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

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.

One night, I suddenly jolt awake, thinking I hear a beeping alarm. It is instead a midnight insect's call: "Brrr! Brrr! Brrr!"

Reaching for context, my city brain has connected the sound of a tiny bug in the rain forest with the most stressful symbol of modern life, the alarm clock.

There are piranhas here, the sexiest and toothiest animal of the Amazon. Most of what you read about piranhas is blatant exaggeration and Hollywood hype, King says. They don't attack people — well, unless they are already dead or bleeding. And, well, they have been known to attack cattle. And yes, they do gnaw bones until they are bare of flesh.

And, well, yes, red-bellied piranhas do tend to swarm.

But they certainly won't bother swimmers, he says.

I notice nobody is swimming off the dock at La Selva.

When you fish for piranha, you use a regular line, hook and chunks of raw beef. They can nibble the beef off in 2 bites and avoid the hook, but try hard and you may entice one to chomp down a little too hard.

In a lucky moment, I caught one. That fish was at least a foot — well, 10 inches, well, 8 inches — long. No way was I taking the hook out, so a guide did it and opened the fish's mouth to show the row of sharp V-shaped white teeth that looked like the business end of a Ginsu knife.

Ecuador gets about 227,000 American visitors a year — many of whom rush straight to the Galapagos 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 children have pets — dogs that scurry under the house, and three baby tanagers, frail chirping little black-and-white things that live in a basket. A 2-year-old toddles around with a sharp knife and seems to know how to use it. The family buys rice, noodles and eggs but grows or forages for other food.

It's a hard life. It's a patient life. Clothes hung on the line are left out, sometimes for days, until the sun finally comes out long enough to dry them.

But it is the life they choose, despite being bombarded with do-gooder organizations aiming to modernize their world.

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