When the Amazon Jungle spans seven-million square kilometers and touches nine nations, where do you begin? Simple! The area with the densest concentration of wildlife: Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. Yasuni is said to be the most bio-diverse place on the entire planet, and it shows with macaws, pink dolphins, sloths, howler monkeys, neon butterflies, and exotic plants at every turn. Having hiked the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil, we realized the best animal sightings are seen from the water and that a riverboat would be the best way to approach the Ecuadorian side. Advantage Travel is the only Yasuni tour operator that offers river cruises so we signed up for their Manatee Amazon Explorer four-day trip and saw how wildly beautiful the Amazon can be.
The city of Coca is the gateway to Ecuador’s largest national park and the starting point for Manatee Amazon Explorer. We met our guide Diego and fellow explorers at the dock and took a motorized canoe up the Napo River towards our adventure cruise liner. The trappings of the city quickly disappeared and the jungle reclaimed the river banks with willows, cecropia, strangler figs, and sable trees, with tropical birds on patrol.
Two hours later we reached the MV Manatee, waiting with welcome drinks and a smiling crew. The 14-cabin ship is run like a boutique hotel, complete with charming rooms, gourmet meals, and a very attentive staff. It would be our luxurious base for meals, slumber and leisure, while a motorized canoe would take us down the tributaries for daily excursions.
The boat manager showed us to our top-deck room and we happily settled in. Each cabin is equipped with air conditioning, closets, a private bathroom (with seven-nozzle shower!), 24-hour electricity and 110-voltage outlets (conveniently the same plugs as the States). The room was delightful with large windows to watch the rainforest drift by.
After an informative briefing about the boat and our itinerary, Diego led us on a night hike. With so many nocturnal animals in the Amazon, braving the dark is well worth it. Walking slowly with a flashlight allowed us to focus on the rainforest’s micro wonders. Over 90% of the species in the Amazon are insects, there are over 1,000 species of frogs, and more bats in Yasuni than any other jungle in the world.
We woke up to take an excursion through the floating forests of the Pañayacu river. As we slow-cruised, our senses heightened with the symphony of singing birds, humming insects and rustling monkeys.
We reached Piranha Lake (way nicer than it sounds) and a camp one of the rare pieces of dry land. A local guide took us on a swampy forest hike to teach us about the different trees’ uses, medicinal properties, and the habitats they create. Followed by a delicious BBQ lunch and a self-guided kayak trip through the maze of mangroves, it was a perfect afternoon.
The next day, we woke up before dawn to watch parrots feed at Yasuni’s famous clay licks. Being so far from the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean, birds in the western Amazon need to find a new source of salt and the area’s clay cliffs are the perfect feeding ground for their sodium intake and to neutralize the toxins in their seed diet. Hundreds of yellow crowned amazon parrots, cobalt wing parakeets, and blue headed parrots, slowly gathered in the surrounding trees. Then one made its move to the clay lick. After a few proved the coast was clear, the daily feeding frenzy began. We watched the birds peck at the cliffs, flapping their vibrant wings, and squawking like crazy.
Back on the ship, we had a feast of our own. The crew set up a gorgeous spread on the sundeck with fresh fruits, yogurt, eggs, bacon, and Ecuadorian “patacones,” aka flattened fried plantains.
Next adventure: The Sani Warmi Kichwa Interpretation Center. This indigenous Kichwa village is a part of a greater community project to help preserve local traditions in the Amazon and bring revenue to its people. We got a tour of Sani island, followed by traditional dishes like tilapia stuffed with hearts of palm, millet beer, and grilled grubs (freaky…yet delicious). Then to add to the cultural experience, there was an inter-island soccer tournament going on that day. We joined the Kichwa families around the pitch, cheering on the players, drinking Pilsener, and enjoying a sunny Sunday….some of life’s pleasures are universal.
Our last side river excursion turned out to be a veritable primate circus. We heard an angry squawk, and turned to see monkeys literally hurling themselves out of trees. Apparently a mother Ornate Hawk-eagle was protecting the nest and her wrath sent the Curious Georges flying for cover. Monkey after monkey leapt as far as 40-feet down to the next tree, then bounced on branches until they caught their balance. Watch this crazy little video clip. Just when we thought we’d fulfilled our monkey quota for the day, we saw a dozen more red howlers and squirrel monkeys.
After a night of stargazing the constellations from the Northern and Southern Hemisphere (yes, you can see both in Ecuador!), we said farewell to the fantastic Manatee crew and zipped back to Coca. The peaceful ride had our minds recounting all our incredible wildlife encounters—diving pink dolphins, leaping monkeys, singing macaws, and countless plants and animals we had never even heard of. Having been to the Amazon once before, we didn’t think it could exceed our expectations, but our incredible time with the Manatee Amazon Explorer left of us dreaming of our next return to the world’s largest rainforest.
Anne and Mike Howard are creators of the around-the-world honeymoon blog HoneyTrek.com and Long Term Travel Coaches for anyone looking to travel the world safely, affordably and off the beaten path. You can see more from @HoneyTrek over on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Mike and Anne Howard left on their honeymoon in 2012 and have been traveling the world ever since. HoneyTrek.com chronicles their adventures across 7 continents, 44 countries, and counting! Their writing, photography, and the story of the “World’s Longest Honeymoon” can also be found on Condé Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, The Knot, Los Angeles Times, CBS, and dozens of other international publications. Connect with @HoneyTrek on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.