From Quito, it's a quick 25-minute flight to Coca, where we head to Rio Napo and into a motorized canoe. After four hours - including one stop at an oil drilling station to replace a part - the driver takes the motor down to a slight purr, and, up front, our guide pulls out a paddle to help steer the long boat around the twists of the tributary. The tall trees, big sky, and boat spray from the wide river are replaced by massive leaves bending toward the water, vines, calls from birds hiding among the plants, and humidity. And then more humidity. I keep reminding myself that this is no theme-park version of the Amazon rain forest - there won't be any animatronic hippos shooting water into the boat. This water is home to real black caimans, anacondas, and Amazonian manatees.
A short while later, we make one final turn onto Challuacocha lake. The simple yet elegant thatched-roof buildings of Sani Lodge, owned and operated by the local Quichua Indians, are just ahead. One hundred percent of the profit from Sani is used to develop social programs and infrastructure for the community.
The lodge is our opportunity to eat, clean up, and sleep before our next-morning hike through the rain forest. It's during this trek that I am given a one-word piece of advice: "confidence."
That's the tip one of our guides offers up for crossing the logs that serve as a bridge across the swamp we're facing. It's the tail end of the rainy season, so two hours into the hike (having already seen a vibrant green-and-yellow wild parrot that wanted nothing to do with a cracker and a plum-throated cotinga, with feathers a brilliant aqua-blue that has yet to be replicated by any paint manufacturer), we are already well acquainted with the harsh grip of the mud on the rain forest floor. Rubber boots are a must when hiking around Sani. There used to be handrails along the bridge, but they've long since fallen into the water, so the only aid I get is verbal, rather than physical.
I shuffle across, my heart beating faster than I care to admit. This time, the fear is of possible humiliation, of having to be pulled out of the swamp by the other hikers. But I succeed, and once across, I am a bit giddier than I had expected to be. Soon after, our Quichua guide, Domingo Gualinga, sets up a telescope so we can peer into a hole in a tree high above us. The giant brown eyes of night monkeys stare back. Though summerlike temperatures and humidity are not, in any way, my favorite conditions, my discomfort washes away at the sight of those amazing eyes.
We fly back to Quito so we can catch a bus to Otavalo - an adventure recommended only for those with a strong stomach. For our $2 fare, we are treated to a two-hour race along winding mountain roads with no guardrails as other buses come frighteningly close to us as they whiz past from the opposite direction. As a special bonus, we also get to watch Black Hawk Down in Spanish while the bus's exhaust fumes threaten to overtake us.
The beauty we see once we're off the bus makes up for the ride (almost). While the leaves won't change colors anytime soon (or ever) - especially on the grayish-green eucalyptus trees that dot the mountains - it's fair to say that Otavalo's average temperatures are what we on the East Coast of the United States call "sweater weather." The city's midday warmth quickly gives over to cool afternoons and even cooler evenings that require a fireplace or heater. Or at Casa Mojanda MountainSide Inn & Farm, which is nestled into the mountains above town, an evening soak in the hot tub to steam off the chill and ease the aches from a day of hiking.
While the easiest way to get up to the inn is by taxi, the most satisfying way to return to town for a bit of shopping is by hiking down along the path that skirts Otavaleño farms and homes.
"¿Cuáles son sus nombres?"
A girl who is probably seven years old answers with a series of four or five names. We encounter her and her classmates while following the path down into town. Although the children are ostensibly in the middle of a school lesson, their desire to run off and play is obvious. Their teacher, challenged by her charges' wayward attentions, offers us the same mildly exasperated smile that first-grade teachers all around the world share. A few minutes later, we hear footsteps behind us. Two of the students run up, slowing their pace so they are just steps behind us. One girl is dressed in traditional Otavaleño clothing of a white blouse, wrap skirt, dainty slippers, and gold necklace; the other is in a sweat suit with cartoon characters printed on the front.
While both keep their heads pointed straight ahead, they follow us with their eyes, shyly answering our questions. Then, with a quick jump over the edge of the trail onto the steep slope that leads to their homes below, they're gone.
Once in town, we wander up and down the streets, poking our heads into stores. One stops me cold: Fat cones of brightly colored thread line shelves around the store. Emboldened by several days in Ecuador, I flub my way in Spanish through a request for wool. The shopkeeper pulls bags out of a corner and reveals pounds of wool in warm brown, bright turquoise, and brilliant red. At just $3 per cone, they are worth the arm ache that comes from carrying two around for the day. Besides, the chill of the previous evening has stayed with me, and I am dreaming of knitting up a thick cap that will carry me from fall straight into winter.