room, representatives from other lodges were doing the same for their guests, who filled the plane’s cabin.

The flight rose above Quito’s expanding northern suburbs, providing a view of snow-capped volcanoes peeking above the clouds, then turned right and began the 8,000 foot decent to the Amazon basin.  Few half-hour flights in the world bring such stunning changes from one end to the other.  Quito’s climate is pleasant, the air thin, the architecture an interesting mixture of modern and Spanish colonial, surrounded by picturesque mountains in all directions.  Coca’s climate is oppressively hot, the air dripping wet, the architecture a haphazard collection of tin-roofed huts, and the surroundings flat, lush and green.

Our flight was met in Coca by another Sani Lodge guide, this one a young Finnish woman.  Even with all the tourists, her blond hair stood out in this location.  She directed us to a large truck with several benches in the back, which served as a taxi between the small airfield and the even smaller port.  We quickly learned to appreciate the breeze provided by a moving, open-air vehicle, which brought a slight respite from the stifling heat and humidity.

Coca is not a place where you would want to linger.  A center for the oil industry, and now the jumping off point for a burgeoning tourism trade, it is thrown-together and bustling in the style of a classic boom town.  The buildings were not constructed with the long haul in mind.  Like many towns surrounded by rich primary resources, the stench of exploitation permeates Coca.


Visitors to various lodges await transport
at Coca’s small port on the Napo River.

Large, speedy canoes provide
transportation to Sani Lodge.

Traveling to the Sani Lodge

At the dock, several large canoes with oversized outboard engines and blue canopies awaited.  The lodge staff packed our luggage in protective bags, then loaded it into the back of one of the canoes.  We donned life jackets and boarded, sitting three across on reasonably comfortable benches with pads on the seats and wooden backrests.  The lodge staff was very helpful in the whole process.

When everyone was on board, the boat pulled away from the dock, then turned downstream and zipped under Coca’s bridge across the Napo River.  Coca disappeared quickly behind us, and with it the sights, sounds and comforts of civilization for the next five days.

The Napo is a wide, shallow river, a light brown coffee-and-milk color, with many sandbars.  It drains a large swath of the Andes, flowing eastward and connecting with the Marañon, or Upper Amazon, a little downriver from Iquitos, Peru.  Our boat ran at a surprisingly fast speed, pushing up a wake at the bow that occasionally splashed over onto the seats.  The pilot stood at the back, his trained eyes watching the river for shallow spots and obstacles.  The boat zigzagged across the river, slowing down occasionally as the crew searched for a deeper channel.  The shores are lined with tall, leafy forests.  There are occasional signs of human life along the river, including a few settlements tied to the oil industry and sporadic small houses and agricultural plots slightly removed from the shoreline.  For a portion of the trip, the south shore forms the border of Yasuní National Park, Ecuador’s largest protected area and one of the Earth’s truly wild places.

About three hours downriver, we stopped at a green dock jutting out into the Napo, which marks the central settlement of the Sani Isla community, owners of the Sani Lodge.  A young Sani woman hopped off the boat, and waved to the pilot and other community members on the boat as we pulled away.  The Sani Isla community is a band of the kichwa tribes that inhabit Ecuador’s northern Amazon region.  The kichwas split from the highland Quechuas, heirs to the Inca empire, and moved to the eastern lowlands during the Spanish conquest.  The Sani Isla now inhabit a large area on both sides of the Napo, consisting mostly of virgin rainforest.  The 350 members of the community live on small farms, growing root crops and other staples.  They created this lodge as a means of providing local employment to Sani Isla community members.  In the process, they created a motivation to preserve the natural rainforest that has served as their home for nearly five centuries.

We continued downriver for about fifteen minutes, then pulled ashore at the mouth of a stream, where we were to transfer to smaller dugout canoes for the final leg of the journey.  We learned, however, that the water level was unusually low, too shallow for full canoes to make it through the first portion of the stream.  The guides told us we would have to walk for twenty minutes before we could board the smaller canoes.  This walk gave the guides an opportunity to introduce us to some of the flora of the region.  We also passed some houses and were able to observe how people lived in this area.  The living spaces were wooden, raised off the ground, with lots of open air, and roofs made of thatched palm or tin.

 The dugout canoes awaited us at a fork in the stream.  We boarded and sat on small benches, two across.  As we motored up the stream, the canoes brushed the inner bank at each curve, the deepest part of the stream.  The vegetation was lush, and formed a canopy over the river at points.  After about a half hour, the stream opened up onto a narrow lagoon, and we caught our first glimpse of the steep thatched roofs of Sani Lodge.  The driver cut the engine and paddled across the lake to the dock in front of the lodge.

