Senior editor Andrew Compart recently toured the Galapagos
Islands and the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador through a single
package offered by an operator. His report follows:
played with sea lions. I saw
marine iguanas spritzing, lizards doing push-ups, penguins waddling
in 75-degree weather and a host of multicolored crabs that almost
seemed to be tiptoeing on the rocks. I saw birds that couldn't fly,
and others that perched on blue feet.
I saw a tree that walks. I heard a catfish eating. I got a
lesson in evolution almost everywhere I turned (so, apparently, did
Darwin, who was inspired to his theory partly by his visit to the
Galapagos Islands in 1835). I looked up at the sky and saw the
"milk" in the Milky Way.
I watched as a shaman -- a local healer -- sucked, spit and blew
smoke to rid someone of his evil spirits. I drank fermented,
previously chewed food.
I did this all in one 10-day trip. Canodros S.A., an
Ecuador-based tour operator, organized this.
As the owner of the Galapagos Explorer II cruise ship, Canodros
offers a tour that hits many of the top spots in the Galapagos
Islands. In between island-hopping, travelers enjoy the relaxed
intimacy and personal service of an all-suite, 100-passenger luxury
Also the owner of the Kapawi Ecolodge & Reserve in Ecuador,
Canodros takes travelers deep into the Amazon basin -- not just for
the nature, but also to learn about and support the culture of an
indigenous population that has a personal stake in the lodge's
success. The Achuar community helped build the lodge and will take
ownership of it in about 11 years.
A traveler could do these trips separately. But Canodros offers
this in one package, with a short stay in Quito, Ecuador, in
The stay in Quito can be arranged by Asiri, a company newly
created by Canodros to provide Quito tours and lodging and help
travelers with other arrangements between the two adventures.
The Galapagos and Kapawi easily can stand on their own. But,
when combined, they offer an especially educational and diverse
experience, with each spot offering its own particular type of
reward -- as a recounting of my journey will attest.
Snorkeling with sea lions
On my first full day in the Galapagos archipelago, I snorkeled
with sea lions.
OK, semantically, that's a bit off. The sea lions were not
snorkeling; they didn't wear masks and flippers. But a couple of
the younger ones played with us almost as if we were one of their
own by swimming underneath, up to, around and between us.
At one point, I looked up, startled, to find one of them had
stopped within inches of my face. For a second, we made eye
The Galapagos Islands are all about close encounters.
Many of the animals here have not learned to fear humans. The
volcanic islands rose from the ocean floor without ever being
connected to the mainland about 620 miles away.
That isolation has, with some exceptions, kept the animals free
from outside predators and also allowed some of the island's high
number of unique species and subspecies to develop.
For human visitors, this lack of fear becomes a constant
delight. They watch as just a dozen or so feet away, a sea lion mom
nurses her one-week-old pup. Or perhaps they find themselves, as
one recent visitor did, lazing on the beach as a curious pup came
up and sniffed him, even laying a flipper on his hand.
Visitors take care to avoid stepping on the marine iguanas,
unique to the islands. Only a foot or two long, but fierce and
dinosaur-like in appearance, they are bunched and almost unmoving
as they dry themselves in the sun.
Occasionally, in response to a potential threat -- or just to
rid themselves of excess salt -- the iguanas spray a concentrated
salt solution from their nostrils, clearing their nasal passages so
they can breath more deeply.
People snap away for photos of the flightless cormorants, and
the shortened-wing birds seem mostly oblivious to the
With no natural predators and their food source in the shallow
coastal waters, these birds lost their need to fly somewhere along
the evolutionary path and became the only cormorant species in the
world that can't get airborne.
This also is home to another flightless bird -- the only penguin
species that lives and breeds on the equator. Areas of cold,
nutrient-rich water in the archipelago make it possible.
And there is much more.
Blue-footed boobies perch on the rocks -- no one really seems to
know why the birds' feet are blue, although it does play a role in
Small lava lizards can be spotted marking their territory by
briefly bending their front legs to lower themselves and then
straightening back up, so, as our guide had described it, it really
does look as if they are doing a push-up.
Most of the time visitors see all of this as they walk over lava
rocks on a lunar-like landscape, but there are exceptions.
In the Santa Cruz highlands, where we hiked in search of giant
tortoises -- and found them -- rainfall is more prevalent and the
land becomes dense and lush.
It also is a taste of what's to come in the Amazon.
