Ecuador packs spectacular diversity into an area about the size of Colorado: snow-covered mountains, tropical islands, and so many medicinal plants that it’s called "nature’s pharmacy." In fact, Ecuador’s tropical rainforests are home to more than 20,000 plant species and more than 528 species of birds. Environmentally sustainable tourism into remote regions assures people access to unique ecosystems while preserving them.
Galapagos Islands National Park
Six hundred miles off Ecuador’s coast, the volcanic islands that Charles Darwin made famous are inhabited by sea lions, red and blue Sally Lightfoot crabs, giant turtles, and species found nowhere else on the planet.
Ports of call: Small groups stay on a cruise ship and make shore excursions escorted by a naturalist to the archipelago’s islands to see wildlife that’s generally unafraid of humans. A library and on-board science programs provide educational context for the Galapagos’s wonders.
Peaceable kingdom: Swim and snorkel among tropical fish and white-tipped sharks. Photograph a sea-lion pup while the mother looks on. A curious mockingbird may fly down to investigate you, while unconcerned iguanas and colorful crabs sun themselves.
Master and commander: The Galapagos Explorer II ship minimizes its impact on the region’s delicate ecosystem by producing its own fresh water and filtering and purifying residual water with ozone before discharging it. All detergents and shampoos are biodegradable. Metal cans and non-biodegradable trash are returned to port for recycling.
Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve
Hidden in the remote Amazon Basin rainforest, Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve offers jungle luxury while protecting the environment and providing jobs for the indigenous Achuar people, who are partners in the community-based ecotourism project.
Getting there: Soar by plane over the Andes from Quito and through the Avenue of Volcanoes, then board a motorized dug-out canoe on the Pastaza River to get to Kapawi village.
Helping hands: After thirty years of forest decimation by oil and logging companies, the Achuar can no longer subsist by hunting. The tour company Canodros employs the Achuar, who will assume lodge ownership by 2011.
Jungle nights: Kapawi village consists of twenty indigenous-style, solar-powered stilt cottages with verandahs overlooking a lagoon. Modern indoor plumbing is ecologically sensitive, waste is disposed of responsibly, and water is naturally filtered. Ecuadorian meals emphasize local ingredients and natural foods.
The wild side: Achuar guides and an English-speaking translator can take you fishing, kayaking, and birdwatching. Nature hikes protect animal and plant habitats.
Memorable excursion: Visit a nearby Achuar community, where life goes on much as it has for centuries. If you’re lucky, the shaman will welcome you to his hut.