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Planning an exotic Amazon vacation

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

Although it is exotic, La Selva is one of several surprisingly affordable ecolodges on the Napo River, and it revels in its remote location in eastern Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, MCT) Although it is exotic, La Selva is one of several surprisingly affordable ecolodges on the Napo River, and it revels in its remote location in eastern Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

It's easier than you think, and you should be able to do it for about $3,000, including a flight from the U.S. and staying at a good ecolodge. You need to be moderately physically fit and be able to climb stairs and walk well on uneven surfaces and muddy trails. Here are the main choices for exotic fun:

Ecuador

Ecuador's Amazon in the El Oriente region is a delight of rain forest and animal diversity. It is also simpler than other Amazon trips.

Fly into: Quito is less than a five-hour flight from Houston; take an additional 30-minute flight on Ecuador's AeroGal (modern Airbus jets) to Coca, the jumping-off point for most Ecuador Amazon adventures.

Main tourist areas: Ecolodges along the Napo River, east of Coca. The Napo is a main tributary of the mighty Amazon River.

The kiskadee is a species of exotic bird that is commonplace along the banks of the Amazon and throughout the region. (Ellen Creager, MCT) The kiskadee is a species of exotic bird that is commonplace along the banks of the Amazon and throughout the region. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

Could combine with visits to Quito and the Galapagos Islands.

Popularity: Ecuador had 227,000 tourist arrivals from the U.S. last year, according to Euromonitor International.

For more: Ecuador Ministry of Tourism, http://ecuador.travel/; Latin Destinations (www.latindestinations.com, 866-645-2846).

Peru

Where the Amazon River proper begins; lots of choices for Amazon cruises or ecolodges.

Fly into: Lima, then Iquitos or Cusco to start your trip.

Main tourist areas: Ecolodges or cruises near Iquitos or Tambopata Reserve (southern Peru).

Could combine with visits to Machu Picchu and Lima.

Popularity: Peru had 423,000 tourist arrivals from the U.S. last year, according to Euromonitor International.

For more: Peru Tourism Bureau, www.visitperu.com; Adventure Life (www.adventure-life.com, 800-344-6118); REI (www.rei.com/adventures, 800-622-2236), or Greentracks (www.greentracks.com, 970-884-6107).

Brazil

Brazil covers 60 percent of the Amazon region, so it offers many cruises and lodges, and it has a big tourism industry.

Fly into: Manaus, a city of 1.7 million. There are nonstops from Miami. Unfortunately, a lot of flights from the U.S. stop first in Rio or Sao Paulo — 1,600 miles south — then backtrack north. You also need a $140 visa to get into Brazil.

Can combine with visits to Rio de Janeiro, S? Paulo and Belém.

Popularity: Brazil had 746,000 tourist arrivals from the U.S. last year, according to Euromonitor International.

For more: Brazilian Tourism Board, www.braziltour.com. Or contact Swallows and Amazons Tours, run by an American and his Brazilian wife, with both lodge and river tours (www.swallowsandamazonstours.com, email: info@swallowsandamazonstours.com).

The rivers

The wide Napo River, where Ecuador's ecolodges stand, has a famous place in history.

It is where the journey of the first Europeans to traverse the Amazon began.

In 1541, Spanish soldiers searching for gold and spices in the New World left the Pacific coastal town of Guayaquil (now in Ecuador), and headed east. At Coca, desperate and nearly out of supplies, the expedition's leaders sent Capt. Francisco de Orellana and 50 soldiers down the Napo River on rafts as an advance party.

Swept down the whispering, swirling Napo, unable to turn back, they encountered no gold and no cinnamon. But they did pass towering forests and thriving settlements of native people.

The Napo merged into another tributary, then another, until they reached the widest river of all that led them across the continent.

Nine months later, they reached the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil, 3,000 miles from where they began.

Today, Orellana is hailed as the man who named and discovered the Amazon. He named it after a Greek legend of a tribe of fierce female fighters.

Although Brazil is most famous for Amazon lore today, this mysterious part of remote eastern Ecuador is the source of the Amazon's most famous journey.

The Amazon

Booking: I recommend booking "Quito and the Amazon" through Latin Destinations (www.latindestinations.com, 866-645-2846), which can arrange your flights, hotels, transfers and tours. You also can book directly with the ecolodges, which will arrange all travel from Quito to the lodge.

People traveling to the Galapagos Islands can ask their tour company about an add-on to the Amazon.

Cost: 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.

Lodges: La Selva Amazon Ecolodge is shut for major upgrades through June, but will reopen in July (www.laselvajunglelodge.com, 866-687-3109). Or try the nearby well-regarded Sacha Lodge (www.sachalodge.com, 800-706-2215) or Napo Wildlife Center (www.napowildlifecenter.com, 866-750-0830). Lodges include meals and tours.

Itinerary: I flew via United into Quito and stayed two nights for sightseeing, flew via AeroGal to La Selva for three nights, then returned to Quito for one night.

Packing: Lodges will give you packing lists. They provide rubber boots. Bring a raincoat and a good rain poncho in case of downpours. Bring plenty of socks to wear under your boots. Pack all clothes in Ziploc bags to keep them away from the damp. Pack bug spray, sunscreen, hat, small flashlight, clock, lightweight long pants and shirts, binoculars.

Health: No mandatory immunizations needed here, but be up-to-date on your booster shots. The yellow fever vaccine is recommended. Some travelers may wish to take anti-malaria pills; I did not.

— Ellen Creager

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