Arriving at Sani Lodge

 The lodge presents an inviting and exotic first impression, easing a little of the trepidation we felt so far from familiar surroundings.  The pointed roofs rise out of the vegetation, behind a swampy patch of freshwater mangroves and in front of a tall, dense forest.  For those who love nature, the location is truly beautiful.  We crossed the Challuacocha, a narrow black-water oxbow lake typical of Ecuador’s Oriente, and pulled up alongside a covered dock.


Arriving at Sani Lodge, Ecuadorian Amazon region.


The lodge staff helped us disembark, and we climbed the stairs from the dock and entered the lounge, the closest building to the lagoon.  We were met by a staff member who put out drinks and snacks, accompanied by a tasty and very spicy salsa.  As we surveyed the surroundings, the guides got together and divided the fourteen of us into three groups.  Each was assigned a native Sani naturalist, coupled with an interpreter/guide.  The groups alternated excursions to the various trails and other activities for the rest of the week.

Our group included a young French woman who worked for the UN in Quito; her mother who was visiting from France; a young American woman who
was an English teacher in Quito; and her father visiting from his home in New England.  My mother and I, vacationing from the U.S., were the pure tourists in the group.

Despite their best efforts to provide a luxury experience, the Sani Lodge has the distinct feel of a backpacker hostel.  This stems in part from the way the lodge structures the visitor experience, and from the nature of the visitor experience itself.  The interpreter/guides are outsiders that work for the Sani Lodge, and Sani tends to hire backpacker types in their early twenties for this job.  Their primary responsibility is to translate for English-speaking visitors, although they also become reasonably competent naturalists themselves after awhile.  The rest of the laborers that run the lodge come from the Sani Isla community.  Most of them project a retiring and circumspect demeanor, and do not interact much with visitors.  For the visitor, it is difficult to figure out who is in charge at the Lodge, and we were left to communicate with the guides for all of our needs.  The guides are friendly, earnest and helpful, yet we were left with the lonely feeling that if anything went seriously wrong, we would be better off relying on ourselves, a menacing prospect in this remote and very unfamiliar location.  This notion can be particularly disconcerting to Americans, raised in a safety-conscious environment.  The conditions do, however, contribute to the sense of adventure; to the sense of authenticity, as we had no doubt that we were in a very wild place; to the sense of wonder this locale conveys; and to the sense of accomplishment when we returned safely to civilization.

In addition, veteran travelers understand the bond that grows quickly when you spend even short periods with kindred spirits.  Sharing new and exciting adventures builds close friendships, yet when you part ways a few days later, you do so knowing there is little chance of seeing each other again.  Backpackers repeat this experience frequently, and this was our experience at the Sani Lodge.  Much of our enjoyment stemmed from the interaction with other group members.  As we walked through the forest and rode in canoes, we engaged in discussions of politics, told stories, joked with each other and compared impressions of the unfamiliar landscape, at times irritating our guides, who wanted silence to better view the wildlife.


Bar at Sani Lodge.

View from the bar across the Challuacocha Lagoon.


Hikes in the Rainforest

Sani Lodge plans a variety of activities for its visitors, and allows for substantial flexibility as well should visitors come with their own preferences.  The themes revolve around the rainforest environment, the wildlife, and human use of the forest.  Excursions typically incorporate the two common forms of transportation in the region:  paddling a canoe and hiking through the forest.  On both canoe trips and hikes, the opportunities for wildlife viewing are spectacular (See our group's bird list).  During these activities, we absorbed a lot of information about Sani culture and how the Sani make a living in this locale.  On the standard schedule, the hikes occur in the morning, coupled with canoe trips to and from the trailheads.  There is a siesta after lunch, followed by canoe trips in the afternoons.  The lodge offers nighttime activities after dinner.

Tower Trail  Our first walk occurred the afternoon that we arrived.  We met at the trailhead at the rear of the lodge, and began with a face painting ceremony using dye our Sani guide made from the fruit of a local plant.  We then started down the trail, and quickly learned how talented our Sani guide was at seeing and identifying the flora and fauna of the region.  He told us of medicinal uses of the plants, imitated birds and monkeys, and spotted many animals that none of us would have seen otherwise.  On this first walk, we had the unusual experience of seeing a Kinkajou (Potos flavus) high in the trees, rambling from branch to branch.  Our interpreter/guide, a young Argentine, had developed a good eye for wildlife through six months working at Sani Lodge, but still shared our wonder at seeing things for the first time in this forest.  We followed the trail past the Sani tower to a small campground next to the lagoon, within site of the lodge.  Here we boarded a canoe and paddled around the lagoon at dusk, observing the beautiful surroundings and the subtle changes as the forest undergoes the transition from day to night dwellers.

