Our first stop on the journey down the Rio Coca was at Sani Lodge, a community driven project that has successfully combined tourism with community development. The following is what we learned from an incredibly unique experience while they hosted our team for three days.
First, the facts
Fact#1: The areas around the upper Amazon or Rio Napo are some of the most bio-diverse in the world, containing countless plants, animals and habitats not found elsewhere. Venture away from the river on any tributary and one will find themselves in plush, stunning territory alive with sound and movement.
Fact#2 The same areas are the most mineral rich in Ecuador, huge deposits of oil lie underneath the pristine jungle. At least eight oil companies have operated in Ecuador in the last twenty-five years and part of the national budget depends on the amount of oil extracted each year. In the past these companies have had little regard for the environment where they worked, poisoning the earth and the people alike with dangerous waste dumped onto the land.
Fact#3 The indigenous communities along the Rio Napo subside mostly on farming and often don’t have access to adequate medical and educational facilities. Members often work for oil companies, as guides or providing services for those traversing the river. Many times whole communities decide to lease their lands to oil companies who provide not only money but the much-needed services listed above.
This is a very complicated issue, full stop. For hundreds of years in recent history companies from outside Latin America have set up shop to extract rubber, drill for oil and mine minerals. Whole communities have been displaced, used as cheap labour and forced to endure living on meager means while their lands were harvested for the materials they possessed. It has been very much a case of the tortoise and the scorpion with communities getting the short end of the stick more often than not.
For those outraged at the fact that communities here lease their lands to oil companies and think that they hold the blame in doing so, stop reading this and go look in your driveway. The need for oil isn’t going to go away as long as there is a car in it. Riding your bike to work makes more sense than blaming a community trying to adapt to the present and ensuring that future generations will be looked after.
The success story, Sani Lodge.
Sani Lodge is located two hours downstream from Coca past oil wells and small wayside villages. Coca is the staging point travelling down river to jungle lodges, moving equipment to oil wells and getting supplies not found in smaller communities. It is also close to the site where Pizarro and Orellana split and Orellana started his epic journey down the length of the Amazon ending up on the coast of present day Brazil.
The idea for Sani Lodge came from a member of the Isla Sani community, Don Orlando. Before Sani Lodge, members of Isla Sani had worked for other lodges in the area. Don Orlando himself worked for an oil company for more than twenty years before decided that the community should build its own lodge. After a year of dealing with the Ecuadorian government and the oil companies he and the Isla Kichwa community negociated a deal with an oil company to fund the construction of the initial cabinas and dining area.
Side note, while I love life in Ecuador, the sheer amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that one has to deal with to get a small thing accomplished is mind-numbing. To convince the government and an oil company to let you build a lodge on prime oil land is a heroic feat worthy of songs and legends and the equivalent of present day folklore along the river. Indeed in our travels since visiting Sani lodge we have met many people who recognize Don Orlando’s name immediately. (This isn’t uncommon as a rule as one person upriver has friends or relatives living downriver but the instant recognition of Orlando’s name has a certain acclaim that accompanies it.)
Since that time the lodge has become an outright success, showcasing the natural sights and sounds of the jungle while providing comfortable accommodation and friendly service. Tent cabins come with towels, shampoo and mattresses; the lounge features a stocked bar and snacks which are refilled as soon as they are gone and the staff of the kitchen could work at the fine-dining establishment of their choosing.
Enter the Rediscovering the Amazon Team.
Our team started our journey at Sani through a series of coincidences and a bit of serendipity. We held a raffle at our launch party featuring prizes at different hostels, tours of Quito and as the grand prize two tour agencies donated trips to the jungle at two different lodges. (Thanks to Paul at Carpe Diem and David at Eos Travel Ecuador and everyone who donated prizes and the South American Explorers Club Quito.) The raffle was in part so we could help an Ashuar friend go with us and as I write this he is sitting on the balcony down the hall!
Dave Jackson and I were at the EOS Travel offices in Quito talking to Dave, the manager and founder, about the details of the prize he arranged and as an aside he said that he could talk to the people at Sani Lodge about hosting us at the onset of our journey. Never the ones to say no, we quickly agreed that if he was willing, we were up for it.
A few days and a well-written proposal in Spanish by Dave Jackson later, EOS Dave got back to us saying that Sani would be happy to host us for two nights. A week after that I was sitting in the EOS office again with Colleen Pawling talking to Rene, a very well-spoken and thoughtful man who works in the Sani office in Quito, about meeting Don Orlando in a few days when we arrived in the jungle.
