Napo River – Journey Into Amazonia
We have now reached the final leg of our Adventures Abroad Ecuador trip. In the first part we discovered the wonders of the capital city Quito and the surrounding area. We then spent a week exploring three of the islands of the Galapagos archipelago ending with Santa Cruz. Now we are about to depart on an entirely different experience, Amazonia where we will travel down the Napo River, the longest in Ecuador, to spend three days at an Indigenous camp in the world’s largest rain forest. I’ve never been to the Amazon and have been looking forward to this for a very long time.
So what exactly is Amazonia? It is a term that generally refers to the massive tropical rain forest that covers most of the land that is drained by the Amazon River and its tributaries. It is as large as all other tropical rain forests combined and includes parts of nine of the thirteen countries of South America, including Ecuador. There are over 3,300 recognized Indigenous groups living within it. It has flora and fauna that are unique in both number and diversity. In short, there is nothing else on earth like Amazonia. In Ecuador, a country usually thought of as mountainous, fully 30% of it lies within the Amazon basin which as you can see from the photograph above is decidedly flat.
Chances are that the main things people are aware of when thinking about the Amazon region are negative. There are constant refrains from NGOs and other groups decrying the deforestation taking place here as well as destructive mining practices. The traditional way of life of the Indigenous peoples is being undermined we are told. Species are going extinct at an alarming pace is another clarion call. I have been reading and watching documentaries about these issues for decades and now finally will get to see for myself and I promise that I’ll report accurately on what I see, good or bad. So please join Alison and I as we head out on this next adventure.
We flew out of Santa Cruz via the main Galapagos airport on Baltra Island which is linked to that island by a short ferry ride and spent the night at a hotel near the Quito airport. In the morning we boarded this airplane for the forty minute flight to the small city of Coca which is the largest settlement on the Napo River. It was quite amazing that in only such a short time you can go from the 2,850 metre (9,350 feet) elevation of Quito to the 300 metre (984 feet) elevation of Coca. When we landed there was not a mountain in sight.
We had said farewell to Alfredo, our AA guide for the first two legs of this trip the night before. In Coca we were met by representatives of the Napo Cultural Centre, and transported the short distance from the airport to the Napo River depot from where we would depart on the two hour journey downriver to the facility operated by the Indigenous Kichwa people. Kichwa is a language variant of Quechuan, the native language of the Incas that was spread throughout much of South America during their time of empire. There are quite a number of Kichwa peoples in Amazonian Ecuador and the ones who run the Napo Cultural Centre live primarily in Yasuni National Park over which they have the right of stewardship. If you follow the link to the facility’s website you will learn that they are dedicated to running an operation that has as minimal a carbon footprint as is possible.
Journey on the Napo River
Our luggage was placed in one boat and the rest of us in another. That’s the luggage boat shown in this photograph.
My first impressions of the Napo River as we passed underneath the recently built bridge that connects Coca to the rest of Ecuador was that it is very wide, very shallow and very muddy.
The Napo River joins the Amazon in Peru and for its entire length from there to Coca barely changes in elevation. The result is a river that has nothing to stop it from spreading its banks wider and wider as it crumbles away the very soft sedimentary rock that makes up most of the Amazon Basin. There was many instances where the soil appeared to be up to twenty feet thick and offering little resistance to the erosive powers of the water. This in turn made sure that the waters were murky and not particularly conducive to riverine fauna. I was struck by how few birds we encountered and saw nary a sign of fish jumping during the entire journey to the camp.
The one river denizen we did spot was this yellow spotted river turtle. So my expectations of seeing a plethora of wildlife as we had seen many times in Africa, even on the Nile, where quickly dashed.
However, that is not to say the journey was not unenjoyable. There were numerous signs of both modernity and traditional ways of life. Most people don’t know that oil exports account for the largest part of the country’s economy and that the oil reserves are found in the Amazon Basin. That was readily apparent as we passed facilities like this flaring off gas.
Or barges carrying tanker trucks filled with oil to the highway at Coca.
So the resources of the Napo River basin were definitely being exploited, but I saw no signs of widespread deforestation or ecologic destruction. Instead the opposite seemed to be the case with mile after mile of forest coming right down to the river’s edge. There were a number of really massive kapok trees like this one that would have been the first targets of illegal loggers if that was occurring in this part of Amazonia.
We also saw a number of Kichwa settlements on the way.
And occasional fishermen tending to their nets, proving that there must be fish in the river after all.
In due course our boat pulled up to the sandy shoreline and we got out and walked about a half a kilometre to the Napo Cultural Centre.
The Kichwa village has a number of families living there, most of whom work at the tourist facility. There is a school, recreational centre and a place for religious observances. The main building at the Napo Cultural Centre features a dining room and bar. It also had a large screen TV around which members of the community gathered to watch Ecuador play its final game in the 2022 World Cup against Senegal on the second night of our stay.
The rooms we were assigned were in large cottages which were nicely furnished and we were all given complimentary water bottles and ball caps.
This is the bathroom and shower. As you can see this was not exactly roughing it.
One sign of modernity that I was happy to see while travelling downriver on the Napo River was this barge carrying beer. With that in mind I’m going to head to the bar and indulge in a cold one before dinner.
While the trip on the Napo River might not have lived up to my expectations I can assure the reader that everything else that followed at the Napo Cultural Centre far exceeded them. So stay tuned for the next post when we really get serious about exploring the flora and fauna of Amazonia.