The jungle journey. Here in Ecuador you can get from high up in the Andes mountains to way down into the depths of the Amazon jungle in a matter of hours. This is exactly what we did as we journeyed from the mountain town of Otavalo to Sacha Lodge in the Amazon. It was a bit of a “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” kind of day with a taxi, plane, boat, canoe, and a hike to reach 50 miles deep into the jungle. Immediately dripping with sweat as we ventured closer to the lodge, the Amazon was like a punch in the face with humidity. Remember my altitude meltdown? Maybe that altitude wasn’t so bad after all.
Lungs of the world. Ok, real talk. The Amazon is essential to life on earth. To put it in perspective, think of the Amazon as the lungs of mother earth. Without the Amazon jungle we could not sustain life. Pretty heavy, I know. Stick with me here. The entire Amazon basin covers approximately 3 million square miles (essentially the size of the continental U.S.) and stretches across nine countries. Ecuador contains just 2% of the Amazon, but is known to have the most diverse set of species on earth. So all these stats are great, but to put it simply, we could not sustain life without the Amazon. Being the largest rainforest on earth that absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, we depend heavily on Amazonia to “breath” for us!
Our jungle oasis. We are excited to tell you about Sacha lodge, our little jungle home while we were in the Amazon. Sacha is the Kichwa or Quichua (the name of the local indigenous community) word that means “forest”. The lodge sits adjacent to the Yasuni National Park and consists of 4,500 acres purchased from private landowners. The area owned by the lodge consists of both primary (untouched land) and secondary (previously clear cut, experiencing re-growth) rainforest. Sacha lodge ensures that all of their land is free from hunting, logging, mining, or oil drilling. Additionally, 90% of the staff are locals from the surrounding Amazon region. Employing locals provides non-destructive income to the region and encourages both ecotourism and conservation as well. http://www.sachalodge.com/
The threats. Sacha lodge is the largest private reserve in Ecuadorian rainforest. Private reserves such as Sacha lodge save the rainforest from the major threats and contribute to conservation. There are three major threats to the rainforest: illegal hunting, timber extraction, and oil extraction. For example, the Yasuni National Park (adjacent to Sacha lodge) has assisted in reviving the howler monkey population, who were once hunted by local communities. The creation of a private reserve made it illegal to hunt, which has assisted in sustaining this species of monkey, and many other animal populations as well. The demand for palm oil is also a major issue that causes deforestation. Because palm oil can be a great source of income for communities, the “slash and burn” technique is often used to clear rainforests to create palm oil farms. “Slash and burn” is devastating to the Amazon, so private reserves also prohibit this type of farming. Lastly, there is another controversial threat, which is oil. Because there are oil reserves below the Amazon basin, oil companies have moved in to capitalize on this resource. While oil can certainly provide communities with a great source of income, the devastation to the rainforest can be catastrophic. Ecotourism provides a more sustainable source of income for the Amazon’s local communities while protecting the precious rainforest that we all rely on for life.
Every insect known to man. So, what did we see while we were at Sacha lodge? So much! Probably too much. We saw tarantulas, frogs, snakes, caiman, leaf cutter ants (so many ants), and pretty much every insect known to man. You are either intrigued at this point or ready to stop reading, so let me move on from the scary critter category. Howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, pygmy marmosets (smallest monkey in the world...um, can we say cute?) river otters, sloths, turtles, toucans, owls, and many different species of birds were among some of the other, less scary, things we encountered. Fun fact: Ecuador has the largest population of bird species, right behind Colombia. I never thought I could appreciate bird watching until now. Our guides kept us very busy, waking us up at 5:30am every morning to get a start on the day, beating the heat and catching glimpses of the animals when they are most active. Marching through the jungle, with your eyes barely open, in the morning mist, watching the sunrise and the animals begin to stir is a pretty magical experience. We thought we might keel over without our second cup of morning joe, but watching squirrel monkeys leap past you while jumping from palm tree to palm tree is better than any caffeine kick and worth every second of the dawn wake up call.
Superleaf. Another really special part about Sacha lodge is their partnership with the local Nueva Providencia community. This community of indigenous people from the Amazon inhabits a large territory that has been recognized by the Ecuadorian government in order to preserve their culture and traditions. We were lucky enough to visit the community and learn about their way of life. The experience was led by women of the community, which is not typical because men usually bring in the only source of income for the family. We were also given a cup of tea steeped with the guayusa leaf. Guayusa is found nearly exclusively in this area of Ecuador and contains almost as much caffeine as coffee. While it is not like green or black tea, it is rich with polyphenols and antioxidants. Many deem this leaf as a “superleaf” due to all of the health benefits. As demand is increasing in the western world for this healthy elixir, the locals of the Amazon can benefit from the sustainable income. It seems that growing guayusa is low impact on the environment because there is no need for fertilizers or chemicals and does not require deforestation for production. It will be interesting to see whether places in North America will continue to demand this product. I know we will certainly be looking for guayusa when we return stateside so we can support the Nueva Providencia community.
I could go on and on about the Ecuadorian Amazon. We really enjoyed our time exploring the area and staying at the Sacha lodge. But all good things must come to an end, so we made the journey back to Quito and headed south into the heart of Ecuador, towards more volcanoes and cowboy (Chagra) country. Stay tuned for life on the hacienda.