The dugout canoe glides quietly through the lagoon, the cool, star-studded night sky offering a respite from the Ecuadorian sun. We find our prey quickly. There in the water grasses. David, our guide, flicks on a powerful flashlight that picks out the gleaming orange eyes of two caimans. He quickly cuts the light and we paddle closer for a better look at the alligator-like reptiles. David turns the light on again -- but they are gone.
We continue gliding through narrow passages off the lagoon, where vines hang down from trees and bats occasionally flicker by. The creepy outlines of oddly shaped trees combine with the strange night noises of the jungle -- it's Addams Family mixed with a touch of Indiana Jones.
If someone had poked me, I might have leapt out of the boat, spooked. But I took my cues from David, who was calm and on the lookout, not for danger but for attention-grabbing wildlife.
Not too many Americans make it to the Amazon in Ecuador. Most tourists head straight for the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific, off the country's west coast, to see creatures strange and unique. I reversed course and explored the country's wildlife and more in the Andes mountains and the Amazon jungle to the east.
Little, overlooked Ecuador, slightly smaller than Nevada, has an incredible variety of crafts and foods, exotic plants and animals, microclimates and ecosystems. Even better, while tourists are crowding into neighboring Peru, visitors to Ecuador practically have the place to themselves. Even so, two weeks gave me barely enough time to scratch the surface.
Wildlife was high on my agenda, and I found the right place for animal and bird spotting. Sacha Lodge in the Amazon is nothing if not remote. After a two-hour boat trip from the port town of Puerto Francisco de Orellana, also known as Coca, then a 25-minute hike and a 10-minute paddle in a dugout canoe on LakePilchicocha, I made it to my thatched-roof room with a hammock on the back porch. Stepping out the front door, I came upon a family of agoutis, nearly as big as cats, munching food held between their paws. Heaven forbid I should come upon rodents like these in a city parking lot -- black, short-haired rat-looking beasts with big rumps -- but here they were rather cute.
Days at Sacha were discovery-filled. On my first night walk, five of us crunched down pathways with a nature guide, turning over leaves and using flashlights to find mating walking sticks (the insect, not the cane), night monkeys and other active life. During adventure, we heard a noise like a strong winter wind blowing through the trees. Howler monkeys, David informed us.
From a 135-foot tower the lodge owns, we trained binoculars on various bird species -- white-throated toucans, bat falcons and red-bellied macaws. I didn't have a clue what these were before arriving, but one of the people in our group was an avid birder and carried a three-inch-thick edition of the birds of Ecuador. Nearly 1,500 bird species can be found in this country.
Taking a different direction every day, we walked among the jungle's pygmy marmosets, potoos and squirrel monkeys. Flitting about were dozens of species of butterflies, from small red and black ones to my favorite, the five-inch black and shiny blue Morpho achilles. Troops of monkeys traveled through the trees above. One showoff sprawled on a branch looking down at us. It scratched its back, legs splayed and hanging down off the branch, using its tail for balance.
Much of the plant life was not just lush but also startling. One tree had bark with spikes larger than rose thorns running up and down its trunk, and is used by indigenous people for grating bananas and potatoes. Another tree's trunk had enormous buttresses from the ground to about eight feet up, making it look like a missile awaiting launch. By arrangement with the lodge, a local Amazon family upriver let us see their rudimentary home. This is a family whose older generation still uses a blowgun with curare-tipped arrows to shoot tapirs, monkeys and three-toed sloths for dinner, and whose children walk two to three hours through the jungle to get to school.
At the lodge, I got the chance to take a bite out of a piranha. A guest had caught a couple of them using a stick, a string, a hook and a piece of raw pork dangled in the same lagoon that guests swam in every afternoon. The lodge's cook fried one of them up. Piranha tastes like . . . fish.
A short flight away from the jungle, the cities, mountains and people of Ecuador also enchant. Sandwiched between Peru and Colombia, Ecuador feels like a country untouched by time. It's the kind of place where many people buy washing machines but still clean their clothes by hand before throwing them in. Wet clothes are laid out on grassy hillsides and from fence posts and window grates to dry. People walk cows and sheep on ropes to grassy spots by the side of the road for a day of grazing, then walk them back home at night.
The country is populated mostly by mestizos, people of mixed indigenous and Spanish or African ancestry. The capital Quito, at 9,350 feet and surrounded by mountains, takes one's breath away (literally, during the day or two it takes to acclimate to the thin air). New Town holds the commerce, most of the hotels, a rash of Internet cafes and some unpleasant bus pollution. OldTown has ornate churches, colonial architecture and colorful houses climbing up mountainsides.
One morning, I hired a taxi to take me to Mitad del Mundo ("Middle of the World," that is, the equator) about 15 miles north of the city. Agustin, my driver, waited while I wandered around the official monument to zero latitude, visited the museum and posed for the requisite picture straddling hemispheres. When I was done, Agustin drove me to Pululahua, a breathtaking extinct volcano crater with a dirt path downhill that passes through different microclimates. He came with me and we slipped and slid halfway down in our sneakers until I decided that was enough. We paused to let a couple and their horse pass us on the way to the village at the bottom.
