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 for now.
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.”
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Visiting the Amazon isn’t as easy as spending a week in Florida. 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.
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.
Remote, but not quiet
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, Quito. Then you board a small motorized canoe for 2 1/2 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.
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.
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 eco-lodges 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 eco-lodges 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!“
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 you 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 two bites and avoid the hook, but 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.
In the woods, in the rain
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 eco-lodges.
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.
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. 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.
Rain is what makes the Ecuadorian Amazon so grand and haunting, lush and fragile.
So you can’t complain, really. This actually isn’t the kind of vacation where complainers belong.