“There, at the top of that tallest tree,” our guide says, pointing through a maze of vegetation. I catch a flash of red, then a rainbow of feathers, backlit by the sun, as the scarlet macaw takes flight. Its bright plumage is the only contrast against the verdant backdrop of the Amazon rainforest.
If Ireland has a hundred shades of green, this jungle must have a thousand: layers upon layers of trees, plants, ferns, lichens, leaves, grasses; vines, coils and tendrils, hanging, draping, spiraling, coiling, wrapping, twisting, striving in a profusion of intense green. Amid the flora is an equally effusive — if elusive — range of fauna. From the eerie wail of howler monkeys to the camouflaged silent jaguar, the rainforest is alive with creatures, the presence of many evident only through the symphony of sounds that rends the humid air.
My family and I have just emerged from this otherworldly environment. We spent part of the last two weeks in Ecuador exploring the rainforest of the Oriente, the upper Amazon basin on the east flank of the Andes. Our base was a distinctive jungle eco-lodge that compellingly embodies the ideals of ecotourism in practice.
According to the International Ecotourism Society, the goal of ecotourism is “uniting conservation, communities and sustainable travel.” While environmental consciousness is by itself commendable, the cultural dimension is also integral. The society thus offers this definition: “Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Our stay at Napo Wildlife Center, booked through Natural Habitat Adventures (see their awesome related Galapagos Islands 60-Second Safari slideshow here), was an exercise in doing just that.
We spent four nights at the lodge, a community-owned project of the indigenous Anangu people who live on an 82-square-mile private reserve within the bounds of Yasuni National Park. The park, designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for the stunning biodiversity found within its vast tracts of primary rainforest, lies along the Napo River, Ecuador’s largest tributary of the Amazon.
The region is remote, and it took some effort to get here — beginning with a 40-minute flight over the Andes from Quito to Coca, where we boarded a motorized canoe for a 2-hour journey downriver. At the Anangu village we climbed into smaller dugout canoes, which were paddled for two hours up a blackwater creek shrouded by dense vegetation. Finally, we emerged onto a lake, getting our first glimpse of the inviting thatched cabanas clustered along the far shore like a vision from some tropical Shangri-La.
Despite the isolation of the forest the Anangu have called home for centuries, this area faces the threat of development by oil companies, logging and ranching. Not far upriver, the forest canopy has been sundered to make way for exploratory drilling, and pressure on native communities to lease their ancestral lands to expand such efforts is strong and incessant. The Anangu, however, have opted for a different means of economic sustenance through the creation of Napo Wildlife Center.
Recognizing that ecotourism can provide a means of financial support while at the same time preserving the rainforest habitat, the lodge was built in 2003 to offer guests the chance to stay in relative luxury while experiencing the natural wonders of the jungle as only its inhabitants can share them.
Our guided activities included hikes, canoe excursions, a visit to a village home, and a survey of the forest canopy from a “tree house” atop a 130-foot observation tower. In every square foot of our environment — from shadowy forest floor to the leafy treetops — the jungle was seething with life, its wonders revealed to us by our local hosts.
We visited parrot clay licks, where we watched hundreds of squawking lime-green parrots obtain minerals for digesting fruits. We witnessed a line of leaf-cutter ants that must have been 100 yards long, traveling from the heights of a kapok tree along a well-etched trail to several giant ant-colony mounds.
We were mesmerized by the descent of nightfall during a dusk canoe ride, when bird calls gave way to a symphony of crickets, cicadas and frogs; night monkeys emerged to swing through the branches; fishing bats swooped over our heads; and the red eyes of caimans glowed in the beam of a flashlight.
Knowing that our encounter with the rainforest was coming to life within the ideals of a sustainable lodging enterprise made it all the more rewarding. Napo Wildlife Center has employed every means possible to minimize its ecological footprint, including the use of solar panels for the majority of its electricity generation, building two manmade wetlands for natural effluent treatment and safe drinking water, and composting organics. All materials and supplies are brought in by dugout canoe or on foot.
We never wanted for comfort, though — we enjoyed excellent beds with mosquito nets, hot showers, impressive meals, and maybe best of all, a cotton hammock to snooze in on our private cabana balcony with a view over Anangu Lake. The fact that all profits from the lodge are returned to the community, used especially to enhance education and healthcare for its people, made this a trip that gave back as it gave us amazing memories.
In an era of economic challenge when travel is a luxury many must forego, it’s important to remember how essential it is to people like the Anangu, and the preservation of their remarkable environment. This is true for legitimate ecotourism enterprises worldwide, so remember that continuing to travel in such a way is also a means of furthering the welfare of our planet and its cultures when they are under such severe strain.