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 for now.
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.”
Visiting the Amazon isn’t as easy as spending a week in Tampa, Fla. 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 grown-ups. 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.
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.
My 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 21/2 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 cell phone, 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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, the lodge manager 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.”
Booking: I recommend booking “Quito and the Amazon” through Latin Destinations (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, tranfers and tours.
Lodges: La Selva Amazon Ecolodge is shut for major upgrades through June, but will reopen in July (laselvajunglelodge.com, 866-687-3109). Or try the nearby well-regarded Sacha Lodge (sachalodge.com, 800-706-2215) or Napo Wildlife Center (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. 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 might wish to take anti-malaria pills; I did not.Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press