Sani Lodge is the best option for hardcore birders on a tight budget to visit the lower Napo River in the eastern lowlands of Ecuador. Compared with Sacha, La Selva, and Napo Wildlife Center, Sani offers a similarly all-inclusive, but less luxurious, package for a little more than half of the price. In fact, many guests choose to camp instead of staying in the cabins, which brings the total cost down to $100 per day (all the camping equipment is provided, and the experience is safer and more comfortable than one might imagine). Of course, the actual birding here is as good as anywhere in the region, and the lodge offers excellent access to all six major habitats found in the Ecuadorian Amazon, as well as a handful of rare birds you probably won't find anywhere else, including the Rufous Potoo and the endemic Cocha Antshrike.
Sani Lodge is entirely owned and operated by the Sani community, one of the indigenous groups found along the lower Napo River, and the reserve boasts 37,000 hectares of pristine humid forest that serve as a corridor between the Cuyabeno and Yasuní National Parks. The thatched-roof facilities are set on the shores of a beautiful oxbow lake, and guests typically enjoy spectacular sunsets from the open-air bar, from which the birding is also quite good. There are two canopy towers, each structured around different ceiba trees, rising above the forest to 30m in height, and a diverse network of trails, several of which describe huge loops through terra firme forest. As with the other lodges, birders will also spend plenty of time on the oxbow lake and in swamps and varzea forest as they travel from the lodge to the Napo or various trailheads by dugout canoe. As a bonus, the lodge also maintains several trails through habitat on an island in the Napo River, which gives birders a chance to pick up a significant number of specialties found nowhere else in Ecuador.
Perhaps the biggest draw for birders, even those who aren't on a tight budget, is the lodge's expert birding guide, Domingo Gualinga. Coming at no additional cost, except for a substantial tip I should hope, Domingo should make even the most anxious twitcher feel at ease. Although he doesn't speak much English, he knows all the birds' English common names and their various calls, as well as many territories of individual birds. While he doesn't have the experience or the equipment of Oscar Tepuy, whom Aimee and I birded with while staying at Sacha Lodge last April, Domingo is definitely of the same caliber, offering an equal degree of dedication and professionalism and probably a bit more enthusiasm and appreciation for the birds themselves. In addition, he was supremely focused on helping me locate birds I've yet to witness in Ecuador, but he was also patient in pointing out and identifying more common birds to my father, who is a novice birder. To put it simply, Domingo is the Man.
Our visit to the lodge was billed as five days and four nights, which amounts to three extremely full days of birding and two half days of travel on the Napo River. Despite our proximity to Yasuní National Park, which is located on the southern side of the Napo River, we spent all of our time birding on Sani territory or on the Napo itself, in terra firme forest, varzea forest, and oxbow lake habitat. Although I had seen well over two hundred species during our stay at Sacha Lodge, I still added over forty to my Ecuador list, including such rarities as the Lanceolated Monklet, Cocha Antshrike, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Gray-Winged Trumpeter, White-Lored Antpitta, Brown Jacamar, and Rufous Potoo. I also barely missed the White-Plumed Antbird at an ant swarm, which would have bookended my summer in spectacular fashion, having seen the Ocellated Antbird at Rio Canande Reserve soon after school ended in June.
My only reservation about the trip was that I never felt secure that Domingo was exclusively our guide. As Sani Lodge doesn't charge extra for his guiding services, other birders present can be added on to birding groups as the on-site manager sees fit. While my father and I were fortunate that only one other hardcore birder was present during our stay, a young Frenchman with a fine eye, we frequently suffered other guests' attempts to win Domingo away as a generalist guide. I guess birders always seem to get the most out of experiences such as this, and their boundless enthusiasm, relentless activity, and resulting fatigue create a sense of jealousy in the regular tourist who desires a more meaningful and authentic experience in the rainforest.