On my recent trip to Ecuador, I spent four days at Sacha Lodge in the Amazon, discovering the flora and fauna of this beautiful region. My main reason for visiting Ecuador was to explore the Galapagos Islands and, although I was looking forward to the Amazon, it was more of an add-on to the Galapagos than a standalone reason for visiting.
However, Sacha Lodge changed everything. It was a huge surprise that my time in Ecuadorian Amazon became a highlight of the whole trip. Without a doubt, it was one of the most magical experiences I have ever had. If you’re planning a trip to Ecuador, I can’t recommend Sacha Lodge highly enough. It will stay with me forever.
Arriving at Sacha Lodge was an adventure in itself! First, we flew from Quito to Coca. It’s only a 35-minute flight, so we landed almost as soon as we took off. On arrival, we loaded our luggage into a vintage-looking wagon and set off on a short bus ride to the Sacha Lodge HQ. On the way, Luis, our guide, gave us a fascinating talk about the history of exploration into the Amazon.
Next, we boarded an enormous covered canoe, which carried us off at high speed down the Napo River. The powerful twin Yamaha engines churned up the water, and the trip lasted just over an hour. The skipper had a spotter at the bow, as the river was full of shallow mud banks which you wouldn’t want to hit travelling at this speed!
We swapped into paddle canoes for the final leg to Sacha Lodge. Before long, our channel through the forest opened onto a blackwater lake and, on the far shore, we saw the palm-roofed lodge that would be our base for the next four days.
The rooms at Sacha Lodge are spacious, and each one has a little veranda. Our room overlooked a small pool covered in lilies, and a tortoise came to visit each afternoon. There’s no air-conditioning, but there are huge fans to keep you cool in the heat of the day. The nights were temperate - not at all as sticky as I had imagined.
Once we had freshened up a little and grabbed some lunch, we were paired up with two other couples for our first Amazonian excursion. As well as Luis, we were assigned a local guide, Benjy, who knew the forest like the back of his hand. His father was a medicine man, so he also had a wealth of knowledge about indigenous plants.
Benjy guided us on a short canoe ride through the forest by the lake, slipping through tiny openings into a world of green. Within minutes we’d spotted a sloth nestled in a tree high above us, oblivious to our delight. Luis pointed out a wide range of birds in the waterside trees, while swallows and swifts hawked insects over the water. It was magical.
As the light faded, we headed back to the lodge to enjoy a fabulous supper with our newfound canoe friends. Luis told us that he was planning a night-time walk through the forest after dinner, so we ate quickly, desperate to start exploring on foot!
The night walk was fascinating. We spotted creature after creature, including a tiny furry tarantula hiding in a crevice, leaf-cutter ants marching in lines alongside the path and a butterfly the size of my hand caught and perfectly preserved in a spider’s web. All the while, we could hear the quiet hooting of monkeys, as they started settling down to sleep.
During the walk, we realised that Luis is a truly exceptional guide. We could see just how much he cares for the forest and its incredible wildlife. He plucked a huge millipede off a tree trunk to teach us about its wriggling legs and strong smell of marzipan, before placing it carefully back onto the bark, smiles as he watched it go.
One of the last things we spotted was the famous wolf spider, one of the most dangerous spiders in the world. Luis delightedly told us that the way it was bending its legs meant it was about to jump. Needless to say, we hurried back the lodge very quickly! It was an incredible first day.
Our second day at Sacha Lodge started very early. We woke to a croaking chorus of frogs and insects, before getting dressed, pulling on our wellies and heading out into the forest. We started our day on the Canopy Walk, a high walkway through the trees that sits just at the top of the canopy. After a heady climb to the top, we emerged and, wow, what a view!
From the walkway, we could see for miles over the thick green canopy. Almost immediately, Luis and Benjy start spotting birds that I would never have noticed if I’d been up there by myself. We spotted red macaws soaring overhead, many-banded aracaris chattering on a branch and a white-faced toucan feeding on palm nuts. Crossing the suspension bridges between each platform is a little hairy, but it feels very safe, and the fantastic wildlife will most definitely keep you distracted.
