Ecuador, jungle lodge: Up-close wildlife encounters meet fine dining

It's still dark when we start the ascent – 199 breathless steps up a metal spiral staircase that corkscrews into the forest canopy. As we climb, the volume increases, the background insect chatter joined by an avian chorus of shrieks, whistles and whoops. When we reach the summit – a wooden platform cradled high in the lichen-covered embrace of a giant kapok tree – a crimson sun peeks over the horizon, bathing the mist-swathed canopy in soft, golden light. In return, the jungle responds with a glorious orchestral crescendo of sound. It's sunrise in the Amazon.

This magical moment comes courtesy of Sacha Lodge, a remarkable property surrounded by the largest private reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Getting here is not a trivial matter. From Quito, it's a 40-minute flight to Coca, then a 1½-hour speedboat ride up the Napo River before a two-kilometre sweat-soaked trek through the jungle. Finally, we clamber into open canoes for a 30-minute paddle through wetlands harbouring anacondas, piranhas and caimans.

To reach this viewing platform for sunrise, we had to be up at 4am for a canoe ride across a lake and up a narrow, meandering creek. Paddling the boat is Ernesto, our Quichua guide, who I can only assume has special powers because we make the entire journey in total darkness. The reward is we get to watch the jungle wake up.

Everywhere we look, there's activity and commotion. Flocks of cobalt blue tanagers dart through the treetops while a pair of toucans squabble noisily in the foliage above us. Two slate-coloured hawks wait patiently in a distant cork tree while metres away a cinnamon-throated woodcreeper sneaks up a branch picking off insects.

Thanks to our keen-eyed guides we spot dozens of birds including kites, parakeets, aracaris and caciques. The reserve is home to more than 600 different species and at times it sounds as if  they're all talking at once. My favourite call is that of the russet-backed oropendola, which sounds uncannily like a cartoon waterdrop.

This sunrise outing is one of many activities. Morning excursions normally start at dawn and finish around 11am after which there's free time until lunch. The next activity departs late-afternoon and often there's an outing after dinner. During the welcome briefing, lodge manager Fausto Cornejo explains that the bleary-eyed dawn starts are necessary to "get in rhythm with the forest ... because activity in the jungle starts very early".

Accommodation is in a sprawling network of wooden huts connected by elevated walkways. Rooms are spacious with verandahs, modern bathrooms with flush toilets, large showers and floor-to-ceiling windows. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style in the Balsa Lounge, an open-sided thatched building overlooking the tannin-stained Lake Pilchicocha. Dinner is served a la carte in a separate two-storey bar and restaurant.

Thanks to a recent overhaul by Peruvian chef Julio Avendano​, the menu now incorporates more ingredients from the Amazon. Many of these are included during a lavish, twice-weekly lunch where guests sample local delicacies such as yucca cream soup and palm hearts and catfish. Dinners are unexpectedly upscale, with a typical three-course menu comprising grilled octopus followed by beef tenderloin with confit mushrooms and passionfruit souffle for dessert. Not bad for the depths of the jungle.

Given that every part of the property – every table, sink, generator, beam and plate – had to be brought in by canoe, its very existence is nothing short of a miracle. It was founded by a visionary Swiss entrepreneur called Arnold "Benny" Ammeter, who acquired a 500-hectare parcel of land in 1991 and opened a rustic six-room lodge a year later. Since then it's expanded to 26 cabins on 2000 hectares and is now protected within a national park.

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The property works closely with the area's indigenous Quichua communities, who comprise 90 per cent of the staff. On every excursion we're accompanied by two guides – Ernesto and Donaldo – who spot animals in the dense jungle. We also have two expert English-speaking naturalists – Daniel and Erika – whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the area's fauna and fauna is formidable (Daniel has spotted 583 out of the area's 605 bird species) during our various hikes and canoe rides

One afternoon a mischievous troop of squirrel monkeys barrels through the forest canopy directly above us, a baby clinging tenaciously to its mother's back. Another time we stumble upon three crested owls, who sit motionless on a branch and regard us with piercing, unblinking eyes from beneath extravagant bushy eyebrows. During a night hike, Daniel's flashlight picks out a horror show of scorpions, stick insects and tarantulas.

The lodge's most impressive feature is a 275-metre-long canopy walk suspended between three steel towers. Access is via a 183-step spiral staircase which delivers you to a 36-metre-high platform with sweeping views across the jungle canopy. Traversing the swaying walkway is not for the faint-hearted but it provides a unique vantage point for bird spotting.

One evening, we arrive just before sunset to find a group of greater yellow-headed vultures skulking in a nearby tree. Flocks of scarlet parrots flash by overhead while a lone cream-coloured laughing falcon scans the forest for prey. As the sun sets, the soundtrack again builds to a cacophonous crescendo. Among the tumultuous babble of chirps, barks, hoops and whoops is the piercing shrill of the empress cicada and the haunting roar of a howler monkey. In a matter of minutes night will arrive with its own cast and soundtrack but, for now, the day shift takes a well-earned bow.

FIVE MORE ECUADORIAN WILDLIFE EXPERIENCES

SPECTACLED BEAR

Hacienda Piman in the Ecuadorian highlands offers excursions to see South America's last surviving native bear, named because of the distinctive beige markings on its face and chest. See haciendapiman.com

THE BIG 15

Like Africa's Big Five, the Galapagos' Big 15 is a list of the 15 most iconic birds and animals you can find across the archipelago. From Scalesia Lodge on Isabela Island, you can see 12 of them. See scalesialodge.com

GIANT TORTOISES

Rancho El Manzanillo on Santa Cruz Island is one of the best places to observe the Galapagos giant tortoise, the world's largest living tortoise. Visit as part of an excursion from the Finch Bay Hotel. See finchbayhotel.com

CONDORS

It's thought there are less than 100 wild Andean condors left in Ecuador. Hacienda Zuleta runs a conservation, rescue and breeding program for these majestic birds from its base in the heart of the Andes. See zuleta.com

WHALE SHARKS

Dive with whale sharks in the protected waters around the remote Galapagos islands of Wolf and Darwin from the luxury 33-metre live-aboard dive ship Galapagos Sky. See galapagossky.com

TRIP NOTES

Rob McFarland was a guest of Chimu Adventures.

MORE

traveller.com.au/ecuador

ecuador.travel

FLY

LATAM Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Quito via Santiago, Chile. TAME flies from Quito to Coca. See latam.com; tame.com.ec

STAY

A three-night stay at Sacha Lodge including accommodation, meals, activities and return flights from Quito to Coca starts from $1800. See sachalodge.com

TOUR

Chimu Adventures creates tailor-made Ecuador itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. See chimuadventures.com

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