Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure

Oil company vehicles being barged up the river to remote sites.

The photos were gorgeous. The reviews were raves. No question, Sacha Lodge in the Amazon basin of Ecuador has a sterling reputation. We had only four nights to spend in the area—someplace we might never visit again—and we wanted to be sure that our experience would be top-notch. We ignored the Big Numbers on the rate sheet and booked.

In the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon, there are a number of jungle lodges (or, as they prefer to style themselves these days, eco-lodges) scattered along the Napo, the largest tributary to the Amazon. From my research, it seemed like they shared some characteristics: e.g., trained guides, walks in the jungle, and canoe rides. Most have some kind of tower or walkway to allow guests to visit the canopy. Differences between the lodges include style of accommodation, quality of food, size of groups, distance from civilization (the farther, the better). Sacha scored high on all these criteria. It also has a swimming area in the river, a huge draw for us, and something no other lodge can boast.

We knew that we didn’t want to waste our precious time doing activities that were of marginal interest, like visiting a local village (see previous blog People Safaris) or fishing for piranha. Our goal was birds and wildlife, as much as possible. So I eliminated the lodges that seemed to put a lot of emphasis on unwanted activities.

When I contacted Sacha, they were firm that we would not be allowed to do any wandering around on our own. Once we arrived, we understood completely why, and to be honest, although we’re usually pretty independent, we wouldn’t have wanted to roam without a guide. There are just too many dangers in the forest and a lot of ways to get lost or injured. This is the depths of the wilderness; you are a long way from medical help and you don’t want to take chances.

They were also cagey about promising exactly which activities we would do, saying that would be up to the guide and the group we were with. I wasn’t thrilled about that. I’ve been on too many tours where we were stuck with people whose interests were completely different and bored guides who obviously couldn’t wait to check their phone messages. However, I trusted to the excellent reviews and the promises that we would have the ultimate Amazon experience.

When I explained that we are birders, the booking agent asked if we’d like to have a guide who specializes in birds, rather than a generalist. Yes, please! In addition, she told me they would try to place us in a group with other birders, if possible. I crossed my fingers.

For all of these lodges, guests make their way to the closest city, Coca, and meet up with a motorized canoe for the trip up the Napo River. A glitch occurred immediately: while most guests arrive by plane and are met at the airport, we chose to be driven down to Coca so we could see the countryside along the way. I had confirmed with the booking office the time that the boat would depart and had received this info: “If you arrive to Coca on your own you will need to join the group around 12h00 in our office of Coca.” We therefore planned to arrive around 11:00 so there would be plenty of time. We arrived at the office just after 11:00 and were met by anxious handlers who indicated everyone else was waiting around just for us and hustled us into the boat asap. Minor issue, but it was lucky that we hadn’t planned on a 12:00 arrival.

Motoring up the river for a couple of hours was fun. The boat had a canopy in case of bad weather, but it was clear and dry that day. We saw a few small clearings on the banks where people lived, but they were far away and not terribly interesting. We were surprised at the amount of development related to the oil industry that we saw: plants and docks and barges moving large goods (think semi-trailer rigs) to or from the oilfields, plus lots of company-owned boats ferrying workers around. This wasn’t the pristine rainforest I had imagined. But that changed once we docked upriver.

Everything–including mattresses–goes in and comes out of Sacha by small canoe.

After leaving the boat, we walked inland for about 30 minutes along a boardwalk through thick forest to the edge of a narrow waterway, where we climbed into a smaller canoe paddled by Sacha staff. We passed a similar canoe tenuously loaded with a double-size mattress, which reminded us that everything that goes into or out of the lodge must go by small canoe.

Ten minutes later, we slipped into the open lagoon across which lay the lodge, a beautiful sight, surrounded as it is by intense green foliage, blue sky, and still, dark water. Now, we were in the Amazon!

(To be continued)

Blackwater lagoon, home to Sacha Lodge.

Ecuador’s Magic Birding Circuit

San Jorge de Tandayapa Lodge

 

Arriving in Ecuador, our first stop, San Jorge Quito, was part of the “Magic Birding Circuit,” a group of lodges under single management. Including Quito, Tandayapa, and Milpe, we spent a total of nine nights on the Circuit, a considerable investment of time and money. Would I recommend it? Yes—but with qualifications.