Although our communication was limited to my present-tense-only Spanish and a lot of nodding and smiling, we struck up a friendship. I asked if he would take me around OldTown by taxi that night.
He showed up at sunset with his 6-year-old daughter, Ariana, in the front seat. We drove around to the churches, lit up in purples and yellows and soft whites. Guidebooks warn against walking around OldTown after dark, but between the city's effort to beautify the place and increased security, it seems the danger has eased. Many people were out for a stroll.
Agustin also drove up a windy hill of El Panecillo, to a large statue of the Virgin, for a view of the whole city. On the way, Ariana serenaded me with a rendition of "Jingle Bells" that she'd learned in English at school.
On an excursion out of town, I traveled south by van and train through the "Avenue of the Volcanoes" with a tour group. We rode on the roof of a train, as Ecuadorians are wont to do, only ours was a tourist version. "We have no insurance for people who travel on the roof, but we have not lost anybody yet," Diego, our tour leader, joked with us. We climbed up the metal ladder and settled in. It was early and children were heading off to school. They waved at us and we waved back. Dogs hellbent on catching the train chased us along the tracks. We got an open-air view of snowy Mount Chimborazo, whose peak is the closest point on Earth to the sun (at about 20,000 feet it may be some 10,000 feet shorter than Mount Everest, but it's located on the bulge of the Earth).
Whatever impression I might have had that the equator is always hot and steamy is now gone. That's what I learned at 7 in the morning, at 9,000 feet, riding on the roof of a train. We were so chilled we asked when the next stop was so we could go inside. Diego knocked on the roof of the private train. It stopped right there, in the middle of nowhere. Two of us climbed inside and warmed up with hot coffee, returning to the roof later in the day when the sun was higher.
The train took us to the Devil's Nose, a steep portion of the ride where the tracks zigzag repeatedly to enable the train to make it down the steep slope. The mountain walls were so close we could inspect them for cracks.
A string of volcanoes runs down Ecuador's spine. On our way out of Quito we stopped to photograph Cotopaxi, a popular peak for climbers. At 19,350 feet, it is said to be the highest active volcano in the world. Suddenly one of my fellow passengers shouted, "Look, it's erupting."
But he wasn't talking about Cotopaxi. Instead, down the road, gray ash was spewing out of another volcano, Tungurahua, also known as the Gates of Hell or Throat of Fire. Tungurahua has been erupting for four years and geologists don't know when it will stop. The last time it blew, in 1916, the activity lasted for six years.
We were traveling on a Thursday, which is market day in the mountain town of Saquisili. I had a couple of hours to wander through the squares and streets filled with people and goods. Locals from the mountains all around come to catch up on the week's news and buy provisions. The women wear the brimmed hats, skirts and colorful shawls native to their region.
The locals spoke in Spanish and the native language, known as Quechua. Tables and goods were set up in plazas and along the streets. A woman walked by carrying a live chicken by its feet. A box full of live guinea pigs was available for, yep, dinner. A couple reviewed the merits of a small propane stove from among the dozen placed on the street. Tables were laden with mounds of fruits and vegetables, some familiar, some odd, like the bananas as thick as cucumbers and the pink-speckled potatoes small enough to fit on a teaspoon.
A man wandered over to me with a bag full of brightly colored pictures painted on sheepskin stretched over frames. The scenes depicted the snow on the peak of Cotopaxi as a perfect white drizzle under a cloudless blue sky and showed village people going about their business in its shadow. We sat on the curb under a hot sun as I studied different sizes and scenes. After a little negotiation, I gave him $12 for my favorite. It made us both quite happy.
This purchase, near the start of my stay, was the beginning of a two-week buying spree. I couldn't resist the soft alpaca sweaters and scarves, woven belts, a chess set pitting conquistadors against Incas, and ivory-textured buttons made from the tagua nut of a palm tree. During a stop at a Panama hat factory, I walked out with a newly made one. Fact: The straw used to make Panama hats grows only in Ecuador and only in two of its provinces. Moreover, the hats are made almost exclusively in Ecuador. By rights, they should be called Ecuador hats.
The volcano tour ended in Cuenca, on the banks of the TomebambaRiver, a colonial Spanish city that many Ecuadorians cite as their country's most beautiful. Cuenca is the country's third-largest city, with narrow, one-way cobblestone streets, small neighborhood stores and several universities. A central square with a park is surrounded by La Catedral Vieja (the OldChurch), started in 1557; La Catedral Nueva (the NewChurch), begun in 1880; and a pretty row of buildings known as the French neighborhood.
I left the country feeling that I needed to come back and explore more: cloud forest areas, hot springs, the coast. And, of course, the Galapagos still await.
First published in The Washington Post. All rights reserved.