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Cate Belleveau poses with some Ecuadorean children during a visit to that country this summer. Cate and her husband, Al, enjoyed an eco-tourism vacation to the South American country. Submitted Photo

Ecuador vacation opens doors to diversity

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A favorite quote by Miriam Beard: "Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is the change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." Or write Mary Poxon's: "I sought to see the amazing as normal and the daily as unique, and in that swirling paradox I found the joy of travel."

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Both of these quotes rang powerfully true as my husband, Al, and I recently had the opportunity to travel to the highly diverse country of Ecuador.

Ecuador is a small, but extremely varied country. Ornithologists note than 17 percent of the world's bird species are found here, although the country covers only 1.72 percent of the planet's surface. We were also amazed that within a five-hour span of time, one could be guiding a dugout canoe down the Rio Napo on the Oriente Amazonian jungle area of eastern Ecuador and walking like turtle - as we are Minnesota flatlanders - along basalt and obsidian trails up Andean Chimborazo, the highest volcano in the world at 20,561 feet above sea level with its peak listed as the farthest from the earth's center.

Yet, amazingly, those same hiking boots could be shed and within hours the feet sans boots could be walking the cool sands of Puerto Lopez on Ecuador's western coast.

Another highlight was the bone-bouncing trip by small ship out on the Pacific to view breaching humpbacked whales as they migrated from Antarctic waters to the warmer waters found in the Humboldt Current off Ecuador's coast. We witnessed the gray whales lurch their full forms over the pewter-shaded water.

While one could telescope travel time to see such diversity in five hours, we blessedly had three weeks to explore the country's biodiversity.

Eco-tourism

Ecuadorians are not wealthy in an economic sense, as the annual average income is listed at $1,008 (nearly four times more than the citizens of Nepal I visited back in 2004.) So, we were especially interested in if and how eco-tourism is having a positive impact on the small communities in Ecuador. Three areas that we chose to focus on for this article are Las Palmas Ecological Center and the Cabanas Rio Yambala in Vilacamba in the far south near Podocarpus National Park, the impressive Hosteria Ecologico of Alándaluz and the whale-watching tour companies of Puerto Lopez on the west coast and the innovative and enterprising women of San Miquel Eco-Project in far northern Ecuador.

Yambala

The Podocarpus National Park and cloud forest is home to the spectacled bear, mountain tapir, ocelot, armadillo, puma 180 species of birds and rare orchids. The New Hampshire-born American who was proprietor of the Cabanas Rio Yambala Ecocenter journeyed through Vilacamba as a 20-sonething nearly 30 years ago. He returned as he felt called back to this beautiful, temperate valley and set up this relaxing and educational eco-tourism center. Nestled in this fertile valley are six cabins he built closer in design to tree houses hugging the hillside. With true eco-tourism values undergirding his vision, he uses local horses, cooks and mountain guides as he arranges journeys to take visitors through the three climatic zones of the Podacarpus.

We were impressed by the jobs provided by Rio Yambala Reserve for locals, and how protection of the acreage along the river leading into the national park provided a natural buffering corridor for the plethora of bird and mammal species.

Alándaluz

The second example of eco-tourism was Hosteria Ecologico Alándalus, which has won many international awards for its dedication to offering responsible tourism and closed energy systems. Alándaluz is a beachfront ecolodge constructed primarily of guadua cane bamboo in the southern Manabí Province. It was selected by Germany as one of the seven best socially responsible ecological tourist projects worldwide in 1998.

I was told the builders started using 70 percent guadua cane and 30 percent wood following the basic rule of not importing materials into the national park as that would violate the protected area status.

Guadua cane grows spontaneously all over the zone, helps stop erosion, hosts many plants and animals and helps regulate the environment.

Construction techniques feature enquinche or bahareque made of a mix of clay, straw in a guadua cane structure. They also used stone, cade (palm leaves) and other materials endemic to the area. Cabins and other buildings were erected in such a way as to improve ventilation, save energy and allow a longer lifetime of use.

In contrast with Ecuador's obvious lack of infrastructure to deal with waste - litter and open dumps were ubiquitous - organic garbage at the hosteria was gathered throughout the reserve and converted into fertilizer to be used in the gardens where vegetables and fruits are produced organically. A percentage of the production is for use in the restaurant, while the rest is sold. The inorganic garbage is classified, and part of it is sold to Portoviejo recycling companies.

Alándaluz has been internationally recognized for dedication to conservation and improving the quality of life in its surrounding communities through agro-ecological and traditional construction micro-enterprises.

Puerto Lopez

A half hour north of Alándaluz, locals in Puerto Lopez, once just a quiet fishing village, are provided many jobs guiding tourists traveling to Parque Nacional Machailla, whose typical dry forest, cloud forest and archeological sites offer a unique look at coastal ecology and history. Tours to Isla de Plata - labeled the Poor Man's Galapagos - show of the nearly 400 tail-smacking, high-jumping humpbacked whales off shore. The plata (silver) that gives this island its name refers to legendary treasure of Sir Francis Drake. Supposedly, after liberating his booty from the Spanish galleons, Drake hid it somewhere in the sea surrounding this 12-square-kilometer island, also known for blue-footed boobies and frigate birds.

San Miquel

The final example of nascent ecotourism is exemplified by the San Miquel Women's Committee, who saved profits from their community-built hotel to make a major purchase - a dugout canoe.

It needed to be large enough for several visitors and to be used for free by sons and husbands who serve as guides taking tourists inside the community's jungle reserve.

To buy the canoe, the women traveled a few miles upriver for a hand-carved canoe made from a single tree trunk at a cost of $80. Thus was born the fledgling San Miquel Eco-Project.

Infrastructure

Ecuador is investing resources in infrastructure as the entire nation seemed to be involved in new road building. History has shown a reliance on a limited economy of banana and flower sales, and more recently, oil sales from the jungle or Oriente.

While through travel we never forget some of the "amazing as normal and the daily as unique" - such as coffins transported in Chevy Luv trucks rather than hearses, guinea pigs being as common a food as chicken, opening my journal one day to find a scorpion on the pages, Wisconsin Badgers T-shirts on teens in Andean villages, 20-cent fees to purchase toilet paper, and me, generally, viewed as notable and unique as an albino squirrel wherever I traveled - we are heartened that tourist dollars can help build Ecuador's economy without the negative tradeoff of entirely damaging its beautiful biodiversity.

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