To walk into the rain forest is to enter an epoch before man existed. It is something one ought to do slowly and alone.
I have visited the sultry tropical rain forests of Central and South America and the cool, fogbound ones of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Each journey has left me with a desire to return, to experience again the forests’ aliveness, silence, delicacy, inscrutability. So when I was in Quito last year for an article, with three days to spare, I headed for the lowlands, for the Amazonian rain forest.
Ecuador, a country about the size of Colorado, is bisected horizontally by the equator — hence its name — and vertically by the Andes, which are not broad-backed and chaotic here as they are farther south in Peru, nor ribbed with three distinct cordilleras, as in Colombia to the north, but compressed into a single corrugated backbone. From the central plateau, much of which lies at an altitude of 10,000 feet or more, the land falls on the western side to a humid coastal plain and on the eastern to the gently upsloping edge of the Amazon basin. The Amazonian foothills, with their once-boundless forests and their sinuous chocolate rivers, are called the Oriente. The chill dry air and skin-roasting sun of the highlands run the climatic gamut, depending on altitude, from the temperate to the arctic, but the lowlands are tropical, regularly drenched by rains wrung from the easterly breezes of the Amazon by rising terrain.
The circuit out of Quito to the lowlands and back can be driven either clockwise or counterclockwise. I went clockwise, and, since I happen to have done it that way, I now feel that to luxuriate at Hacienda Cusin near Otavalo first, then to descend into the forest, and finally to climb back out again toward Baños with Chimborazo looming like a pillar of pale fire, has a certain aesthetic logic. But if you happened to go the other way it would seem appropriate too. In this part of Ecuador you can’t go wrong — and this is a good thing, because in the near total absence of road signs, you almost surely will.
Gasoline is cheap; Ecuador has its own oil reserves, and the government subsidizes motor fuels. But finding your way can be tricky. My map, composed with patriotic goofiness by the Instituto Geográfico Militar, elevated potholed tracks to the status of major highways and claimed for Ecuador a major chunk of remote land that an international protocol handed to Peru in 1941.
In Ecuador, the process of getting somewhere is as seductive as the destination itself. When I left Quito, at 10 o’clock on an autumn Sunday morning, the Andean air was, as it usually is, preternaturally clear. The road wound up and down in uneven terrain. I drove through brief, humble towns and past a stone obelisk marking the equator. In the midafternoon I arrived at Hacienda Cusin, a 400-year-old estate at the foot of the volcano Imbabura, near the market town of Otavalo, where I planned to spend the night.
Run since 1990 by an Englishman, Nicholas Millhouse, Cusin is one of Ecuador’s few sybaritic resorts. It even has a listing in the Manhattan phone book. Its charm, like that of much good cooking, consists in the combining of disparate elements in the proper proportions. In this case, the principal ingredients are elegant (and authentic) colonial rusticity, a reasonable amount of luxury, and a seasoning of picturesque dilapidation. It’s a lovely place, and like nearly everything in Ecuador surprisingly inexpensive: $90 a day covers, among other things, room, three meals, use of a squash court, and horses to explore the surrounding mountains and lakes.
After lunch I walked through the small neighboring village of San Pablo. Its Sunday stupor was relieved by the giggles of a few women dressed in colorful clothing and gold necklaces. Pigs strolled, dogs slunk. A profoundly drunken man moved slowly past, placing his feet with care, his downcast gaze fixed on the heaving ground before him like a stabilizing third leg. The volcano Imbabura gazed down from above like a deity, its peak plumed with smoke from the fires with which shepherd boys mark the height to which they’ve climbed.
The next day I continued toward the forest, backtracking first along the Quito road before turning east at Guayllabamba. The route wound through a landscape of valleys irregularly tiled with cultivated fields and partitioned by rugged escarpments and occasional volcanoes. Fortuitously passing up several opportunities to get lost, I ascended into a barren, treeless moorland, foggy and windswept, brooded over by eerie moss-bearded trees and lichen-stained boulders. Finally at 13,000 feet the little road crested the ridge and started downward into the gorge of the Quijos, a foaming, muddy torrent whose waters would eventually lose themselves in the Atlantic, 3,900 miles away.
