Silence…except for the dip of a paddle into the water and the occasional knock against the canoe. On either side, a lush green rainforest towers over us creating a canopy so thick that in certain places, the sky is only spots of blue. Suddenly, a screech of a bird calls to its mate, and a howl of a monkey pierce the air. You search into the depths of the trees in the hope of catching sight of these beautiful creatures. When you find them, you feel as satisfied as a child who figured out where the piece of the puzzle fit. Welcome to the deep Amazon in Ecuador!
Last summer, I took my 15, 12 and 11 year old children to Ecuador for two weeks. We spent 5 days on a boat exploring the Galapagos Islands. This was an extraordinary and unique experience. If you are interested in reading about our adventures there, you can read my blogs Galapagos Islands: Five Days in Paradise and Galapagos Islands: Would We Do It Again?
Afterwards, we headed to Napo Wildlife Center in Yasuni National Park for four days and I felt like I had struck gold. If you have ever wanted to explore the depths and wonder of the Amazon, I do not believe that there is a better place than here.
Getting to Napo Wildlife Center
Yasuni National Park is considered the most biodiverse place on the planet. The park is at the centre of a small zone where amphibian, bird, mammal, and plant diversity reach maximum levels. Napo Wildlife Center is a luxury lodge nestled deep within Yasuni National Park. To get here, you must take a 30 minute flight from Quito to Coca. Then, you are collected from the airport (a runway and a small building) by employees of the Napo Wildlife Centre and driven a few minutes to the Napo River, a major tributary of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. There, you board a very long speed boat for a two hour ride on the Napo River.
After two hours, you come to the mouth of another river, much smaller than the Napo River. The width of the river was around 20 feet or 6 meters (a fraction of the size of the Napo River). The Napo Wildlife Centre has an outstation here where you stretch your legs and use the bathroom. This is the entrance to the Napo territory and all speed boats are now prohibited in this area.
Instead, you climb into a long canoe. My family of 5 and another four guests shared this canoe with one naturalist guide, and two oars men. The oarsmen paddled all of us upstream for another two hours to Napo Wildlife Centre. Halfway through the journey, we met the mouth of Anangu Creek and continued down there. This creek was tiny – around 10 feet or 3 meters wide.
The Waters Around the Napo Wildlife Center
As you can imagine, being as close as we were to the shores of the river and the rainforest meant that we were mere feet or meters from most of the animals that we spotted. In most places, we could easily touch branches and leaves as they draped into the river or engulfed our surroundings. The silence of the canoes meant that we easily glided through the rainforest with the animals seemingly unaware of our presence.
We spent at least a couple hours a day on the rivers and creeks around Napo Wildlife Centre during our four day tour with the same naturalist guide and oarsmen. Each time, we spotted dozens of different birds, monkeys, lizards, snakes, sloths, insects, turtles, caimans, just to name a few. We never saw a person or evidence of any human life anywhere. We barely saw another canoe from our Lodge and never saw a canoe from another hotel.
One of our oarsmen was a “spotter” and what a gift he had. He found creatures hidden in the palms of leaves or sheltered in the shallow depths of the river that I would never have seen. Our naturalist guide was truly extraordinary. His level of knowledge of the animals, birds, vegetation was seemingly unlimited. He was incredibly gracious and so happy to share his knowledge with all of us.
Accommodation at Napo Wildlife Center
You find Napo Wildlife Center at the end of this incredible journey. One moment you are deep in the Amazon jungle and the next, you find yourself in the middle of beautiful Anangu Lake. On the far shore, Napo Wildlife Center sits surrounded only by nature.
Napo Wildlife Center is truly luxurious. We had two beautiful bungalows with large comfortable beds and gorgeous bathrooms, all with a view to the lake. While in this incredible bungalow, I had to constantly remind myself that I was at least two hours away from any civilization and four hours away from town. I do not know how they created such spectacular accommodation under these circumstances, especially when speed boats are not allowed in these waters. Meals were served in the main Ecological tower in the centre of the resort. This tower was 130 feet or 40 meters tall. The main level had the lounge, bar and dining room where delicious meals were served. There were several more levels to this tower, which housed a store, a library, a conference center, and ultimately, an observation deck at the top. The structure was extraordinary.
One of my favourite parts of our stay was learning that every employee at Napo Wildlife Centre was from the Kichwa Añangu Community, the native tribe who owns the land on which the lodge sits. There is a rotating program whereby each interested person from the community gets an opportunity to work at the lodge every month or two. Tourism and hospitality skills are taught to the employees on an ongoing level. The service at Napo Wildlife Centre was excellent.
Activities at Napo Wildlife Center
We selected the Premium tour, a 4 day\3 night experience and it was fantastic.
This was our travel day from Quito to Napo Wildlife Center which is described above.
Our day began around 5:00 am. We watched wildlife as we were slowly paddled out by canoe to the Napo River. There, we swapped our canoe for a speedboat. Around 10 minutes from there, we stopped at the clay licks on the banks of the river.
