Amazon Region and Napo River: Travel in Ecuador

Before sunset.

In the summer of 2019, I visited Ecuador with my daughter. Elina went there for 2 months of studies to improve her knowledge of Spanish. I joined her when she completed her practice, and we planned together to explore this amazing country. We have selected a visit to three of the four natural-geographical zones in Ecuador: Amazon (eastern part of Ecuador), mountains, and coast. We did not plan only to visit the Galapagos this time.

Ecuador or the Republic of Ecuador is one of the countries, having the richest fauna and flora with an estimated highest level of biodiversity in the world per square kilometer. This is also one of the countries with the highest rates of endemism in the world. In addition, Ecuador is a country of unique culture and a long history of human civilization. The ancient history covers a huge period and goes back almost 17 thousand years ago. Modern history – from the 19th century to the present day – can be characterized as a period of struggle for independence, the formation of statehood, and the process of evolutionary development of society. Taking into account the value and uniqueness of biological diversity for the development of the country, the new Constitution of Ecuador (2008) contains an article that legitimately recognizes the Rights of Nature or the Rights of Ecosystems.

Amazonia (Amazon Region) in Ecuador stretches from the eastern slopes of the Andes to the lowland tropical forests of the Amazon Basin, occupying an area of ​​about 130 thousand square kilometers. It is impossible to survey in detail this vast territory even during a long visit. We planned to stay in Amazonia only for two days, knowing that we can look only at very small pieces of jungles. Our choice focused on the town of Puerto Misahualli, still surrounded by the jungle, through which the Napo River flows. Yasuni National Park is located not far from the town; it is known for its rich biological diversity. A small Napo Wildlife Center was established in this park, to save wild animals and rehabilitate them back into the wild. The area near the river is surrounded by jungles with swamps and other wetlands, in which hoatzins, one of the most amazing birds with ancient morphological traits, still occur. In the area of ​​the park and in the tropical forests around there are settlements of local indigenous peoples – the Kichwa-Anangu tribes; they are completely dependent on forest products, gathering herbs, and hunting wild animals.

Just before my arrival, heavy rains fell, which washed out the roads and even demolished one of the bridges on the way from Quito to Amazonia. Therefore, our bus took another safer road, which was much longer. As a result, we arrived at the final point of our journey very late. But the owner of a small hostel located in the jungle met us in the central square of Puerto Misahuali in the middle of the night. Another 15 minutes took the road to the hostel, and then we went up to the lodge along a narrow path illuminated by a flashlight beam. We stayed in a lodge that was still under construction. Its owner, Scott, has kindly provided us with the only guest room with access to the common dining room. The cottage is equipped with a comfortable shower and toilet. The house is supplied with electricity, but there is no internet connection yet. A small balcony adjacent to the dining room offers beautiful views of the river and the lush green jungles around. Scott began to build the guest-houses and make landscaping in the area around his house. Two of his assistants from Puerto Misahuali completed the construction of cottages for tourists, a small restaurant, and sanitary units. Volunteers from other countries helped with the design of the buildings and the new territory. All buildings are connected by a network of branching paths with picturesque bridges over water streams and small ponds that create habitats for amphibians and aquatic invertebrates. The buildings are located in a charming landscape surrounded by tall trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. Bird feeders and bananas for monkeys attract forest dwellers, who can often be seen near the cottage.

Coming out of the house in the evening, visitors find themselves surrounded by velvet darkness, over which the pearly canopy of the night sky reveals itself with unusually bright stars and other night luminaries. Darkness is occasionally cut by zigzag flying fireflies. The darkness is filled with the noises of the night – the sounds of the jungle. First of all, it is a many-voiced choir of amphibians – frogs and toads, which begin their singing at dusk. From the voices, it can be assumed that about a dozen different species inhabit the local ponds. However, it was never possible to see them during the day. All amphibians are invisible, hiding in the depth of the ponds and in plants, growing on trees. By the presence of bromeliad plants in the trees, one can expect to find here bright tree frogs. Grassy bromeliads – evergreen epiphytic plants – can often be seen on trees. Tree frogs are associated with some of them. They settle on bromeliad clumps, sometimes very high on a tree. It is not easy to see frogs on trees or in bromeliads; although during the breeding season they can descend lower on trunks and become more observable. Reproduction takes place in the wet period. Some species lay their eggs right in the wet sinuses of the leaves, where the development of tadpoles takes place, which then turns into adult frogs. However, a considerable number of species also live in terrestrial reservoirs, as can be judged by night voices. In addition to frogs and toads, cicadas, owls, nightjars, night-herons, and other nocturnal birds join the night choir. In general, it is quite difficult to distinguish individual species in the polyphony of multiple jingles, but sometimes, when a bird flies closer, its voice begins to stand out among other nocturnal sounds. Bats also appear with darkness, slipping noiselessly among the crowns of tall trees. Some individuals quickly jump out of the dark and rush over a narrow strip of light rising above the house’s balcony in the hope of grabbing a gnawing insect or spider. Surprisingly, during our stay in the cottage, we did not see or hear mosquitoes or other bloodsucking insects. It is likely that the rainy period has just begun and they did not appear yet.