Things I loved: comfortable rooms (big bonus points for the in-room fireplace at the Quito lodge, a necessity for drying wet shoes and clothes after a wet hike), friendly staff (although most speak/understand little English), lovely locations, reliable transfers, feeders to attract birds, Milpe’s three-level bird-watching “tower,” Tandayapa’s views over a sweeping valley and into the treetops. From what I observed, the guides associated with the Circuit (freelancers, I believe) were knowledgeable and handled their groups well.

Sometimes there were little annoyances, like the person servicing the room carrying off all the towels for washing without giving us any new towels. In one lodge, they provided a single roll of toilet paper in the room and failed to notice when that roll was about to run out (which it did in the middle of the night, of course), so we had to dip into the emergency supply we carried in our luggage.

The first night at Tandayapa, we returned to our bungalow to find that someone had helpfully turned on the light beside our door. Unfortunately, this meant that our door was now covered in hundreds of moths. Although we turned off the light and shooed away as many as we could, it was impossible to open the door and enter without taking a cloud of insects with us. We spent much energy that evening capturing critters and throwing them outside, but I still woke up several times during the night when some large moth blundered into my face.

The food was fine, wholesome and plentiful. However, after several days, we found the Ecuadorian-based menu became a bit monotonous, and by the end of our nine days, I was ready to kill for a pizza or sandwich. It would have been nice to have more variation in the menu.

Tables and chairs in the open-air dining area of San Jorge de Milpe.

Speaking of meals, I’m not one to pay much attention to dining room furniture; as long as it’s functional, I take it pretty much for granted. However, in this case, it was as if someone who never actually used tables and chairs had chosen them. I began my relationship with the chairs at Tandayapa by immediately toppling over and dumping myself onto a very hard floor. Examining the chair after this painful encounter, I discovered that the legs of the chair were set so far in that anyone who did not sit exactly in the middle of the seat would suffer a similar ignominy. At the Milpe lodge, the chairs, constructed of raw, natural tree branches, are so assertively knobbly and uncomfortable that guests dubbed them The Iron Throne. The tables are perfectly constructed to the specifications of some alien race with no anterior limbs, as there is a spindle under each situated in the exact position to torture bipeds: too high to get your feet over it, too low to get your knees under it, so you are forced to sit far back from the table with your legs indecently splayed. In addition, these tables are also cleverly made of free-form tree limbs, creating such an uneven surface that guests’ drinks are constantly falling over.

But these are minor things.

More importantly, because we did not book as part of a tour with a guide, we found that sometimes we lacked useful information about the lodges. We would be shown to our room, told when the next meal would happen, and that was it. For other info, we had to dig around on our own or ask other guests. For example, we didn’t realize that we could request coffee/tea between meals until we saw other guests doing this. At the Tandayapa lodge, which is quite remote, we were unaware that there was a nearby hummingbird reserve that we could visit via some simple arrangements. Luckily, I overheard one of the other guests mentioning it, so we didn’t miss out on this beautiful site, but the experience did leave me wondering what other things we weren’t told. I understand that in a situation where we don’t speak Spanish and the staff speak minimal English, communication can be limited. However, the lodges could easily provide a sheet of basic information available in a variety of languages.

A few other suggestions for improvement:

  • I feel that if you book nine nights with the same company, they could provide free transfers between their properties. Currently, there is a significant charge for this service.
  • Similarly, I think they could offer a small discount for booking so many nights.
  • For Gawd’s sake, put extra rolls of TP in the rooms. I promise I won’t steal them.
  • Bread. No one wants to eat eggs for breakfast every morning, nor should they. (Can you say high cholesterol, boys and girls?) Guests were joking that they couldn’t wait to eat toast again. I was craving bread like you wouldn’t believe. Give me a fresh-baked roll and I’m a happy camper.

In summary:

Although it was interesting to stay in the old hacienda at San Jorge de Quito, we didn’t find it particularly “birdy.” We used it as a rest stop to acclimatize to the altitude and recover from jet lag, but you could find cheaper places to do that in Quito. I know that the tour groups did day trips from the lodge, so perhaps that made the location a better option, but for us, with no car and no guide, three nights was definitely too long. I wouldn’t recommend this lodge for avid birders.