Coto Trail
  Days at the Sani Lodge start early, with breakfast in the dining hall beginning at 6 am.  Each morning after breakfast, we paddled a small dugout canoe to one of the trails, each of which showed us a slightly different side of the forest.  We used small dugouts that seat about ten on short stools, one behind the other.  The canoes tip easily from side to side as passengers shift around, provoking shrieks and laughter at first, but we soon learned they are very stable and got used to the swaying.

On our first morning, we hiked the Coto trail.  As we descended the stairs to the canoes, the sun was rising and the air was warm but comfortable.  We quickly learned the value of starting early, as the morning hours are the best for wildlife viewing.  Our guides paddled the length of the Challuacocha lagoon, and during the whole trip, our Sani guide sat at the front and scanned the landscape, pointing out Scarlet, Chestnut-fronted and Blue-and-yellow Macaws (Ara macao, A. severa, A. ararauna), and Orange-winged Parrots (Amazona amazonica) flying across the lagoon; a family of Howler Monkeys (Alouatta seniculus) sitting in a tree about 50 feet (15 m) from the shore; tall Cocoi Herons (Ardea cocoi) patrolling the shores; Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) perched on branches drying their wings; Ringed Kingfishers (Ceryle torquata) eyeing the water; as well as some of the commonly seen species, like the Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) or stinking turkey; and the Yellow-rumped Caciques (Cacicus cela), which like mockingbirds are able to replicate the sounds of many other birds in the forest.  After about a half hour of paddling, we reached the end of the lagoon and entered a small stream that took us through patches of cane and tall gallery forest.  We continued downstream for about 45 minutes to a small dock, where we disembarked and began our hike.


Blue-and-yellow Macaw Yellow-rumped Cacique Cocoi Heron


The Coto trail was the shortest of the three hikes, during which we were introduced to the interesting species of the tropical forest, such as the Strangler Fig (Ficus crassiuscula), which grows around another tree, eventually surrounding and suffocating it; the Cecropia (Cecropia sp.), a pioneer species indicating early forest succession; the Balsa (Ochroma sp.), which produces a cotton-like substance that the locals use for pillows; the impressive Giant Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), with a fluted base several stories high; and the Canambo Palm (Attalea butyracea), whose leaves our Sani guide used to demonstrate how they make thatched roofs.  We also saw the huge and dangerous Conga Ant (Paraponera clavata), almost an inch (2.5 cm) long with a painful bite that, quite fortunately, none of us experienced; Leaf-cutter Ants (Atta sp.), forming bare trails as they carry various leaves back to their nests; nearly invisible toads, camouflaged as they sat on leaves next to the trail; the large and radiant blue Morpho Butterfly (Morpho menelaus), flittering through open areas in the forest; and a foraging Acouchy (Myoprocta pratti), a small rodent found mostly in primary forest habitats.  We ended the walk at a dock a ways upstream from where we’d started the hike.  One of the lodge staff was waiting with the canoe to take us back to the lodge.  Even in the hot midday sun, we saw several new bird species on this trip, including Yellow-headed Vultures (Cathartes melambrotus), Swallow-tailed Kites (Elanoides forficatus), Wattled Jacanas (Jacana jacana), and Black-capped Donacobius (Donacobius atricapillus).

Swamps Trail  The second morning we spent at the Sani Tower, described below, followed by a hike on the aptly named Swamps Trail, through the lowlands behind the lodge.  Most of the trail is on solid ground, but several spots tested our balance as we crossed streams and wetlands on narrow trunks.  Some of the improvised bridges had small handrails, but these were not wholly secure.  They helped us keep balance, but they left me with the feeling I would fall through if I depended on it for support.  The forest along the Swamps Trail looks different than on the Coto Trail.  While the canopy covers the trail, it is more open, allowing more light to seep through.  The vegetation on the ground is thicker, particularly around the wetland areas, and there are more palms among the taller trees.  We observed some interesting species and learned of the medicinal properties of several plants, including the Cruz Caspi Flower, used as a contraceptive, and an unusual liana known as the Monkey Ladder, which aptly describes the woody vine that is wavy with holes at each fold.  We caught glimpses of two species of monkeys on this trip, the Common Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri sciureus) and the White-fronted Capuchins (Cebus albifrons).  These species are frequently seen together, although the shy capuchins often flee at the first sign of intrusion, while the curious squirrel monkeys are not as fearful of humans, and can sometimes be seen in the lower branches of the trees.


   In the rainforest near Sani Lodge, tree
   buttresses can be three stories high.


Chorongo Trail  The longest and most difficult hike follows the Chorongo Trail, which begins at the end of the Challuacocha lagoon, a half-hour canoe ride from the lodge.  We left early, right after breakfast, and paddled our canoes along the now-familiar route.  Along the way, our guides pointed out a variety of bird species, including the Yellow-billed Tern (Sterna superciliaris), Pale-vented Pigeon (Columba cayennensis), Chestnut-fronted Macaw (Ara severa), Blue-and-yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna), Orange-winged Parrot (Amazona amazonica), Neotropical Palm Swift (Tachornis squamata), Slender-billed Kite (Rostrhamus hamatus), Wattled Jacana (Jacana jacana), and the Cinnamon Atila (Attila cinnamomeus).

