Okay so pardon the wild angle on this photo but Melanie was trying to get as much of interest as possible into a rectangle. This is the view from the observation tower at the Napo Wildlife Center down to the dock (and the cabana we happened to be staying in is on the left there). The Napo Wildlife Center is a small lodge located just inside the western boundary of Yasuni National Park and run with the aid of the local Quechua community of Anangu.
It is reached by a canoe trip of roughly two hours down a side creek from the Napo River. The black water creek very quickly reveals the interior of the jungle which cannot be seen from the Napo. Nearly all the wildlife found in Yasuni is potentially viewable from the network of waterways that wind through it. If you visit the Napo Wildlife Center you'll spend a reasonably large amount of time on this creek, as well as in the dugout canoes in general. They are the primary means of transportation between sections of land trail.
The lodge itself sits on a small peninsula of land on a lagoon (visible here behind Melanie). The lagoon is home to caiman, pirhana and giant otters but is also 'safe' for swimming. We put safe in quotes because it includes the rather important assumption that you are not bleeding (or likely to bleed) in any way. We didn't put the swimming recommendations to test although several other guests did and as far as we know they all re-appeared at dinner that night (we weren't strictly counting).
The grounds of the NWC are small but lushly landscaped. The jungle encroaches on all sides which leads to an interesting set of nighttime noises. Leaf cutter ants have established their own trail system as an alternate to the one the NWC has laid out. There is also a very short nature trail accessible directly from the lodge although it's primarly used for night hikes when a variety of insects and snakes can be seen.
The NWC will group you into a sub-group of guests and you'll be assigned a multi-lingual guide as well as a 'native' guide who is a member of the local Quechua people. This grouping appears to be a combination of who you arrive with and your language of choice (at least Spanish, English and French are widely spoken). For us this meant the nice small group of ourselves and a London-based Bulgarian couple. In theory, your first meeting with your guide involves planning activities based on around the group's interests. Realistically our plans were more or less already made for us. It seems like most groups cover the same basic activities unless there is a very definite focus of interest (like birding). Luckily, our Bulgarian friends had a lot in common with us. Notably they spent as much time as we did complaining about the 5 AM wake up calls (dawn is a prime widlife viewing time) and they also lacked the ability to spend 6 hours sitting a tree waiting patiently for the appearance of a yellow-breasted something or other. In the end though, the pre-planned activities didn't turn out to be very rigid as circumstance, wildlife and weather all played a role in modifying our plans.
Our first full day at Napo involved a morning hike on a trail. This went awry when our native guide, Hugo, used whatever supernatural powers of hearing he possesses to determine that a band of wooly monkeys was in the vicinity. After a bit of creeping around off-trail he did in fact locate them. This is David staring up at them, in fashionable rubber boots of course. Everything at Napo is done in rubber boots (within reason). The monkeys themselves have been confined to a separate wildlife web page. We had a hard enough time as it is cutting down the number of pictures from Yasuni and we had to come up with some arbitrary division or this page would be enormous.
We found hiking through the jungle to be pleasant but different from what we anticipated. Both of us expected denser foliage. In fact it's fairly easy to 'bushwhack' off-trail. Machetes are optional, at least in the parts of the jungle we were in. This is primary forest, but the canopy keeps out so much light that there is little underbrush. As a result, ground travel is much easier that it is in some sub-tropical wildernesses we've visited.
Our second full day at Napo Boot Camp ..err, Wildlife Center started with an amazingly long list of plans. This was quickly derailed by heavy rains. Our first destination was one of the parrot licks which is apparently not patronized in the rain. After an hour of delay (sleep), we left for the lick anyway with low expectations. The rain stopped when we reached Napo's 'warehouse' center on the banks of the Napo River. From there it was a short hike to the parrot lick (see the wildlife page for pictures). After that came lunch at the warehouse as well as a tour of native Quechua dwellings and a rather fascinating demonstration of their traditional animal traps. This picture incidentally, is heliconia as found in its natural setting.
This is heliconia in a non-natural setting. These are the sort of antics one gets up to when one has been canoeing, hiking and boating in a steady rain for too many hours to remember. Of course, it is a rain forest so what did we expect?
Among the things that were cancelled from our plans due to rain, otter sightings, parrot sightings, and whatever else came up was a visit to the village of Anangu and a possible meeting with the local shaman. While this didn't sound like a bad option, we found the wildlife more compelling. That's the Napo out there behind Melanie. We're told that in the dry season they sometimes have to park the large boat on the far side and trek across the sandbar to get to the warehouse area.
Food is served at least twice a day at the Napo lodge. There might be lunch as well, but we were never around at lunch time. We ate out at the warehouse or snacked along trails for the most part. Dinners vary wildly from calamari to pasta to meats. Since it's Ecuador, it always starts with a soup. Breakfast was more of an unstructured buffet. Best of all might have been the random beverages which showed up every time a canoe returns to the lodge. These were mostly juices including mango, papaya, babaco, pineapple and any other fruits that got too close to the juicer. The lodge also contains a small library and a small bar which is open most of the time.
Across the lagoon and about an hour down the trail is the NWC's canopy tower. At 35m (115 ft) high, it's a pretty decent climb up this green fire escape structure to a platform high in a kapok tree. The jungle floor is all but invisible from the top.
From the viewing platform up top, remarkably little can be seen. Well, at least in terms of landmarks. The lodge is too far away as are any settlements along the Napo. Basically it's just endless canopy. This is a prime spot for viewing birds and some of the hardcore birders spent as much as eight hours up here. To be honest, after 90 minutes or so we were ready to go back and collect our juice. We did see a few birds at a distance, the highlights probably being macaws in flight.
Night time at the NWC is highly underrated. Dinner is over not long after total darkness. There's usually a small group who go on a night hike. The sky is phenomenally dark, if not for the distant horizon lights of oil drilling operations, it would be perfectly dark. The milky way is easily visible and the equatorial position means a good view of landmark constellations from both hemispheres. Small pathway lights are usually out by around 11 PM and the canoe dock is a good place to go for a clear view of the sky. Unfortunately rain is common and if it's not raining, mist is likely overnight. The lights in the trees in this picture are the Napo Wildlife Center. We were out in the canoe looking for caiman at dusk. In this case one does not have to look very hard, there are caiman scattered everywhere near the marshes of the lagoon.