Only in Ecuador can you explore one of the most biodiverse places on the planet while staying in a lodge that’s accessible only by paddle canoe.
Ecuador, a small country that straddles the equator, is blessed with everything from idyllic tropical beaches and the otherworldly Galapagos Islands, to hummingbird-infested cloud forests and soaring Andean Peaks.
It’s also home to a sizable chunk of the Amazon rainforest, including the Yasuní National Park – a spot that the Smithsonian. Obviously such claims are hard to prove, but with 610 bird species, 150 amphibians, 382 fish, over 200 mammals (including the world’s smallest monkey), 121 reptiles, and more than 100,000 insects, it’s got to be up there! The best part? Ecuador’s Amazon is only a half-hour flight from the capital.
The Ecuadorian Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on earth.
All of the lodges we work with are accessed via a 35-minute flight from Quito to Coca. There’s one flight a day (mid-morning) but lodge transfers can be tricky to arrange on Sundays. After arriving in Coca you’ll take a 10-minute bus ride to the Napo River dock (a good spot for a bathroom break) where you’ll board a motorized canoe to begin your adventure. After two mesmerizing hours on the river, you’ll disembark your motorized craft to venture further into the jungle on foot / by paddle canoe, depending on which lodge you choose. On that note, let’s take a look at our three favorite lodges.
Taking a canoe trip is one of the best ways of discovering the incredible diversity of the rainforest. (Courtesy image)
Napo Wildlife Center: Dazzling authenticity
The only lodge that’s actually inside the Yasuní National Park, you’ll need to take an unforgettable two-hour paddle on top of the motorized canoe trip. Napo is so remote that motorized craft have never actually been to the lodge! It’s also 100% owned and managed by the community and run according to best ecological practices (solar electricity, recycling, and responsible waste treatment). The naturalist guides have a reputation for being some of the most knowledgeable in Ecuador, and the interpretative center gives you a chance to learn about the traditions and culture of your Kichwa Anangu hosts.
The accommodation – built from local materials – is rustic and luxurious, and the lodge’s small size (it sleeps a maximum of 40 people) only adds to the charm. Choose between a forest-facing cabin (these ‘standard’ rooms weigh in at 560 square feet!) or one of the truly enormous (687 square feet) suites overlooking the natural lagoon. Four of the suites can interconnect, making them ideal for families with young kids, while others boast jacuzzis and even glass floors.
The luxurious Napo Wildlife Center is nestled on a small ridge at the edge of a great jungle lake surrounded by the beautiful Amazon rainforest. (Courtesy image)
The main lodge is built around a 60-foot observation tower which offers a macaw’s-eye view of the rainforest, but there’s also a 125-foot canopy observation tower buried deeper in the jungle. The airy restaurant, which boasts great views over the river and the jungle beyond, serves up a combo of local and international cuisine, not to mention an incredible of array of delicious fruits you’ve never heard of. Breakfast and dinner are served buffet style, while lunch is a set menu.
Sacha Lodge: Family favorite
Twenty-six-room Sacha is the only lodge in Ecuador with its own canopy walkway. At 1,200 feet long and 120 feet high, you really do feel like one of the monkeys as you skim across the tops of the trees. Located on the northern bank of the Napo River, the lodge is accessed by a 30-minute walk and a ten-minute paddle (on top of the aforementioned two-hour motorized canoe trip).
The 1,200-foot canopy walkway at Sacha Lodge is the only one of its kind in Ecuador. (Courtesy image)
In addition to the incredible walkway, Sacha also boasts an awesome ‘butterfly house’ (home to 40 species) and a floating swimming pool within a natural lake. These funky features make it our go-to family recommendation, and the three two-bedroom family cabins seal the deal. The lakeside restaurant and bar area epitomize relaxation, and the local and international cuisine gets rave reviews. At Sacha, breakfast and lunch are buffets while dinner is an a la carte affair.
La Selva Lodge: Languid luxury
La Selva, a 30-minute paddle from the spot where the motorized canoe will leave you, is the most luxurious lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The entire property was given a complete overhaul a few years ago, and there are also yoga classes (no charge, on arrangement) and an on-site spa.
Suites at La Selva Lodge feature rainforest showers, private balconies, and panoramic views. (Courtesy image)
The rooms and suites (the lodge sleeps a total of 46) are extremely tastefully decorated and designed, but they aren’t as spacious as those at Napo (few are). The cuisine – buffets for breakfast and lunch and a set dinner menu – is arguably the best in the Amazon. If the finer things in life are important to you, or if you’re celebrating a special occasion, La Selva will pull out all the stops.
In addition to their endearing differences, all three lodges do have a lot in common. Rooms at all of the lodges feature ceiling fans (there’s no air-con in the Amazon), mosquito nets, balconies, and big windows. All three have a ready supply of drinking water (bring your own refillable bottle; never drink from the taps), and they all supply complimentary ponchos and gumboots (but bring your own binoculars). They also all offer satellite wi-fi for guests (sometimes for a small fee) but don’t expect to be able to stream Netflix!
Activities on offer
All of the lodges also offer a similar array of guest experiences. The two absolute staples of the Amazon experience are forest walks and canoe paddles, where you are accompanied by an expert guide (small groups only) who will unveil the many secrets of the rainforest to you. A visit to a clay lick – a spot where parrots and other birds congregate to get their vitamin and mineral fix – is another absolute must, and the general birdwatching at all three lodges is also top-notch. All of the lodges have observation towers (but Sacha is the only one with a canopy walkway), and all boast community experiences (but Napo is the only lodge that is 100% owned and managed by the community).
The parrot clay licks are among the most striking and colorful experiences in Ecuador's Amazon. (Courtesy image)
What can I expect to see?
As already mentioned, Yasuní National Park is a contender for the most biodiverse place on the planet, so you won’t run out of critters to look at! Wildlife highlights include loads of different monkey species (from cute-and-tiny to oh-so-loud), formidable giant river otters, adorably slow sloths, and a dazzling array of varicolored birds (toucans, parrots, macaws, and hummingbirds) that will truly knock your socks off. Caimans, anacondas, and terrapins are frequently spotted, and the area is also home to more elusive beasts like jaguars, pumas, and tapirs. (This blog about 5 iconic Amazon animals should whet your appetite.)
Spot caimans either sunbathing on the shores or lurking by the water’s edge. (Courtesy image)
If you’re planning a trip to Ecuador and/or the Galapagos Islands, we’d highly recommend spending a few days in an Amazon lodge as well. The Yasuní National Park is one of the world’s true wildlife gems, and it’s easily accessible from Quito.
Check out our most popular Galapagos to the Amazon itinerary or speak to one of our South America Destination Experts about crafting a bespoke adventure that ticks all your boxes.