Published: Oct 19, 2022
QUITO > COCA
Well, today almost didn’t happen. Yep. After yesterday’s 9.5-hour flight to Miami, we almost missed our 4.5-hour connecting flight to Quito – just about making it as the very last people to board the plane. The reason being? My brother insisted on visiting the pilot in his cockpit at the end of the flight, placing us behind our entire flight, as well as three other incoming flights, in the border control queue. To say I was massively stressed and really quite angry would be an understatement.
Anyhow, two flights later, a grand total of four hours of sleep at an airport hotel in Quito, a 6:00am wakeup, and we made our way back to the airport. We’ll be stopping over in Quito properly later on during our trip – for now, we’re just passing through it to get to Coca: ‘the gateway to Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest’. For the record, Coca is also the plant from which the word we mustn’t say is derived. We flew for a quick 35 minutes over the Andes Mountain range, in what my brother described as “the fridge with wings” and arrived in the Amazon. At which point my little sister asked us: “Can we go shopping in the Amazon? Cos it’s, like, Amazon??”
The Amazon Basin
“This just got very real very quickly” is how my other brother summed up what it was like to arrive in Coca. People living in poverty walked barefoot down the streets, and their half-built homes stood alongside developed houses and almost Western-looking medical clinics. It was confusing to see the two stark distinctions in such quick succession on our five-minute bus journey to Puerto Francisco de Orellana, and I think I need more time to mull over the experience before I fully understand how it made me feel. Or perhaps I don’t yet know how I feel because the entire day was so filled with new impressions that I’m on overdrive. As I write, I feel an urgency to commit everything to this page, an urgency to capture it all, and a growing anxiety as I realise it might simply be impossible to compress such enormous sensory magnitudes into words that I’m quickly typing up at the end of a long, jet-lagged day. And what enormous sensory magnitudes they were…what followed on was so surreal that I can only say I’m writing this from a state of shock – good shock – but a state of shock that must be released by attempting to describe, as best as I can, what I experienced.
First off, we’re staying in an eco-lodge called Napo Wildlife Centre. It sits on its own water reserve on the shores of Lake Añangucocha, in the depths of the jungle. Now because this lodge is in the depths of the jungle, there’s actually no way to get there other than motor canoeing for two-hours down the Napo River, which is one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon River, and then canoeing again for two hours, this time without a motor but by paddling four miles upstream. Our luggage was subject to the same fate.
Luggage delivery system
As we ate our lunch, consisting of salad, Granadilla (a South American fruit that tastes like a really, really sweet passionfruit), and Ecuadorian chocolate handmade by the Kichwa women of the Amazon Rainforest, we were surrounded by trees and leaves with more shapes that I’d ever seen on foliage before. We saw turtles basking on fallen tree trunks with bright yellow butterflies circling their shining shells, we saw palm trees and Balsa trees and banana trees and Cacao plantations, we saw five different species of monkeys, including the Capuchin monkeys who are among the ten most dangerous species in the Amazon because of their aggressive, pickpocketing, branch-throwing tendencies. We saw parakeets, a Boa Constrictor snake, “stinky turkeys” and giant otters, all courtesy of the tour guides who expertly imitated the various animal calls so they would come close. It felt like we were all children on a scavenger hunt, staying alert to spot the animals. It was peaceful and it was surreal and it was unfamiliar in so many ways…I’d never heard noises like that before and I’d never been so far away from civilisation before. It smelled like the butterfly house in Kew Gardens, and I felt as though I was in a Henri Rousseau painting. It felt beautifully sad too…even in the Yasuni national park we were canoeing in, oil extraction continues to be a regular practice, which of course has a huge impact on the rainforest environment. To think that the overwhelming beauty I saw today is being destroyed on a daily basis, and may simply not be there anymore in the years and decades to come, leaves me as lost for words as I felt all day.
Lost for words is a good way to summarise how I’m feeling, if I had to put it into a single phrase. The lodge itself is just as magical – there are cabañas with thatched roofs lined up against the dock, beds with mosquito nets surrounding them that look strangely mystical, a glass floor with a night light to see the creatures beneath us, and a long porch that surrounds the whole lodge, with the sun rising and setting just outside our make-shift sheet-like windows. We’re to keep our voices low as we move around – there’s always an opportunity to see a new animal and we mustn’t scare them off. Everyone staying in the lodge has their own group and a tour guide assigned to each group, so we eat all meals together with our designated tour guide. It’s like a massive summer camp.
London, and everything about London, feels light years away. I genuinely feel changed already and it’s only been a day.
Also, the cockroaches (cucarachas) are absolutely massive here. And they fly.
The Napo Wildlife Centre lodge