At our destination we stepped off the canoe onto the dock, and somehow our Sani guide spotted and pointed out a Tropical Screech Owl (Otus choliba) perched inside a gnarled clump of bushes and cane along the shoreline.  We observed the well hidden owl from the dock for a short while, and then we started up the trail.  Almost immediately, we were stopped in our tracks by an eerie wail off to the left.  These were the loud cries of the Red Howler Monkey (Alouatta seniculus), a sound you won’t forget once you’ve heard it.  We listened for awhile, then continued along the trail for about five minutes, where we found a very different species of monkey, the Noisy Night Monkey (Aotus vociferans).  Two monkeys, an adult and a baby, were holed up in a tree about 50 feet (15 m) to the right of the trail.  Our guides seemed to know these monkeys, as apparently they are frequently seen poking their heads out of a hole in the tree trunk.

Our previous hikes featured birds and medicinal plants, but monkeys took center stage on this day.  Our Sani guide walked in front of the group and imitated monkey calls, and before the hike was over we would see Black-capped Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus apella), Common Squirrel Monkeys (Saimiri sciureus) and White-fronted Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus albifrons).  We saw two large groups of Squirrel Monkeys and Capuchins traveling together, and some of the not-shy Squirrel Monkeys came fairly close to the trail.  We also stopped to observe the Papaya del Monte (Jacaratia digitata), a tree with many spines on the trunk, and a large Cedro tree (Cedrela odorata), one of the most coveted timber species in the rainforest.  We also saw hummingbirds, antbirds and hermits.  The Chorongo Trail makes a loop, and although this is the longest hike, almost before we knew it we were back at the dock and paddling back to the lodge.

Hiking in the Rainforest  Hiking the trails at Sani Lodge is not easy.  This is not because the hikes are long, fast, or steep.  In fact the hikes range from 2 to 5 miles (3 to 8 km) across flat ground, move fairly slowly and stop frequently at points of interest.  The difficulty stems from the terrain itself.  The trails are muddy; crossed by roots that are slippery and require hikers to watch the ground a lot; and occasionally hikers are put in tenuous situations, such as crossing single-trunk bridges.  For most who would take a trip to the Amazon rainforest in the first place, these obstacles are not a problem; however, they may present difficult challenges to elderly visitors, young children, those who are timid, and those with physical limitations.

By the same token, if one is careful, hiking near the Sani Lodge is not dangerous.  Movies and adventure novels frequently portray tropical forests as dark and dangerous places, crowded with poisonous snakes and other threatening animals.  In reality, while there are dangerous species in the tropical forest, the risk of encountering them is slim.  I did not worry about snakes or other creatures at all during our hikes, nor did anyone in our group as far as I could tell.  The biggest threat we faced probably came from the various ant species, some of which have painful bites.  We had to remind ourselves to look down when we stopped walking, to be sure we weren’t inadvertently standing on an anthill or ant trail.  We also quickly learned it is not a good idea to lean on a tree to rest, as ants patrol the trunks.

The Sani Lodge guides and staff made sure we did not put ourselves in undue danger.  They told us how to minimize risk, and they prohibited potentially risky behavior.  For example, they did not allow us to swim in the Challuacocha, due to the potential (though in reality, minimal) danger posed by the Black Caiman (Caiman niger), Anacondas (Eunectes murinus), and other species that inhabit the lagoon.  They were attentive and very helpful in getting around or through difficult stretches of the trail.  And the Sani guide used his machete to quickly fashion a walking stick for my mother early in the first hike.


The Sani Lodge tower is built around a Giant Kapok tree.


Sani Tower

Undoubtedly, our most memorable experience at Sani Lodge was a trip to the tower, which is constructed around an enormous Giant Kapok tree.  The tower gave us the rare and spectacular opportunity to observe a rain forest canopy close-up.  We left the main lodge early one morning, and took a very short canoe ride to the campground, then hiked a short distance to the tower.  The trip was very easy, and the climb to the top of the tower was reasonably easy as well.  For anyone visiting Sani Lodge, it is well worth the effort, and an experience not to be missed.

During our amazing morning at the tower, we saw an array of birds, most discovered and indicated by our Sani guide.  Most spectacular were many small groups of macaws, which flew above the rainforest.  At one point, a solo Scarlet Macaw flew by about 40 feet (12 meters) away, an indescribably beautiful sight.  We also saw woodpeckers, kites, toucans, parakeets, flycatchers, and various other species.  We observed flowering patterns in trees, and various strategies used by different plant species to survive in this competitive environment.  Despite all of the activity, the tower is a peaceful place.  We lingered there for quite awhile, and were able to put down our binoculars and camera for awhile and just enjoy the brilliant sky, clean air, and vibrant but relaxing sounds emanating from the forest.  In a week full of wonders, our time atop the tower was the highlight.


