A Tributary of the Amazon – the Napo River

Eleanor Hughes


Eleven hundred tributaries flow into the mighty Amazon River, one of which is the Napo River. At 885 kilometers long, it begins its journey in the Ecuadorian Andes, travelling east across Ecuador towards the Peruvian border where it eventually joins the Amazon River. Start an exploration of the Amazon jungle on this tributary from the town of Coca, in north-eastern Ecuador. Located on the Napo River’s banks, Coca can be reached by bus or plane from Quito.

Heading into the Amazon

Limoncocha Biological Reserve, an area of 28,000 hectare, and Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, are both located on the Napo River. Explore the area by booking a tour by boat and staying at one of the lodges along the river side.

With a humid climate year round, April and May are the wettest months in this region with August to October receiving less rain (so less mosquitoes), the boat ride on the milky-tea-coloured river will ensure a welcome breeze. You may spot the odd red flower, black vulture turkey or a hoatzin – a bird that looks like a tailless pheasant sporting a punk rock hairdo, and get a glimpse of bright orange flames from a rare oil refinery. Otherwise it’s greenery forever along both sides of the river, several hundred metres wide in places. The Napo can be little deeper than a paddling pool at times, with sandbanks forming islands mid-river.

As you journey along the river, guides may regale you with tales of missionaries murdered by never-before-seen tribes in remote areas of the Amazon and legends of battling Amazonian women. Hear of colonial Spanish explorers searching the Amazon for gold which supposedly lay at the bottom of a river. The gold apparently washed off El Dorado, a legendary king who was said to cover himself in gold dust, then wash himself in the river.

There is a small museum on the riverside between Coca and Limoncocha where artefacts such as spears, blowpipes, hammocks made from palm fibres and woven blankets can be seen. You’ll also learn about a number of Amazonian tribes.

In an Amazonian Jungle Lodge

The jungle lodges along the Napo River range from upmarket to basic. Usually constructed of traditional materials such as bamboo, and thatched with palm fronds, they’re built to blend into the environment. Mosquito nets cover beds and ceiling fans push a breeze around. Eat at covered al fresco dining areas with views of the rainforest. Meals include local produce as much as possible. Dine on soups, beef, chicken, fish, vegetables and fruit including yucca and plantains.

At dusk, enjoy the incredibly loud sounds of the jungle – mainly a symphony of cicadas. The melody of hooting, chirping, cheeping and the occasional howling – not of the wind but of Howler monkeys - will lull you to sleep. Awake to birdsong. 

A Walk through a Jungle Pharmacy

The Amazon jungle is as you’d expect, dense, damp, humid, and multiple shades of green. You’ll discover the insects – lines of leafcutter ants crossing the jungle floor carrying bright green bits of leaf, cute, furry centipedes in leaf litter that emit cyanide when feeling vulnerable. Spot owl butterflies whose opened wings reveal a large black spot rimmed with yellow on each which resemble owl eyes. Squirrel monkeys may swing overhead, and you might be lucky to spot tiny, blue and red, poison dart frogs, barely two centimetres big.

On a jungle walk guides will amaze you with nature’s pharmacy. There’s a pale green spongy moss used to soothe mosquito bites. Monster, black jellybean-like fungus containing a white liquid that treats ear or eye infections. A whitish brown fungus, like a tiny lily pad, that acts as a sticking plaster when peeled apart. The red sap of a tree trunk cures mouth ulcers and cold sores. Beware of the bark used in Amazonian tribes’ blowpipes paralyses nerves, enough of it can cause death…

Short Tours on the River

When not walking the rainforest, take a tour on the river. At night, board a boat to spot caiman, small alligator-like reptiles native to Central and South America. Guides shine torches across the water and on riverbanks to find them, the light picking up their eyes which glow red. Even if you don’t see one, being out on the water under brilliant stars surrounded by the noise of the jungle is a wonderful experience.

Limoncocha Biological Reserve is home to over 400 species of birds, among them heron, hoatzin, egret, turkey vulture and purple gallinule – a beautifully coloured swamp hen. There are opportunities to bird-watch by boat as dawn breaks. The eerie sound of Howler monkeys, the second loudest mammal in the world, can be heard as the jungle world awakens. If you’re lucky you’ll get to spot them high in the trees.

Try your hand at piranha fishing local style from a canoe with a piece of raw beef on the end of a hook attached to a metre or so of nylon on a stick. You may be fortunate enough to catch the orange headed fish with teeth like pinking shears but way sharper. Protected, the piranha are released back into the river.

Kichwa, the indigenous people of Ecuador, live in communities along the river and it’s possible to visit a village. Learn about their way of life, traditional foods and perhaps have a go at using a blowpipe, used in hunting.  

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