With this new development we had some serious brainstorming sessions about what questions or issues that we wanted to address. We knew that Sani Lodge used their profits to help the community, were involved with the school there and are proactive when it came to environmental issues. During the three days that we visited the lodge and the Isla Kichwa community, we saw and learned about just how much the people of the Isla Sani community have accomplished and what they are facing for the future.
With many details seen to in the last few days in Quito we finally arrived in Coca and found ourselves on a dock awaiting our guide and transport to the lodge.
Journey Down the River
Upon meeting Javier, gathering all the people going with us downstream and setting off, the first hint that this wasn’t your normal tourist excursion came into view in the form of Javier himself.
Javier is a passionate man who studied in the States and has deep ties to the lodge, his community and the jungle. Although young in years, his understanding of the politics and fragile balance of the jungle goes beyond that found in newspapers or guidebooks. After talking to him for half an hour I was ready to sign up as a volunteer at the lodge as his enthusiasm and the energy of the other guides at the lodge reminded me of working in the mountains in Colorado.
Javier had the boat driver cut the engine as soon as we got a few clicks away from the pier and proceeded to give us a brief history of the Napo, the communities that live along its banks and some interesting debates about the name of the river itself. A few new points that were called to our attention.
-The Napo is growing wider and wider, losing depth as it does. The main cause of this is traffic on the river. Along the way to Sani we had to slow down and kill the motor many times in order to find a passage deep enough for our relatively small boat.
- The city of Coca is named after the indigenous people who once lived there and were forced to Peru to work during the rubber boom.
- The river itself was generally regarded as the Upper Amazon as was the river in Peru until the communities in Brazil decided that they had the only legitimate claim to the name. The Ecuadorian part was renamed the Rio Napo and the Peru part El Tigre. People in Brazil have the exclusive rights to use the name “Amazon” and use it not only in regards to the river in Brazil but also to the whole stretch through Ecuador.
From outside Coca continuing on down the river we pass small communities on the banks with docks announcing their presence in front of small collections of ramshackle buildings. A bit further along were more organized pueblos of oil companies with bigger docks fit to accommodate the large barges which transport trucks carrying supplies and fuel.
The next stop on along the way with further explanation from Javier was just past the community of Pompeia and the road to Limon Cocha.
Limon Cocha is a small community that was originally started by missionaries and some time after they left was restarted by a religious group that believed that in order for anyone to go to heaven everyone had to hear the word of God. This group set up camp and set to the work of creating a written index of the nearby communities previously unrecorded language. Colleen had previously volunteered at the school there and credits that group with preserving languages which today wouldn’t be remembered. Today Limon Cocha’s school serves other communities both up and down the river.
Pompeia was similarly started by missionaries and today is known for its Saturday market where locals come for staples and wild animals and meat such as turtle, tapir, parrot and monkey. It’s also a staging point for oil companies to load equipment and material to supply sites downriver as the road here is somewhat haphazardly connected to the coast.
On the rest of the trip to Sani Lodge we passed many more communities and fresh construction financied by the goverment providing new transportation options that facilitate easier access up and down the river. Seeing this it became apparent that this section of the Rio Napo is in transition from a series of individual communites to a larger area and region that is gradually coming together as transpotation options become greater. While this is the case in one sense, new divisions have been created by those lands that are leased for oil and those that are not.
Walkway through the wetlands to tributary of the Rio Napo
Dave hopping into canoe
At the end of the boardwalk we arrive to a peaceful tributary of the Rio Napo where we board canoes for the hour trip to the lodge itself.
Final leg of the trip down a tributary of the Rio napo
The final leg of the day’s trip is a glimpse into the natural wealth of the land away from the busy hustle and bustle of the main river. The shady inlet is
calming, the sounds change from that of motors to that of birds, howler monkeys and herons announcing our arrival and our guides seem to relax a bit upon returning home. Having lived in Quito for four years the tranquility is a shock to my system and I struggle to keep my eyes open in my current state of relaxation.
Jeffery on the Sani Dock
Entering the Sani Lagoon with camping area ahead
After an hour, a causeway opens up into a sunny lagoon. On the far side Sani Lodge presents itself blending into the scenery with an amazing complex of bamboo thatched buildings fronted by a dock. Jeffery, the lodge manager awaits there to help us out of the shaky canoe and greet us with a welcome drink of maracuya and rum. (Side note, Dave once again was an acrobat with his crutches, hoping in and out of the canoe on one leg regaining his balance while others barely made it out on two!)
