Trip Report: the Ecuadorian Amazon with Tropic at La Selva Lodge

2022-05-04T10:59:30-05:00January 4th, 2022|

This is the 1st part of a three part trip report from my October 2021 trip to Ecuador. Make sure to check out my reports from the Galapagos and the Andes.

After two years of no international travel, hosting an Ecuador FAM in October 2021 with Tropic’s managing director Jascivan Carvalho (Jasci – (JOSS-ee) – for short) was a welcome way to break the streak! I was excited to get back on the road and to explore as much of Ecuador as possible. And of course – Tropic delivered! The trip we experienced was really like three FAMs in one. Ecuador is such an incredibly diverse country that travel there can almost be disorienting – in a good way! Its ‘four worlds’ include the Amazon, the Andes, the Pacific Coast and the Galapagos – all easily accessible and remarkably close together. On this FAM, we visited three of the four worlds. And since we had such incredible experiences in each region, I’m breaking my trip report into three parts, starting where we started, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

We were all excited to reconnect and discuss life over the last 18 months and to look ahead to what travel looks like on the other side of a global pandemic. This FAM reflected what Tropic and Kusini believe is important in the future of travel. Visits to remote places; stays at intimate, locally owned lodges; connecting on a real basis with locals –actually sitting and talking 1-on-1 with the Kichwa or Andean community members – and doing so in a way that is respectful and immerses travelers into the wonders of the country – these are the elements that give travel meaning and enrich all parties involved.

On my arrival in Quito, I received a warm welcome from Jasci and his family at their lovely home, after a long four years since my last visit. Jasci showed off his Brazilian side with an incredible Brazilian barbecue lunch that was ready and waiting for my arrival, along with two local IPA’s from a Quito artisan brewery! He knows me and my beer preferences very well! The food, the IPAs and the wonderful company of the Carvalho family was a perfect start to the trip.

The following morning our FAM group met up at Quito’s International Airport, as many Ecuador adventures do. The amazement kicked in quickly – when we departed high altitude Quito, we were gazing out the plane’s windows at the rolling Andean highlands with glacier-capped volcanic peaks in the distance (including the world’s highest active volcano – more on that in my Andes report!). A mere 30 minutes later, we were in the jungle in 95-degree heat! It’s truly incredible how many different and unique experiences, landscapes and ecosystems are packed into a country the size of Colorado! We were an intrepid group of travelers excited for what was to come!

I had never visited Ecuador’s Amazon. I once visited another area of the Amazon and had been underwhelmed, but Tropic changed my tune on the world’s largest rainforest! We landed in Coca where we were met by our guide, Paul Marino, the head naturalist at La Selva Lodge,, who whisked us down to the Napo River jetty and off on our 2.5-hour boat journey to La Selva. The boat wasn’t fancy but was very comfortable, and everyone had their own ’window’ seat. We were welcomed with a complimentary beer to celebrate the start of our journey into the Amazon. Given that it was well over 90 degrees, this was most welcome!

One of the unfortunate but important relatities to be aware of when traveling to the Ecuadorian Amazon is that it’s quickly obvious that you are in oil country. On our journey down the Napo River into the Amazon, we saw a lot of barges carrying oil tankers and other equipment used in the industry. We also saw a number of speed/jet boats flying by that are used for oil executives – time is money in the industry! While a bit hard to reconcile, I feel this is something important for travelers to see as it helps to reinforce the importance of tourism in preserving what remains of the relatively pristine Ecuadorian Amazon.

After a roughly 2.5 hour trip down the Napo, we arrived at La Selva’s dock and base camp where there are bathrooms and a covered area where we left our life jackets and got ready for the next part of our journey into the Amazon. From here, we hopped into human-powered canoes to silently ply the serpentine creek through the jungle to Garzacocha Lagoon, the oxbow lake where La Selva is hidden away. That 30-minute paddle transports travelers from the dirty, noisy world that we all live in to one without man-made machine noise. It’s a beautiful transition.

(Side note, many of you might be familiar with Napo Wildlife Center, which is another Ecuadorian Amazon lodge which Tropic loves and often recommends. For reference, Napo is a 2.5-hour human powered canoe ride from the river, taking 5 hours total from Coca. It has some advantages – guests might have better wildlife, the lodge is bigger (though not as upmarket as La Selva) and the lodge is inside Yasuni National Park, but the bigger drawback is the harder journey. It really depends on your clients and their travel priorities and comfort levels)

La Selva was Ecuador’s first Amazon lodge. Built in the 1960’s, its large, multi-tiered and open-air main lodge overlooks the jungle and lagoon. On our arrival there, it felt like an instant break from Covid. Because we were always outdoors or in the open-air lodge, we did not need to wear masks (save during our village visit) and life felt more normal than it had since February of 2020.

After we settled into our suites, we gathered for a presentation by Paul on the conservation status of the world’s tropical zones, showing his mettle as a guide right away. He gave us a 30,000-foot view of the importance of the tropic belt and how it has been damaged by human activities, especially palm oil harvesting in the tropics of Asia (the Indonesian and Malaysian island of Borneo in particular). Interestingly, he made the point that despite some extractive industry, Africa’s tropic belt is actually well preserved because of the lack of development in Central African countries like the DRC, which has helped to preserve it. South America’s tropical zone is in flux. Paul stated that 40% of the Ecuadorian Amazon is under some sort of conservation status. Not all is as bad as it’s sometimes made out to be, but very importantly, without tourism partnerships with local communities, nothing will stop oil exploration – make that exploitation. Blissfully, Yasuni National Park is gazetted and has a buffer zone, making it untouchable.