The traveling experience
Part of the experience in the Amazon basin is getting there.
Leaving Quito -- with our extra luggage locked up at the hotel
to be retrieved upon our return -- we begin our journey deep into
the Amazon, near the Ecuadorian border with Peru.
We board a 19-seat turboprop airplane for the first leg,
crouching as we walk down the aisle. For the second leg, five of us
board a Cessna with our maximum 30 pounds of luggage apiece.
On the 50-minute flight, I am awed by the vastness of the rain
forest, which seems to stretch to infinity.
The rides are smooth, although as we land on the dirt runway in
Wayusen-tsa, a small village of about 100 people, the plane slides
a bit and mud spatters. I see a hen cross the runway as the pilot
and some helpers push the Cessna out of the way so the next
aircraft can land.
From there, greeted by our guides, we board a motorized canoe
that travels for about an hour to take us to our Amazon basin home,
beside the Pastaza River.
The ecolodge offers a lot for its location: The lounge includes
a bar, several shelves of books and a small store for essentials
and souvenirs. Pampered service is provided in the dining room, as
the lodge accommodates no more than 40 guests, and we had only
Even the night we decided to camp on a sandbar, our guides
brought tables and served us a three-course meal, complete with
wine and candlelight.
Our homes are ample rooms with comfortable beds. Like everything
here, the wooden cabanas are solidly built in ways similar to the
local architecture, with palm-leaf thatched roofs and
mosquito-netted walls. Each one includes a terrace, with hammock,
that overlooks the lagoon.
The solar-powered lighting often turns dim, and hot shower water
is limited to five solar-heated gallons a day. But luxury would not
suit the rain forest. Nor would it be environmentally friendly.
Sounds of the lodge
The first night at the lodge, I fade to sleep to the sounds of
frogs, owls, opossum, crickets and bats. In the lagoon, catfish are
eating small fish at the surface of the water. I can hear them
because every time they close their mouths, they create a
I will hear many of these same sounds the next night as we
search, mostly in vain, for caiman alligators, as we canoe down the
Capahuari River under starlit skies.
The rain forest, as much as anything else, is about
In Galapagos, travelers go from ship to shore, and most of the
spaces are so wide open you never feel completely immersed. But it
is dense and lush in the Amazon basin, and as you hike, the trees
often block out the sun and sky.
Animals, aside from birds and insects, are much more difficult
to spot, and many don't come to life until nightfall.
But what we do find on our daytime hikes, led by naturalist and
native guides, often is enlightening.
Adaptation abounds. We come across walking palms, with
stilt-like roots that branch out beginning a good six feet off the
ground, creating an almost teepee-like structure for the base of
the tree. The roots move in search of sunlight, and as a result the
tree actually moves to a different spot during the course of the
Similarly, some trees evolved with holes near the base of their
trunks. Why? Because the layer of nutrients in the ground here is
thin and when other animals in the rain forest climb inside the
trunk to eat, the scraps they drop provide nutrients for the
We also learn how the forest provides medicine for the local
population, and potentially the world at large. The chuchuhuaso
tree bark, for example, is boiled into a tea that is said to help
with stomach ailments and rheumatism.
But Kapawi is about more than nature. The joint project with the
indigenous population provides the added benefit of close ties with
We are greeted warmly at Kapawi villages, where the Achuar still
live directly off the land and have kept many, though not all, of
On our first visit we get our first taste, literally, of chicha.
As we ask a shaman about his work and personal history, the female
head of the household brings each of us a bowl of the drink
traditionally served to guests. It is made of yucca root that has
been chewed to get rid of the fiber, then spit back out and
fermented, with water typically added.
To refuse the bowl is considered an insult. Visitors can just
pretend to drink it, but I am curious and take several sips. It is
pasty and sweet -- and definitely an acquired taste.
Another evening, in a purposely darkened hut, we witness a
shaman at work. I watch as the healer sucks out the evil through
one person's forehead, then hacks and spits out the evil (lots of
it, apparently) from his own body into a bucket.
In other attempts to drive away the evil spirits, he waves a
symbolic collection of palm fronds around the patient, blows smoke
at the crown of the patient's head and whistles.
The cleansings thus complete, we leave and do our camping that
night, then return to the lodge and leave Kapawi the next day.
After all these days of wildlife, nature, native culture and
relative isolation, I am finally heading back to the real
Then again, perhaps I am leaving it.