If traveling without a guide, two nights at Tandayapa and two at Milpe would be enough. Perhaps if you’re far fitter than I and relish the prospect of hikes along dark, rough, muddy, slippery, hilly trails, you might enjoy an extra day in Milpe. Being a Lazy Birder, that really isn’t my cup of tea. Since the weather was bad, we spent a lot of time there sitting in the (covered) tower space waiting for the birds to come to the surrounding trees. Pleasant enough, but an expensive way to idle away your time.

We liked Tandayapa the best, although, to be fair, we had better weather there than in Quito or Milpe, so I’m sure that makes me biased.

Overall, the three lodges of the Magic Birding Circuit that we visited provide an enjoyable introduction to birding Ecuador. However, I’m not sure they are any better than similar lodges that may charge less. While it is tempting to embrace the “easy package” approach offered by the San Jorge lodges (and I fell for that myself), I would suggest you do further research and don’t rule out alternatives.

Toucan barbet photographed from the viewing lounge/dining area at Tandayapa.

Vingerklip Lodge

The road to Vingerklip.

During my years of travel, I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels, motels, lodges, inns, and b&bs, from an elephant stable in South Africa to a monastery in Trinidad. Most were completely forgettable; comfortable to a greater or lesser degree, but nondescript. Some I remember because of the bloodstains on the wall, the dead rat in the hallway, the bullet holes in the door, or the bed that collapsed under me as I slept. Ah, the “adventurous” side of travel!

Then there are the ones that leap to mind as soon as I reminisce about the highlights of past journeys—like the Vingerklip Lodge in the Ugab Valley of northwest Namibia, where we paused on our way from Etosha National Park to the coastal town of Swakopmund. We had spent a week in the park on safari, and while we hadn’t exactly been roughing it there, we were looking for a few plush and easy days of rest.

The lodge is named for the nearby Vingerklip rock “finger” that towers above the surrounding flatlands. You can hike to the bottom (if you want to brave the blistering heat), but other than that, there’s not a lot to do in the immediate area; no impressive herds of wildlife, no manmade entertainment. It’s really in the middle of nowhere. No, my enjoyment had nothing to do with outside activities and everything to do with the lodge itself.

One of the pools set into the hillside.

Set in a stunning location surrounded by rock plateaus and formations, the lodge features lovely arid gardens with many inviting nooks and crannies where you can sit and relax. Swing seats, loungers, chairs, umbrellas, tables, and benches are scattered around the grounds. There is a hot tub and two pools, cleverly located one on each side of the hill, so that no matter the time of day, one pool always has shade. Birds, butterflies, and small lizards find their own corners to feed, rest, or sun themselves.

The lounge, bar, and restaurant are top-notch. As per the usual African lodge custom, meals are presented buffet-style, but the quality and variety staggers the mind, while the number of food attendants assures that you get exactly the cut of meat you prefer or a custom-prepared dish.

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book a meal at their Eagle’s Nest restaurant, perched on top of a nearby plateau—you hike a long path and clamber up a staircase to get to it. The climb and the view is spectacular, but not for people who are afraid of heights or can’t manage a lot of stairs! You can also just climb up for the view and not have dinner; it’s free. If you want dinner, be sure to book as early as possible; the restaurant is small, and popular among guests.

Our room was okay but could have used some refurbishing. The latch for the sliding door to the bathroom had the hook mounted on the wrong side of the door, while the toilet seat had two puncture marks that looked like something had sunk its fangs into it. (What bites toilet seats??? Quite a worrisome idea when you think about it….) On the up side, the room boasted a nice porch looking over the isolated landscape and a small, lightly used, waterhole.

Ruppell’s parrot (above) and rosy-faced lovebirds (below) visiting the drippy pipes outside our window.

In any case, as birders, we were prepared to overlook any minor flaws in the room in favour of its unique feature, one that I doubt ever showed up in a promo brochure. From the side of the porch, we looked onto a large water cistern. The tank itself was covered, but the pipes and faucets leaked and dripped. In a place surrounded by bone-dry desert, any source of water becomes a magnet for birds. We had an unbeatable view of the birds that arrived in flocks to drink, including the local specialty, Ruppell’s parrot, and the charming rosy-faced lovebirds.

At night, stargazing in the desert-clear air and comfortable temperatures was all the entertainment we needed.

Day visitors are also welcomed at Vingerklip Lodge; check out their website for more info.

Is there a special lodge, hotel, inn, or b&b you discovered while traveling that lingers in your memory? Let’s hear about it in a comment.

Vingerklip room with rock escarpment behind.