Travel to the Amazon

La Selva Lodge is located in eastern Ecuador. (Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press, MCT / February 26, 2012)

Imagine palm trees 10 stories high. Imagine lakes with paiche fish that are 6 feet long. Imagine rivers with stingrays, caimans, catfish, neon tetras and electric eels.

The lake where La Selva Amazon Ecolodge is located, Lake Garzacocha, looks deceptively like a small lake back in Michigan — but with spider monkeys leaping in the trees, piranhas swimming under the brown silty water and rare birds perching on limbs.

If you go for a walk in the morning, you may see one of the rarest predators in the jungle, a crested eagle (it was the first time our guide had seen one in 11 years). In the woods, you spot fungus that native people use to cure ear infections. You see poison dart frogs, giant millipedes and flitting blue Morpho butterflies, not exactly common sights back home.

And the insects! I saw few mosquitoes, but if you go for a walk at night by flashlight, you can spot tarantulas as big as salad plates and walking sticks as big as your hand. They are not frightening. They are elegant and awe-inspiring.

Someone asked me how this compares to Costa Rica, which many Americans have visited. The Ecuadorian Amazon is magnitudes more diverse.

A bird called the hoatzin, my favorite, looks like a crazy pheasant — multi colored, big, shiny, preening, exaggerated. It lives only in South America.

From a tower and with powerful binoculars, you see the forest's feathered bonanza — nearly 600 bird species have been seen within just a few acres here. I spotted tanagers and toucans, but also South America's own orange-winged parrot, blue dacnis and ivory-billed aracari.

Monkeys are everywhere — capuchin, spider, squirrel, black-mantled tamarin. The red howlers are more distant, high in the trees, grunting across the miles.

Right outside my hut are black birds with yellow-tipped wings called crested oropendola; their "oh-rop!" call sounds so human you feel like calling a reply.

After a few days here, you realize that everything hides in the Amazon. Either it wants to hide to catch something or it wants to hide so it doesn't get caught.

There is hyper-diversity here, so the top predators — jaguars, ocelot, eagles, anaconda — are spread far and wide, making it rare to see any of them.

I count myself lucky to have seen ocelot and tapir tracks and a crested eagle.

The monkeys, of course, saw or sensed the crested eagle before we did. One minute they were chattering and swinging and foraging loudly in the forest. The next, they were dropping straight down from the tall trees all around us — parachuting, it's called — practically falling to the ground. Then silence.

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ECUADOR SEEKS DONORS TO DEFEND THE RAIN FOREST

You know the expression "Save the rain forest"? The Yasuni National Park, directly across from the ecolodges on the Napo River, is what they're talking about.

The Yasuni is perhaps the most ecologically diverse place on the planet. It has an estimated 100,000 species of insects, 141 species of frogs and toads, 382 species of fish, 121 species of reptiles, 139 species of amphibians, 596 species of birds, 169 species of mammals and 2,700 species of plants, according to a 2010 Public Library of Science report about the global significance of the park.

You can find a greater variety of plant species in just 2.5 acres of the Yasuni than in all of North America.

It also is home to one of the last native groups to shun contact with the modern world, the Waorani people.

The danger lies in development. Giant oil reserves were discovered along the Napo River in the 1970s, and portions of the Ecuadorian rain forest were clear-cut for pipelines, drilling and roads.

I saw evidence of the development near Coca, with flames rising from burn-off towers right along the shoreline.

The biggest oil reserve, ironically, is directly under the national park, with an estimated $7 billion worth of oil there.

In 2007, the president of Ecuador came up with a bargain: If international organizations paid his government $3.6 billion, it would ensure there would be no drilling in the park

That is working. For now.

The Yasuni-ITT Trust Fund is run by the United Nations and the government of Ecuador.

Celebrities such as Bo Derek and Brad Pitt are contributors, as are governments from around the world and regular people. More than $100 million was pledged by the end of 2011 (the official donation site is http://mptf.undp.org/yasuni).

The idea has been compared to extortion — but a poor country like Ecuador needs money, and it has an asset that the rest of the world values.

Save the rain forest? This is one rain forest that's worth it.