July 3, 2008

To the Galapagos Islands, Via the Amazon Rainforest

By Ilene Cox, Redlands resident; owner of Redlands Travel Service on West State Street

In the past few weeks many Redlands Daily Facts readers have come up to me in markets and stores telling me how much they enjoyed my articles on driving across the U.S. with my daughter Erin.

I'm complimented they enjoyed the articles and decided to share my articles on Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands when I traveled with my older daughter, Heather, in August 2005.

When the girls were growing up we traveled considerably and even when they were out of college we managed to take trips to Ecuador, Tahiti, China and Russia. I have written about this trip before, but since the Galapagos Islands is my favorite travel destination, I would like to share these articles again in hopes it may entice you to plan a trip to the Galapagos Islands for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Any time of year is good - Ecuador and the Galapagos are on the equator and the weather is pretty much the same all year long. This was also a Bill Handel trip - part of our Fun and Adventure series.

I have also started a blog, www.WhereInTheWorldIsIlene.blogspot.com . If you miss any of the articles, you can catch up on the blog. Comments are welcome.

In August of 2005 I planned a two-week trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands as part of our Fun and Adventure journeys with KFI radio talk show host Bill Handel. For the next several weeks I will share our experiences as we traveled into the jungles of the Amazon, visited Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and journeyed to the Galapagos Islands, where we came face to face with blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and playful sea lions, among other marine mammals and birds indigenous to the Galapagos Islands. On this trip I joined forces with Dr. Carol Walton, a naturalist guide I met in Antarctica, whose area of expertise also includes Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

For 49 adventurous souls, including my older daughter Heather, who is not exactly the outdoor type, the first part of the trip started at Sacha Lodge, a rainforest lodge deep in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon. We flew from Los Angeles to Quito, Ecuador. The following morning we took a short flight from Quito to Coca, a port town located at the confluence of the Napo and Coca Rivers.

Our adventure was just beginning. In Coca we met our guides and boarded motorized canoes for our 50-mile journey down the Napo River, the largest river in Ecuadorian Amazonia, and a direct tributary of the Amazon, about 400 miles downstream. As we floated down river we passed some military posts, a few oil company camps and several Quichua Indian villages. During our ride our guide talked about the fauna and flora of the area and pointed out several shorebirds, including herons, egrets, kingfishers and ospreys.

Halfway to the lodge the clouds became dark and ominous, and we could see the sheets of rain approaching our canoes. Always prepared, the guides quickly passed out ponchos and we sat huddled together as rain and winds battered the canoes. It ended as fast as it began, the skies cleared and rays of sun peaked out from behind the clouds. I kept thinking of the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland and the elaborate special effects that added authenticity to the surroundings. I really had no doubt we were in the rainforest; I had to laugh at our damp clothes and rain-soaked hair. The term bad hair day took on a whole new meaning.

After two and a half hours we arrived at the first outpost for Sacha Lodge, the beginning of a 5,000-acre private reserve. We were warmly greeted with a welcome sign, porters to carry our luggage and flush toilets. We were happy campers.

However, we still weren't at Sacha Lodge, nor was it just around the corner. We were divided into smaller groups, each with a naturalist guide, and were directed to a raised boardwalk for our first jungle walk through the dense rainforest. The rain had cooled the air and it was wonderful walking along the cleared path as our guide pointed out several species of palms and ferns, many familiar to us as common houseplants. We saw lots of heliconia (a close cousin to the bird of paradise) and bromeliads with their brightly colored flowers. Overhead we heard the chatter of monkeys and the cries of tropical birds. Once again, I kept seeing images of the jungle ride at Disneyland and waited for more special effects to begin.

The walk took about 30 minutes and ended at Pilchicocha Lake, where small dugout canoes (with paddlers) awaited to take us across the lake to Sacha Lodge; or so our guide said. Half way across the lake, like a mirage, the lodge materialized and I could see happy, smiling faces waving at us from the dock. We had arrived.

After a welcome drink we were shown to our cabins and invited to the dining room for a snack and orientation. The cabins are wonderful - high thatched roofs with private, shaded terraces overlooking the jungle. The hammock on the terrace is definitely a nice touch. Each cabin is completely screened against insects, has an overhead fan, two double beds and a private bathroom with showers - all the comforts of home.

We were again divided into small groups of six, each with a native guide with expert knowledge of the rainforests medicinal and other useful plants, and a bilingual naturalist guide educated in the biology and ecology of the area. We didn't waste time. After dinner that evening, we picked up our rubber boots and headed out for our first night walk in the rainforest. With flashlights in hand, we followed our guides along the trail and were serenaded by a chorus of frogs and nocturnal insects. On the trail our guides pointed out a wolf spider the size of my hand, a pit viper on an overhead branch (even our guide was excited and took lots of pictures), several species of frogs and some insects that looked nasty, but were quite harmless. I'm definitely not one for creepy- crawlies, but I loved the walk and was amazed at how alive the jungle is at night. Heather, who had joined our walk along with Pamela and Barbara Handel, was definitely not as thrilled as I was. Barbara Handel is totally adverse to spiders and insects and was really freaked by the wolf spider. Both girls never let Heather out of their sight.

The following morning our wake-up call (a knock on our cabin door by our guide) was at 6 a.m. in order to take advantage of the cool morning hours, when the rainforest's animals are most active. Each group had a different itinerary. That first morning, our group headed for the Atne Yasuni Parrot Lick. We retraced our steps from the previous day: we crossed the lake by canoe, walked the 30 minutes through the rainforest and boarded a motorized canoe for the half-hour ride to Yasuni National Park. According to our guide, the parrot lick is an exposed clay bank where several different species of parrots gather in the early morning hours. The parrots eat the clay, which acts as a sort of antacid, and helps get rid of the toxic and acid fruits that are a large part of the parrots' diet. This activity is strictly weather permitting and we were lucky to have no rain. Apparently, parrots don't like the rain any more than humans and won't come out to play, or at least won't go to the parrot lick.

We were back at the lodge by 11 a.m. and met in the lounge area to talk about our afternoon activity - a climb up a 135-foot observation tower. I decided a nap after lunch was a must; I needed all my strength to make the climb.

We crossed the lake in our canoes and headed into a swampy area filled with moss-covered trees and lots of hanging vines. Howler monkeys screeched overhead. It was eerie and beautiful at the same time. We disembarked and walked through the rainforest to the observation tower, built around a giant kapok tree. Round and round, up and up we climbed until we were above the rainforest canopy. The view was magnificent. Our guide pointed out a family of wooly monkeys, a black and yellow striped toucan and several other species of birds. The view was well worth the climb.

Back at the lodge the groups met over dinner and shared our adventures. It had been an active day and by 9 p.m. we were all ready for bed. Tomorrow morning's wake-up call was 6 a.m.

Join me next week for more fun adventures at Sacha Lodge.

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