Ecuador's remote ecolodges showcase the lush Amazon wildlife and vegetation with an old-world charm

By Ellen Creager

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Quito, Ecuador, is 500 years old and, at more than 9,000 feet, is the highest capital city in the world.

Ellen Creager, MCT

EL ORIENTE, Ecuador — 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 the biologically fragile Yasuni National Park, the Ecuadorian government agreed to leave it alone.

There will be no roads, drilling or pipelines this year.

Instead, tourists can continue to witness the damp glory of the 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 Tampa. 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.

"If everyone understood our connection to it at an organic level," Burnham says, "we might be more willing as humans to sacrifice our comfort to save other species."

The sounds 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 galore.

At night, visitors to La Selva Amazon Ecolodge sleep in small huts, surrounded by mosquito nets. It's like sleep-away camp for grownups. 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. 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.

This is not that trip.

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 2½ 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 skin plumps. 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.

Although it is exotic, La Selva is one of several surprisingly affordable ecolodges on the Napo River, and it revels in its remote location. All of these lodges are near the incredible Yasuni National Park, often regarded as the most ecologically diverse place on Earth.

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