Next to nature in Ecuador’s lively rainforests
You see the giant kapok tree at two o’clock?” asks our guide. “On the left there are three smaller trees. Behind which 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!” It takes several minutes for us all to locate it. “Um, which tree again?”
Happily the sloth is in no hurry. It lazily surveys its kingdom with what looks like a hint of a smile. A huge metallic blue morpho butterfly flaps languidly towards us, its flight more reminiscent of an eagle than of its smaller, flickering cousins.
At the best of times, the Amazon is intoxicating. At Yasuni National Park, one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth, even I spot frogs, tarantulas and millipedes. Some of the larger beasts require more effort. Suddenly there is a shimmy and a ripple through the water hyacinths about a metre to our left. “Caiman,” says Freddy. We are all too slow to see it. Then, on the other side, a thunderous splash among the elephant-eared philodendrons. “An arapaima,” Javier announces. “A very big fish.”
We enter a narrow channel of tea-coloured water, sunlight filters through the branches that form a tunnel above us, bouncing off the water to dance on the underside of leaves. Vines and roots descend to the still surface like curtains. We see the footprints of a tapir. An anxious toucan eyes us before deciding to take flight. Then, suddenly, Freddy signals to the man paddling us. “It’s a monkey group,” he whispers urgently. A troupe of between 20 and 30 squirrel monkeys, smaller than cats, approach to within about 18m. For a quarter of an hour we watch as they gather fruit, 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. Then, I slept in a tent and the insects, heat and rain made it deeply uncomfortable. This time, an hour and a half after my jungle encounters, I am back in my cool, spacious cabin aboard MV Anakonda Amazon, stretched out on crisp linen and contemplating lunch. Thirty minutes later, I tuck into smoked pork chop in passionfruit sauce and curried mahi mahi with harusame noodles.
There are other vessels on which to explore the Amazon, but the 45m-long MV Anakonda, built in 2013, is the only luxury boat plying Ecuadorean waters. It takes just an hour to fly from the capital, Quito, to Coca, where MV Anakonda is moored on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. A map of our cruising route east from Coca, towards the border with Peru, reveals only a handful of place names and little more than a few other waterways wriggling through a mass of jungle. On board our river ship are 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. My cabin, Manatee, is in minimalist browns and creams with a Jacuzzi bath and shower in the bathroom, a desk and a small but delightful veranda. MV Anakonda also features an expansive observation deck, small spa and an alfresco lounge with stunning river views; at our disposal are three canoes and 10 kayaks.
Itineraries are variable, depending on weather, season and water levels, and the moorings are simply stretches of river bank and sometimes little more than crumbling stretches of red earth and trees teetering towards the water. Yet what tourist infrastructure there is makes all the difference. One example is the boardwalk leading towards Cuallacocha Lake that we saunter along one morning. Sure, you can shuffle through the jungle on slippery narrow paths, dodging branches, watching where you place your feet (mind those tree roots), trying not to bump into others, and slapping away mosquitoes. But a raised walkway opens up a corridor of magic. Walking easily, we make less of a commotion. We are 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. There is leisure, too, 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 60m high. Leaving the boardwalk, we take the “stairs” — a green metal construction, akin to something with which you might storm a castle — rising up to a large decked area in the canopy of a monster kapok. The absence of seasons here makes it difficult to age trees, but it’s estimated this one might be 500 years old.
Views of the rainforest’s roof are overwhelming. More easily grasped is the magnificence of our situation, the majesty of this one tree holding 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 his hair.
There are so many extraordinary sights on this trip: pink river dolphins; an agouti (a type of rodent) battling the current to clamber ashore (cue applause); a visit to a classroom full of bored and fidgety but impeccably wellbehaved children; squadrons of macaws flying high overhead; bulldog bats dancing above the top deck; and an impromptu after-dinner performance from Pepe the Latino barman who — with no microphone, a noticeable lean towards the ladies and a hand fluttering inside his jacket to signal a beating heart — croons crowd-pleasing songs.
Then there are the sunsets. As dusk begins to enclose another lagoon at Limoncocha National Biological Reserve, the monotone shriek of the cicadas intensifies and the frogs take their cue to begin clicking and belching. We paddle across the oil-black water, the 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 appear — the larvae of fireflies. Some clumps have broken off to drift across the lagoon, looking like miniature floating cities. Suddenly, the sky is ablaze with stars. We turn off our own lights and for a few moments are swallowed up in the humbling, teeming fecundity of the rainforest.
TELEGRAPH MEDIA GROUP
MV Anakonda Amazon, main, and stateroom, above left; an observation deck on the lagoon at Limoncocha National Biological Reserve, above; blue and yellow macaws, left; and inquisitive local frog, below left