Back on the ground, we took a walk that was dedicated to learning about the plants of the forest. You might think that an Amazon experience is mainly about spotting monkeys, sloths and vibrantly coloured birds – but that’s just a small part of the story. We spent a couple of hours hiking through the rainforest, with Benjy pointing our native plants and explaining their uses. It turned out to be one of the most magical parts of the trip.
We examined the Agouti Tail, a straight fungus with antibiotic properties. You can snap it in half and drop the liquid inside into your eyes or ears to clear an infection. We also learned about curare, a hardy vine that contains a muscle relaxant. The local tribes use curare on the ends of their blow darts because just a drop will paralyse you immediately. We also spot neon mushrooms that are toxic to touch, and a plant with a stem so sharp it can cut through a T-shirt.
Luis was in his element, praising the poisonous mushrooms for the work they do for the forest floor and showing great pleasure every time we found something new. At one point, I heard Luis exclaiming with delight over some bright yellow berries. He challenged me to try one, and when I did, my mouth was flooded with intense passionfruit flavour!
After spotting two serene crested owls roosting in a tree, we learned about Macadamia nuts, whose large casings fall to the floor and fill up with rainwater. These casings become the perfect habitats for beetles to lay their eggs. He also told us about as a seed known as “the candle of the forest”, which burns long and slow when it’s broken apart. Amazon communities use these in their homes for light.
There were so many magical things to discover. One of my favourites was a fungus called “mouse ear”. It looks exactly like a little pink ear, if you peel it in half and stick it to your skin, it acts just like a plaster, and will stay until your cut has healed.
Back at the lodge, we ate a delicious meal, including some of the best sirloin steak I have ever had, before collapsing into bed, our brains overflowing with fascinating new knowledge!
The next day, we were up again at 5:30 and in our canoe by 6am. We were going to paddle to the parrot clay lick on the riverbanks before learning about Amazon village life. At the clay lick, we saw a handful of bright green parrots feasting on the clay. The longer we stayed, the more parrots arrived. The parrots don’t always appear, and we heard about a specialist birding group the day before that didn’t see a single one, so we felt very lucky.
Next, we headed upriver to learn about local life. It was an ethical and honest experience. It isn’t a real village where you are gawping at the everyday lives of real people, but a centre that has built to recreate the local lifestyle. The centre is populated continuously by two women, who spend a week here on a rota. It is run entirely by women.
The ladies, a mother and daughter, explained how they catch food, how they fish, and how they prepare the food. Afterwards, we all tried some of their delicious local dishes, and everything had a lovely smoky flavour. Altogether, it was an unforgettable experience, and I felt as though I had learned about local culture without infringing too much on everyday life.
In the afternoon, we climbed up to another observation platform. This one was like a big treehouse built into the top of a kapok tree, with orchids and bromeliads filling every crevice. From the tower, you can see incredible 360-degree views over the forest.
We spotted a wide variety of birds and some howler monkeys looking grumpy in a tree. At the same time, Luis told us about his time spent with an Amazon tribe deep in the forest and his time working with David Attenborough on an episode of Living Planet about the Napo River.
On the walk home, we spotted a family of night monkeys piled on top of each other in a little nook of a tree trunk. When we got back, we took a dip in Sacha Lodge’s gorgeous lake swimming pool, which was refreshing after the heat of the day.
After another delicious meal, we set off a night canoe paddle, edging along the side of the lake in search of nocturnal birds. On the way, we saw several caimans lurking in the water. Their eyes gleamed in the torchlight from amongst the water lilies.
Just being out on the lake at night was spectacular. As we paddled back across the water, I sat back and drank in the endless stars in the inky sky. Suddenly, a huge shooting star streaked across the heavens, the brightest I have ever seen. It was overwhelmingly beautiful, a moment that I will remember forever.
The time had come to leave beautiful Sacha Lodge and make our way back to Coca. After a final splendid breakfast, we loaded our bags into a bigger boat and hopped into the canoe once more. On our last canoe ride, we were still spotting new things. Luis pointed out the Dragons Blood Tree, with red sap that can cure acne, as well as a magnificent pygmy kingfisher, which paused on an overhanging branch just long enough for me to get a photo.
On the boat ride back to Coca, we were silent on the boat, gazing out onto the water and thinking about the last four days. It was genuinely one of the most moving experiences of my life.