This was an incredible opportunity to observe several species of parrots, including macaws and parakeets, in an important part of their daily routine. Many of the fruits, seeds and flowers that these birds eat in the rainforest contain natural toxins for the plants’ self protection. In order to digest this toxic food, the birds rely on the high sodium and other natural chemicals found in the clay.
Afterwards, we went to the Kichwa Añangu Community where we visited a traditional home and school. We tried local food and drinks, and met members of the community. A traditional song was performed and we purchased beautiful handicrafts. A lot of the financial success of the Napo Wildlife Center is directed to improving housing, education and entrepreneurship for this native tribe.
After lunch, we headed back out on to the Napo River and later hiked around 30 minutes to another clay lick deep within the rainforest. This was a very cool experience. At the end of the hike was a little hut with benches. In front of the hut, was a large clay lick with hundreds of birds flying in and out. My senses were overwhelmed here. The birds were deafening – it was impossible to hear each other without raised voices (which was not allowed). The frenzied movement of dozens and dozens of birds flying down then up, left then right, left you mesmerized. We sat and watched this spectacle for 30 minutes. I think we could have watched for hours.
We returned along the rivers and creeks to Napo Wildlife Centre, all the while observing and spotting more wildlife. We arrived back at the Centre around 5:30 pm. Cocktails and dinner followed. You would think the day would be over. Well, you would be wrong! A night walk in the jungle was offered. Exhausted but determined to experience everything that we could, we went. We saw a tarantula and a couple of other large hideous insects/bugs. It was pitched dark, a little spooky and a fun way to end our day.
Our day began at 5:30 am. We headed around 20 minutes away from Napo Wildlife Centre in the opposite direction than we normally went. After a 15 minute walk in the jungle, we came across the canopy tower.
This structure is 118 feet or 36 meters high. There are only stairs to the top. There are handrails and appropriate fencing on the stairwell and at the top for adults and older children.
At the very top was a large platform, about 200 sq. feet or 18.5 sq. meters, with some bench seating. From here, you had a 360 degree panoramic view overtop all the trees and a clear view of the sky. Our spotter and naturalist guide had binoculars and a telescope. For the next three hours, we watched dozens and dozens of species of birds fly, land, play, and fight right before our eyes. This would have been impossible to see from the ground.
Late morning, we did a small hike in the jungle around the canopy tower and then, returned to the Lodge for a late lunch.
More canoeing and hiking in the jungle were offered along the rivers and creeks of the Napo Territory.
In the evening, we enjoyed delicious cocktails and a sumptuous dinner. We met many interesting people from around the world. It was great fun to exchange stories about our adventures.
We had a 4:30 am start. We headed back to Coca and then, on to a flight to Quito. It was bittersweet to canoe along the Anangu Creek from Napo Wildlife Center knowing that our adventure was almost at the end. However, it was amazing being able to spend a couple more hours in the rainforest spotting birds, monkeys and bugs.
If you are considering a trip to Napo Wildlife Center, you need to appreciate the following.
- The days are long. You have very early starts and often do not end your day until just before dinner.
- The days are packed with activities. You need to determine whether you have the stamina to enjoy your time there. This is especially true if you have young children or are elderly with low energy.
- Remaining quiet and still is required for many activities. Apart from our time with the Kichwa Añangu community, we had to be quiet. Wildlife will run, fly, or slither away at the sound of human voices. In the canoe, we needed to sit still to keep the boat balanced and quiet so as not to scare the animals. We spent 3 hours on top of the canopy tower and hardly a word was spoken except to point at a bird or tell us its name. If you have children, you need to figure out whether they are capable of this standard of behaviour.
- The canopy tower feels safe for adults and older children. However, it would be a little unnerving to take small children. There is some space between slats on the guardrails and fencing for little ones to slide through. I would also be cautious of the tower if your children like to climb.
- Private tours are offered. You may wish to consider one if you want to deviate from the pre-assigned schedule. This might also be a solution if you are concerned that your children will need to move and talk more frequently. This way, you are only effecting your own experience.
- You are tired once you leave Napo Wildlife Center. We loved our time there. We would gladly return in a heartbeat and relive our itinerary. However, it is an action-packed full experience. I would recommend that you have a late start and a relaxing day planned following your stay at Napo Wildlife Center.
Our time at Napo Wildlife Centre and Yasuni National Park was a privilege. We were granted the opportunity to spend time in one of the most untouched and biodiverse regions in the world. We saw incredible wildlife and learned a lot about them. The clay licks were mesmerizing and our time on top of the canopy tower was magical. At the beginning and end of each day, we were treated to luxurious accommodation, delicious food and excellent service. I loved spending time with the Kichwa Añangu community and witnessing both their history and progress. If you are looking for an authentic, responsible and ecotourism experience for adults alone or families who don’t want to compromise on luxury accommodation and service, then look no further. Napo Wildlife Center awaits.
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