A clear starry sky, a chorus of nightly voices, flashing fireflies — everything promised a clear morning the next day and we prepared to get up early to watch the dawn and the birds arriving at the feeders near the open balcony of the house. But after midnight, the first drops of rain drummed on the roof, and in the morning we were awakened by the even sound of tropical rain. It then amplified, then calmed down by the oncoming waves, but did not stop. After morning dawn, only rolling streams loomed in the window, through which blurred silhouettes of trees and a gray river appeared in an obscure fog. Some kind of revival was heard in the crowns of the trees: birds from the Icterid (Icteridae, Passeriformes) family woke up there; it was a russet-backed oropendola (Psarocolius angustifrons). These birds are somewhat similar to the bright-colored American orioles; they even build similar nests, which hang from the tree branches, but rather large, resembling oblong baskets. Nests are closed at the top and with an opening entrance at the bottom. Despite the rain, the awakened oropendolas began to actively discuss the events of the new day, flying from tree to tree in pairs and small groups. Some of them have already built their dangling nests, and sometimes they flew inside to fix the inner trim. Others still constructed these nests and brought thin and long blades of grass to weave them into the walls of the nest. When the rain slightly calmed out, the yellow-rumped cacique (Cacicus cela) appeared (it is also a bird from the Icterid family). As soon as the rain subsided a little, both species began to rally out their relations, opening wings and showing bright spots on the tail and wings. Caciques and oropendolas are widespread in the Amazon region. They occupy in the jungle tropical forests the upper layer of tall trees. Both species show themselves by their noisy, loud voices and contrasting colors. Caciques have also very bright clear-blue eyes, contrasting with the overall black color of the plumage. In addition to these numerous two species, some other interesting birds flew up to the lodge, but we could not identify them behind a dense wall of rain. Several flocks of parrots flew over, small passerines emerged from the wet foliage and immediately hid again from time to time. The hummingbirds were not seen at all, apparently, they sat huddled in the thick shrubs and waited for better weather. Meanwhile, when Elina woke up, she made tea and was preparing to pour it into cups, when she suddenly found in one of them a large shaggy spider, somewhat resembling a tarantula. It is likely that the spider got into the mug to escape the rain. The spider did not want to leave its shelter, so we pick it out from the mug with a small sprig. Once on the balcony, the spider quickly ran down, hiding from the rain under the veranda.

In the late morning, the rain ended, but the heavy drops were still falling down from the wet trees. In the debris, located near the house, we heard a noise and spotted small monkeys with white faces jumping from branch to branch. The brown-mantled tamarins (Saguinus fuscicollis) came to check out the banana feeders. The monkeys were very careful, immediately soared up the tree trunk and hid among the high branches after insignificant stirring. However, they carefully examined all the trees in the area around the cottage, moving in small groups from tree to tree.

After observations of monkeys, we went to Puerto Mishahualli to meet with local guide Carlos and visit interesting areas around. The bright sun after the rain woke up nature: sparkling hummingbirds and small sparrow birds fluttered over the flowering shrubs; scavengers and other predators began circling in the sky. We met with Carlos near the central square, where other tourists were already waiting for a trip down the river. The monkeys – White-fronted Capuchins (Cebus albifrons) – were also nearby, occasionally descending from the trees and exploring the area in search of edible food remains.