Our first evening had us water bound again as we hopped into the canoes to explore the lagoon. We saw incredible numbers of beautiful birds, a very large troop of cheeky squirrel monkeys and a submerged caiman from a distance. As night fell, the remote nature of where we were and the total lack of light pollution were quickly made evident. We were awed by an incredible night sky with innumerable stars, passing satellites and the International Space Station cruising by. It was totally divine to sit under a canopy of stars and literally watch the universe go by.

We retired after our starry, starry night and awoke the next day excited for an adventure in the tree canopy. It’s just a 10-15-minute walk from the lodge to the forest canopy tower where guests can climb high into the tree canopy of the rainforest. Once you’re up there, it’s impossible not to get lost in wonder at everything you can see. We spent about an hour and a half in the canopy and saw dozens of bird species, three species of monkeys – squirrel, capuchin and howler – and a giant tarantula perched on the canopy stairs! We learned an incredible amount about the rainforest ecosystem from Paul.

After our time aloft, we spent a few hours walking through the rainforest and learning about the diversity of plants and trees. Paul made a comparison between the forests of North America and the Amazon. In a North America forest, visitors see mostly the same species of trees – coniferous pine species – whereas in the Amazon it is rare to see the same type of tree in the same area because of species diversity. It’s extraordinary how many species of trees and plants are found in the rainforest, not to mention the birds and mammals.

Throughout this day, I realized how much like a safari experience an adventure in the Amazon is – the parallels were quickly evident. From the early morning wake up call, coffee and snack in the dark before heading out on an adventure to listening to the jungle come to life as day breaks. After an interesting and exciting morning activity, lunch or brunch is followed by a welcome siesta and another afternoon activity. Sound familiar? While expectations need to be set – admittedly it’s not as easy to see the wildlife in the jungle as it is on the savannah and the experience may be quite as polished – there are a ton of similarities.

Like a well-rounded safari, La Selva offers a wide range of experiences. Guests can try piranha fishing off the dock, enjoy outdoor yoga (at sunrise, in the evening or during siesta time), indulge in a great jungle spa, go kayaking or swimming in the oxbow lagoon and more. We found the fishing easy – it’s not technical, just fun and relaxing. The swimming was a great way to cool off., if you don’t mind a few pirhan nibbles on your toes! There’s also the option to chill out and do nothing, which a lot of people long for on their vacations. All-in-all, La Selva offers a ton of value for money and because of the variety of experiences on offer, it’s a great place for families, especially families with teens.

After siesta time we went on an afternoon walk followed by an evening canoe trip with a spotlight to seek nocturnal animals. While we didn’t see a ton of wildlife because of cloudy showery weather (another safari parallel – some days you’re more lucky than others!), the chance to be out at night in the Amazon listening to the sounds of the jungle while silently gliding in a canoe was, again, marvelous, peaceful and soul-enriching.

The next morning we returned to the Napo and crossed the river to the south bank where the Yasuni National Park is located. The Yasuni National Park is home to two of the most accessible clay licks in all of the Amazon. A clay lick, otherwise known as Collpa (the Quechua word for salt lick), are patches of earth that are abundant in minerals – particularly sodium – that help neutralize the toxins that develop as a result of a parrot’s diet. One of these clay licks is located on a high south bank of Napo just across the river from the lodge’s dock. This clay lick is often frequented by hundreds of parrots with five species being the most frequent visitors: the Cobalt-winged Parakeet, Orange-cheeked Parrot, Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlet, Scarlet Macaw and the Red and Green Macaw. But unfortunately, luck wasn’t on our side this day, as the parrots didn’t materialize (weather can have an effect on the parrots and clear skis in the morning bodes well for a lot of parrots at the clay lick and it was cloudy that morning).

From the clay lick, we crossed back to the south bank of the Napo to visit the nearby Pilchi Kichwa community which is partnered with La Selva. Their land borders the lodge’s concession and many trails from the lodge cross into the community’s land. Those of us in tourism know that often community/village experiences can disappoint and in some cases even be exploitative or destructive to the community and culture. But our visit to the Pilchi village was what I would have hoped – a very genuine, fun and meaningful experience. Because the community hadn’t had many visitors in months, the school kids put on a dance recital for us, which isn’t the typical welcome for lodge guests. But the community was excited to have guests return and we were treated as VIPs! The thing I noticed immediately is that kids are kids, are kids, everywhere in the world. It could have been my 7 year old daughter and her class performing. Half of the kids were engaged while the others were off in their own little world! It just reinforced to us how humans are the same everywhere. Kids in the Amazon are just like kids in Seattle, in many ways.

After the performance, we went to visit one of the families’ homesteads. The president of the community – a woman – welcomed us to her home with a sampler menu for us of traditional foods. We had the chance to try everything from local larva (tasted like bacon-wrapped dates!) to chica homebrew. Every menu item was described with its significance to the community and how it’s prepared. We had a great organic conversation about daily life in the community and were given the chance to ask questions. It was a very meaningful and intimate experience and the FAM travelers loved it!

Our last evening, we did another rainforest walk then ended up back in the canoes. I had been speaking with Jasci about how safari-esque the experience at La Selva was, then proving that point, the guide team surprised the group with sundowners on the lake in canoes! We ate canapes and drank wine on the water as evening approached. It was the perfect way to finish our time in the Amazon! After sundowners, we were treated to more amazing star gazing, including seeing a nebula with the naked eye! Next to it was another collection of older stars – a former nebula. We gazed at Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and more – and once again were guided through the heavens by Paul and his expert knowledge.

The following morning, we were off to the Andes for more adventures! Stay tuned for Andes trip report, coming soon!


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Tad Bradley

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