From Coca, the muddy waters of the lower Río Napo flow in broad curves for over 200km to Nuevo Rocafuerte on the Peruvian border. Long, motorized canoes ply the shallow river, searching for the deepest channels between large and slowly shifting sandbanks, while half-submerged logs wag vigorously in the currents. The region is only sparsely populated, and you’ll pass just the odd Kichwa homestead linked to the riverbank by steep dirt footpaths. The Río Napo is the region’s motorway, and its network of tributaries and backwaters forms the basic infrastructure to remote indigenous communities deep within the remaining tracts of pristine rainforest. In the forests to the south, between the ríos Napo and Curaray, lies the Waorani Reserve, home to about two thousand people. Their territory acts as a buffer zone to the Parque Nacional Yasuní, Ecuador’s largest national park, protecting a number of habitats and an extraordinary wealth of flora and fauna.
Since Coca became more accessible in the 1970s, this wild part of the eastern Oriente has been one of the country’s top natural attractions, and also the location of several of the best jungle lodges, which provide the most comfortable way of experiencing the rainforest here. Many of them have an observation tower – a high vantage point to see life in the jungle canopy that’s all but invisible from the ground – and own private reserves close to much larger national parks. A number of less expensive jungle-tour operators (see Tours from Coca) also run trips down the Río Napo from Coca, some using their own basic accommodation, others making do with tents and campsites. Añangu, three hours’ drive east from Coca, on the edge of the Parque Nacional Yasuní, is one of the few indigenous communities along the lower Napo that has developed its own ecotourism programme.
Parque Nacional Yasuní
Parque Nacional Yasuní
Parque Nacional Yasuní encompasses just under 10,000 square kilometres of tropical rainforest around the basins of the ríos Tiputini, Yasuní, Nashiño and Curaray. The gap at the western end, in the shape of a giant horseshoe, was made into Reserva Waorani in 1990 for the 21 Waorani communities living here; it is effectively a 6000-square-kilometre buffer zone preventing colonization and oil exploitation from the west.
Yasuní is part of the “Napo Pleistocene refuge”, an area of rainforest thought to have survived the ravages of the ice age, allowing species here to thrive and diversify, generating scores of endemic species. It’s theorized that this long period of development is why the Amazon rainforest is much more biodiverse than its African and Asian counterparts, which the ice age affected. Yasuní claims almost sixty percent of Ecuador’s mammal species, including 81 species of bat, larger animals such as jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, twelve primate species and aquatic mammals including pink freshwater dolphins, manatee and giant otters. Over 520 bird species have been recorded, including harpy eagles and sunbitterns, and one recent botanical study found 473 tree species in only one hectare, which is thought to be a world record. Most of the park consists of forest on well-drained soil (tierra firme), but other life zones include seasonally flooded forest (várzea) and permanently flooded swamp forest (igapó). Scientists today believe they’ve only scratched the surface of identifying all life here.
UNESCO was quick to declare Yasuní an International Biosphere Reserve in 1979 – two months prior to the park’s official creation – to strengthen its protected status before oil companies could start prospecting. Despite this, the park is under attack from several of them and roads have already been built into protected areas. At Pompeya, barges ferry oil vehicles across the Río Napo to a gravel road, known as the Vía Maxus after the oil company that built it, which cuts right through the northern arm of the park for 150km. Entrance to the park here is monitored to allow access only to oil workers and members of the three small Waorani communities who live inside Yasuní, preventing settlers from colonizing the forest. Even so, environmentalists complain the road destroyed fifty saltpans, disturbed centres of animal activity and was built of contaminated waste materials. Nor is this the only concern: as many as five oil companies are operating inside the park, and the threat of new roads, waste dumping, destruction and contamination is never very far away. The damage hasn’t only been environmental; Waorani living in and around the reserve have persistently suffered from malicious interference, as some oil companies continue to exploit community divisions, bribe leaders, spoil hunting grounds and pollute water supplies.
The Kichwa community of AÑANGU, on the south shore of the Napo, about 66km downstream of Coca, has access to two stunning natural resources. Inside the northern reaches of the Parque Nacional Yasuní and only an hour’s walk west from the community, Laguna Añangucocha is one of the largest lakes in the region. It’s bordered by dense forest, where peccaries and pumas forage and the waters twitch with caimans, piranhas and paiche, a fish that reputedly nudges the 200-pund mark (though there are rumours some weigh twice as much). The area is also excellent for birdwatchers, holding 560 species and two parrot licks (an exposed clay bank) near the community. The licks provide an extraordinary spectacle as thousands of parrots squabble over the best perches to peck at and gulp down the clay, the mineral-rich content of which helps them digest the harsh acidic fruits they usually eat.
The community has its own lodge, the A Napo Wildlife Center (reservations in advance in Quito on t02/2528261, whttp://www.napowildlifecenter.com), composed of ten beautiful and spacious cabins on Añangucocha, with private bathrooms, hot water, electric lights and hammocks on porches overlooking the lake. Next to the dining room, a 36-metre observation tower allows you to scan the forest canopy with binoculars for monkeys and bird species. Highlights of a stay here include possible sightings of giant otters; walks down the “manakin trail” where six species of manakin can be spotted; and visits to the parrot licks, where hides (blinds) have been built for better observation of the blue-headed and orange-cheeked parrots, cobalt-winged parakeets, scarlet-fronted parrotlets and scarlet macaws that feed there in a frenzy of sound and colour. Extremely knowledgeable local guides (who also work as Yasuní park rangers) backed up by bilingual naturalists, lead jungle walks and canoe rides. A three-night package costs $720, while four nights is $920 per person in a double, including boat transport from Coca and park entrance fees.