The adventure began at Ecuador's Coca Airport, where Victor, our small group's guide, led us into taxis that would bring the five of us, myself, Ian and Catherine, a couple from Australia, David from the U.K. and his fellow-Brit friend Shom who now lives in Sydney, Australia, to a motorized canoe on the Napo River, a tributary to the Amazon River that rises in Ecuador on the flanks of the east Andean volcanoes.
It was a journey into the unknown, as none of us really knew what to expect, other than what we'd seen on television and in films anyway.
We flew across the wide expanse of the river, dodging sand banks and tree trunks, searching for a glimpse of wildlife along the banks.
While there was nothing to speak of, the ride felt surreal, as if we were heading into a dream. A dream that was hard to imagine was actually real life.
After two-and-a-half hours or so, we landed at the dock, welcomed by a Sani Lodge sign. From here, we'd take a 10-minute trek down the tree-lined wooden boardwalk where monkeys watched from above. Our eagle-eyed guide saw them first. We all stopped, gazing up into the trees trying to catch a glimpse until the animals' movements gave them away.
We'd make the same walk a number of times, learning that a number of different monkey species enjoyed hanging out in these trees, from squirrel monkeys and capuchins to dusky titis and more. Unfortunately, they weren't all that easy to capture on film, blending in with the lush greenery, though the red-hued dusky titi stood out a bit more.
We hopped into another canoe at the end of the boardwalk, gently floating down the calm, slow moving water as all sorts of colorful birds flittered about.
Was there a python lurking along the banks? A caiman ready to lunge out of the dark, almost black waters to enjoy a little human snack?
Of course, we all lived to tell the tale. Shom continued to be on the lookout for those snakes, but we never did catch a glimpse of even one, though caimans are another story. To date, our guide Victor said no tourists have been injured in all of the visits to Sani Lodge over the past 25 years since it's been open.
An incident did occur at another lodge, he pointed out, when two probably not-so-smart visitors decided to dangle their legs over a dock and into the water. Tourists going into the water was banned after that.
Upon our arrival to Sani Lodge, we were greeted by a delicious passion fruit and rum drink, an incredibly tasty beverage we went back to the bar for more than a few times.
The drink wasn't all that greeted us. We were also welcomed by the resident caiman Lucy, who had been lurking underneath the lodge deck in the water below, but ventured onto land after Victor offered her a bite to eat.
We didn't have much time to relax, however. Not long after heading to our cabins and unpacking our bags, dinner called, followed by a night hike.
Yes, a night hike, into the dark jungle, with only our flashlights, with our guide Victor leading the way. There were all sorts of interesting things to see - unfortunately, many of them blended in so well with the terrain, capturing many of them on film, like the fascinating stick bugs, proved difficult. Shom was relieved that there were no snakes waiting on the trail for a midnight snack, though Victor advised us they like to hang out up in the trees - a friend kindly pointed out that the only worse thing than accidentally stepping on a snake would be to have one fall out of the sky and land on you, something I hadn't really thought about until then. Thanks Steven.
Luckily, there were no snakes falling from the sky that night, or any other. We did see quite a few creatures, including two tarantulas, bats and a big frog. I managed to capture a couple of decent shots.
After making it through the night trek unscathed, we were all pretty worn out and made our way to the individual cabins on the property to sleep for the night. Breakfasts were very early - 5:30 a.m. as the wildlife is most active just after sunrise.
The possibilities that awaited that day filled us with excitement, and as Victor paddled the canoe across the calm water, we knew the early wake up call had been worth it. Stinky turkeys, parrots, parakeets, herons and other birds of all sorts could be seen soaring overhead and perched on branches.
We were on our way to the Sani Lodge observation tower, a 100-foot-tall tower built next to a massive Kapok tree, where you can look through the canopy of the rainforest and view some of the amazing Amazon biodiversity. (tower photo thanks to Ian and Catherine Cook)
From here, we heard the loud sounds of the red howler monkeys - which sound like very angry apes, or jet engines - and we saw numerous birds, including a sleeping owl that blended into the branches of the trees so well we wouldn't have known he was there had Victor not pointed him out, along with countless macaws, hummingbirds and a number of toucans who seemed to like posing for the camera, much to our delight.
