I am departing somewhat from the previous Ecuador blogs as there won’t be a whole lot about birds because much of this day was spent getting from Puembo to Sacha Lodge, our beautiful sanctuary in the Amazon Region of Ecuador and i want to write about that trip, the marvelous lodge and the Amazon. The original plan for our itinerary was to fly from Quito to Coca where we would be met by people from Sacha Lodge and we would then go by boat to the Lodge. We would stay there 4 nights and then our team from the first part of our trip, Jorge and Jorge would meet us in Coca and we would take several days to drive back to Quito for our flight home stopping at lodges on the Eastern side of the Andes. As will be discussed in later blogs, that was changed and we instead flew back to Quito from Coca and visited the Eastern Andes in reverse order. But that is getting ahead of myself.
It is a long drive from Quito to Coca about 5 1/2 hours – although less than 200 miles almost due east of Quito and a bit south. My mental map of Ecuador was completely flawed as I pictured the Amazon being mostly south. The flight was barely 40 minutes, although getting to the airport and going through the check in etc still meant an early departure from Puembo Birding Garden. The flight was smooth and procedures at both airports were easy. There were others on the flight going to Sacha Lodge and we were met by a Sacha team at the airport, driven to the Sacha offices in Coca and then loaded onto a large motorized canoe for the 90 minute trip down the Napo River, a large tributary of the Amazon – one of many. We were given heavy duty ponchos and life jackets for the journey, It was at the offices that we met Oscar who would be our personal guide for the entire stay. Lots about him later.
The Amazon Region in Ecuador is approximately 48% of the land mass of the country (128,000 square km) but is inhabited by only about 5% of the population. About 7% of the Region is in Yasuni National Park home to a number of indigenous tribes. There is substantial oil underground and the area is at risk after an initiative to protect it failed in 2014. On our trip down the Napo River we passed along part of the Park. As in other rainforest areas, there are also threats from mining, logging and deforestation to develop crop land. Ecuador is a leader in conservation however and values its ecotourism businesses. Several lodges in the area including Sacha are safe enclaves of preservation, safe and comfortable and provide unparalleled opportunities to experience this unique and awesome wilderness and global treasure. That is why we were there.
The motorized canoe ride into the Amazon Area was among other things, impressive. The passengers – a dozen plus were in one canoe while all our baggage was in another. We were under a canopy which would provide at least some cover if it rained hard – which fortunately it did not. We were towards the back of the canoe and thus were not exposed to any spray – which there was only a little. Our pilot was at the back of the canoe and could not possibly have had a clear view of what was directly ahead. Which was interesting since he guided the canoe flawlessly through the current, avoiding shallows, shoals, islands and debris, moving from the left side of the river to the right and back again frequently, often slowing but usually charging full speed ahead which Cindy estimated to be at least 20 knots – she is the boat person in the family.
Along the way we dis see a few birds – Snowy and Great Egrets, a single Roseate Spoonbill, two Southern Lapwings, some Caracaras and some swallows. At great distance there were two large birds perched atop a tree that a guide called out as Umbrellabirds. I got a quick and pretty poor photo that showed one with a white belly. Everything I have seen says Umbrellabirds are entirely black yet the shape and size are right – an early mystery of the Amazon!
There were no mammals and few signs of civilization although we were surprised to see some industry, a few cabins and even cars and trucks. There are a few roads – mostly put in to serve the oil industry and we saw other boats and barges. The river was brown – as is the case with most of the Amazon river system – lots of silt carried down from the mountains and forests. After about 90 minutes we disembarked at a dock and followed our guides along a trail through the rain forest for about 30 minutes. No stopping for birds, although I am sure we passed by many. At the end of our easy flat walk we arrived at another dock where we loaded into a small canoe with just Oscar who paddled us through the forest in a beautiful small channel for maybe another 30 minutes until we arrived at an opening into a beautiful lagoon with the lodge itself visible perhaps a half mile away. We disembarked at the Balsa – a lovely thatched roof structure where we would have breakfast and lunch during our stay. We had a welcoming drink, got the key to our private cabin – #303 and followed the walkway up a short rise – past more water and through the rain forest. There are 29 cabins at Sacha, each exquisite and each private, out of sight of the others. Our baggage awaited us when we arrived and we entered our splendid new home. Wow!!
