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

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) 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."

Tourists pose at the equator at Mitad del Mundo monument, Quito. (Ellen Creager, MCT) Tourists pose at the equator at Mitad del Mundo monument, Quito. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

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.

La Selva Lodge is located in eastern Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, MCT) La Selva Lodge is located in eastern Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

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.

Intinan Solar Museum claims to be on the exact equator line, so you can balance an egg on the tip of a nail and it won't fall. (Ellen Creager, MCT) Intinan Solar Museum claims to be on the exact equator line, so you can balance an egg on the tip of a nail and it won't fall. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

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.

Flowers thrive in the moist Ecuadorian Amazon. (Ellen Creager, MCT) Flowers thrive in the moist Ecuadorian Amazon. (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. All of these lodges are near the incredible 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.

Be careful taking out the red-bellied piranha's teeth — they're Ginsu-knife sharp. (Ellen Creager, MCT) Be careful taking out the red-bellied piranha's teeth — they're Ginsu-knife sharp. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

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.

Mosquito net over the bed, La Selva Lodge, eastern Ecuador.  (Ellen Creager, MCT) Mosquito net over the bed, La Selva Lodge, eastern Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

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.

A butterfly sits on the head of a turtle on the edge of Lake Garzachocha, Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, MCT) A butterfly sits on the head of a turtle on the edge of Lake Garzachocha, Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

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.

Spider monkey in the forest near La Selva Lodge, Ecuador.  (Ellen Creager, MCT) Spider monkey in the forest near La Selva Lodge, Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

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.

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 fluorescent targets on the beige clay walls. They squawk. They flutter. They gnaw at the clay. It's happy hour at Moe's Bar.

Suddenly, the parrots fly away in a giant green-winged cloud. Then, it pours. 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. I close my eyes and feel the rivulets streaming down into my boots.

Giant millipede, rainforest in eastern Ecuador.  (Ellen Creager, MCT) Giant millipede, rainforest in eastern Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

Rain is what makes the Ecuadorian Amazon so grand and haunting, so lush and fragile.

So you can't complain, really. This actually isn't the kind of vacation where complainers belong.

La Selva was started by an American couple 25 years ago. In November, it was bought by a new owner, Columbus Group, which is in the process of upgrading the property.

This month, it will debut a whole new look that Columbus Group promises will still be true to its rustic roots but offer more luxurious touches — Wi-Fi (a terrible idea in my opinion, but that's progress), newer, larger more upscale huts, new boats, new kayaks.

"We want to keep the same type of construction, but we are adding bigger cabins and more comfortable cabins," says manager Yoyi Minaya. "We are going to be the best ecolodge. We want to be more integrated with the community. The people who come, it's a mix of everybody. We won't change that philosophy."

Kiskadee on a branch in the Ecuadorian Amazon.  (Ellen Creager, MCT) Kiskadee on a branch in the Ecuadorian Amazon. (Ellen Creager, MCT)

It is possible to see the Amazon by boat. But staying put in one place brings one closer to the soul of the rain forest, she says.

"When you stay on land, you hear the noises at night, the sound of the birds," Minaya says. "That is the magic of the jungle — the smells, the sounds of the place."

Like the motmot. And the parrots. And the rain. And the piranhas silently swarming in the deep.

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