Scenes from the top of the Sani tower.


Afternoon Canoe Trips

The siesta after the midday meal is a time-honored tradition in Latin societies, and a necessity at the Sani Lodge given the tremendous heat from the noon sun.  The siesta is a good time to take a nap, relax in the bar, chat with other travelers, or spend some time with a good book.  Other options include taking a canoe out on the lagoon, or using some of the guidebooks in the library to learn more about the things we’d seen during the morning walk.  The large windows in the bar overlook the Challuacocha, and this is a good spot for birdwatching.  Species like the Hoatzin and the Yellow-rumped Cacique are easy to spot here, and we also saw interesting birds, like the Piratic Flycatcher (Legatus leucophaius), which moves in and displaces Oropendulas from their nests, and attractive birds like the bright red and black Masked Crimson Tanager (Ramphocelus nigrogularis).  During one siesta, we observed a small tarantula crawling around one of the tables in the bar, and another afternoon, a guide had spotted a boa constrictor in a tree behind the lodge, and took a group out to see it.  Our guide took us along a trail for a short distance, then directed us into the forest about twenty feet (6 m) from the trail, where we found a yellowish Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus).  The snake was wrapped around a branch, apparently asleep as it didn’t move even with a large group of people raising a racket as we nervously eyed it.

Visiting Our Sani Guide’s Family  After the siesta, the lodge staff organizes canoe trips.  On the first afternoon, just after arriving, we combined a walk to the campground with a sunset canoe ride around the Challuacocha lagoon.  The next afternoon, we boarded a motorized canoe and headed downstream to the Napo River, picking our way around the sandbars during the last leg.  On a couple of occasions, our canoe got stuck on the bottom.  Our guides and the intrepid French women hopped out, and pushed us off the sandbars, leading us to a slightly deeper channel.  When we finally reached the Napo, we turned upriver and stopped at a small beach on the south shore.  We were given the opportunity to swim here, although no one in our group wanted to do so, despite the afternoon heat.  We continued upriver and pulled up to the north shore, where we clambered up the slippery bank and walked inland about a quarter mile (400 m) to the home of our Sani guide’s parents.  The compound included several dwellings, raised well above the ground on stilts, although at the time the ground was reasonably dry.  We were able to observe their lifestyle and watched them make chicha, a local fermented beverage produced from manioc (aka yuca or cassava) roots, one of the few crops they grew locally.  Several young children and many chickens wandered the grounds.  Notably absent were males from our guide’s generation; he explained that they had moved to Coca or beyond.  One of the goals of the Sani Lodge is to provide an income to keep young people like our guide in the community.


Views of the rainforest canopy
from the Sani Lodge tower.


Exploring the Lagoon  The third afternoon, we paddled a canoe around the Challuacocha, exploring the area east of the lodge.  This was a relatively short, but very interesting trip.  We saw a number of Long-nosed Bats (Rhynchonycteris naso) hanging under a tree stump poking out of the water.  At first, our canoe got very close and did not seem to disturb them, but later as we approached on our return trip, they got spooked and flew off, circling over the lagoon before returning to their perches under the trunk.  We also passed a wasp’s hive in a tree along the shore.  These are a common site in the area, but our guide told us this nest belonged to a particular type which he called marching wasps.  He took his paddle and banged it against the side of the canoe.  At the sound, the wasps went into defensive mode, and began a rhythmic beat inside the hive, which reverberated much like a snare drum.  Our trip extended into the late afternoon, and we saw a number of birds, including the Amazon Kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona), Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani), Violaceous Jay (Cyanocorax violaceus), Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocoracida olivaceus), White-throated Toucan (Ramphastos tucanus) and Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus).

Fishing for Piranha  On the final afternoon, we retraced our canoe trip from the first morning, towards the Coto trail.  Our purpose was a uniquely Amazonian experience:  fishing for Piranha (Pygocentrus ternetzi).  After paddling to the end of the Challuacocha, we followed the narrow, cane-lined stream, which widened into a small pond.  Following the lead of our Sani guide, we baited hooks with small pieces of meat, and cast our lines into the water.  Sitting beneath overhanging branches laden with epiphytes, we enjoyed the peaceful surroundings and waited for the fish to bite.  When the piranha wouldn’t take our bait, we moved to an equally peaceful but, we hoped, more productive spot downstream.  In total, we spent about an hour and half watching birds and insects, joking, and trying to entice the piranha into our boat.  We felt them nibbling at our bait, but only our Argentine interpreter/guide was able to land a piranha, an experience that brought a look of surprise and then a huge smile to his face.

