QUITO, Ecuador — We'd been on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, but in this mountaintop capital we discovered a way to experience the real thing. It's a tour into the wilds of the Amazon basin on the eastern side of the Andes.
The journey is by "flotel" on the Napo River, main tributary of the world's greatest river that flows from the backbone of South America across that continent to the Atlantic.
With memories of Tarzan on TV, we signed on for a four-day adventure to one of the least-visited regions on earth. Never mind a more recent TV program we also recalled, a PBS documentary about headhunting Indians in the area.
Our entry into the jungle was sudden and exciting. From Quito's airport at 9,300 feet, a turboprop plane cleared a ridge of snow-clad volcanoes and dropped into what appeared to be a giant bowl of green salad.
Spreading through it like dressing were streams and rivers that drain down from the Andes. They gather into tributaries of the Amazon, including the Rio Napo that was our destination and home to the Flotel Orellana, a three-deck flat-bottomed floating hotel. However, we landed 60 miles away, near the Equator at Lago Agrio, a backwater town with an airstrip that was hacked from the rain forest when oil was discovered there in the 1960s.
Oil exploration brought a few roads to the jungle, and we followed one in a battered bus through the unending vegetation that was broken only by the narrow ribbon of pavement. With the temperature a steamy 90 degrees and tropical thunderstorms along the way, our clothes were soaked by the time we sighted the boat tied up along the river bank.
Resembling a poor man's Delta Queen and powered by outboard motors instead of a paddle wheel, the flotel does not promise luxury. Most of its Spartan all-wood cabins measure 7 by 10 feet and accommodate two persons in bunk beds. Each unit boasts a hot-water shower, wash basin and toilet.
Room fans try to circulate the muggy air, but many passengers sleep with their doors and windows open. (There aren't any locks on the doors anyway.) Meals are far from fancy, although we applauded an attempt at big cruise ship ambiance when waiters appeared with flaming pineapple at the farewell dinner.
The Flotel Orellana was built in 1976 especially for Napo River excursions and is well suited for the shifting currents and sand banks that keep the helmsmen alert. The boat's draft is four feet to avoid unexpected groundings, and its three-knot speed provides leisurely sightseeing from the umbrella-shaded sun deck.
But drifting down the river with binoculars in one hand and a cold cerveza (beer) in the other is not the extent of a jungle cruise in Ecuador's Amazon basin. The real adventure comes when the flotel ties up and passengers climb into long dugout canoes.
Then you travel, as the Indians do, up shallower rivers and side streams to hamlets in the forest that can only be reached by boat. Our first contact with the natives was on a mid-river island called Pompeya, where children stared at German, American and Ecuadorean visitors stepping onto the muddy bank.
Peeking From Huts
Catholic missionaries established this outpost and we saw more young Indians peeking from huts on stilts that serve as schoolrooms. The girls wore dresses, the boys T-shirts and tennis shoes.
The modern world has not replaced all local identity; a colorfully painted dugout canoe is the altar in Pompeya's thatched-roof church. And the priests have preserved the past in a small museum where we saw ancient stone ax heads, blowguns and poison darts, and clay pots that are funeral urns.
Back in the motorized canoes, our group turned up the narrow Jivino River to reach Limoncocha, a remote village inhabited by a garrison of soldiers and their families just 75 miles south of the border with Colombia. Among the buildings is a dormitory-style lodge where we spent the night.
Limoncocha also is home to a lagoon that hosts dozens of species of birds; we embarked in a small boat to see how many we could see. Everyone wore swimsuits, but not everyone took a dip in the lagoon when our guide, Mauricio, mentioned the piranha.
The water hides other reputed villains called caiman, mean-looking crocodiles that Mauricio insists are very shy and stay submerged. For evening entertainment we returned to the lagoon to look for them with a searchlight. Soon someone saw a pair of reflective eyes by the shore and our boat moved in for a closer look before the caiman sank out of sight.
The next morning our group embarked on a jungle walk from the banks of Limoncocha lagoon. Mauricio had a machete; we carried insect repellent. Naturally, we were on the alert for a jaguar attack, or at least a boisterous charge by a troop of monkeys. But our guide said we wouldn't see many of the jungle's animals because they hide from human intruders.