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Have you ever imagined paddling through waterways, deep in the Amazon after dark? The world’s most famous rainforest is renowned for its wildlife, like caimans, anacondas, bats, tarantulas, 10 different species of monkeys and countless exotic birds. During the night, the eyes of the toothy crocodilians that live in the rivers and swamps shine red when a light shines on them, creating a rather eerie, kind of horror-film like experience.
While doing something like that wasn’t even on my radar before deciding to embark on this trip, the small group I was traveling with during our four-night stay at Sani Lodge decided that it would be the perfect adventure after dinner and, maybe more than a few drinks, on our final evening.
It all began with one difficult decision: The Galapagos or the Amazon?
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Ecuador is famous for its Galapagos Islands, a place that’s been on my travel bucket list for years. But it’s also home to a section of the Amazon rainforest, and after weighing the pros and cons, particularly the costs, and then getting a special opportunity to stay in an eco-lodge run by the local Kichwa-speaking community in a very remote corner of the jungle, I chose the latter without regret.
Guests at the lodge stay in private thatched cabins with rates including accommodation, all meals (each of which was extensive and delicious, prepared by a very talented on-site chef) and a variety of excursions like wildlife watching trips into the jungle and a visit to the tribal community center.
Getting there was quite the adventure that included a flight to Coca Airport from Quito, where our small group of five was welcomed by a Sani Guide. That was followed by a motorized canoe ride along the Napo River (a tributary to the Amazon River), a 10-minute walk along a wooden boardwalk where monkeys could be seen in the trees, and a traditional canoe paddle through the wilds of the jungle. The water was so dark it was almost black, leading us to wonder if one of the massive Amazonian snakes might be lurking nearby along the banks, or even worse, would a caiman suddenly lunge out from beneath the surface of the still river?
Fortunately, there were no such surprises. We reached the dock at Sani Lodge without issue, greeted with a passion fruit welcome drink and the resident caiman known as Lucy who enjoys hanging out underneath the property’s desk. I often wonder if she’s still there – suffering from an injury, she was living on meals provided by the staff. Never in my wildest dreams to expect to have a fondness for a creature that could probably tear me apart, but she somehow managed to steal my heart.
We jumped right in with a night hike through the jungle. Following our guide Victor with flashlights, one of the members of our group who appeared rather nervous about the whole thing, broke the silence to tell us that he was relieved to see there were no snakes waiting on the trail with hopes of a midnight snack. Victor happily advised that they prefer to hang out in the trees – perhaps the only thing worse than accidentally stepping on a snake would be to have one fall down right on top of you, something I hadn’t really even considered, until then.
Thankfully, no snakes fell from the sky that night, though we did see bats, a large frog and a couple of fat hairy tarantulas.
Our mornings started early, with breakfast at 5:30 a.m. most days. Paddling at sunrise was worth the wake-up call, watching parrots soar overhead and perched in the trees along with everything from the colorful stinky turkeys to herons and cranes. We hiked through the jungle to the 100-foot-tall Sani Lodge observation tower where we witnessed toucans, macaws and red howler monkeys – the calls of which can be heard for a mile or more.
We even got to try traditional piranha fishing. Using a small piece of wood, fishing line, a hook and some chunks of meat as bait, our guide made it look easy, but we didn’t exactly get the hang of it.
Another highlight was a visit to the tribal community center to learn more about Kichwa life. One of the tribal members popped a live grub right into his mouth. Apparently, a popular traditional snack. He chowed down on it, head first as if it was a delectable rare treat. While I usually try anything offered by a host in a foreign country, this one was something we all said, “Thanks, but no thanks”. We did, however, try the lemon ants during our hike along the way. They had a sour flavor, although they weren’t exactly appetizing and seemed to stick in the back of the throat.
Other delicacies included white cocoa beans, which we were initially teased into thinking were tiny “bird brains,” and the chew-and-spit fermented alcoholic drink known as “chicha.” We were thankfully provided with a tasty meal cooked up by the local Sani women to feed our appetite.
Blowgun practice and tribal face painting was also all part of the fun, something that brought plenty of laughs. But soon it was time to return to the lodge where we’d toast to our time with the Sani, all vowing that someday we’d be back.
On this final night, one toast turned into two, and perhaps just a few more before someone got the wild idea to head back into the canoe in the dark. With a little extra courage from those pints, we were all more excited than anxious. The usual nervous member of the group had gotten over his fear of snakes and we all enjoyed the moment, laughing at the craziness of it all, among the red-eyed caimans while bats whizzed by.
Yet our hearts felt a bit heavy too, knowing that most likely, we’d never see one another again, though the incredible shared experiences we’d had were something we’d remember forever.