Listen to the sounds of the birds - and in the background, you'll hear the incredibly loud grumblings of the howler monkeys in the distance:
Much of our time we spent walking the trails learning about the various plants and trees, like the Dragon's blood tree which has a rich, red sap known for its healing properties. It's been scientifically found to heal wounds, cuts, scrapes, insect bites, bacterial, viral and fungal infections of the skin, rashes, herpes, skin cancer, and much more. Something the natives to the region have known for years.
While paddling through the water, we had a discussion about whether or not the piranhas would instantly attack if one of us fell in, which ultimately led to another excursion - fishing for piranhas, although as Victor joked, it was more like feeding the piranhas.
We went out in the late afternoon, using a small piece of wood, fishing line, a hook and some chunks of meat to lure them in. Most of us were getting bites - the fish tend to nibble little bits off at a time, making them difficult to catch - but actually catching one seemed to be an impossible task. Victor decided to throw his line in and it was only a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds, before he pulled up a rat fish. We brought the fish back to the lodge and it was cooked up by the chefs to complement dinner that night. He landed a catfish too, but that was quickly released back into the water - Victor also finally managed to get a piranha on his line, but it got out of control and went straight back to where it came from. None of the rest of us had any luck, but the experience was something I don't think we'll ever forget.
Up early again the next day, we headed out to the macaw salt licks, a place where hundreds of the parrots come to gorge on the clay banks in order to augment their diet with important minerals.
After watching the parrots, we rode down the river in our canoe once again, this time, for a visit to a butterfly farm. We'd been lucky until this point not to get caught out in a rain storm. That luck ran out as we trekked through the jungle, but our trusty ponchos kept us mostly dry while we walked the trail, carefully crossing via makeshift bridges made from fallen trees.
Along the way, Victor broke off a branch and showed us the "lemon ants" inside. We all had a sample, and while our guide seemed to enjoy their sour flavor - something I usually love - most of us found that they unappetizingly stuck in the back of our throats.
We did very much enjoy our visit to Gustavo's butterfly farm, a Sani family-run project. We were shown the entire life cycle of the butterfly.
Next was a visit to the tribal community center for an insight into Kichwa life. We took a tour of the grounds and the school before watching our other guide, Cerillo, eat a live grub. He simply popped one of the rather gross looking, thick white creatures head first into his mouth and ate it like a delectable rare treat.
None of us took him up on the offer to try one for ourselves.
David and I both thought the white cocoa beans looked like little bird brains - and overhearing us, Victor told us that's just what they were. After everything we'd seen, we took him at his word, but they turned out to be white coca beans. We enjoyed a bite of those and even took a few sips of chicha, a chew-and-spit fermented alcoholic drink before dining on a tasty traditional meal cooked by the hard-working Sani women, who also make an impressive range of handmade crafts as well as coffee.
It was time for face painting and blowgun practice after that, something that brought a lot of laughs, and surprisingly, some rather accurate shots. Most of us hit the target on the second try, but if I believe it was Ian who was the real natural, managing to hit it both the first and second try.
On our last night we enjoyed time together, sipping a few too many beers and passion fruit/rum drinks, wishing we could stay a little longer.
We had to say goodbye to Ian and Catherine as their flight was arranged far too early, requiring a 4 a.m. trip for the four-hour journey back to Coca. Waking to the loud boom of thunder at 3:30 a.m., I can only imagine what traveling back in the canoe, in the pouring rain and darkness must have been like.
The three of us that remained, myself, David and Shom, wearily hopped in for our trip back that was thankfully minus the rain and the darkness, though still quite early. What were big smiles the night before, turned into quiet contemplation, and a rather heart-pounding scare when we nearly missed our flight.
Our time at Sani Lodge wasn't nearly long enough. But I did have Quito and a couple of tours from the capital to look forward to.