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Grettel Calderon, Ecuador

Sacha Lodge Review

Ten Foot Anaconda

Sacha Lodge was the highlight of my travels in continental Ecuador, and as a native Costa Rican I have been to many other jungle lodges. In the Galapagos, wildlife is relatively easy to see which is especially great for Ecuador family adventures, but on an Ecuador adventure in the Amazon the surprise factor makes the experience more rewarding when you find something you didn't expect, sighting becomes a gift and you feel lucky to see what is in front of you.

"...our native guide found a 10 foot anaconda which didn't move even though we got really close to take pictures."

The whole experience was inspiring given the relative isolation of Sacha Lodge, but let me start from the beginning. First your Ecuador adventure tour to the Amazon begins with a flight from Quito to Coca (Francisco de Orellana). There are 9 flights to Coca per week ranging from 50 passenger F28 to a 19 seater Beechcraft, both aircrafts and their pilots are FAA-certified in the U.S. For the flight to Coca, checked luggage is limited to 20 pounds per person, however heavier items such as cameras and books may be taken in carry-on bags if necessary. All luggage is placed in waterproof bags for the trip down the Napo River but keep your rain jackets handy!

Upon arrival at the Coca airport its a short transfer to the Sasha House, a local reception room where a box lunch is provided while luggage is loaded into the boats. The ride to Coca is 2.5 hours by a large, motorized, dugout canoe covered to protect against sun and rain. We then arrive at another Sasha reception building with bathrooms. Luggage is all handled by the staff and from here it is a 30 minute walk through the forest on a constructed wooden walkway to another, smaller paddle canoe (non-motorized) for a short ride to finally reach the hotel. No roads connect to Sasha Lodge or the property, the only access is via river. The trip to get there was very nice and scenic with plenty of forest, local life along the river, and animals to look out for.

Sacha Lodge is one of the best jungle lodges for an Ecuador adventure in the Amazon. The lodge is well appointed, in a beautiful area of rainforest, and proved to be an exceptionally well-run program to see wildlife and learn about life in the Amazon jungle. Expert guides including indigenous natives with keen senses and amazing tracking skills enables guests to see plenty of wildlife including insects, birds and mammals.

Swimming on the lake is refreshing after walks in the rainforest. Pilchicocha is a black water lake, and although its source is primarily from rainfall, the dark coloration of the water is due to a high concentration of tannic acid which stains the water like tea due to decomposition of dead leaves and branches that fall in the water. The water natural chemicals help to keep the mosquitoes at negligible levels. During my 5 day stay, I got 2 mosquito bites only. I still used 25% deet moisture towels that worked perfectly fine, especially when it rains and the mosquitoes get more active. One might feel a bit nervous swimming in the dark water because you can't see underneath.

After many years living there and watching guests come and go, the hotel owner told me, these caimans and piranhas in the Amazon are creatures often feared because of their Hollywood-fueled bad reputation but they guarantee that swimming is perfectly safe. Caimans are nocturnal, and even at night they are only interested in eating fish and of the two species of piranhas there are essentially only scavengers and use their sharp teeth for cracking hard palm fruits and eating the carcass of dead animals. I felt very safe swimming on the lake!

Our Amazon Ecuador guide woke us up in the wee hours of the morning because the cool hours of early morning, along with late afternoon, are the best times for spotting wildlife which is great because its not so hot and when you return from the walk you have time to relax and swim, sunbathe, read, take a nap, etc.

I never used my hiking shoes; they provide very comfortable rubber boots which are a must on such muddy trails. We highly recommend our travelers bring an extra pair of synthetic (nylon/cotton blend) hiking socks as they get wet when you sweat.

The lodge also provides umbrellas, ponchos, life jackets and all the equipment is in excellent condition. A ziplock plastic bag or a drybag is recommended to protect cameras in case of a sudden downpour. Another option is to bring a smaller point-and-shoot camera which are usually waterproof for hikes when rain or splash is likely, I wished I had mine! There is a humidity dry box inside each room so I just placed my camera and lenses and even my socks there after each hike.

The whole complex has been thought out with privacy of the guests in mind. Whilst each cabin is attached to another one, they are totally private with a common area in between the duplex cabanas where guests can relax and share experiences of the day with your next door friends.

Upon arrival at the hotel guests are divided into groups of 6, and each group has 2 guides; one is a native guide from the Quichua communities that border the Napo River who speaks only Spanish and Quichua and another guide who is a trained naturalist who speaks excellent English. My naturalist guide Daniel was very knowledgeable and being in a small group allows you to ask questions and see the animals and birds more easily.

On our Ecuador adventure tours in the Amazon we were lucky enough to see 6 out of 7 monkey species that populate the reserve. We fished for piranhas (if they are big enough they cook them for you even though they are quite bony), and our native guide found a 10 foot anaconda which didnt move even though we got really close to take pictures. We found lots of colorful birds: a superb find by our guide was a snail kite a very short distance eating a large snail. From the tower we saw red howler monkeys sheltering in the tree tops from the rain, lots of playful squirrel monkeys and all around the property we saw the tamarind monkeys (not shy!). A really great find among the primates was the pigmy monkey, the smallest monkey in the world. With some luck one can also find anteater, sloth, and even jaguars!

