Thursday, 7 August 1986

ECUADOR July/August 1986: Arrival and Rio Napo

Introduction.  In 1986 Nick Preston and I decided to visit Ecuador during the summer.  We had previously been to Peru (1984) and Costa Rica (1985) so Ecuador was an obvious choice.  Where to go when we got there was less so.  We were keen to visit sites in the Andes and the Amazon but couldn’t afford to hire a car for the former and stay at one of the expensive lodges in the latter.  We decided to split the trip into two parts, two weeks with a hire car mainly in the Andes and two weeks at Amazon sites easily along the Rio Napo that could be reached by public transport.  Viasa, the Venezuelan airline, was the cheapest and we left London on the evening of 26 July.

This blog recounts the trip, it is based on scant notebook entries and unreliable memories, some corrected or enhanced by Nick.  It is illustrated with digitised slides of generally poor quality - photography in the forest was almost impossible which is my excuse for so few birds.

Arrival and Limoncocha (27-31 July).  After stops in Caracas, where we changed planes, and Bogota we arrived in Quito mid-morning.  Our attempts to hire a car failed miserably as none were available from the airport so we switched to plan B and got a bus into the centre of town and another to the main bus station.  Here we got tickets on the overnight bus to Lago Agrio and Coca and then sat around for five or so hours before it left.  Neotropical birding at its most exciting!  

Quito Airport
outside Quito Airport, distant volcano just about visible
waiting at Quito Bus Station
The bus was tedious (a 14 hour journey including waiting for the ferry at Lago Agrio) and uncomfortable but we arrived in Coca at 09:00, in good time to catch the river ferry ‘Zulema’ to the inappropriately named Grand Pompeya.  It left promptly at 10:00 and as we approached Pompeya three hours later we were loaded into a dugout and run ashore to a small jetty.

Rio Napo and the Zulema taking on passengers from Grand Pompeya where we had just been dropped

Impressive efficiency that put the need of a contingency plan well to the back of our minds.  Sadly we were not to see it repeated.  Pompeya appeared almost deserted but we soon found the trail to Limoncocha and set off with great expectations.  These were soon dashed as it wasn’t immediately obvious where the trail was.  The most obvious trail soon became flooded so we returned to try another.  After a few false starts on other trails that petered out we returned to the original one and were joined by a dog who seemed to have a better idea of where to go than we did.  When we got to the flooded area the dog started swimming and we followed wading through water at least two feet deep.  I don’t usually like dogs at all but this one had a lot of character and knew where it was going.  After a few more uncertain moments the flooding subsided but we soon came to the next obstacle, a swollen river that was clearly too deep to wade across.  There was a house on the far side and a small dugout pulled up beside it so we shouted.  This attracted the attention of a young girl (she looked to be about 6) who dragged the dug-out into the river and paddled over to collect us.  The boat could only take one of us at a time and even then looked like a disaster waiting to happen but our ferrygirl seemed confident and Nick went first and made it, with under an inch of freeboard to spare.  I was a bit heavier than Nick and had an anxious crossing, glad the girl wasn’t any bigger.

We paid a minimal amount for the crossing and continued walking to Limoncohca seeing very little (Plumbeous Antbird and White-bearded Manakin were best) but without further adventures.  We arrived at dusk to a welcome of general apathy, struggling to find accommodation or anyone interested in putting us up.  We were thinking about where to put up the tent when we were given a room above a very poorly stocked shop.  No-one in the village wanted to provide us with food so we were limited to buying tins and biscuits from the shop (fortunately they didn’t have sell-by dates) and the few supplies we had brought with us.  It was going to be a tough place to stay.
the poshest building in Limoncocha - we were not staying there
Lago Limoncocha - a missed opportunity for a local to make a bit of cash and take us out on it
We spent two days birding the main trail at Limoncocha.  The first was very quiet, the second much better but without really seeing anything that made the effort of getting to Limoncocha really worthwhile.  Highlights were Hoatzin, Dark-billed Cuckoo, Long-billed Starthroat, White-chinned Jacamar, Yellow-billed Nunbird, Scarlet-crowned and Lemon-throated Barbets, Black-faced Antbird and Plum-throated Cotinga.  The village was on the edge of a lake which we had hoped to get onto as Bare-faced Fruitcrow was a possibility.  We found a leaky boat but no-one around was at all interested in taking us out in it, Limoncocha was the most disinterested place I’d been to.  We could have tried borrowing the boat ourselves but with no paddles and uncertain how lake-worthy it was it didn’t seem worth the risk.  Perhaps there was something in the water and we were catching the Limoncocha apathy bug too?  Unfortunately our visit coincided with an all-night party based outside the ‘shop’ below us.  It seemed to consist of loud music, loud speeches and even louder cheering.  Perhaps it was a political rally?  Whatever it was (we were not interested enough to find out) it did little to enhance our feelings towards the place.  Birding was disappointing and we were running out of food so we decided to move on.  We left Limoncocha in good time to be at Pompeya for the Zulema’s return to Coca.  We made good time, being distracted by a pair of Blue & Yellow Macaws doing summersaults on a dead branch in a tree-top, and were ferried back across the river.  Fortunately the flooding on the trail the other side had reduced somewhat. 

