Exploring Ecuador’s Napo Wildlife Center

This article appears on page 32 of the April 2016 issue.
The typical form of transportation at the Napo Wildlife Center.

I always wanted to visit the Amazon jungle, but I kept procrastinating. My procrastination had many reasons. I worried about getting sick from mosquito bites. I was concerned about the vaccines that I would have to take and their unpleasant side effects. I was worried about the cost of such a trip and, on top of that, the need to pay a single supplement. And there’s the fact that I don’t like to travel to hot and humid places.
All these concerns kept me from making a decision. Then, in July 2014, I found out my sister had terminal cancer, and I realized that life is short. Whatever I needed to do, I needed to do now.

Making plans I decided to visit Ecuador’s Napo Wildlife Center (phone 593 2 600 5819, napowildlifecenter.com) in December 2014 on their 5-day, 4-night program. The first time I heard about the Napo Wildlife Center (NWC) was in December 2009, when I traveled to Quito and visited the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, Otavalo and a few other places.
I booked the trip five months in advance, and during those five months I corresponded a number of times with NWC representatives. There were questions and concerns, pre-trip preparations and flight changes. Each inquiry was promptly replied to within 24 hours.
Each representative was polite and answered all questions asked. They really did an excellent job.
I arrived in Quito two days before my visit to NWC, just in case of any travel interruption. I stayed at the beautiful Casa de Hacienda La Jimenita (Barrio Andrango Via Pifo, Pifo; phone +593 99 875 0972), where I booked a deluxe suite through Booking.com for $129 per night. Including the 12% hotel tax and service fee, my total cost was $345. The hotel arranged a taxi to pick me up at the airport, about 20 minutes away, for $15.
The hotel is family owned and operated and is situated on 16 acres on top of one of the many hills in the area. The owners and their son Diego were very friendly and helpful, and they treated me like part of their family.
I was there on Dec. 24 and 25 and was the only guest. On my first night, I had dinner at the hotel ($22 for a 3-course dinner). Stepping out into the courtyard before dinner, I saw hummingbirds buzzing constantly to the feeder, darting from one spot to another.
The next day, Christmas Day, I walked to the nearby city of Pifo and had a 3-course lunch ($3.25) and walked around the town. The temperature was on the cool side and there was a brief rain shower, but it was a good walking day.

Lodge on the lake I arrived back at Quito’s airport at 8 a.m. the next day. A representative from NWC met the group of travelers headed to the center and checked us in through an express lane for our flight to Coca. Upon our arrival, three NWC representatives were there to greet us and load our luggage onto a pickup truck. We boarded a bus for the trip to a nearby hotel, located right next to the river where we would board our motorized canoe to NWC’s welcome center.
After waiting for more than an hour, we were told that the open-air motorized canoe was not available. Instead, we took a speedboat — fully enclosed and air-conditioned — which cut the travel time in half. We arrived in about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Upon arriving at the welcome center, we each were given a bag lunch, and our group of 15 was divided into two groups. My group of seven included two couples from Switzerland and a couple from Connecticut. From that point on, we were to tour and eat together for the duration of our stay.
From the welcome center, we traveled with our local guide/naturalist, Remy, via paddle canoe for about an hour to NWC’s ecolodge, located on Añangu Lake. NWC is situated in Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and is owned and operated by the Kichwa people.
The lodge has 12 standard cabins and four suites, and my cabin (16) faced the lake. A big bottle of water next to the cafeteria was available at all times for filling up our drinking bottles, and there was a jug of drinking water in each bathroom. An umbrella and wading boots were also provided.
All meals were included in the price, and most consisted of soup, a roll, two vegetables and two entrée choices (meat or seafood). There were also several dessert choices, and juice, coffee and tea were available.

Casa de Hacienda La Jimenta.

The meals were served buffet style and were very tasty — better than many buffets I’ve had in Los Angeles. It was quite remarkable that they could prepare so many good meals in such a remote place, as all the ingredients, cooking gas and water have to be brought in by paddle canoe.

Wildlife on the water All of our tours were conducted via paddle canoe, which was slow going but relaxing. On our first full day, we met at 7:30 for breakfast, and at 9 we were on the canoe heading toward a man-made channel. Along the way, Remy explained the medicinal values of the area plants. We arrived back at the lodge at 11 and had lunch at 12:30, and, as the birds and wildlife were taking their midday siesta, we took one too.
At 3 p.m. we gathered again, this time going to another natural stream to look for giant river otters (but we found none). On the way back, it started to rain and both Remy and oarsman Claudio were paddling as if they were in a dragon-boat race. We made it back to the lodge right before the downpour. We applauded them for keeping us dry!
Since two members of the group were scheduled to leave on day 4, we were to visit the clay lick on our third day. Unfortunately, it was still raining cats and dogs, so we ended up going to the on-site tower to look for birds. We saw toucans in the distance and a sloth, but they were quite far away. Then we saw a group of curious monkeys coming toward the tower, so we raced down to the lower level for a fantastic view of them.

