The Exception to the Rule, Sani Lodge

This originally appeared on the Rediscovering the Amazon site in October.  As I am updating my own site, I wanted to add it in its unedited version, mistakes and all until I have the time to revise in properly. Jon

Our first stop on the journey down the Rio Coca was at Sani Lodge, a community driven project that has successfully combined tourism with community development.  The following is what we learned from an incredibly unique experience while they hosted our team for three days.

First, the facts


Fact #1: The areas around the upper Amazon or Rio Napo are some of the most bio-diverse in the world, containing countless plants, animals and habitats seldom found elsewhere.  Venture away from the river on any tributary and one will find themselves in plush, stunning territory alive with sound and movement.


Fact #2 The same areas are the most mineral rich in Ecuador, huge deposits of oil lie underneath the pristine jungle.  At least eight oil companies have operated in Ecuador in the last twenty-five years, and part of the national budget depends on the amount of oil extracted each year.  In the past, these companies have had little regard for the environment in which they worked, poisoning the earth and people alike dumping dangerous waste onto the land.


Fact #3 The indigenous communities along the Rio Napo subside mostly on farming and often do not have access to adequate medical and educational facilities. Members often work for oil companies, as guides or providing services for those traversing the river. Many times whole communities decide to lease their lands to oil companies who provide not only money, but the much needed services listed previously.


This is an extraordinarily complicated issue, full stop. For hundreds of years in recent history, companies from outside Latin America have set up shop to extract rubber, drill for oil and mine minerals. They have displaced whole communities, used them as slave labor and forced them to endure living on meager means while fleecing their land for the materials they possess.  It has been very much a case of the tortoise and the scorpion with communities getting the short end of the stick more often than not.


For those outraged at the fact that communities here lease their lands to oil companies and think that they hold the blame in doing so, stop reading this and go look in your driveway. The need for oil is not going to go away as long as there is a car in it. Riding your bike to work makes more sense than blaming a community adapting to the present; ensuring the well-being of future generations.


The success story, Sani Lodge.


Sani Lodge sits two hours downstream from Coca past oil wells and small wayside villages. Coca is the staging point travelling down the river to jungle lodges, moving equipment to oil wells and getting supplies not found in smaller communities.  It is also near to the site where Pizarro and Orellana split and Orellana started his epic journey down the length of the Amazon ending up on the coast of present day Brazil.


The idea for Sani Lodge came from a member of the Isla Sani community, Don Orlando. Before Sani Lodge, members of Isla Sani had been working for other lodges in the area. Don Orlando himself worked for an oil company for more than twenty years before  deciding that the community should build its own lodge. After a year of dealing with the Ecuadorian government and the oil companies, he and the Isla Kichwa community negotiated a deal with an oil company to fund the construction of the initial cabanas and dining area.


Side note, while I love life in Ecuador, the sheer amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that one has to deal with to get a small thing accomplished is mind-numbing. To convince the government and an oil company to build a lodge on prime oil land is a heroic feat worthy of songs and legends; the equivalent of present day folklore along the river.  Indeed in the groups travels since visiting Sani lodge we have met many people who recognize Don Orlando’s name immediately.  (This is not uncommon as a rule as one person upriver has friends or relatives living downriver. The instant recognition of Orlando’s name has a certain acclaim that accompanies it.)


Since that time the lodge has become an outright success, showcasing the natural sights and sounds of the jungle while providing comfortable accommodation and friendly service.  Tent cabins come with towels, shampoo and mattresses; the lounge features a stocked bar and snacks, which the bartender refills as soon as the plate emptied. The staff of the kitchen could work at the fine-dining establishment of their choosing.


Enter the Rediscovering the Amazon Team.


The team started the journey at Sani through a series of coincidences and a bit of serendipity. We held a raffle at the launch party featuring prizes at different hostels, tours of Quito, and as the grand prize two tour agencies donated trips to the jungle at two different lodges. (Thanks to Paul at Carpe Diem and David at Eos Travel Ecuador and everyone who donated prizes and the South American Explorers Club Quito.) The raffle was in part so we could help an Ashuar friend accompany us, and as I write this he is sitting on the balcony down the hall!


Dave Jackson and I were at the EOS Travel offices in Quito talking to Dave, the manager and founder, about the details of the prize he arranged and as an aside he said that he could talk to the people at Sani Lodge about hosting us at the onset of the journey. Never the ones to say no; we quickly agreed that if he was willing, we were up for it.


A few days and a well-written proposal in Spanish by Dave Jackson later, EOS Dave got back to us saying that Sani would be happy to host us for two nights. A week after that I was sitting in the EOS office again with Colleen Pawling talking to Rene; an exceptionally well-spoken and thoughtful man who works in the Sani office in Quito. He arranged for a meeting with Don Orlando in a few days when we arrived in the jungle.