Carlos enthusiastically began to tell us about birds and other animals living in jungles around the town. From time to time he interrupted his story that to show us a bird flying nearby. After several minutes of conversation, he offered us several possible trips, and he was ready to go to the jungle immediately!  Frankly, leaving the lodge, we did not plan to go somewhere, as we intended to explore the surroundings and walk along the paths around the town, where there were really many attractive shrubs with birds and insects flying everywhere. However, the single magic word “hoatzin” affected us like real live bait on fish.  Carlos said that the hoatzins live nearby Puerto Misahuali in the marshes, where people can always see them…

In my memory immediately appeared the pages from the ornithology textbooks and the description of this amazing bird. The Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) (the name “Hoatzin” came from the Aztec language) is the only species from the Opisthocomidae family and Opisthocomiformes order. It is the only bird on the Earth whose chicks have free fingers with claws on the wings. Adult birds lose these claws. This bird shows that an evolutionary connection between birds and reptiles is possible. Modern scientists suggest that the claws on the wings of the Hoatzins can be an adaptation to life in the dense tropical forest because other morphological traits do not indicate similarity with reptiles and are typical for all bird species. However, genetic studies conducted in 2015 showed that these birds appeared about 64 million years ago, in the time when the last dinosaurs became extinct. And, who knows, it is possible that Hoatzins or their ancestors, in their origin, are connected somehow with feathered dinosaurs. Hoatzins feed on vegetarian food, mostly leaves, but they can also eat flowers and fruits. This is the only species among birds, which is distinguished from others by the fact that the hoatzins digest plant food in a large crop, where bacterial fermentation of plants occurs in the same way as in the rumen of ruminant animals. This feature makes the Hoatzin “dung or stinky birds”, which have an unpleasant smell. The meat of the hoatzins also has a sharp, rotten smell, due to which birds are not eaten even by people from local tribes. Perhaps, this fact served to the preservation of these large birds — the size of a medium goose — in equatorial forests. Their habitats – riverside shrubs and swamps – also remain relatively intact, protecting this amazing endemic of the equatorial forests of the Amazonia. Therefore, to be in a place where you can see the hoatzin and not take this opportunity was completely unacceptable for me as an ornithologist and passionate birdwatcher. Elina also was interested to see the Amazon forest and its dwellers. At the same time, Carlos continued to list all new and new species to see, as well as interesting places to visit, more and more winning over us to him with his avid enthusiasm. Visiting places that Carlos called was interesting for both of us, so we almost immediately decided that we would use the offers. After short debates, we selected the boat excursion on the same day and jungle hike to a small forest reserve the next morning.

Hoatzins in the Amazon forest near Puerto Misahuali.

After a half-hour, we were on a small motorized vessel, well-equipped to serve tourists, driving along the Napo River. Carlos prepared rubber boots for both of us to hike through the jungle. Tropical landscapes with amazing trees pass by, but practically everywhere along the river, residential houses are built or are in the process of construction, occupied either by the local villagers or equipped as cottages to accommodate tourists. In some places on the river, we could see local artisan companies or families of gold diggers who washed the sand. The Napo River is known for its gold-bearing outlets, therefore many local inhabitants associate their income with gold mining. Stealthy white-winged swallows (Tachycineta albiventer) sailed by over the river very low, almost touching the water. A couple of other swallow species also flew near the water, but not so low. Not many birds were seen in this late morning time. We spotted two species of kingfishers – the Ringed (Megaceryle torquata) and the Amazon (Chloroceryle amazona), but both escaped so rapidly that we could not see their bright plumage in the details. The snowy egret fluttered from the shore; there in the shade – under the branches of the coastal plants, we could see its hidden nestling chick, which had already begun to fledge, but still kept the juvenile greyish plumage. We left Puerto Misahualli around 11 o’clock in the morning, for birds it was already the time of a day’s rest, so it was not surprising that we saw so little a number of birds along the river. We stopped on a sandy spit, from which the footpath went into the jungle. “Hoatzins …” – explained Carlos, we shook our heads knowingly and followed him under the canopy of the dark forest. Carlos slightly cleared the narrow path with his machete in places where lush vegetation locked the passage after the recent rains, but it was noticeable that the path was used and the road did not seem hard. The rainforest greeted us with relative silence, darkness and dampness. The silence of jungles was interrupted by the chanting of cicadas and the dialogues of ubiquitous caciques and oropendolas in the crowns of tall trees. Among other birds, Carlos heard only the great tinamou (Tinamus major), a secretive species, hidden in the darkness of wet rainforest. Two species of woodpeckers and a barbet, encountered on our way, flew away immediately, as soon as we approached closer.

The tropical equatorial forest is interesting not only by observation of birds. Many trees here are perfectly adapted to the conditions of life in a dark and humid environment. Probably, it should be said, first of all, about the walking palm or the cashapona (Socratea exorrhiza), – the unique tree, which has unusual stilt roots. According to local legends, these roots allow the palm to move from the place of growth to the side if something hinders the growth. But this statement was questioned by scientists, whose assumptions boil down to the fact that stilt roots make this palm more stable, as it grows to a height of 25 meters with a trunk diameter of only 12-16 centimeters. The second assumption is quite acceptable, given the swampy nature of the terrain and the absence of solid soil in the places where these palm trees grow.

