Travel from Quito, the decidedly 21st century capital of Ecuador, to the Napo Wildlife Center, deep in the Yasuni National Park was an easy journey back in time. It was less than a one-hour flight to Coca, a small town on the Napo River, which seemed to hark back half a century, until I noticed the proliferation of mobile phones along its busy streets and the modern boat dock. I boarded the awaiting Napo Wildlife Center motorboat with my guide Roberto, who had flown with me from Quito, and headed downriver into the timeless immensity of the Amazon Basin. Before long, the Napo River, although still almost 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from its confluence with the Amazon, was already several hundred meters wide, its distant banks a soaring jumble of rainforest. A couple of hours later, we left its cappuccino-colored waters (caused by sediment washed from the Andes Mountains) and turned into the so-called black waters of a narrow inlet; they were actually the color of strong tea, steeped in the tannins of rainforest vegetation. We had entered the northwest corner of the Yasuni National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve regarded by scientists as one of the highest bio-diversity areas on the planet.
Ever since Charles Darwin’s momentous scientific visit to the Galapagos Islands over one and a half century ago, this small archipelago of sun-baked volcanic rocks sprinkled across 45,000 square kilometers (17,000 square miles) of Pacific Ocean has captured the imagination of adventure travelers. I had long yearned to visit this place so remote that its iconic fauna and flora are unique on the planet. But I sensed that, like most of the over 150,000 yearly tourists who have visited recently, mine would be a once in a lifetime trip. Therefore I wanted to plan the ultimate wilderness travel experience, only to be confused by seemingly endless cruising options. Until I came across the intimate, nine staterooms M/Y Grace.
Casa del Caballo Blanco was an intimate retreat on the outskirts of San Ignacio, in the Cayo District of western Belize. Perched on a scenic hilltop, it offered a panoramic view of the rolling hills on the northern bank of the Mopan River valley and the mountains of Guatemala to the west. The property was a birdwatcher’s delight. Flocks of red-lored parrots frequently flew overhead and hummingbirds hovered by the blooming shrubs around the grounds. The air echoed with bird calls from dawn until late in the night. The entrance to the recently completed Tz’unuun birding trail was a five-minute walk from the guest cabanas down a gently sloping meadow. This private 1.7 mile (2.5 kilometers) hiking trail meandered through a recently reforested area that was part of the 15 acre (60,000 square meters) habitat restoration project in progress on the property during my visit.
A tiny country wedged along the Caribbean Sea between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize has long been recognized by water sport enthusiasts as a diving and snorkeling paradise. The country, the smallest in Central America (8,800 square miles or 23,000 square kilometers, slightly smaller than Massachusetts), boast the longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere (180 miles or 290 kilometers) along its 240 mile (386 kilometers) coastline. Until now, the sandy islands that straddle the reef (cayes in local parlance), reputed for their white coral sand beaches and spectacular underwater canyons, have been the country’s greatest attraction. However, Belize is also blessed with a lush interior of unspoiled rain forests rich in wildlife, birds and Mayan archeological treasures. To capitalize on these natural assets, the country has designated 40 percent of its landmass as national parks and nature reserves. The Cayo District, with its 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) of verdant rolling hills along the Macal and Mopan rivers, offers especially scenic attractions. Home to the two most important Maya ruins in the country, Caracol and Xunantunich, as well as several nature reserves including the reputed Blue Hole and Guanacaste National Parks, it is increasingly becoming a favored destination of eco-tourists.
This tiny nation, with its remarkably diverse topography and natural treasures, was a pleasure to visit. With a landmass of just under 20,000 square miles, approximately the size of the West Virginia, or Denmark, it stands out as a premier tourism destination in Latin America for travelers drawn by its intense biodiversity. After experiencing some of the highest rates of deforestation on the planet in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Costa Rica engineered radical measures in the past two decades to reverse this alarming trend. One quarter of its land has been set aside for national parks and nature preserves. The country can now boast to being host to a startling five percent of the world’s biodiversity, including more than 800 recorded species of birds, 200 species of mammals, and 900 kinds of trees. Costa Rica attracts over one million foreign ecologically-minded tourists per year.
The Lapa Rios Ecolodge has garnered so many awards and accolades in recent years that I approached it with high expectations; these were promptly exceeded! No words or trophies could have prepared me for the breathtaking reality of Lapa Rios. The site was spectacular. Perched high on the tip of Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula, the resort discretely blended into a private nature preserve that spread over 1,000 pristine acres of one of the last remaining lowland tropical forests in Central America. The main lodge, built at the top of a 350-foot ridge, housed the reception area, restaurant and bar. From there, 16 private bungalows were strung through the lush tropical vegetation along a sloping 500-yard long path of steps and bridges that connect three ridges. Like the main lodge, all the bungalows were built exclusively of local materials, topped by high pitched roofs thickly thatched with Suiita palm and casually decorated with comfortable bamboo furniture. Each bungalow featured a private deck and patio, complete with outdoor shower, and a sumptuous view of the forest canopy rippling down to the gentle waters of the Golfo Dulce. Fifteen miles across the gulf, the rolling hills of the mainland fade in the distant haze.