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River and jungle adventures in Ecuador.

Jump in a lake full of piranhas and emerge unscathed. Walk through rain forest and wonder where the mosquitoes are. Lie awake in predawn Amazon darkness and puzzle over the distant wail of wind in unmoving trees-then realize it's really only howler monkeys doing their remarkable wind song.

The Amazon rain forest is full of such surprises, and you can experience them first-hand by joining a tour that takes you deep into the jungle. Several such tours focus on the Amazon and its tributaries in Ecuador and Peru; typically you fly into Quito, Ecuador, or a Peruvian city. Cost is about $100 per person per day, not including air fare to South America.

You can make one of these excursions a destination in itself, or combine it with a package trip to the Galapagos; many originate in Quito.

This jungle boat is for real

In 1541, Francisco de Orellana entered Ecuador from the Pacific and floated the Coca, Napo, and Amazon rivers to the Atlantic-thus becoming the first European to cross the continent.

Now a few tour operators lead trips to this jungle wilderness. On the five-day tour pictured here, you retrace part of Orellana's river route-but in a three-deck riverboat, the Flotel Orellana. Ship cabins are small but comfortable (each has bunk beds, a bathroom), and meals, mostly made up of Ecuadorian specialties, are remarkably good.

As you motor down the wide Coca and Napo rivers, you'll have time to relax on deck and take in the expansive views of river, clouds, jungle shoreline, and Andes Mountains. You'll also have time to bone up on every aspect of the rain forest and its native people. Trip leaders help with slide shows, talks, and as much one-onone instruction as you want. And they're also willing to spend extra time on special interests: birds, botany, water life, anthropology. By dugout canoe to see caimans, birds, even swim with piranhas

You get your first intimate taste of the jungle when you leave the riverboat in motorized dugout canoes. The trip up the narrow, slow-moving Jivino River winds among dense walls of overarching trees, vines, shrubs, and ground covers so thick they obscure the banks. Butterflies abound, and birds are everywhere. You may spot even a few monkeys.

The destination is Limoncocha, a large greenish lake that is home to hundreds of species of birds; even on a one- or two-day visit you may see 50 or more kinds.

You may not be charmed by their names-like bat falcon, black-capped mockingthrush, and sun grebe-but the birds' shapes and colors will provoke awe. Looking as if they'd been designed by Dr. Seuss, turkey-like, claw-winged hoatzins vie for attention with azure gallinules; macaws, parrots, and troupials call out overhead.

During the day, you can swim in the lake, reassured that the well-fed resident piranhas won't bother you and the crocodilelike caimans are off hunting on the shore. At night you can take a spotlightequipped boat out to safely observe some caimans up close-close enough for flash pictures.

Night falls fast in the tropics, and on the lake the darkness is unforgettable: the galaxies spin overhead, glow worms appear and disappear at your feet, and the air is full of the music of insects, birds, and frogs.

Piranha Lake: the end of the world From Limoncocha, the six-day trip takes you, again by boat and dugout, to Panayacu and ultimately a new jungle camp at Panacocha (Piranha Lake). Though the site is remote-this unpopulated jungle has never been cut or farmed-the camp has running water and showers.

Birds, monkeys, snakes, and many other jungle animals are commoner here than in most parts of the rain forest, but mammals are rare. Last spring we saw a tapir, coatimundi, and several kinds of monkeys; we found agouti and giant armadillo holes, and chased white-lipped peccaries through the forest.

At Panacocha, you'll sleep on comfortable hand-hewn beds under mosquito nets. A thatched roof keeps out the rain,

After nightfall, guides take you out to look for caimans and nighthawks, and at some point let the dugout drift quietly in the dark.

Then the jungle sounds take over: eerie but beautiful, loud without being raucous. You'll hear flute-like rhythms, weird tremolos, melodic rasping, even something like a loud, hollow dripping. Occasionally your guide may identify sounds for you, but mostly you have the experience to yourself. It's worth bringing a small tape recorder for this alone.

During the day, you cruise the rivers in the dugout, hike through virgin jungle, sample cinnamon from wild trees, fish for piranhas, swim, botanize, and bird-watch. Guides and naturalists teach what wild fruits you can eat and how the jaws of male surgeon ants can close cuts.

If you're a plant lover, spend time before your trip studying palms; they make up much of the jungle flora. There are also many bromeliads and orchids to look at. This tour ends with a long canoe trip back to the riverboat, then, after a cruise upriver, a flight or bus ride back to Quito. For costs, departure dates, trip details

Amazon jungle tours can vary mightily. The trip pictured here represents the more comfortable end of the scale. There are others for those who'd rather camp out, raft a whitewater river, or sleep in an Indian village and share native food. Some trips run year-round.

For more on the Flotel Orellana jungle tour, see a travel agent or write to Adventure Associates, 13150 Coit Rd., Suite 110, Dallas 75240. To find out about other rain-forest trips, write to Amazon Tours and Cruises, 1013 S. Central Ave., Glendale, Calif. 91204; Earth Quest, Box 1614, Flagstaff, Ariz. 86002; Mountain Travel, 1398 Solano Ave., Albany, Calif. 94706; Unique Adventures, 140 Geary St., Suite 900, San Francisco 94108; Wilderness Travel, 801 Allston Way, Berkeley 94710.
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Date:Nov 1, 1988
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