Another interesting tree we saw on our way was the wild cacao or cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao). The word “cocoa” itself is also of Aztec origin. The cocoa tree is now widely distributed and cultivated outside of South America. But this species originated in the subequatorial regions of South America, most likely in the plains of the Amazonia, where this species still grows in the jungle in natural conditions. We saw later cocoa trees in mountainous areas also, but they were planted there, mainly for decorative purposes. The main cocoa plantations are located in humid plains, near Amazonia. Bromeliads were the most diverse among other plants. They grow in the tropical forest of the Amazonia as independent shrubs, as well as epiphytes on tree trunks or grassy plants inhabiting tree trunks and settling sometimes very high in treetops. Several species of orchids also were spotted, but in this season they had already finished flowering.

Among insects in the tropical forest, termites, ants, and cicadas are the most numerous. Termites and ants in the moist and swampy jungle arrange their homes in the trees. Termite houses do not look like massive hills, and resemble, most likely, wasp nests, although many of them have quite impressive dimensions. We were not focused on insect-watching but spotted several interesting species such as ants – leafcutters, giant ants, walking sticks, and bright dragonflies. Carlos warned us to be more careful with giant ants, as the bite of this species is painful and can lead to unpleasant consequences. Also in the dark wet forest, we saw several different types of mushrooms that were visible on the trunks of dead and dying trees.

Imperceptibly, the path led us to a swamp inhabited by hoatzins. A pair of birds sat close to the path. Hoatzins were in no hurry to fly away, assessing the degree of danger, which can be associated with our visit. Then, reluctantly, they flew far away that to hide on another side of the wetland. But after a while, this pair came back and settled down to rest in the middle of the swamp, so that we could observe them from a safe (for the hoatzins) distance. In total, in this swamp, according to Carlos, no less than 12-15 birds can be found. We could believe this because saw several more birds flying at a distance. Besides, we noticed on trees within this wetland several more parrots, a ringed kingfisher, a lesser kiskadee (Philohydor lictor) from Passerines as well as a greater ani (Crotophaga major) from the Cuckoo family. After watching the hoatzins, we went back to the river and continued our journey.

Further our way lay down the Napo River to the Wildlife Center of the same name. This center adjoins Yasuni National Park. We walked up the path, distorted by the night rain, to the visitor center, where we met another group, who had just returned from the excursion, and our guide descended towards us. It turned out that our guide, a student from the Netherlands, had practices in the center, studying the behavior of monkeys and, like many other students, volunteering in the nursery, helping to feed and care for animals, and also conduct excursions for visitors. The center was established for the rehabilitation and release of animals affected by contact with people back to the natural environment. Wounded and confiscated animals taken from poachers and smugglers are brought there. The staff of the center provides veterinarian help and food to the animals. When there is a chance to return animals back to the wilderness, they are placed in rehabilitation enclosures, from where they can be released into the Yasuni National Park after recovery. Those that injuries do not allow them to survive in the wild remain in the nursery for their life. Some of the released mammals and birds continue to keep close to the center, regularly visiting their feeding places. Wild animals, especially monkeys and many bird species, also regularly visit the center, as the nursery is located near the national park with a rich species diversity, and the animals living around us have the chance to get food in the center.

Visiting rules oblige all visitors to respect animal rights. Visitors to the nursery go along certain paths; if they meet on these paths the local inhabitants – monkeys, turtles, crocodiles, snakes, then the first rule prescribes to give way to animals, and only then to pass to people. Our guide warned that among the recently released inhabitants of the nursery there are monkeys who do not tolerate lenses and cameras turned at them. As a rule, these monkeys had a negative experience with people. Local tribes hunt them for food. The lens turned at the monkey may be considered as the last weapon, and there were already cases when angry monkeys snatched cameras from visitors and broke them. The second rule is to observe animals, as if they were in their natural environment, without attracting them closer or communicating with them. This rule is consistent with the practice of releasing animals back into the wilderness.

Several species of monkeys, tapirs, peccary, jaguars, ocelots, turtles, crocodiles, macaw and amazon parrots, toucans have been rehabilitated in the Wildlife Center. The parrots are permanently brought to the Center after they are confiscated from the bird traders, so the Center’s capacity is not always enough to accommodate all the incoming birds. But the saddest thing is that some birds, when after rehabilitation they are released in the wild, are caught by people again and sold on the same market. Therefore, one of the tasks of the Center’s staff and volunteers is to develop birds’ fear of people, as well as working with people – communicating with local tribes to develop sustainable ways to use natural resources and wild animals.