Despite the savage image perpetuated in cheesy horror movies, most piranhas are not particularly dangerous to humans.  While they do have teeth, their mouths are too small to use them to consume human flesh.  They can bite people, however, and this most commonly occurs when a piranha is flopping around in the bottom of a canoe.  Our Sani guide was wary of this possibility, fortunately, so although it took several blows to finish the fish off, we were able to survive our encounter with this notorious species with all of our fingers intact.


Fishing for piranha.


Evening Programs

The lodge scheduled activities after dinner as well.  After dark, conditions change in the rainforest.  The forest is alive with all kinds of sounds, and nocturnal species emerge in the lagoon.  One evening, we took canoes out on the lagoon looking for caiman.  Finding caiman at night is relatively easy.  We ran the beams from our flashlights over the surface of the water and along the shoreline, and when they hit upon a caiman, the reptile's eyes shone a bright red, like a polished ruby.  The Challuacocha is inhabited by Black Caiman (Caiman niger), a relatively uncommon species in the Amazon region which is also listed as endangered by international treaty.  Our guides paddled us towards the eyes poking above the water, and the caiman allowed us to get quite close before slowly slipping beneath the surface.  As the Black Caiman can reach 20 feet (6 meters) in length, their lack of fear of humans is understandable.

On another evening, our guides organized a night hike through the forest, which we skipped, opting to go to bed early instead.  The last evening, all of the visitors and many of the staff joined together for a campfire.  We met at a clearing behind the lodge, where the staff had prepared a large bonfire, and sat on small stumps and chairs listening as members of the Sani community recounted the stories of their people and the history of the lodge.  They shared traditional food and a stiff alcoholic beverage made by tribal members.  By this point, the early mornings and active days were beginning to wear on people, so many didn’t linger very long once the stories were over, and the campfire wrapped up fairly early.

Cabins and Facilities

Lodging  The cabins at Sani Lodge are sparse but adequate.  They are raised above the ground, with stairs to a small porch, which is a very pleasant place to relax in the afternoon.  Inside there is a bedroom with screened windows and a mosquito net to cover the bed.  Next to the beds is a small nightstand, and in the corner there are shelves and a small area to hang clothes.  A door leads to a small bathroom with a sink, flush toilet and cold shower.  A sun shower bag hangs in the bathroom as well, and staff members put these out each morning to warm up; on sunny days guests have a limited amount of warm water available.  The cold showers, however, are not too chilly and in general, with the hot weather, a cold shower is not at all unpleasant. 

Sani Lodge uses a solar powered system to provide electricity to the cabins.  There is one lone light bulb in the bedroom and a light in the bathroom as well.  In the evenings, these provide adequate light, but in the morning the energy levels are generally low and the light is weak.

While the cabins are adequate, we learned that in a place like this, we could not escape nature by going indoors.  The first night, we saw the largest beetle I’ve ever seen on our cabin floor.  It is impossible to keep a variety of beetles and other bugs out at night.  The mosquito net on the bed kept some of these from crawling into our beds, although we left Sani Lodge with numerous bug bites on our legs and torso, and I suspect some of these were acquired in our beds at night.

Like most everything else at Sani Lodge, the sheets on the beds are always slightly damp from the dense air.  Our clothes also remained slightly damp throughout our visit.  While sleeping in damp sheets, and putting on wet, smelly clothes day after day sounds unpleasant, we found that we got used to this pretty quickly.  After only a few hours in this very natural environment, many of the norms and tastes that seem so important in urban locales began to fade and just seemed much less important.  (Click here for suggestions on packing for a visit to Sani Lodge).


Cabin at Sani Lodge.


Camping  In addition to the cabins, Sani has a small campground at the head of the trail to the tower.  It is accessible by a fairly long walk, or a short canoe ride.  The campground has several tents pitched on platforms and covered with thatched roofs.  The other members in our group and our Argentine guide stayed in the campground, and found it reasonably comfortable.  While the cabins bring one close to nature, the campground puts one right in the middle of rainforest life.  One morning our interpreter/guide told us that during the night he heard a Jaguar (Panthera onca), the king of the jungle cats.  The next day, one of our group members said she had seen a Jaguarundi (Felis yagouaroundi), a housecat-sized and jet black cat, patrolling the shore of the lagoon in the morning.

Lounge  The bar and lounge is a rounded wood structure, with a tall thatched roof and a picturesque view overlooking the lagoon.  There is a small library and maps of the area on the wall.  Various beverages are available in a small refrigerator at all times; we were asked to note our purchases in a logbook if no staff member was around.  A few t-shirts and caps with the Sani Lodge logo are also available.

