All right, so Maquipucuna Reserve is definitely on my top-ten list of things to do if you ever come to Ecuador. There is an eco-lodge here, started about 18 years ago, to help pay for and protect the large area of undisturbed cloud forest that is the reserve. Its beautiful - the lodge is made of sustainably-harvested bamboo, with palm-thatch roofing. Dont worry, it doesnt leak - it absolutely poured for a good two hours during the afternoon when we arrived and I remained completely dry... at least as long as I stayed inside. The main building of the lodge is entirely open to the forest except for the bedrooms, and hammocks are hung in every available corner to allow for some proper lounging. Im not sure Ive ever seen a place so beautiful in its design. You enter the lodge area by crossing over a bridge, which offers some great views up and down the river, some of which you can see on the photos page. The lodge also grows its own organic, fair-trade, sustainable coffee in a small part of the forest that was disturbed before they got there - really good stuff; I think its the only coffee Ive ever had that didnt give me a stomache ache. Enough about the Lodge, though - that was really meant to be a side-note. The first day we went to the reserve we actually did some work taking samples of the biodiversity in the river and comparing levels across different microclimates, which Im sure sounds absolutely *fascinating* to all of you, so Ill shut up about it now. More importantly, after we finished sampling, we all took off in different directions to hike up the river and go exploring. So, Im tramping through the river in my Wellies, mostly sticking to mid-calf high water, but that wasnt particularly fun, so I eventually I gave up, took off my boots, left em on the bank, and plunged in. This was how I discovered that my pants were less quick-dry and more water-repellent. I swear to you, I spent a good 30 minutes tramping under water and my pants were barely damp when I came back out. Modern technology is awesome. Im rambling again, though - what I really wanted to tell you about this river hike was that I forged my way upstream until I could no longer hear people behind me, and suddenly, it was like the river came alive. I started hearing whistling in the distance, and for a moment thought it was my professor trying to call us all back, but then the whistling was answered from the opposite direction and I realized it was bird calls. Ive never been anywhere so peaceful. Eventually I came to my senses and realized that I should start heading back, so I started to turn around on the boulder upon which I was standing and promptly fell back on my butt in the water, and there went all my hard work to keep my T-shirt dry, but it was still totally worth it. After we got back and had lunch at the lodge we set out on a hike through the forest. Our guide was great, too - really knowledgable, but also funny. He would seem to stop at random along the trail and start pointing out random plants. At one point, he picked the stem of a plant and started cutting it up as we walked along, and when he had a sufficient number of pieces, he passed them around and encouraged us to eat them. Not one to stick things in my mouth if I dont know where theyve been, I asked him what it was. Without missing a beat, he smiled and said Cocaine. .... Well, it wasnt cocaine, it was some species of flower that I cant remember the name of, and it is apparently quite good at treating diabetes. Also rather tasty. At another point, he stopped, grabbed what I thought was a large nut off the ground, pulled it open (it wasnt a nut, it was a seed pod), and started mixing up the seeds with a small stick. He then smiles, comes over to me, and before I know what hes doing, hes smearing red goop from inside the fruit onto my face. Hence, the red whiskers you may have noticed on me in some of my pictures. The seed pod belongs to a plant known as Achiote, and it is commonly used as a dye among indigenous groups of the area. That night, after a delicious meal and a second opportunity to swim in the river, we got to hear about the reserve from the young Ecuadorian who currently runs it, which is where I got most of the information I provided you at the beginning of this post. More important, I learned something that I think more people need to be made aware of. The man started talking to us about conservation, and conservation on a global scale, which largely traces back to food production, and he brought up the fact that there is no official certification for sustainable practices. There are certifications for being organic, and for being fair-trade, but there is no oversight for people claiming to produce items sustainably, despite what any number of companies might claim. Furthermore, organic practices are difficult to profit from, so rather than subsidizing organic farmers, or taking some action to reward better ecological practices, governments are siding with big business by lowering the standards for what we can call organic methods. You can try to go green all you want, but not without doing your research first, because half the things you pick off the shelf at Albertsons or even your local health food store that claim to be organic, really arent. But yeah, Ill get off my soap-box now. The next day was one massive hike, and we went through amazing places and saw incredible things, but nothing was cooler than what we walked on. The trail was used by pre-Incan indigenous groups to get to the coast, and later on smugglers... and if my Spanish was correct, they were smuggling alcohol--actually, a particular kind of alcohol known as Canelazo, a delicious fruity drink served hot, and now an Ecuadorian tradition. The trails were so old, and so well-worn, that they had been dug into the ground like person-deep ruts. The earth rose up on either side of you and together with the trees, nearly blocked out the sky. The air was thick with water and the smell of wet soil that filled my nose and didnt leave for days, even after Id returned to the smog of the city. Eventually, the trail ended at a river, but the hike did not. Once again we stripped ourselves of our rubber boots and clambered into the water, slowly pushing our way upstream as small rocks accosted the soles of our feet and tripped us up. The end was worth it, though - I turned a bend in the river and found myself facing a waterfall, which flowed out over a massive flat slate of rock that jutted out above me, parting the water into two flows, like curtains on either side of a window. In the gap formed you could clamber up the wet boulders, fighting the current of the water at every step, searching for toeholds blindly, and tuck yourself away underneath the rock, where the sound of the crashing water was oppressive and awoke a fear in me Ive never felt before - I was suddenly aware of the weight of the boulder above me, and the force of the water crashing around on all sides, and a small scared thing inside me said that one day this rock would fall. One day, maybe today, maybe right in this instant while Im underneath it, the river is going to win, and this boulder will fall. The realization was so sudden and so certain that I all but dove back into the water, barely keeping my senses enough to slow down and push myself out into the river, away from where the falls would drag me under and hold me there. Ive never been taken over by fear like that before, although of course in the past I have been afraid. Once away from the roar of the water, the space under the falls was just as enticing and exhilarating as it had been when I first saw it, and perhaps if we had stayed longer I might have ventured back up into the cavern, but we left before I got the chance. The strength of the feeling it evoked, however, I doubt will ever entirely leave me. Its my strongest memory of this trip so far.