I went first this time and was able to watch Nick's crossing without the worry of it being my turn next
just as well we'd not over-eaten at Limoncocha
Nick almost across
Nick on the flooded trail on our return with the water at about half its original depth.  Unfortunately we didn't have the dog to guide us on our return but managed to find our way without too many wrong turns
We arrived at Grand Pompeya having also seen Red-bellied Macaw, and Lettered and Chestnut-eared Aracaris but we were soon deflated to discover that we had missed the Zulema by 90 minutes.  It had been three hours early.  We anxiously waited on the riverbank and five hours later flagged down a passing canoe.  It took us to Primavera where we arrived late afternoon.

waiting for a boat at Grand Pompeya
Primavera (31 July-7 August).  On arrival at Primavera we were quickly welcomed by the lodge owner’s wife (he was away), given a room (with beds!) and the promise of meals.  Brilliant, and what a contrast to Limoncocha.  A before dusk venture down the main trail produced a Ruddy Quail-Dove which was even better.  We spent five whole days on the trail at Primavera, often birding on our own and meeting up irregularly during the day.  The trail went through good flat forest and headed north-east away from the river.  We never reached anywhere on the trail and saw very few locals along it although we probably never went more than five miles from the river.  We would often wander short distances off trail after interesting sounding birds, most which remained unseen or turned out to be rather ordinary – a complete lack of knowledge of tropical forest bird calls was a serious disadvantage.  On one occasion I was tempted off trail by an interesting call and went in too far.  I had not been paying attention to where it was leading me and by the time I’d lost it and started heading back I realised that I wasn’t sure which direction to go.  I tried walking 100m in a straight line in the direction I thought I should go but didn’t hit the trail.  I retraced my steps and tried 100m in another direction with similar results.  I was now in full panic mode and shouting in the hope Nick might be in earshot only confirmed that he wasn’t.  I needed to think clearly and calm down.  Despite being in covered forest I could tell where the sun was and although almost on the Equator I had a good idea where south was.  Heading west should take me to the trail and I just needed to hold my nerve and head in that direction until I hit the trail.  That I did, with fingers firmly crosses, and after a few minutes was mightily relieved to be back on the trail.  Usually I’ve a good sense of direction but it deserted me then.  I now always carry a button compass, although don’t always remember to check the direction of trails or bend over saplings when I leave them.  Nick was more circumspect them me and after hearing my tale was even more careful.  We also adopted a policy of leaving a hat or something by the trail whenever we went off it, something we still do today to give a starting point should one of us disappear.  The birding was great with Sapphire Quail-Dove, Blue-crowned Motmot, Many-banded Aracari, Cuiver’s Toucan, White-chested Puffbird, Rufous-breasted Piculet, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Faciated and Black-capped Antshrikes, Scale-backed, Black-faced and Spot-backed Antbirds, Black-faced Ant-thrush, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Blue-crowned, Wire-tailed and White-bearded Manakins, Musician Wren, Violaceous Jay and Green and Gold Tanager.  On one of our last days Nick saw a Collared Puffbird sitting quietly above the trail.  Much to my disappointment I was not with him at the time.  We had better luck in being together when we saw a huge eagle with massive feet perched below the canopy in a nearby tree.  It looked at us for a couple of minutes before flying off.  At the time we thought it might be a Harpy but on reading up the black in front of its eye suggested Crested Eagle. 

Rio Napo at Primavera
Atlas Moth at Primavera
ant highway
sunset on the Rio Napo at Primavera, most days finished with us sitting on the riverbank enjoying the tranquility and the view of  Volcan Reventador
We were having a great time at Primavera and were well looked after with good food although bananas with everything were not to Nick’s liking.  Nick also literally went bananas one evening when we got back to our room and he discovered the lodge owner’s son, aged about 3, had scribbled over some pages in his copy of Dunning’s South American Landbirds which he’d left on his bed.  I was quite shocked by his reaction although perhaps I shouldn’t have been given that he had made a little box/cover to protect the book.  He’d showed me this at the airport and was somewhat aghast when I pulled out my copy of de Schauensee’s Guide to the Birds of South America from which I’d removed the cover (and useless plates) to save weight, and the plates I’d removed from the same author’s Guide to the Birds of Venezuela annotated to show which birds were likely to occur.  In 1986 these were be best books available.

With the owner of the lodge still away and no other boats at Primavera we had to plan our departure to coincide with the Zulema.  This mean leaving a day or two before we were perhaps ready to, although we were being looked after so well another week would have been nice if there weren’t other places we were keen to visit.  On our sixth evening we were told that the Zulema was due sometime the next day and we were sitting on the riverbank soon after breakfast just in case it was early again.  It wasn’t.  It wasn't on time either, in fact it didn't show at all. We couldn’t wander far as it would only send in a motorised dugout if flagged down.  We waited all day with no sign of it or any other traffic heading up river.  Very frustrating when we could have been on the forest trail.  I might even have seen the Collared Pufbird.  Very few birds were seen with Pauraque and Troupial the best I managed.  Both were easily eclipsed by the views of Volcan Reventador which emerged from the haze at dusk.

telephoto views of Volcan Reventador during our morning boat vigil
we and it were still present late afternoon, but no boats
sunset on the Napo
We returned to the lodge where we were almost expected.  Relying on the Zulema being a punctual service was now looking to be a big mistake.  This was brought home to us even more the following day when, after sitting on the river bank from soon after dawn, it chugged past at 13:00 without sending a dugout.  What now!  We continued to sit and at 14:00 a motorised canoe arrived at Primavera bringing a visitor from Coca.  We established that the boatman was going straight back to Coca  and engaged in a negotiation with him although initially he wanted a ludicrous amount to take us there.  It was not as if we had a lot of options but I was pretty sure he didn’t know that and could be brought down to something much more reasonable – he was going back anyway so anything from us would be a bonus.  Nick wasn’t quite as keen at hold out but we prevailed and were soon back on the river.  Barely ten minutes out of Primavera, and just out of sight of it, we passed the Zulema, it appeared to have run aground - what a shame!  We arrived back in Coca, bought some supplies and quickly found a bus to Lago Agrio.  Here we transferred to the overnight bus to Quito although we were only going as far as Cascada de San Rafael (Coca Falls).

back on the riverbank, still no boat
Zulema ahoy, but it was to sail right past us!

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