Dining Hall  The dining hall is located just behind the lounge, and is a large wooden structure with picture windows and a high thatched roof.  The meals have an intimate feel as the room is dimly lit when it is dark outside, relying on a Coleman-style lantern hung overhead and candles on the tables for illumination.  Surprisingly, only a small portion of the food is locally produced; most is brought in from the Andes.  Breakfast includes eggs, potatoes or another root vegetable, yoghurt, tropical fruit, cereals and fresh juice.  Coffee, tea, and a delicious hot chocolate are also available.  Lunch, served around 12:30 pm, and dinner, which begins around 7:00 pm, emphasize a variety of salads, rice or quinoa, and include a soup and a main dish, usually vegetarian.  Meals at Sani Lodge are tasty, unusual, and healthy.

Getting Around the Lodge  The cabins and other lodge buildings are connected by wood slat walkways.  The walkway between the bar and the dining area is covered, but the rest do not have roofs.  As a result, the walkways can be slippery in the rain.  At night, candles in small containers and tiki-style torches in front of each cabin provide dim light along the walkways, but we found it a good idea to carry a flashlight as well.

Lodge Staff

Without a doubt, it is the native guides that make a trip to the Sani Lodge a worthwhile experience.  Ours had a tremendous eye and encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s natural history.  His knowledge derived from growing up in the area, from his well-developed powers of observation, but also from studying the area’s natural history.  Although he spoke very limited English, he knew the English names for most of the birds we saw, pronouncing them in a sharp accent.  Much of this knowledge came from studying the very thick and excellent guide The Birds of Ecuador by Paul Greenfield and Robert Ridgely, a book he clearly knew well as he could locate birds on the charts quickly.  He had spent one year in the university but returned home and began working for the lodge.  One of his goals was to spend time in the U.S. to learn English.  Clearly, he was dedicated to the success of the Sani Lodge.

Like all of the staff at Sani Lodge, our guides were invariably friendly and helpful, and had enough experience with foreign visitors to anticipate many of our needs.  The service was not impeccable – our room was not made up until we mentioned this to the guide, and while they advertise a laundry service, I could not seem to convince them to pick up a pair of socks I’d left to be washed.  Still, this is not a four-star hotel, and we did not expect a royal treatment.  The Sani Lodge provided us with a truly rare and remarkable opportunity:  staying in reasonable comfort in the middle of the rainforest, learning about the environment from local residents, and enjoying good food and conversation with other guests.

Leaving Sani Lodge

On our last day with the Sani, we didn’t spend much time at the lodge.  Breakfast for those on their way out begins at 5:30 am, and the canoe is scheduled to leave at 6:00.  We awoke early to prepare our bags.  It had been raining on and off during the night, but the rain began in earnest at about 5:15.  In the end, the motorized canoe between the lodge and the Napo didn’t leave until around 6:30, but it did so in a heavy shower, which continued for much of the trip to Coca.  The rivers fill with water during such storms, so sandbars did not pose a problem as we headed downstream.  Once on the Napo, the canopy on the canoe kept some of the rain out, although it still was somewhat wet and definitely cold.  As rain can come at any time in this forest, visitors should board the canoe prepared with sturdy raingear and perhaps a sweatshirt.  You may appreciate the mandatory life preserver, which helps keep one warm on the journey.

Due to the rain, the Napo was noticeably higher, and filled with debris, which moved downriver at a good clip.  The powerful motors on our canoe allowed us to move upriver against the current without difficulty, although we still had to criss-cross the river at points to avoid potentially dangerous spots.  Other boats, fully enclosed, sped by, some with sirens wailing.  Most in our group napped during this trip, despite the wonderful scenery along the banks.  A group of Sani children sat on the bench behind us, playing cards and snacking on a variety of fruit.  I watched for awhile and could not discern the rules of their game, perhaps because it seemed like there was a lot of cheating going on.  They laughed loudly as they challenged each other’s play; eventually, they all fell asleep in a large pile strewn across the bench.

Although the rain had subsided, we were still quite wet when we got to Coca.  We loaded into pick-up trucks for the short trip to the airport, and had a few minutes to go into the bathroom and change into dry clothes before the guides took our luggage to the airline counter.  Then, quickly, we were shuttled to the small security gate and had a few seconds to sadly say good bye to our guides.  There was a light rain when it came time to leave the terminal and walk across the tarmac to the airplane.  Although it was a short distance, airline personnel handed each of us an umbrella, then collected them just before we boarded the plane.

Again, the plane was full of foreigners returning from visits to various lodges.  Like the canoe trip, the flight was subdued, and before we knew it, we were collecting our luggage, saying goodbye and promising to keep in touch with our new friends, and then, we were back in Quito traffic, weaving past busses, large buildings, and street vendors, all of which seemed slightly different than they had five days earlier.