With this new development, we had some serious brainstorming sessions about what questions or issues that we wanted to address. We knew that Sani Lodge used their profits to help the community, provided help with scholarships, and are proactive when it came to environmental issues. During the three days that we visited the lodge and the Isla Kichwa community, we saw and learned about just how much the people of the Isla Sani community have accomplished and what they are facing in the future.


With many details seen to in the last few days in Quito; we finally arrived in Coca and found ourselves on a dock awaiting the day’s guide and transport to the lodge.


Journey Down the River


Upon meeting Javier, gathering all the people going with us downstream and setting off; the first hint that this was not your normal tourist excursion came into view in the form of Javier himself.


Javier is a passionate man who has studied in the States and has deep ties to the lodge, his community and the jungle.  Although young in years, his understanding of politics and fragile balance of the jungle goes beyond that found in newspapers or guidebooks.  After talking to him for half an hour, I was ready to sign up as a volunteer at the lodge. His enthusiasm and the energy of the other guides at the lodge reminded me of working in the mountains of Colorado.


Javier had the boat driver cut the engine as soon as we got a few clicks away from the pier and proceeded to give us a brief history of the Napo, the communities that live along its banks and some amusing debates about the name of the river itself. They called our attention to a few new points:


-The Napo is growing wider and wider, losing depth as it does. The main cause of this is traffic on the river. Along the way to Sani, we had to slow down and kill the motor numerous times in order to find a passage deep enough for the relatively small boat.


– The powers that be named the city of Coca from the indigenous people who once lived there and forced to move to Peru in order to work during the rubber boom.


People called the river itself the Upper Amazon as they called the section in Peru. Recently, the communities in Brazil decided that they had the only legitimate claim to the name. The Rio Napo became the river’s name in Ecuador; El Tigre in Peru. People in Brazil have the exclusive rights to use the name “Amazon” and use it not only in regards to the river in Brazil but also to the whole stretch through Ecuador.


From outside Coca continuing down the river, we pass small communities on the banks with docks announcing their presence in front of small collections of ram shamble buildings.  A bit further along were the more organized pueblos of oil companies. Recognizable by the bigger docks, which accommodate the large barges which transport trucks carrying supplies and fuel.


The next stop on along the way with further explanation from Javier was just past the community of Pompeia and the road to Limon Cocha.


Missionaries previously started the small community of Lemon Cocha. Sometime after they left, a different religious group took their place. They believed that in order for anyone to go to heaven everyone had to hear the word of God. This group set up camp and started working to create a written index of the nearby communities’ previously unrecorded language.  Colleen volunteered at the school there and gave the group credit for preserving languages which otherwise, would be lost. Today Limon Cocha’s school serves other communities both up and down the river.


Missionaries also started Pompiea, presently popular for its Saturday market where locals come for staples and wild animal meat such as turtle, tapir, parrot and monkey.  It is also a staging point for oil companies. There, the company loads equipment and material to supply sites downriver. The road here is somewhat haphazardly connected to the coast.


On the rest of the trip to Sani Lodge, we passed many more communities and fresh construction financed by the government.   It will provide new transportation options that facilitate easier access up and down the river.  Seeing this, it became apparent that this section of the Rio Napo is undergoing a transition. Changing from a series of communities to a larger area and region that is gradually coming together as transportation options become greater.  While this is the case in one sense, lands leased for oil extraction are causing new divisions between the community at large.


Arriving at Sani Lodge we slowly head towards the left side of the river and make our way to a landing spot where a few boats are docked. Once onshore we head up towards the bodega of the lodge. After all the bags are off the boat, Xavier leads us down a wooden boardwalk that needs constant repair as it rots due to the wet conditions of the marshlands it traverses. I walk ahead of Dave who is showing remarkable skill on crutches, missing holes, going through the walkway at one point and slipping on the slick wood but never taking a dive.


At the end of the boardwalk, we arrive to a peaceful tributary of the Rio Napo where we board canoes for the hour trip to the lodge itself.


The final leg of the day’s trip is a glimpse into the natural wealth of the land away from the busy hustle and bustle of the main river. The shady inlet is calming, the sounds change from that of motors to that of birds, howler monkeys and herons announcing our arrival and our guides seem to relax a bit upon returning home.  Having lived in Quito for four years the tranquility is a shock to my system.  I struggle to keep my eyes open in my current state of relaxation.


