Although it’s high noon in the Amazon and the sun is directly overhead, hardly any sunlight penetrates the immense canopy of tree limbs to where I stand on the jungle floor.
To my left, a howler monkey screams and deftly connects two branches of a massive kapok tree with a quick span of her arms, newborn in-tow. A small flock of toucans disembarks in the commotion. Somewhere in the distance a low rumble reminds me that jaguars still roam this wilderness, and that I am but a small, slow-moving visitor here. Unable to move, I stand in awe, feet planted and mouth agape, at the sheer beauty and complexity of this living, breathing ecosystem that has functioned continuously for thousands of years. And while this moment truly encapsulates the definition of the word awesome – it is but just one of many experiences that I will have during my stay in Ecuador that will leave an indelible mark on my life.
It’s no wonder that generations of scientists have long considered this gem to be the holy land of scientific inquiry. Without a doubt, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands rank as some of the most biologically diverse areas of our planet. From endangered Sea Lions to the iconic Marine Iguanas, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands boast hundreds of endemic species of plants and animals (that is to say that they literally can’t be found anywhere else on the planet.) The incredible, rare flora and fauna are certainly one of the top reasons to visit Ecuador. This fact alone is ample justification for any nature enthusiast to drop whatever they may be doing and buy a plane ticket. It’s also one of the reasons I find my spare time consumed by researching deals on airfare.
The hustle and bustle of city life at 3,000 meters
Nestled in a rolling valley of the Andes Mountains at just over 9,000 feet in elevation lies our second reason to visit Ecuador – the capital of Quito offers a stark, intriguing contrast to the ecological distinctiveness of the Amazon and the Galapagos Archipelago. Amidst these cobblestone streets is La Basilica Del Voto Nacional, arguably one of the most beautiful basilicas in Latin America. And while admittedly I’ve never been much of a history buff, there’s something incredibly stunning about standing in a cathedral that was built by thousands of skilled Ecuadorians over the course of nearly 125 years. Not to mention that the frightening 377 ft. tall front tower offers the most incredible view of the capital city and surrounding mountains.
Eco tourism in the heart of the Andes Mountains
Among the final stops during our Ecuador volunteer opportunity was a stay at the Black Sheep Inn of Chugchilan, Ecuador. A world-renowned ecolodge that offers a menu of vegetarian entrees with locally sourced, organically grown ingredients that will make even the most devout carnivores salivate. (Read: This may be the best food I’ve ever had, and I could eat cheeseburgers all day.)
The quaint Black Sheep Inn was our gateway to the Quilotoa Crater Lake and the point at which I realized the scope of Ecuador’s natural beauty. A brief and scenic trip in the back of a pickup truck brought our group to the crystalline Quilotoa lagoon at roughly 12,800 ft. in elevation, where I once again found myself struggling to comprehend the beauty of what I was seeing.
There I stood at the edge of a 400 meter cliff with arms widespread, feet firmly planted, and the sun on my shoulders reflecting on the people and the places of Ecuador that would be forever etched into my existence. The greatest realization of all, however, was yet to come as I was boarding the plane for my return home. Somewhere between sea level and 12,000 feet above, I realized that although I would soon be returning to the United States, my heart would forever be staying in Ecuador.
About The Author
Shaun’s passions for adventure and exploration were sparked at a young age through frequent camping trips in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and surfing trips in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Through a variety of jobs in education, marine science, and adventure guiding over the past six years, Shaun has sought to broaden not only his own horizons, but also the horizons of his students through immersive and experiential education. Currently, Shaun aims to inspire environmental awareness, conservation, and stewardship in the marine ecosystem by combining his interests in photography, journalism and media. Follow his journey on Instagram (@ScSwartz), or through his website www.shaunswartz.com
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