Humboldt’s squirrel monkey (Saimiri cassiquiarensis) groups often visit the Center looking for food given to animals in rehabilitation facilities. We spotted several groups of this monkey during our visit. We did not see many animals from the Center, as they slept (tapir, jaguar, and ocelot), but we were quite pleased with what we saw and heard. We looked and listened to interesting stories about the behavior of monkeys. Our guide showed us a golden-mantled tamarin (Saguinus tripartitus), a black-headed spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps), and a brown-woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagothricha). We felt that she (our guide) likes her subject of study and is passionate about the conservation of tropical animals. The local population – the Kichwa tribes – hunt on woolly monkeys; therefore, these monkeys consider people as a dangerous enemy. Wounded monkeys, who have already had the experience of negative interaction with people, most often got into the Center. In the same way, many other animals enter the nursery. Therefore, the staff of the national park and Wildlife Center works with local tribes, helping them solve the problems of poverty, survival, and development in modern times, and reduce the pressure on the wild natural environment, providing opportunities to work in the park. Local people from tribes also can sell their crafts such as hand-made dishes, baskets, and other souvenirs to tourists in the villages and the visitor center. Some money from sales goes to their producers, and some replenish the budget of the Wildlife Center. Prices in a small souvenir shop are established for foreign tourists, so the local tribes are quite satisfied with the income, which they can get from their production. However, the Wildlife Center does not have enough money and donations for all operations relevant to animal recovery and release, and the financial support to the Center is always welcomed. Part of the funds received from donors and eco-tourism goes to the education of youth from local communities. Boys and girls from local tribes get a chance not only to learn how to write and read, but also study foreign languages ​​and get training to become guides in the ecotourism industry.

The next day, early morning we were already standing on the bridge, watching the amazing lilac light above the river, shrouded in clouds of fog, and the scarlet dawn over a thousand-year tree near the road. We had to go to the small Reserva El Para, located relatively close to the lodge. Carlos promised us to show a clay ravine where parrots are going to replenish mineral reserves. We arrived at the entrance to the reserve, where a local ranger, armed with a machete for a hike, was waiting for us. Together we went along a narrow path along a small stream. The path was overgrown or collapsed due to recent rains in some places. We were moved slowly, as the path was constantly going up and the road was blocked by fallen trees, landslides that fell on the slopes, or just something else. Flocks of parrots rushed high in the sky, both in the direction we went and back. The forest, surprisingly, was silent, even cicadas did not sing. We did not spot any mammals during our way. Only flycatchers and woodpeckers came across the road, but they were all far away and it was impossible to see them well. When we reached the site two hours later, it turned out that the ravine “swam” and collapsed slightly after the rains. The parrot gathering place was empty; the flocks of parrots flew over us, settling in tall trees around, but none of them was going down. After watching the parrots in the distance, we realized that we could not expect more and quietly went back down selecting another smoother path. The dark damp rainforest perfectly kept its secrets. In one of the places we saw signs of vital activity of the sloth, but the animal itself was well hidden somewhere in the crowns of tall trees. From time to time we stopped to look at interesting plants or mushrooms, insects or spiders. The flocks of parrots continued to fly high in the sky from the place, which we just visited. Several birds of prey circled in the sky. In general, the way back took about an hour. We only saw birds near the entrance to the reserve and in open areas along the road on the way back to Puerto Misahualli. The most abundant along the road was a species of birds from the cuckoo family — the Smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani). These birds, like many other American cuckoos, build their own nests and raise chicks themselves. Ani is a very communicable bird; they, instead of scattering in different directions, all flew in one bush, from where they curiously watched people. Many birds (ani) gathered in bushes around pastures, where cows were grazing. This is not surprising, since ani prefers to eat insect larva, and it is likely that large hoofed animals provide them with good food. Flocks of ani uncounted from 3 to 12 birds together.

Carlos drove us back to the town, and then we decided to walk from there to our lodge that to watch the birds along the road and we were not mistaken in our expectations! During the hour’s walk, we saw and could take some pictures of many interesting species than during our few hours of wandering in a dark tropical forest. Several species of hummingbirds, doves, flycatchers, caciques and oropendola, swallows and swifts, ani, and many other tropical species inhabit open landscapes. The birds did not hide there but continued to do their usual activities, just precautionary flying away from the strangers… When we left Puerto Misahualli later that day, we understood that 2-day stay was too short to view the magnificent biodiversity of the Amazonia. Among the places that must be visited is the Yasuni National Park, which is adjacent to a Napo Wildlife Center.

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