Issues such as tropical deforestation, population growth and urbanization occasionally pop up on news stories in the U.S. and other industrialized countries of the north, but in places like the Ecuadorian Oriente, these are not so much issues as the conditions that shape people’s lives.  Ecuador is an OPEC country, exploiting oil fields to the north of Coca and Sani Lodge, and the oil industry’s presence is evident throughout the region.  The roads and houses necessary for this industry have led to substantial deforestation.  In addition, Ecuadorians have been pouring into the Oriente for decades, clearing the tropical forests for agriculture.  In many cases, people arrived as part of government-sponsored relocation programs that relieve the stresses caused by overpopulation in the Andes.  While food and energy are necessary, their production is damaging the forest, truly a global resource.

The Ecuadorian rainforest is touted as one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth.  Ecologists and conservationists emphasize the need to maintain as much of this species and genetic diversity as possible, and list the many benefits biodiversity provides humans.  To most people, however, biodiversity is a foreign concept, and even to those who send donations to conservation organizations and letters to politicians defending national parks and endangered species legislation, biodiversity is little more than an abstract concept.  At the Sani Lodge, one has the opportunity to truly experience biodiversity, to sense what biodiversity feels like in real life.

Probably most notably, biodiversity feels wet.  Life thrives under conducive conditions, and water is basic to life.  And in the rainforest, you are never far from water.  Even when it is sunny out, the forest floor is muddy.  Interestingly, though, when it is raining, which is much of the time, very few of the drops reach you as you walk through the forest.  The thick and layered canopy captures most of the water, and only a small proportion of the rainfall penetrates to the forest floor.  Yet, given the sheer amount of rain that falls on this forest, enough water reaches the floor to keep it constantly muddy.  This is not to say that you remain dry on a walk through the forest.  With or without rain, the humid air makes everything damp, and your skin and clothes are quickly wet with sweat.

Biodiversity is also noisy.  With all the different species, there is an awful lot going on out in the forest, and this is most notable at night, when the forest becomes a cacophony of sound.  We lay in our beds at night trying to identify individual sounds among the constant hum, and occasionally an owl’s screech, an insect’s chirping, a frog’s strange cry, or breaking twigs indicating a large mammal rise above the background din.  Mostly, though, the sounds blend together into a symphonic clamor, unlike anything you’ll hear elsewhere.

Finally, biodiversity is compelling; it demands your attention.  Those from temperate zones are used to less diverse landscapes.  A pine forest consisting of the same species over and over quickly blends into the background, and it’s easy to ignore it and focus on other things.  In the rainforest, however, nothing looks the same, each step brings something new.  There are sounds and movement all around, and each demands attention.  For one thing, any one of them could be dangerous – a deadly snake, a biting insect, a poisonous plant.  For another, the incredible diversity is inherently interesting.  Variety is the spice of life, and variety is key to the rainforest.

How much of the rainforest can we afford to lose?  While people from other areas are colonizing the rainforest, natives of the region like the Sani are leaving.  Many young people from these groups have left their homes for urban areas, such as Coca and Quito.  With them goes a valuable reservoir of knowledge, cultivated through the experience of growing up in the environment.  No one else can know it and appreciate it as much as the native people.

The Sani Lodge provides an opportunity to reduce the potential losses caused by deforestation and outmigration.  Because they can earn income from ecotourists, the Sani have an incentive to maintain their land in native forest, and not cut it down for agriculture or sell it to timber or oil interests.  Likewise, the local opportunity for income offers an alternative to young people besides leaving for towns like Coca.

The downside is that ecotourists, like the oil industry and migrant farmers, contribute to the incorporation of traditional cultures into the commoditized, monetized world.  Understandably, it is difficult for the Sani to resist these powerful influences.  Still, maintaining cultural diversity is as important as biodiversity, and extending capitalist-driven globalization even to wild places like the upper Napo River inevitably erodes cultural diversity.  As owners of the Sani Lodge, the Sani Isla people at least have some control in shaping the extent to which outside influences alter their culture and their environment.  In today’s world, that has substantial value.

By forging even transitory relationships with ecotourists, the Sani have an opportunity to show outsiders their world, their lives, and their reality, all of which challenge the tourists’ sense of normalcy and reshapes their perspectives.  As they return home, they carry with them new ideas and a broader vision, which they share with others in their daily interactions.  Bringing visitors to Sani Lodge certainly won’t solve the problems posed by biodiversity loss and changing demography, but a trip to the Sani Lodge is fun, educational, interesting, challenging, adventurous, and does in some ways contribute to solutions to vexing and difficult problems.

See our group's bird list.

Suggestions for packing.

Posted February 1, 2007, by Alan W. Barton.

All photos © copyright 2006 by Alan W. Barton.


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