After an hour, a causeway opens up into a sunny lagoon.  On the far side,  Sani Lodge presents itself blending into the scenery with an amazing complex of bamboo thatched buildings fronted by a dock. Jeffery, the lodge manager, awaits there to help us out of the shaky canoe. His staff greets us with a welcome drink of maracuya and rum. (Side note, Dave once again was an acrobat with his crutches, hopping in and out of the canoe on one leg regaining his balance while others barely made it out on two!)


Once situated in the lodge’s open air bar overlooking the lagoon, Javier walks us through the necessities of living at Sani. The sound of a note from a bamboo horn announce meals, in the camping area there is no electricity, and we should always carry bug spray, suntan lotion and rain gear with us as the weather changes at a moment’s notice. My kind of place.


After the orientation, which brings back memories of camp and summer jobs, our group separates from the rest of the guests, and Javiar introduces the team to Don Orlando. After a few moments of deciding who we were and what we are about he lays down his cards.   Gradually telling us his story of starting the lodge and his vision of its role in the Isla Sani community. He also provides details on the issues that both the lodge and the community are facing in the present.


Don Orlando has a grandfatherly demeanor, a spring in his step and eyes that flash passionately when telling us about the work that he has done and is doing through Sani. In between long explanations about this he pauses and laughs at the folly that getting things done in the jungle amidst the constant pressure which is applied by the oil companies. In short; the glimmer in his eyes and his laughter comes from one thing, he has beaten the giant; he has won the battle and outwitted the scorpion.


What stands out about Sani at this point is the lack of pretension.  From the boat ride down the river, through the orientation of the meeting with Don Orlando, everyone treated us as familiar guests in a friend’s home.  For a lodge with top ratings, this was refreshing.  Don Orlando listened to our ideas about what we wanted to do there and accommodated every request we made.  Later, after visiting the community I realized that the lodge was a genuine extension of the community, having their traditional welcoming nature thinly guised as services for guests.


Don Orlando’s story is compelling, but I failed to catch the little details due to my faltering Spanish. Dave has written a post with the whole story and we also interviewed Don Orlando numerous times. Parts of these will be posted for those who donated to our trip as their reward for helping through our kick starter campaign.


This much I can tell you.


The Isla Kichwa community owns 23 thousand hectares of land. The two communities that sandwhich their land currently lease their lands for oil extraction. Despite constant pressure from the company to allow the Isla Sani community to explore for oil, they have managed to maintain their lands and succeed in turning them into a natural eco-tourism destination rarely accomplished in Ecuador.


During the following two days, Don Orlando would personally show us around their land, and the community, giving us a unique opportunity to understand the politics and purpose that Sani Lodge serves.


Sani Lodge staff are members of the Isla Sani Kichwa community under Don Orlando’s guidance. Members of the community who wish to work there must be pursuing an education or have completed it.  For a gringo this seems to be a no-brainer, one must be qualified in order to get a job.


For communities along the Napo, it is often the case that one completes the education provided in the community, and then finds a job working in whatever captivity that gains the most money. Sani is working to change this as we would see in the second day that we were at the lodge.


As I mentioned, the Isla Sani community is under constant pressure from the oil companies. As it turns out, Don Orlando invited us to the Isla Sani community the next day where he was attending a meeting between the community members and Petrol Amazonas. They once again asked for permission to explore the community land for oil.


Act that we went to the camping area to sort out our accommodation and get ready for dinner.  Across the lagoon from the lodge and only accessible by canoe, is the camping area. Upon hearing that we were ready to go, both Don Orlando and Jeffery accompanied us to the tent cabin area. There, we conducted our first interview with Don Orlando.  Orlando and Jeffery left after they were satisfied that we were comfortable, promising to return at the appointed hour so that we would be in time for dinner. Over the coming days, this would be the routine with Orlando showing up at the camping area at various times for casual conversations that resulted in excursions, song and mutual camaraderie.


Dinner consisted of first-class service, gourmet food and good conversations with Jeffery and our dining companion Tim.  He is an American frog and a snake enthusiast who was  returning to Sani for his third time to mark more species off his ever-growing list. As frogs and snakes only come out at night, he headed out after dinner, as did we. Only we were after not snakes but Caiman!


Despite it being a full moon and having a shortage of headlamps, Don Orlando and another terrific guide Fausto paddled around the lagoon for two hours while the singing, howling, buzzing and chirping of the jungle serenaded us as we passed. Just when we had decided to call it a night, our lights picked up the glowing red eyes of a caiman along the shores. The first we spotted was under a meter, the second had a body like a crocodile, and the third slipped into the water as soon as we approached. Happy to have seen these elusive creatures, we quietly glided back to the camp dock.  Making our way to bed amidst the night sounds of the jungle looking forward to visiting the Isla Kichwa community in the next day.


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