Travel to the Amazon

A butterfly sits on the head of a turtle on the edge of Lake Garzachocha, eastern Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press, MCT / February 26, 2012)

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. 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.

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. Two million!

This is not that trip.

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 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 cell phone, 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.