Swimming with piranhas in Ecuador

by Jeannine.Williamson

Deep in the jungle of Ecuador is a community-run, lakeside lodge in Yasuni National Park, a biosphere reserve where the local wildlife includes 568 species of birds

The idea of jumping into a piranha-filled lake either sounds like a particular bad one, or a scene from a James Bond movie. But with our guide’s reassuring words, combined with the sweltering early afternoon sun shimmering on top of the still water, it suddenly seemed marginally less crazy. Days of immersing myself, quite literally, in Ecuador’s share of the mighty Amazon jungle had provided me with enough courage to take the plunge. Once in, the only thing that threatened the length of my swim was the sight of one of the lodge staff standing on the pontoon handing out freshly-squeezed melon juice.
Our Andean adventure started in Quito, the world’s second highest capital city and gateway to Ecuador, one of Latin America’s smallest countries. Despite its size, the country straddling the equator is one of the most ecologically and geographically diverse. Whilst its renowned Galapagos Islands, the inspiration behind Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, are the main magnet, there are plenty of marvels on the mainland. In the space of a week we went from snow-capped volcanoes to remote rainforest villages and rode out with the chagras, Ecuadorian cowboys.
In Quito, novelties include straddling the northern and southern hemispheres at the Equatorial Monument and doing curious experiments involving balancing eggs and watching water spin down a plughole - it apparently goes a different way, depending which hemisphere you’re in - at the Middle of the World Museum.
Cotopaxi National Park, home of the world’s highest active volcano of the same name, is a day-trip from Quito. We watched wild horses drink from a lake on the treeless plateau against the awesome backdrop of Cotopaxi, its snow-covered peak glistening in the morning sunlight. We took to the hills at the Tierra del Volcan eco-tourism centre, which offers guest the chance to explore on two legs, four legs or two wheels. Kitted out in chaps and ponchos, we opted for the horse-riding option and at the end of the day we swapped tales in front of the open fire at the cosy hacienda.
A half-hour flight took us to the frontier-like town of Coca, on the Napo River. As we waited on the landing stage, an assortment of ‘shops’ came to us, in the guise of strolling street traders laden with food, toothpaste, combs, socks, underpants and other practical necessities. After a two-hour high-speed canoe ride, followed by a leisurely paddle up a narrow tributary of the river, we arrived at the Napo Wildlife Centre, deep in the heart of Yasuni National Park. Set in 82 acres of rainforest, the area is home to the local Anangu community, who benefit from the centre, which is run as a conservation project.
Discarding watches, we changed to jungle time, waking at 5.30am to the guttural roar of howler monkeys signalling daybreak.  Following our guide, Jorge, we went on early-morning expeditions, arriving back to avoid the sultry heat of midday, when the rainforest sleeps. By late afternoon we set off again and as dusk fell the clicking cicada chorus, and fireflies lighting the shoreline, heralded the onset of the evening shift. One night we sheltered in the lodge as warm rain was pierced by a dramatic electric storm. Later, all our senses were heightened as we set off across the inky black lake on an after-dark canoe trip, our guide’s torch picking out caymans, relatives of the alligator that are only found in Central and South America.
Unlike some safaris, Amazonian Ecuador is not about ticking off boxes when you spot large, and often uncamouflaged, animals. The magic of the rainforest is listening until you can hear its heartbeat and watching until your eyes really see what makes it tick. We were amazed at Jorge’s ability to spot the tiniest of tree frogs, insects and snakes that were, to us, totally invisible against the lush foliage. For local communities the rainforest is their supermarket, providing everything they need for children’s toys, house building and medicines. Dragon’s blood, a rich, red tree sap, soothed a couple of insect bites but I politely declined the chance to sample tiny lemon-flavoured ants or the larger, and even more unpalatable, palm lava.
Highlights included watching hundred of parrots descend on hillside clay licks, which provide them with vital nutrients, and the slightly bizarre but uplifting experience of being cleansed by a revered local shaman, or medicine man. With a rhythmical chant he used forest foliage to brush and blow away negative energy before calling on the forces of the forest to complete the cleansing cycle.
At night, we read up on the many birds, animals and insects we’d seen during the day and relaxed over tasty meals in Napo’s open-air dining area, conversations interspersed by the sound of the rainforest’s many residents. We retired early to our comfortable cabanas, sometimes hearing the scuffling of capybara, which resemble giant guinea pigs and are the world’s largest rodents. Incidentally, anyone feeling nervous about being served guinea pigs to eat can relax. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not everyday Ecuadorian fare, and normal-sized pork is the most popular meat.
By the end of our stay, Jorge had opened our eyes in more ways than one. A member of the group pointed deep into the trees towards a barely shaking branch. We stopped the canoe and sat patiently. Minutes later we were rewarded by the unforgettable sight of a large group of squirrel monkeys leaping through the trees on their daily commute to the other side of the river.
As Jorge said, “The forest gives you what you deserve”, and we certainly returned home enriched by our journey to the centre of the world. And as far as the piranhas are concerned, we also returned intact. If the natural habitat is well stocked with their usual foodstuffs, and you swim by day and steer clear of shallow banks, you won’t feature on their menu.



Package deals
Journey Latin America offers tailor-made holidays and escorted group tours to Ecuador. A nine-night holiday, including five nights B&B at the 5-star Hilton Colon in Quito and four nights full board at the Napo Wildlife Centre, starts from £1,772 per person, based on two sharing, including flights with KLM via Amsterdam and Bonaire from Heathrow.
For independent travellers, airlines including American Airlines, KLM, Delta and Air France fly from London to Quito, with one or more stops en route, from around £750.
Jungle accommodation
The Napo Wildlife Centre is 100% community-owned, and members of the Anangu community, who receive all the net profits, make up between 85-93% of the total workforce. The centre has 10 cabanas, or cabins, that sleep up to three people.
Volcano trekking, mountain biking riding, camping and other activity breaks are run by the Tierra del Volcan centre, with prices starting at around £49 per person, per day, and £15 for B&B, excluding tax.