Going wild in Ecuador's Amazon
Visiting the Amazon isn't as easy as spending a week in Hawaii, but it can be life-changing. Plus, you can fly to South America and stay at a lodge in eastern Ecuador for less than $3,000 — cheap compared to other international journeys.
Detroit Free Press
Ecuador's AmazonPeople traveling to the Galápagos Islands, the major destination in Ecuador, can ask their tour company about an add-on to the Amazon. Or book directly with the lodges.
La Selva Amazon Ecolodge is shut for major upgrades through June but will reopen in July (www.laselvajunglelodge.com).
Two people traveling together should plan to pay about $2,800-$3,000 per person for a week's trip, which includes airfare, lodging in Quito and at the lodge, meals, transfers and tours.
Ecuador Ministry of Tourism: http://ecuador.travel/.
This is one rain forest the world has saved.
After donors around the globe pledged $116 million by the December 2011 deadline to prevent oil drilling in Ecuador's biologically fragile Yasuni National Park, the Ecuadorean government agreed to leave it alone for now.
There will be no roads, drilling or pipelines this year. Instead, tourists can continue to witness the damp glory of the Amazon region's tangled forests and the riotous color of even the smallest frog and butterfly.
"Everyone on Earth should see the rain forest if they want to. It is precious; it is our lifeline to survival," says Robyn Burnham, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. "Ecotourism may help if it can be strictly controlled."
Visiting the Amazon isn't as easy as spending a week in Hawaii. But it can be life-changing. And here's what most Americans do not realize: They can fly to South America and stay at a lodge deep in the Amazon for less than $3,000 — cheap when compared with other international journeys.
Sounds of nature
The sounds of the rain forest are a symphony, an orchestra, a hallelujah chorus of nature. The forest is a primeval tangle of canopy and undergrowth. Within the first two hours I'm here, I see monkeys, two kinds of toucan, a falcon and songbirds.
At night, visitors to La Selva Amazon Ecolodge sleep in small huts, surrounded by mosquito nets. It's like sleep-away camp for grown-ups. Dinner is cooked by a French chef.
And one day in the late afternoon, there's a strange hooting bird call in the trees.
"It's a motmot," says naturalist Daniel King, as if describing a sparrow or pigeon, no big deal.
The call of the motmot is the coolest thing. So is catching a piranha, the fierce-toothed fish. So is seeing the grand and lush South American Amazon for yourself.
Despite what most Americans imagine, the Amazon is a region, not just a river. A cradle of Earth's best treasures, the rain forest comprises about 2.3 million square miles of the continent from Ecuador and Peru to Brazil's Atlantic coast.
Some popular Brazilian Amazon tourist cities have nearly 2 million residents. But the Amazon I have come to see is the small, remote version. This lodge is on the Napo River, an Amazon River tributary in eastern Ecuador. To get here, you take a 30-minute flight over the Andes from Ecuador's capital city, Quito. Then you board a small motorized canoe for 2 ½ hours. Then walk 15 minutes through the rain forest. Then ride 20 more minutes in a paddle canoe across a small lake to the lodge.
The huts have electricity and hot showers. But no cellphone, no TV, no Internet.
Eclectic tourists from all over the world come here. It is incredibly restful, quiet, warm, rainy and damp. Your hair curls. Your clothes get moist. Your electronics need to be in Ziploc bags.
When you go on a hike, you must wear big rubber boots. Paths can be gloppy with mud. There are big insects. Exotic plants. Slippery rocks. Snakes. Strange noises.
Staying at ecolodges
Although it is exotic, La Selva is one of several surprisingly affordable eco-lodges on the Napo River, and it revels in its remote location. All of these lodges are near Yasuni National Park, often regarded as the most ecologically diverse place on Earth.
Ecuador's ecolodges generally follow similar schedules — wake at 5:30 a.m., breakfast at 6. There are long hikes, generous meals, free time, bird-viewing tower climbs, canoe tours and, if you are lucky, a chance to meet local people.
The weather is generally cloudy, punctuated by short heavy downpours alternating with periods of bright sunshine. At about 80 degrees year-round, it is like visiting a terrarium.
It is remote. Yet it is not quiet.
At night, I lie in a Spartan yet comfortable bed, surrounded by mosquito netting. Outside is the croaking and chirping of frogs, bugs, night birds, bats and other critters. A fan turns slowly in the warm room, and a small lamp provides light, but only until 11 p.m., when the electricity is turned off.
Beyond the Galápagos
Ecuador gets about 227,000 American visitors a year — many of whom rush straight to the Galápagos Islands and never see the Amazon at all.
It's a shame. Eastern Ecuador's El Oriente region is where many forces collide — modern oil drillers, eco-defenders, lush natural beauty, stunning animals and stubbornly traditional native people.
Out here, the average tourist will not see towns because there aren't any. They also won't see the Waorani people, who shun contact with modern life. They ordinarily won't even see the more modern Quichua people, for they are spread out along the Napo, hidden.
For instance, the Condo family of three generations lives together a short walk from the river, but beyond view. Their house is in a clearing. It has a wide-open platform kitchen under a thatched roof and an attached room for sleeping.
The Condos are Quichua, who are most in contact with the world. Many are naturalist guides for the ecolodges. Still, they spin their own thread, sew their own nets, weave their own baskets, cook over an open fire, wash their clothes in the river, drink rainwater and live under a thatched roof open to the elements.
The Condos live just down the river from Yasuni National Park's riverbank clay licks. That's where thousands of parrots congregate daily to eat mineral-laden clay. They don't always show up, leaving some tourists feeling shortchanged, as if a lodge can orchestrate nature like a virtual reality concert. But we're in luck. Hundreds of green bodies stand out like florescent targets on the beige clay walls. They squawk. They flutter. They gnaw at the clay.
Suddenly, the parrots fly away in a giant green-winged cloud. Then it pours rain. The humans huddle under ponchos in an open dugout canoe. Instead of feeling anxious, I feel exhilarated. The rain pounds on my head and runs off the poncho. I clutch my camera tight in its plastic bag close to my body. Rain is what makes the Ecuadorean Amazon so grand and haunting, so lush and fragile.