Eco-tourism is going strong, whether it be in hotel construction to how the fish are caught for tourists’ dinner. But the Sani Lodge resort in Ecuador is taking environmental thinking one step further. The whole business is run by a village of indigenous Kichwa, and thanks to visiting tourists, they’re managing to save the surrounding forests.
After flying out over Amazonia, we switch the airline seats for wooden benches and spend several hours on a small riverboat. Down we go, down the broad branch of the Rio Napo the muddy headwaters flowing down from the Andes and into the Amazon River. For the last bit of the journey we need a smaller canoe, which we use to wind our way up the narrow tributaries.
Parrots fly through the trees hanging out overhead, and after many twists and turns we emerge into a clearing and switch the motor off. Silence. The sound of a paddle is all that’s audible as we slowly glide across the surface towards Sani Lodge.
Canoes lie parked at the wharf, huts are visible through the trees, and even as the mist rises, a sense of adventure lies thick in the air. As we unload our gear and carry it up the wooden jetty, a couple of guests come running. They disappear behind some trees, shouting “Here! Come look!”
A young guide, Javier, points at a swampy patch of grass: a large caiman is waddling through the grounds. Two guests from Switzerland stand fascinated, taking photographs, while an older man from France brags about having seen quite a few himself – on his bungalow porch. We have truly arrived in the middle of the jungle; in pure wilderness.
Leaf-carrying ants are everywhere, crawling over our cases. With firm strides, a man approaches, laughing at the commotion, and gives us a warm welcome. He says his name is Patricio and he is the leader of the Sani Isla community – the folks that run the show at Sani Lodge.
He immediately speeds off to show us the grounds, and we hurry along behind. Patricio proves to be a treasure trove of knowledge. Management skills and eye for wildlife aside, he has yet another quality – quite an unexpected one. He’s a shaman. Inheriting these inner powers from his father (who got it from his father), Patricio has studied the ways of rainforest medicine since he was a boy.
“This cures impotence,” he says, pointing to a fruit along the track. The trail is lined with plants that have been traditionally used for centuries: antidotes, fertility enhancers and poisons all look alike to us – but we do recognize the occasional banana. Monkeys, butterflies, frogs – nothing stays hidden as Patricio wanders on, pointing everything out. Anacondas are also in this area, he says, and makes a big circle with his arms: ”The biggest anaconda I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t even grasp with my arms.”
He tells another story of an anaconda that apparently swallowed a petroleum worker whole. He says it happened near here and we start laughing, but Patricio doesn’t. And suddenly we feel very small, carefully eyeing the path ahead of us.
Our hike with Patricio takes us to the largest tree in the woods, whose base is enormous. The villagers had mounted a huge metal staircase up against the trunk, and after ascending we climb out onto its crown – 130 feet above the ground. It’s one of the tallest trees in the area, and we are now high above the canopy. Everywhere we look – all the way to the horizon – we see rainforest. It’s a truly breathtaking sight, and proves that the wilderness of Amazonia still exists; these trees have never been touched, and hopefully never will be.
Patricio squints at the setting sun, overlooking the forest he’s always lived and cared for. “A lot have changed since I was a kid”, he says, referring to the time before the lodge was built. Until just a couple of decades ago his people, the Kichwas, lived a very isolated existence. “But now we’re not only a little village, we’re part of a bigger picture. Our ancestors watched over this forest, and now it’s our turn to protect it.”
Solar cells heat the water, there are a dozen varieties of potatoes from the surrounding region served with every meal. Chicken comes from downriver, spices from out back. Three times a day the chef chimes his bell for all the guests to gather; serving times are strict to save time and resources. The dining room is a central building – a huge hut resting on poles. Beautiful carvings decorate the interior, and dark wood stands out within this evergreen realm.
The tables overlook the lagoon, a view surpassed only by that from the bar. The lodge began business on a small scale several years back, and now hosts up to 40 guests at any one time. Lacking only a beach, Sani Lodge looks like an ordinary bungalow resort, except for additional housing partly hidden in the bush. Everything’s a bit rough, but spotlessly clean. Spacious rooms make for pleasurable rest, but the true quality lies in the outdoor ventures.
Nights are spent walking to see nocturnal wildlife such as frogs, spiders and the abundant caimans. Daytime treks take visitors to the newly built tower out on the main river and to several first-class birding spots; Sani Isla is a Mecca for ornithologists and amateur birdwatchers alike. Hoatzins and parrots are constantly sitting among the straws on the dining-hut roof, and you can see several species here.
As the sun sets, guests can take a swim in the lagoon – a delightful respite after a day spent in boots. As we get back from the lookout tower, we hear another canoe coming in. The sun is setting red behind the curtain of thick forest. Night falls fast on the equator. Cicadas hit the strings, and the evening air vibrates from the sounds of the wild.
It turns out to be the young guide Javier paddling the canoe, returning with a group of guests from a birding session. Both the Swiss and the English sound pleased, and thank him wholeheartedly. ”No problems, you know,” Javier says, laughing at his attempt at an American accent.
Thanks to the work he’s been given at the lodge, he’s been able to study biology and ecology in the US. Today, he is the chief guide. “I’ve lived in the rainforest all my life,” he tells me as we talk. ”I love showing it to the people who come here”.
Patricio explains about the transformation that’s going on for the people of Sani Isla. “Before we had only coffee, cacao and woodwork for our income, but now we have the lodge”. And this is the very core of their environmental work. For decades the people of Sani Isla had to cut and burn the rainforest to clear space for farming; this being the case for most indigenous people living in the Amazon area. Thanks to the income from the lodge, they can keep the forest – keep it, and show it off. They are living in the middle of a resource – but one which people pay to come to see. ”The more tourists we get, the better – and we’ve already grown so much in a few years”, Patricio says.
The Kichwas of Sani Isla, it seems, have established an important destination on the eco-map, without profiting anyone but themselves.
Flight to Quito, then to Coca (Fransisco de Orellana). From Coca, you’ll take a boat to Sani Lodge (included with your stay). Trips are best arranged through the lodge, since they can co-ordinate flights and boat transportation.
Many alternatives; your own bungalow or a room in one of the huts. Everything is spartan, but clean and safe. Doubles go for $150/night – with absolutely everything included.
Camping is a possibility, for about $100/night, with the same range of facilities available.
All prices include three meals a day and all the guided tours you want. Rubber boots and equipment is also available. Transfer by boat (round trip) to Coca is also included in the price.
Travelling with children
The trip may be long, but the lodge is well equipped for travelling with children. Guided tours can also be adapted. It’s important to remember to protect children from mosquitoes and other bugs; full-cover clothing and bug repellent is a must!
Boots or rubber boots. Also available to borrow at the lodge. Bug- and mosquito protection. Long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, including a hat. Binoculars. Every last bathroom necessity – the nearest store is a long way away.
For bookings, visit: www.sanilodge.com