The road descended steeply, tortuous, by turns rock-ribbed and potholed, and lubricated with muddy slime by a steady drizzle. You couldn’t swerve too abruptly to avoid a pothole, or the car would begin to skid, which was bad, because the unguarded right shoulder dropped off 1,000 feet or so, more or less vertically, into the boiling rapids. Anyway, the potholes were so random, resembling the craters from a carpet-bombing raid, that I eluded one only to thud into another. The far side of the canyon, half-screened by ragged mists, appeared like a hanging tapestry occasionally bisected by the white filaments of cataracts. This was the “cloud forest,” the high-altitude version of rain forest in which several more layers of parasitic life than usual attach themselves to every tree.
Eventually the terrain leveled out into alluvial foothills. The sun returned. Late in the afternoon I turned off onto a gravel road just below the Rio Napo. After traveling 15 miles, at times up to my axles in unnamed rivers, I arrived at my destination, Cabañas Aliñahui (pronounced ah-lin-YA-wee), a lodge consisting of widely scattered stilt houses on a bluff overlooking the forest and the Napo. The proceeds from its operation go to a nearby botanical-research station with the Norse-sounding name of Jatun Sacha, which is run by two foundations, one in Quito and the other, Health and Habitat, in California.
Equatorial rain forest isn’t for everyone. The heat, the moisture, the constant squish and dripping, the creepy feeling of being watched, the fear of becoming permanently lost, the ever-present and perhaps imaginary possibility that what appears to be a stick or a dead leaf is going to turn out to be a venomous and hitherto uncataloged jumping centipede, or that the drop of water that just fell on your neck and ran down under your collar was actually a burrowing tick that lays its eggs in flesh and whose maggots . . . Well, never mind.
But standing in the deep shade, pierced here and there by spears of sunlight, among the monster trees with their arm-thick vines, their multistory radiating buttresses, their luminous spiders and butterflies, is a transcendent experience. You do not think about lumber. You think about the indifference of all this to man, its innocence, its touching vulnerability, its eternal, unchanging past and its now perhaps short, dark future.
There is not a lot to do at Aliñahui but read and stroll in the forest, but there is the precious alienness that is the grail of the traveler. There are simple meals and long twilight conversations, remoteness and solitude. At night from your balcony the nearby forest is a mass of eclipsed stars, a black deeper than black, from which pours an intermittent chorus of squawks and screeches, rattles, buzzes, snaps, shrieks and moans — the music of mysterious creatures eating, mating and dying, to whom this blackness is light.
Arguments for the preservation of rain forest are often couched in utilitarian terms. We need it to inhale our excess carbon dioxide; the cure for cancer may be lurking under some as-yet-unturned leaf. But those arguments are trumped by the competing utilitarianism of settlers and lumber companies, for whom the immediate benefits of cutting — “exploiting” — the forest loom larger than the hypothetical environmental or medicinal concerns of distant norteamericanos. The truer (though perhaps not necessarily stronger) argument is an ethical one; destroying these places and the living things in them is the moral equivalent of genocide.
I left Aliñahui to re-ascend the Andes late the next day. The truncated cone of 20,600-foot Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest and most commanding mountain, shone through the gathering twilight with an ethereal rosy glow like some pagan heaven. The road, a dizzying corniche often wide enough for only one car, clings so precariously to a sheer rock wall that at one point it passes not beside but underneath a waterfall, and the torrent pounds down thunderously on the roof of the car.
Quito brought regret. I felt homesick for the rain forest. Was it raining there now? Was that weird spiky spider in the same place, waiting, or perhaps sucking on some equally unfamiliar prey? Had the giant blue morpho butterfly, whose flash I had caught for only a moment, since been devoured by a long-billed bird? Were my footprints still there, along the spongy trail, like a signature?
Not a chance. The forest is lost in its own dreams. It does not take note of us. Perhaps that is why we treat it so thoughtlessly in return.