The “doorbell” for the Casa de Hacienda La Jimenta.

Later, we all got ready to go back to the stream we had visited the previous day, as another group had radioed that they had spotted river otters.
After about 20 minutes, Remy and Claudio had paddled about three-fourths of the way up the stream when we heard a squeaking sound. Soon, several small heads came into view. The river otters stared at us for a moment, then dove beneath the surface of the murky water.
They were constantly moving and playing around, and it was hard to count how many of them there were. As they moved toward the lake, we followed. One came up with a fish and held it with both hands, hungrily devouring it and oblivious to the 18 of us in two canoes watching him. The fish disappeared into his mouth in less than a minute before he disappeared back into the water.

Exciting encounter For our last day at NWC, we were told to have breakfast at 4:30 a.m. and be ready to leave by 5:45, right at daybreak, for our visit to the clay lick, which attracts area parrots and parakeets. This was the main reason I had decided to visit NWC.
We paddled to the welcome center, then changed to a motorized canoe for a trip up the Napo River. It was a partly cloudy day and perfect for viewing.
We arrived at the first clay lick, on a cliff next to the river, and bounced around in the canoe while trying to see the parrots flying to the lick from a nearby perch. We watched from at least 200 feet away so as not to disturb the birds, but I was disappointed because they were too far away to see, as I didn’t have a pair of high-powered binoculars.
After 15 minutes we went to another location and walked about 10 minutes to a hut. As we approached the hut, we could hear loud chatter.
The clay lick was on a slope 25 to 30 feet away, and we could see three species of birds taking turns eating the clay. I have never seen so many parrots and parakeets in one place! Remy set up his binoculars on a tripod so we could all take turns looking at the birds, and we were given as much time as we liked.
After that, we went to the Kichwa community center to see a cultural dance and learn about their everyday lives. It was very informative and enlightening.
Following the community tour, we gathered to visit one final clay lick. After 45 minutes of waiting to see the birds we could hear overhead, we heard an unexpected snort coming from the left side of the viewing hut. To our surprise, a group of 40 to 50 peccaries ambled up — quite a pleasant bonus.
The guide said that in his six years’ working there, this was only the third or fourth time he had seen peccaries there, so it was a very rare sighting. They appeared to have a great time in the mud, frolicking and rubbing against each other. After 20 minutes they left, and we waited for the guests of honor to arrive.
Finally, after we had waited for two hours, one brave parrot came down to the clay lick, and that started a feeding frenzy. There were at least 20 to 30 birds at any given time, and they kept flying off to be replaced by others.

Small green parrots at one of the clay licks we visited.

The sound was so very loud as we watched the dazzle of green, blue and sometimes red feathers in front of us. It was a “grand” finale.
Then, from high above, we heard a squawk and the mass of birds flew directly toward us, coming within inches of our faces. Everyone just stood there, speechless, with our eyes wide open. I was surprised none of us was smacked right in the face by one of the at least 50 parrots and parakeets flying past us!
All we heard was the fluttering of feathers for a second or two and then silence before another chorus of chirps started again. It’s hard to describe in words what we witnessed; you had to be there.

Back to civilization On our final morning, promptly at 5:45 a.m., we boarded a motorized canoe for our trip back to Coca, which took over two hours.
Halfway through our journey we saw dark clouds on the horizon, and soon we were pelted by heavy rain. Even the lowered canopy couldn’t keep the rain out. Raincoats were passed out to anyone who needed one, but I preferred to feel the cold water. It had been so dry back home in Southern California that it was refreshing to feel the splashing water. At the airport in Coca, Remy took us to a line without any wait and checked us in.
We bid farewell to Remy, who had been a wonderful guide and offered a wealth of information. He was approachable and personable. Claudio, the oarsman, was helpful too, always offering a helping hand to guests stepping on and off the canoe. (Those wading boots were pretty clunky and I have big feet, so it was easy for me to trip.)
This was one of the best trips that I’ve ever taken. I paid $2,060 for accommodation in a suite, including the single supplement, all meals, two guided tours daily and transportation by motorized and paddle canoe. Not included were gratuities and soft and alcoholic drinks from the bar. Wi-Fi was provided for $10 for the entire stay, and the connection, via satellite, was excellent.

A bright-red-and-blue scarlet macaw.

The round-trip airfare from Quito to Coca, which was booked by NWC, was $206 on Avianca, which (including tips) made my total tour cost $2,261. I also paid $1,472 for round-trip airfare to Quito from Los Angeles via Miami. With the exception of the return leg from Miami to Los Angeles, I flew in business class.
Yes, it was rather expensive, but it was worth it. I was pampered with good food, a cozy bed and helpful staff.
All the fears and concerns that I had before the trip turned out to be nothing to worry about. It was only hot and humid in the jungle while we hiked, and the humidity was quite tolerable.
The only disappointment was that the trip was too short!