Bird checklists are available for $12. Among the birds I checked are: anhinga, black and turkey vulture, snail kite, black caracara, hoatzins, ruddy quail-dove, blue-headed parrot, short-tailed swift, black-throated brilliant hummingbird, spectacled owl, green-and-rufous kingfisher, many-banded aracari, white-throated toucan, long-tailed tyrant, plum-throated cotinga (nice find!), yellow-rumped cacique, and many, many others!

My Sacha Lodge experience was unbelievable being at one with nature. We saw animals everywhere, everyday with vast amounts of wildlife during the day and during our nocturnal outings so every day was very different.

This is a great place for birders and kids will be amazed by the variety of butterflies, weird looking insects, lizards, spiders, etc.

The canopy walk on a suspended walkway 100 up above the forest floor is spectacular for the views and because most of the wildlife in the rainforest lives in the forest canopy. Some guests were nervous but the guides are very good at coaxing guests across. Birds are easy to find with the help of the guides, both the naturalist and the native saw many species we would have not seen without their help.

Besides the canopy walk there is also a 135 foot high observatory tower with a staircase and platform reaching above the rainforest canopy for a magnificent view of the surrounding area. Sacha Lodge's 26 rooms and even though they will continue to expand their interpretive programs and jungle activities, they will not build more cabins. All cabins are very clean and comfortable with two double beds, private bath with hot water, a place to put your luggage, safety box, view to the forest and landscaped gardens, a small terrace with a hammock from where you can see birds and other wildlife. All cabins are screened against insects for maximum ventilation enhanced with ceiling fans. I didnt find bugs in the room during my entire stay. They also place biodegradable body and hair wash dispensers in the shower.

The restaurant and lounge are located in a two story, thatched-roof structure with a little lookout above the second-floor bar and lounge with a great view of Pilchicocha Lake and excellent opportunities to bird watch.

The food was well presented, plentiful and delicious every meal being prepared with fresh ingredients from the Amazon. Everyone would comment on the food, there were lots of choices (buffet style) and they even have a pastry chef who made 3 different desserts daily. They were very meticulous in accommodating individual dietary restrictions (wheat allergy, dairy allergy, vegetarian, etc.). In my case, I dont eat chicken or meat and they always offered me fish separately. One of the meals during your stay is served al fresco on the deck, right on the edge of the lake. In our case, we had a spectacular night with full moon and the BBQ was delicious!

The food all comes from Coca, over the boardwalk and paddled across the lakelots of work! All the water for cooking, drinking and the bar is purified with an ozone filtration system. Drinking water was always available at the dinning room and snacks were always served after the morning hike/boat tour, at around 10-11 a.m.

Next to the restaurant there is a gift shop, all drinks, gift shop purchases, laundry and internet use is put on a tab which you pay the day before you leave. They accept cash, traveler checks and credit cards. Tipping cannot be included in the bar bills, they have a box in the restaurant for general tipping (all personnel) and you give a separate tip directly to each guide. The suggested tipping amount is $5-10 per passenger each for the native guide and the naturalist guide. A box lunch is provided also on your departure day and they take care of you until you check in for the flight from Coca to return to Quito.

The hotel uses two diesel generators which alternate every 12 hours. Low wattage light bulbs are used to reduce energy consumption. As the Amazon basin is not conductive to solar power, solar energy is not able to provide sufficiently reliable power under the often-cloudy Amazon skies. They have a composter all the organic waste onsite, the inorganic waste is shipped up river to Coca. Their grey water passes through an onsite ozone treatment system before being released into the environment. There is a good internet connection for those who really needed it at $10 per hour.

All the trails are muddy and they are not very challenging; anyone in pretty good shape can do it, plus there are lots of boat tours where you just sit and relax, you dont even have to paddle. All the activities are geared to each guests interests and physical capabilities. Our last nocturnal walk and boat tour was unbelievable, we saw lighting bugs, lots of bats, owls, and to finish the night two falling starts with their long violet/green tail, it was a magical good bye from the jungle to our group!

Sacha Lodge now has direct radio contact with both Quito and Coca. In case of a serious medical emergency, they are able to radio Coca and have a helicopter sent directly to the lodge for assistance. For lesser emergencies, there is a medical center operated by a multinational company located at 20 minutes from Sacha Lodge by canoe on the Napo River. All in all the service and friendliness was outstanding, from the servers to the guide and hotel managers, they all made sure we had a great stay. People here are exposed to so many plants, birds and other animals. It is a wonderful Ecuador vacation to experience the rainforest no matter if you travel solo, with family and friends, or as a couple. Their entire focus is on two things: preserving the rain forest and insuring each visitor a memorable experience.