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Ecuador is one of South America's smallest countries. Despite its size, it has a great deal to offer the adventure traveler or would-be naturalist. Ecuador straddles the equator and is naturally divided into various geographic zones. Two parallel ranges of the Andes, about 25 - 40 miles apart, running north to south, form the country's backbone. The area between these ranges is known as the "avenue of the volcanoes." The hot, humid lowland area along the Pacific coast is known as the Costa. The Andean highlands are known as the Sierra. The section lying east of the mountains, in the Amazon Basin, is known as Amazonia, and then there are the Galapagos Islands.
The Amazonia region touches six South American countries and forms the world's densest rainforest. The rainforest area is home to over half of the world's total number of bird species. It would be a shame to visit Ecuador and miss this special region.
A pre-packaged tour of one form or another, is the most efficient way to see Ecuador. Almost all packaged travel uses Quito, the capital, as a base. Depending upon the type of tour and number of transfers to be made, guests will be spending one to three nights in Quito.
Most packaged tours offer the option of a few days spent in Amazonia. I took a four day/three night trip to La Selva Jungle Lodge. La Selva (Spanish for the jungle) is located deep in the rainforest, far from civilization. Getting there involves a forty-five minute flight from Quito to Coco, a two and half hour ride down the Napo River in a motorized dugout canoe, a 20-30 minute hike through the jungle, and then another dugout canoe ride (this one man-powered) across Garzacocha Lake to the lodge. As we disembarked from the motorized dugout, ready to begin our hike, we were greeted by a cacophony of squawking birds and booming thunder--we were, after all, in the rainforest.
The lodge is the place to experience the rainforest. The 16 double-occupancy cabins are built in the traditional building style of the region--huts on a stilt-like structure with palm-thatched roofs. Each cabin has its own bathroom, but don't expect hot and cold running water, since there is no electricity in the cabins. The cabins are reminiscent of those shown on the old Gilligan's Island show. Cabin lighting is via oil lamps, brought to the cabins at about 5:30 PM each evening by lodge staff. Some may see the lack of electricity as a drawback. It isn't. Since there are no electrical hookups in this remote location, all electricity is by generators. Generators not only generate electricity, they generate noise, which masks the natural jungle sounds. Isn't the reason for coming to the jungle to experience the jungle?
Located near the equator, the days are divided equally between day and night. Thick and total darkness descends quickly with almost no twilight. The lounge is the only structure with electrical lighting. A personal flashlight is a necessity, since the boardwalk from the lounge and dining area is not lit. The idea is to experience the rainforest, much as the people who live there. Not all jungle lodges are created equal, many have acquiesced to guest demands for cabin electricity and in the process destroyed the real jungle experience.
Through lodge agreements with, and payments made to, the indigenous people who own the land surrounding the lodge, over 40,000 hectares are available for hiking. All hikes are led by a trained naturalist (English speaking) and a native guide. Night hikes in the jungle are scheduled each night for interested guests. There are no blaring lights, only dense darkness and jungle sounds --a chorus of nature played in perfect harmony. Another option is a night canoe ride on the lake to spot caimans (little cousin of the alligator).
During the day, several hiking options are available. As is the option of doing nothing, or perhaps piranha fishing. Several of my traveling companions spent one afternoon catching piranha, which the chef prepared for our dinner that evening. The fish was very tasty, albeit quite bony. Take a swim in the lake--no the piranha do not eat the swimmers. Visit the "canopy tower," a tower built up the trunk of a huge tree, where one may observe life in the rainforest canopy. On a morning I spent there, I saw a Common Piping Guan perched upon the canopy roof. This huge bird resembles the wild turkey of the US. In the distance I spotted a howler monkey, and several other animals.
The rainforest is hot and humid--when it isn't raining. The trails twist and turn in every direction, trusting the guides, I had no idea where I was in relation to the lodge. However, after the first hike, I could tell when a hike was nearing its end. A Screaming Piha (a medium-sized gray bird) had stationed itself near the forest edge surrounding the lodge. The bird's shrill call was the giveaway that we were nearing the lodge. While on the trails we often heard howler monkeys as they moved through the canopy, their haunting calls echoing through the forest. Untold bird calls were heard, many identified by the guides, many left unidentified. The jungle brings out the childhood sense of wonder and discovery some of us have lost. I watched and photographed one guest, Michele Shapiro, as she joyfully danced and played in the afternoon rain. In this remote location troubles are easily forgotten, joy is rediscovered.
Each evening a number of outings are planned for the next day. The staff is very accommodating in meeting guests' desires and even in arranging special tours. Three of us decided to arrange just such an outing. Along with our native guide, Leonides Licuy of the Quichuoi tribe, we headed out for an all-day hike deep in the jungle. We cut our way through areas that had not been traveled for a number of years--in the process experiencing the jungle on a deeper level than we would have on the smaller hikes near the lodge.
Another option is visiting the butterfly farm. Butterflies are bred (not captured in the rainforest) for export. The lodge grows and exports 30,000-35,000 butterflies each year. Designed to provide a sustainable alternative to the more destructive uses sometimes made of the rainforest, the farm presents one of the best photo opportunities in the rainforest.
A visit to La Selva can be an in-depth natural history educational experience, if one allows it to be. One will leave much richer in knowledge of the rainforest ecosystem. Unfortunately (for them) some travelers visit the jungle as if it were simply something to check off their "to do" list. I was shocked at the number of guests that refused to go hiking if it happened to be raining. I guess they expected "perfect" sunny weather in the rainforest.
In 1992 the lodge was awarded "Best Ecotourism Destination" status by the World Congress on Tourism and the Environment. The same year, the lodge created and built the Neotropical Field Biology Institute. Today researchers from around the world come to carry out scientific studies. In addition, an ongoing butterfly study is being conducted at 25 sites in the surrounding jungle. Two traps are at each site, one in the canopy and one in the under story. The study is to determine species population and environmental effects on those populations.
The lodge offers two basic guest packages, and both of these are seen as "add-ons" to a more complete Ecuador package: Wednesday-Saturday (4 days/ 3 nights) and Saturday-Wednesday (5 days/ 4 nights).
There are always those looking for an even more in-depth jungle experience, so La Selva has that covered with the "Amazon Light Brigade" package. No more than eight guests (with a 15 member staff support) venture out into the jungle on a hiking, canoeing, and camping adventure. This challenging adventure is not for those out of shape. Camping is at established sites along the hiking trails. There are a couple of "bail-out" sites along the way for those who decide they can't handle it.
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