Sani Lodge overlooking the Lagoon
Once situated in the lodge’s open air bar overlooking the lagoon, Javier walks us through the necessities of living at Sani. Meals are announced with a note from a bamboo horn, in the camping area there is no electricity and we should always have bug spray, suntan lotion and rain gear on us as the weather changes at a moments notice. My kind of place.
After the orientation, which brings back memories of camp and summer jobs, our group separates from the rest of the guests and we are introduced to Don Orlando. After a few moments of deciding who we were and what we are about he lays down his cards and tells us his story of starting the lodge and his vision of its role in the Isla Sani community. He also details the issues that both the lodge and the community are facing in the present.
Don Orlando has a grandfatherly demeanor, a spring in his step and eyes that flash passionately when telling us about a the work that he has done and is doing through Sani. In between long explanations about this he pauses and laughs at the folly that getting things done in the jungle admist constant pressure from the oil companies brings. In short; the glimmer in his eyes and the his laughter comes from one thing, he has beaten the giant, he has won the battle and outwitted the scorpion.
What stands out about Sani at this point is the lack of pretension. From the boat ride down the river, through the orientation to the meeting with Don Orlando we were treated as familiar guests in a friend’s home. For a lodge with top ratings, this was refreshing. Don Orlando listened to or ideas about what we wanted to do there and accommodated every request we made. Later, after visiting the community I realized tht the lodge was a genuine extension of the community, having their traditional welcoming nature thinly guised as services for guests.
Don Orlando’s story is compelling but many of the details were lost on me due to my faltering Spanish. Dave has written a post with the whole story and we also interviewed Don Orlando numerous times. Parts of these will be posted for those who donated to our trip as their reward for helping through our kick starter campaign.
This much I can tell you.
The Isla Kichwa community owns 23 thousand hectares of land sandwiched between two other indigenous properties who are leasing their lands to the oil company. Despite constant pressure from the company to allow the Isla Sani community to explore for oil, they have managed to maintain their lands and succeed in turning them into a natural eco-tourism destination rarely accomplished in Ecuador.
During the following two days, Don Orlando would personally show us around their land and the community, giving us a unique opportunity to understand the politics and purpose that is symbolized by Sani Lodge.
Sani Lodge is staffed by members of the Isla Sani Kichwa community under Don Orlando’s guidance. Members of the community who wish to work there must be pursuing an education or have completed it. Those who wish to work but forgo an education are politely asked to return after attending school. For a gringo this seems to be a no-brainer, one must be qualified in order to get a job.
But for communities along the Napo, it is often the case that one completes the education provided in the community and then finds a job working in whatever captivity that gains the most money. Sani is working to change this as we would see in the second day that we were at the lodge.
As I mentioned, the Isla Sani community is under constant pressure from the oil companies. As it turns out, Don Orlando invited us to the Isla Sani community the next day where he was attending a meeting between the community members and Petrol Amazonas. They were once again asking for permission to explore the communities land for oil.
Camping Area, Sani Lodge
Interviewing Don Orlando
At that we went to the camping area to sort out our accommodation and get ready for dinner. The camping area is located across the lagoon from the lodge only accessible by canoe. Upon hearing that we were ready to go, both Don Orlando and Jeffery accompanied us to the tent cabin area. There we conducted our first interview with Don Orlando. After which and being satisfied that we were comfortable Orlando and Jeffery left promising to return at the appointed hour so that we would be in time for dinner. Over the coming days, this would be the routine with Orlando showing up at the camping area at various times for casual conversations that resulted in excursions, song and mutual comadarare.
Dinner consisted of first-class service, gourmet food and good conversations with Jeffery and our dining companion Tim. He is an American frog and snake enthusiast who was returning to sani for his third time to mark more species off his ever-growing list. As frogs and snakes only come out at night, he headed out after dinner, as did we. Only we were after not snakes but Caiman!
Despite it being a full moon and having a shortage of headlamps, Don Orlando and another great guide Fausto paddled around the lagoon for two hours while we were serenaded by the singing, howling, buzzing and chirping of the jungle. Just when we had decided to call it a night, our lights picked up the glowing red eyes of a Caiman’s along the shores. The first we spoted was under a meter, the second had a body like a crocodile and the third slipped into the water as soon as we approached. Happy to have seen these elusive creatures we quietly glided back to the camp dock and made our way to bed admidst the night sounds of the jungle looking forward to visiting the Isla Kichwa community in the next day.