Rainforests in Ecuador

Nature & culture in the lungs of the earth

Ecuador’s rainforests attack the senses. They are hot, humid and very, very wet. They smell – of flowers and leaves and mud and life. They are unexpectedly loud – with the volume cranking up even higher once dusk falls. And looking around you, everything you can see is alive. No other environment demonstrates nature’s ability to thrive in quite the same way.
Experiencing Ecuador’s jungle dwelling wildlife is not like an African game drive – rumbling across the savannah in a custom built vehicle, looking for herds of elephants or lolloping giraffe. It’s not like whale watching, bobbing over the waves in a boat, scanning the horizons for flukes and blowholes. In the rainforests of Ecuador, the only way to travel is on foot or by small boat, and the wildlife is everywhere, it’s all around you. The trick is being able to spot it.
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You’ll hear the wildlife long before you see it. Howler monkeys are the loudest animals in the jungle; their eerie growls resonate around their specially hardened skulls and can be heard up to a mile away so that they can avoid encountering rival troops which might result in dangerous battles.
Spider monkeys are the jungle acrobats, their extraordinary limbs swinging them from branch to branch in the canopy. Titi monkeys, capuchin monkeys, incredible singing monkeys; all inhabit the Amazon’s canopy, and can be spotted by expert guides, many of whom will have grown up surrounded by these primates.
Sloths never fail to bring a smile with their own perpetually grinning faces. Moving even more slowly than you’d imagine, they spend virtually all of their time dangling upside down – eating, sleeping, mating, giving birth – and descend from the trees just once a week to defecate. Their fur, tinged green with algae, runs from toe to head, allowing rain to run off their inverted bodies.
Jaguars are the Ecuadorian rainforest’s most striking and elusive creatures. You’re unlikely to witness one of these rare and superbly camouflaged big cats, but do keep an eye out for tracks. Anacondas also have a fearsome reputation – but in reality pose little threat. Although they can devour enormous prey, the incredible effort it takes for them to do so means they only eat every few weeks. Walk through the pampas in search of these enormous reptiles, or cruise through the flooded forest to look out for their thick bodies wrapped around tree trunks.
Caiman, too, are scary-looking reptiles, but they are nothing like their crocodile cousins. See them basking on the riverbanks in the morning, soaking up the equatorial sun which will give them the strength to head out to hunt later in the day.

More dangerous by far is the peccary – a large, hairy, vicious pig that lives in herds of several hundred, and can trample and kill a human in no time. The good thing about these huge herds is that you’ll hear them coming – and the best advice is to climb the nearest tree. Also lining the riverbanks are comical capybaras – the world’s largest rodent. They sound like something invented by a five year old: they resemble huge guinea pigs, have webbed feet, and eat mud.

The birds of the Ecuadorian rainforest are stunning. In the clearings above the rivers, watch out for enormous jabiru storks – one of the world’s largest flying birds – flapping slowly between the banks. Head to clay licks to see colonies of rainbow coloured macaws feeding on the much-needed salt. They mate for life, and are always seen in pairs.
More unusual is the hoatzin, or serere. Bizarre-looking, with a bald, blue face and spiky orange crest, the hoatzin defies scientific classification. They eat leaves – a have a digestive system more similar to that of a cow; fly with all the grace of a chicken; and reportedly taste foul, hence their nickname: stinkbird. One of the best places to observe birds is at the Napo Wildlife Centre, where hides have been built at a number of clay licks frequented by parrots. 568 species of birds have been recorded at this centre! There are also canopy towers in the Ecuadorian Amazon that allow for up close encounters with its tree-dwelling inhabitants.

Amazonian culture

Most travellers go to the Ecuadorian Amazon for the wildlife – but the fondest memories they have of their time there is often of the people. Many indigenous communities live in the jungle, on the outskirts of national parks, and life has changed little out here; they harvest cassava and plantain and jungle fruits, fish for piranha in dugout canoes and live in thatched huts in clearings. Many holidays in the Ecuadorian Amazon offer opportunities for homestays or community-owned lodges, where you can meet Quichua, Achuar or Huaorani people who can take you on traditional canoe rides, lead you on jungle treks, point out wildlife, medicinal and edible plants, learn about traditional hunting techniques and reveal the secrets of life in the earth’s largest rainforest.
You might have the chance to meet a shaman, sample delicious local dishes and discover local crafts. You’ll learn, too, about the threats posed to these communities by the proposed oil drilling as well as deforestation and the creation of roads.)


Although jungle tours generally inspire images of lazy days spent cruising in canoes, looking out for monkeys and sloths, there are plenty of ways to get more active in the Amazon. Jungle hikes are a must – preferably with an indigenous guide – and don’t pass up on the opportunity for a night hike, when the rainforest really comes into its own and the nocturnal wildlife reaches its screaming crescendo. You can learn plenty of survival techniques plus traditional hunting and trapping practices, including blowpipes.
As well as the larger canoes, some holidays offer the opportunity to kayak along the Amazonian tributaries, but for a real adventure on the river, head to Napo – Ecuador’s whitewater rafting centre. The appropriately named Jatunyacu (“Big Water”) River has thrilling Class III rapids to test your paddling skills, and excellent rafting guides.
And for a real holiday with a difference, look into volunteering with Amazon communities for a week – building and working with schools, supporting local culture and traditions and creating much needed infrastructure.
Photo credits: [Top box: Dallas Krentzel] [Howler monkey: ccotton] [Jaguar: Charlie Marshall] [Hoatzin: Cláudio Dias Timm ] [Amazonian culture - Achuar: Diego Giannoni] [Whitewater: Mikko Koponen]
Written by Vicki Brown
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