The Napo River rises in the Andes in north eastern Ecuador and makes its way to feed into the Amazon River. Having travelled halfway up the Amazon from the mouth at Belem to Manaus on a river boat in 1974 followed up by a second week heading south on the Rio Madeira on a smaller river boat to end up at Guajara Mirim on the Brazil and far northern Bolivian borders, I am keen to explore some of the western reaches of Amazonia.
A Napo River adventure ticks all the boxes.
We tee up an excursion and head out of Quito on an extremely winding but very good road to Tena.
Our destination is Casa Blanca for 2 nights plus a 2 day jungle excursion with Gary. There are just the two of us so we pay a premium for the trip, but it does mean we get a totally private tour. Excellent decision.
Casa Blanca is about a 15 minute walk down the old airport strip to town but the hostel is very well set up thanks to US co-owner, Michelle.
The kitchen is large with everything you could need from a microwave to a rice cooker,even a recipe book and guide to exotic fruits plus a full laundry for the use of guests. Hammock in the room is a nice touch. Sweetest of all, fresh potable water throughout every tap in the place.
We set out at 9am, collect spare torch batteries and head off. First stop Capuchin monkeys but it has been raining so today we only see a mum and her bub. Mum steals a red onion from the fabulously stocked fruit and vegie shop and proceeds to peel it and rub all over herself. Tears literally spurt from her eyes but she persists with the anti vermin treatment.
Down to the Napo river and we head off in our motorised canoe. The river is quite low so we zig and zag, negotiating rapids from time to time. Gary checks the water level with a large pole.
Delightful to be back on a river and the jungle views are often very close with occasional habitations and resulting human activity. Still, we feel we almost have it to ourselves.
Sacha Sisa Amazon Lodge is perfect with rough timber walls, perfectly fine beds and our own bathroom. Mind, the termites are hard at work in the bathroom – an occupational hazard of timber structures in the jungle. There is a large open eating area plus another bar come river and jungle observation area, not to mention the hammocks to lounge in. We relax after walking up the 160 steps past little waterfalls and dense growth. We will do these steps a couple of times before our stay is out.
The Oropendola birds keep us entertained. So fast as they flit and call to each other in the trees tantalizingly close to our room, the yellow feathers striking against the black. Their enormous pendulous nests hang high up in the trees and they go in and out like our Sunbird only on a gigantic scale.
Lunch, which is more than I can eat, over and we head off on the first jungle walk for a couple of hours. Rubber gumboots plus a substantial hiking stick are the order of the day. There is a lot of scrambling up and down some of it relatively steep and we are grateful the wet season has not started.
Gary imparts so much information about medicinal plants as a starter. We are familiar with some of the first herbs we encounter, cilantro or coriander, basil just growing wild, gingers. Heliconiums are everywhere, but so many more plants, herbs and trees that are new to us.
The white cacao is different to the dark chocolate producing cacao. We examine the contents of the huge pod fresh and get to eat the beans roasted up for dinner. Delicious.
Once it gets dark we head off on the night tour, torch in one hand, walking pole in the other, to again clamber up and down along a jungle track. With total faith in Gary and his machete we just go with the flow and enjoy. His eagle eyes spot tiny creatures like tarantula and poison dart frogs.
The cry of an owl on the full moon night releases another legend from Gary with references to Romeo and Juliet. We sleep to jungle noises including the owl.
An early morning start before breakfast. This is going to be a big day. We cross the river and head off down a track to try for some bird spotting. Seeing and hearing the woodpecker in action is a novelty for us. So called prehistoric birds cluster in trees across from a small hide. Called Hoatzin, they have wing claws which leads to the prehistoric reference.
Back for breakfast and we leave the lodge. More new sights as we head towards one of the highlights of the trip. There is the curare vine and a plant reputed to be good for diabetes, but the blood tree is amazing. A small cut in the trunk and it exudes a sap looking for all the world like dark venous blood. We hear the legend of this tree and then Gary rubs the sap onto our arms. Amazingly as he rubs it become a white paste which when dry acts as a protection over a wound, like a latex cover or a fine bandaid. So many more stories from Gary that he learned growing up from his Grandfather, an expert in jungle medicine.
We embarrass ourselves trying to harvest yucca by pulling too fast and leaving half he tuber in the ground and then replant two for the ones we dug up.
As we walk through the jungle, a man and woman approach. He is shirtless wearing camouflage pants, boots and wields a large machete. The outline of a jaguar is tattooed on his upper arm. He greets us all with a handshake and a Buenos Dias. Later we see them walking along the river, he with an enormous pump hoisted on his shoulders. They disappear down river to go about their business.
In a small clearing, we head towards an open structure to experience something quite extraordinary. Cacao beans are roasted over an open fire. A heavy old mincer is attached to the end of a stool and with a lot of muscle power, the beans are fed through the mincer to create a pure bitter chocolate paste. Next stage, raw sugar and water is added to the paste, it goes back over the fire and boiled down to make chocolate. The best part is that we then get to taste the end product via a strawberry and banana fondue. Divine is an understatement, can hardly bear to stop eating it!
Further down river is the butterfly farm, only 112 steps up to this. Again, a most amazing experience as we walk around an environment with about 30 different types of butterflies fluttering all around and on us.
Monkey Island provides excellent views of Wooly monkeys.
Across the river is the picnic lunch spot and a feast is prepared for us on the river bank.
Amazoonica is our final stop for the day. Pretty much run by volunteers, our guide is Paul from Berlin who is doing a 3 or 4 month stint. All the animals here have been rescued or confiscated and are not fit to be re-released back into the wild. Tamarind monkeys, ocelots, caiman, macaws, toucans, Amazon parrots and so many more are housed in an extensive natural environment.
Back on the canoe for the final leg of this wonderful river journey and jungle excursion.
We catch up with the Capuchin monkeys who are out and about now and feed them grapes.
There is something quite special for me about river travelling. Napo River is added to the list of river travels I have made over the years and is right up there for sheer enjoyment. The breadth and depth of our experiences in the time we spent with Gary over those two days would be hard to match anywhere.