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.
Llamas and alpacas are a common sight in the countryside below Ecuador's Mount Chimborazo.
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 Lake Pilchicocha, 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 one 6 a.m. 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.