Galapagos, Amazon trip showcases region's wildlife, landscape

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 cruise ship.

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.

One package

A traveler could do these trips separately. But Canodros offers this in one package, with a short stay in Quito, Ecuador, in between.

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 contact.

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.

'Push-up' Lizards

People snap away for photos of the flightless cormorants, and the shortened-wing birds seem mostly oblivious to the attention.

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 their courtship.

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 seven.

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 splash.

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 atmosphere.

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 year.

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 tree.

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 the community.

We are greeted warmly at Kapawi villages, where the Achuar still live directly off the land and have kept many, though not all, of their traditions.

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 world.

Then again, perhaps I am leaving it.

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