Words by Tim Pozzi
The luxury Anakonda river boat travels to Yasuni National Park - one of the most biologially diverse places on earth
Oh, the agonies of trying to pick out a sloth 150 yards away through a pair of binoculars. There were 20 of us in two canoes on the Black Lagoon in Ecuador's Yasuni National Park, being directed by our guides Javier and Freddie.
“You see the giant kapok tree at two o’clock? On the left there are three smaller trees. Behind them are two bigger trees. Then a palm-like tree, and next to that, about two thirds of the way along the crest of the tree… You can just see its head. A three-toed sloth.”
Tense silence. Muttering. Bafflement. Then, “Oh yes!” “Wow!” “Got him!” It takes several minutes before all of us have located it – “No…” “Which tree again?”
Happily the sloth was in no hurry. It lazily surveyed its kingdom with what resembled the hint of a smile. A huge metallic blue morpho butterfly flapped languidly towards us in a straight line, more reminiscent in its flight of an eagle than its smaller, flickering cousins.
At the best of times the Amazon is intoxicating. At Yasuni National Park, arguably the most biologically diverse spot on Earth, amphibian and reptile species is paticularly prolific. But to spot some of the larger beasts you have to try a little harder. Suddenly there was a shimmy and a ripple through the water hyacinths a few feet to our left. “Caiman! Maybe three metres,” said Freddy. We were all too slow to see it. Then, on the other side, a thunderous splash among the elephant-eared philodendrons. “An arapaima,” said Javier. “A very big fish.” Unnervingly so – at up to 15ft long.
We entered a narrow channel of tea-stained water, six or so yards across. Sunlight filtered through the branches that formed a tunnel above us, bouncing off the water to dance on the underside of leaves. Vines and roots descended to the still surface like curtains. We saw the footprints of a tapir. An anxious toucan eyed us before deciding to take flight. Then, suddenly, Freddy signalled to the man paddling us.
“It’s a monkey group!” he whispered urgently. A troupe of between 20 and 30 squirrel monkeys, smaller than cats, approached to within 60 feet. For a quarter of an hour we watched as they gathered fruits, shaking the branches, before crossing from one side of the water to the other via the bridge of trees and disappearing into the forest.
Two decades have passed since I last visited the Amazon 20 years ago. I was camping and what with the insects, stifling humidity and rain I found it deeply uncomfortable. This time, an hour and a half after my jungle encounters I found myself back in my cool, spacious cabin on board the Anakonda Amazon.
There are other vessels on which to explore the Amazon, but the 148ft-long Anakonda Amazon, built in 2013, is the only luxury boat plying Ecuadorian waters. And since the country is not much bigger than the UK it takes just an hour to fly from the capital Quito to Coca, where the Anakonda was moored on the Napo river – a tributary of the Amazon. A map of our cruising route east along the Napo River from Coca, towards the border with Peru, revealed few place names and little more than wriggling tributaries and the mass of jungle in which even I happened on my own tarantulas (tiny), frogs and millipedes.
On board our river ship were 17 other two-berth cabins, with names such as Otter, Jaguar and Piranha occupied by a mix of mostly English but also Australian, American and German passengers. Mine, Manatee, was six metres by four metres of minimalist browns and creams with a jacuzzi bath as well as a shower in the bathroom, a desk and a delightful little verandah. There was also an expansive observation deck, a small spa and an al fresco lounge for relaxation, reading or simply enjoying the view. At our disposal were three canoes and 10 kayaks.
After our jungle walk I lay back on the crisp linen duvet on one of the two generously sized single beds and wondered about lunch (our first meal had included smoked pork chop in passion fruit sauce and curried mahi-mahi fish with harusame noodles).
Itineraries are variable, depending on the weather, season and water levels and the moorings are simply stretches of river bank; sometimes little more than crumbling stretches of red earth and trees teetering towards the water. However local infrastructure was much improved since my last visit. Take the boardwalk leading towards Cuicocha Lake that we sauntered along one morning. It’s possible to shuffle through the jungle on slippery, narrow paths, dodging branches, watching where to place your feet – mind those tree roots – trying not to bump into others, slapping away at mosquitos. But a raised walkway opens up a corridor of magic.
Walking easily, we made less of a commotion. We were free to focus on the whistles and whirrs of the mostly hidden birds and insects – the whoop of the weaver, the cackle of the speckled chachalaca, the trill of the white-shouldered antbird. And to admire the vigour of the saplings, shrubs and trees thrusting up to gorge on the fierce equatorial light.
The king of these is the mighty kapok which can grow to more than 200 feet. By the same token, it is best appreciated by taking the “stairs”. A green-painted metal construction – akin to something you might storm a castle with – took us several floors up to a large decked area in the tree’s canopy. The absence of seasons here makes it difficult to age trees but a guess is hazarded at 500 years old. Views of the rainforest’s roof were overwhelming. More easily grasped was the magnificence of our situation, the majesty of this one tree that held us aloft, along with a host of epiphytes, orchids, bromeliads, ants, beetles and who knows what else as easily as a giant might sport a bird’s nest in its hair.
On lily pads at the water’s edge millions of tiny lights appeared – the larvae of fireflies. Some clumps had broken off to drift across the lagoon, like miniature floating cities. Suddenly, the sky above was ablaze with stars.
Cuicocha, a pristine volcanic crater lake circumscribed by a 10-mile trail, made for an exhilarating day’s walking.
Before joining the cruise I spent a few days recovering from my long-haul flight at Hacienda Piman, a tranquil 17th-century manor house in the remote foothills of the Andes, three hours’ drive from Quito. Beneath the verandah of my room a dozen humming birds danced about the nectar-rich flowers of an abutilon, their blue and green plumage dazzling in the sunlight.
I stocked up on souvenirs at the Indian market at Otavalo, a city within a city where narrow alleyways are crammed with tiny juice bars and food stalls, mountains of fruit and sacks full of vegetables and irresistible textiles ranging from carpets to cardigans.
There were so many other extraordinary sights on this trip: pink dolphins; an agouti battling the current of the river to clamber ashore (cue applause); a visit to a classroom full of bored and fidgety but impeccably well-behaved children; squadrons of macaws flying high overhead; bulldog bats dancing above the top deck; an impromptu performance from Pepe the barman who – with no microphone and a noticeable lean towards the ladies and a hand fluttering inside his jacket to signal a beating heart – crooned crowd-pleasing songs.
But it is the sunsets that will remain with me. As dusk began to enclose another lagoon at Limoncocha National Biological Reserve, the monotone shriek of the cicadas intensified and the frogs took their cue to begin clicking and belching. We paddled across the oil-black water, hot night air in our faces, the kapok trees turning to delicately etched silhouettes against the burnished tangerine sky.
On lily pads at the water’s edge millions of tiny lights appeared – the larvae of fireflies. Some clumps had broken off to drift across the lagoon, like miniature floating cities. Suddenly, the sky above was ablaze with stars. We turned off our own lights and for a few moments were swallowed up in the humbling, teeming fecundity of the forest.
This article was written by Tim Pozzi from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.