April 20, 2024

Bears, Binoculars and Bucket-List Birds: A 15-Day Tour in Ecuador

We spent five blissful days at Sani Lodge, which is owned and operated by the Indigenous Sani tribe. We watched the sun rise over the jungle from a 120-foot-high metal platform — Mr. Gualinga helped build it when he was 14, he said — in the crown of a 900-year-old ceiba tree, and waited for scarlet macaws to descend upon a clay-lick to eat minerals that neutralize toxins in their diet.

For lunch one day we took instruction from a group of Sani Village mamitas in the community center, folding tilapia and heart of palm into long, green rumi panka leaves, which we then roasted over an open fire, along with two types of plantains and chontacuro beetle larvae. We paddled through flooded forests looking for anacondas and fished for piranhas along a small creek.

Yes, the Wi-Fi at the lodge was spotty. And no, there was no pool. By this point, Olaf had pretty much gone rogue, disappearing with Mr. Gualinga and another rower before the rest of us met for breakfast, and returning long after lunch, only to head out again on his own, returning after we’d finished dinner.

Richness and wonder

One morning, Martha and I were gazing through our binoculars at a marvelous paradise tanager — green, blue and red — when I was filled with a kind of piercing joy that had been sneaking up on me at odd moments. “This trip is particularly poignant for me,” Martha said, “because it may be the last time I see a lot of these birds in the wild. ” I put my arm around her, considering this.

Birding is not for everyone. I’m not even sure it’s for me. What is for me, however, is experiencing the natural world in all its richness and wonder, and seeing how other people live, and hearing their stories, all while understanding how very different we may be, and also how very similar.

By then, I’d gotten used to my binoculars. I’d also noticed that when Mr. Gualinga tracked a bird, he moved low and quiet through the forest, whistling softly, as if speaking directly to the bird until it responded, when he’d stand very still on one leg, while slowly motioning for us to come look.

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