Construction of the Lodge began in 1991 and Phase 1 was completed the next year with 6 guest rooms, a dining room and housing for guides and staff. There have been several expansions and updates since then now including air conditioning in the cabins. Every staff member we met was superb – friendly, knowledgeable and friendly. Service was outstanding. The food was also amazing with a great buffet for every breakfast and lunch with multiple choices of everything you could want and always fresh fruit and juices. There were marvelous desserts at lunch and in general – way too much food. Dinners in the restaurant were what one might expect at a sophisticated foodie restaurant in Seattle, LA or whatever. The quality was always excellent although serving size was small and always with some showy embellishment.
These photos show one of the special dishes at lunch and a menu for one of the evening dinners. We were truly on vacation here so took advantage of the bar with either drinks or wine – mostly South American origins. Cindy had her first Caipirinha and was sold.
All of our expenses except for drinks were paid as part of our overall tour package. I have not looked and really do not want to know, but I am sure that Sacha Lodge is quite expensive. The quality of the room, the facilities, the food and the service were all first class. And then there was Oscar. When you sign up for Sacha you are asked about your interests and are assigned a guide accordingly. He was with us the whole time beginning in Coca. Oscar is their bird specialist and he was awesome. He is from one of the indigenous tribes in the area. He had been working at one of the other lodges in the area when he was discovered by the owner of Sacha in I think 1996. He recruited him to come to Sacha and sent him to Quito to learn English. That was only a two week course but it provided the basis for his excellent, if somewhat accented, English today which he speaks in addition to Spanish and his native indigenous language Quichua, a dialect of Quechua – and he also knows the Latin names of all of the birds. Oscar was always in good spirits, full of energy and his keen senses picked out birds by sight and sound. As was so helpful with Jorge Luna, Oscar did use playback and used his green laser to help us find the birds he spotted. Although he always brought a scope and had his binoculars, his eyesight was better than mine using my binoculars. Extraordinary.
After lunch, Oscar took us out for our first birding in the Amazon – walking the trails. We had been greeted by Great Kiskadees and White Winged Swallows at lunch and they would be seen every day.
Among the many big differences between birding in the Amazon and birding in the Andes foremost was that there are no feeders. Of course I can see how this keeps everything natural, but it sure would have been nice to have feeders to attract the many species in close for good views and good photos. Despite Oscar’s best efforts, both were relatively hard to come by and there will be far fewer photos from this part of our trip. We did add two new hummingbirds though, a Straight Billed Hermit and a Long Billed Starthroat getting a photo of only the latter. We also heard Great and Variegated Tinamous – both rarely seen.
Most of the birds we saw we were not able to photograph and it would take some adjustments of equipment and by me to get pictures. Most of the species we saw were flyovers or fly-aways including some parrots and parakeets, a motmot and a trogon – but fortunately we would see them all again. As it was getting later and as we were heading back to the lodge, Oscar took a little side trail and said he hoped to have a surprise. The surprise turned out to be a pair of Crested Owls – super birds and the only owl species we would actually see on the trip. They were in a very dark spot and our photos were pretty bad but it was a great end to the day.
Not much of a day for birding or at least for numbers of good views of birds and photos, but it had been a great day and we were in the Amazon – a first for Cindy and bringing memories back to me of wonderful trips in 2005 to Brazil and in 2013 to Peru. The species list for the day was 32 of which 10 were actually Lifers (all to be seen better and again later) and 26 were new for Ecuador. That’s what happens when you change habitats and there was no question that this was a new and exciting habitat. The Ecuador list was now at 246 species and there had been 110 Lifers.