Deep inside the Amazon rainforest you will find beauty, and you will find mysteries; you will find awesome sights beyond anything you’d have ever imagined.
I have dreamt of visiting the Amazonian rainforests ever since I learned about them. I remember fantasizing about the imagery words like ‘evergreen’ and ‘rainforest’ evoke. As the plans of a visit were (finally) materializing, little did I know that even my wildest expectations were about to be easily surpassed!
Amazonia is massive – over 2.1 million square miles, spanning nine nations. Out of these, Brazil and Peru tend to be more popular as these two countries together host about 3/4th of the rainforest, and also offer a number of other tourist activities. We, however, chose to go to Ecuador in spite of just 2% of the rainforest being located there, as the Ecuadorian bio reserves are among the most ecologically diverse regions in the whole world. Needless to say, even 2% of something as immense as the Amazon is huge in absolute terms. It also helped that Ecuador is visa-free for Indian passport holders.
Place and People
Even among the rich rainforests of Ecuador, Yasuni National Park is without a parallel – it is arguably the most biologically diverse spot on the planet! Being the only ecolodge located within the park boundaries, Napo Wildlife Center (NWC) was an obvious choice for us. (Not that this was the only reason – more on that later.)
Getting to NWC was an experience in itself. A short flight from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, took us to Coca, a small town situated on the banks of river Napo. After a two and half hours long motorboat ride, we reached the NWC landing port on the border of the Yasuni National Park, and after another couple of hours in a paddled canoe, the Anangu lake slowly came into the view, and at last, we saw the pretty “huts” of the NWC on the opposite shore of the lake.
NWC is remote. We did get that feeling of leaving everything familiar far behind – I suppose it is hard to avoid that. And yet, we were well taken care of; not for one moment we felt like we were left to be on our own. A representative was available to help us at the Quito airport itself, and our guide for the entirety of our trip was with us right from the Coca airport, on the motorboat and the canoe.
This – the people – was the other reason we chose NWC.
It isn’t a stretch to say that oil industry is the raison d’être for Coca today. On our motorboat ride, we passed by several oil drilling installations in the rainforest; their burning flames were a stark reminder that even the paradise cannot escape the demands of the world surrounding it. It is unfortunate that there’s oil under the rainforest; it must be extracted, profits must be generated, the march of progress must continue.
Drilling for oil has a devastating effect on the forest. The burning flame attracts insects in the dark; they die by thousands each night, disrupting the delicate ecological balance. It has a similar devastating effect on the people. The contact with the outside world means not just access to education, employment and opportunities; it also means alcoholism, gambling, prostitution, and squandering the natural resources.
It is against this backdrop the Kichwa Anañgu community and the NWC stand as a shining beacon of an alternative approach, of what’s possible when a community comes together and does right by the forest and right for themselves. A while ago, the community realized that ecotourism provides an excellent alternative for local development. The Napo Wildlife Center was built, and now, it is completely owned and operated by the community.
The focus on ecotourism essentially changes the incentives, and with that comes a change in the way of living. Hunting and fishing is now voluntarily banned, liquor is voluntarily abolished. Thanks to the NWC and other ecotourism projects, the community has a source of employment near their homes. They are now in a process of continuous training for improving the quality of life of the community. The income from tourist projects is reinvested in various productive, social and cultural projects. What is this, if not a modern interpretation of the ancient Quechua phrase Sumak Kawsay – ‘a good way of living’; a way of living in harmony within the communities and with nature!
Photos and Notes
I had some of the yummiest vegetarian food here in the middle of wilderness. Varieties of fresh fruits I had never tasted before, yummy quinoa soups and of course, this ceviche that still makes my mouth water with the memory.
We had several excursions planned for the next few days – canoeing through flooded forests, parakeet clay licks, birdwatching from atop a tree canopy tower, a night-walk through the jungle and more!
Before stepping out every time, we were required to coat ourselves with a ton of sunscreen and insect repellent. Not something we enjoyed, and it did take a couple of days to get used to the ritual but it was really a small price to pay for all the magical experiences.
These turtles were a fixture; we found them on this log in the lake almost everyday. While they rested, butterflies sipped their tears. Rather unusual, but a necessity for the butterflies – their diet severely lacks the essential salts and minerals, and this is the way they get these nutrients.
The parakeets too go to great lengths for necessary nutrients. They gather at certain spots every morning in hundreds, to ingest a certain variety of mineral-rich clay . This helps them neutralize harmful toxins consumed from the rainforest plants and fruits. Not an easy endeavor; this one of the most terrifying and courageous thing they do. Being out in the open makes it very likely for the predators to spot them, and for the whole time, the birds are constantly on the lookout. Even after getting to the clay-lick, they start by staying among the trees and under the cover. Slowly, some of the more courageous ones step out. These are followed by few more, and over time, most of them start feeding on the clay. They get easily spooked by sounds and movements, and when they are, the choice is always clear – they take off immediately abandoning the clay.
Watching them go about this has been one of the most memorable experience of our trip.
We also did a guided night-walk tour of the jungles. We did spot a number of insects and animals, but it was quite scary; definitely not an experience I am keen on repeating!
Let’s switch gears and look at some flowers and trees now.
Was this a once-in-a-lifetime experience? I don’t want it to be! Let’s call it the-first-of-its-kind. I don’t know when I will visit Amazon again, but I am sure to seek this experience of being disconnected from the routine and the familiar, and being one with the nature; in my travels!