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ARASHÁ RESORT: JOINING THE TRIBE
Text and Photos by Carla D'Nan Bass

Spending hours glued to a hard-bottomed canoe to spot one jungle bird isn't for everyone, but I thought that taking my middle-aged parents on a tour of the Ecuadorian Amazon would reawaken their sense of adventure.

As we zoomed deeper into the jungle along the Río Coca in an outboard-motor-powered canoe, rain and bugs smacking us in the face, my mother -- a petite, high school home economics teacher -- said, "Well, I guess I better forget about fixing my hair here."

I finally realized that maybe Mom wasn't going to dig picking leeches off her rubber boots. But the next time she ventures to my adopted homeland, I'll know where to take her. Now there is a spot in Ecuador's tropical forests where tourists can not only fix their hair, but also have their feet rubbed, get a facial and relax with an aromatherapy treatment - no malaria tablets needed.

The Arashá Rain Forest Resort and Spa may start opening up Ecuador's tropical areas to a new niche of tourists. It's located not in the dark heart of the Amazon, but in the cooler tropical forests just two hours by car from the capital city of Quito.

FROM BACKPACKS TO BACKRUBS

Tourism in this small Andean country has long been a bastion of backpackers proud to boast of their exploits in the rough. Travel-on-a-shoestring Lonely Planet guidebooks abound in battered backpacks while the more elegant Fodor's books are found in the handbags of tourists passing through the Quito airport to head to more expensive yacht tours in the Galápagos Islands.

Some tour operators are starting to look for ways to encourage affluent tourists to spend more time and money on the mainland. Arashá's owners saw a niche for tourists without the three to four days necessary to go to the Amazonian lodges or the desire for such a challenge.

Amazon jungle tours don't require tourists to be Survivor-contestant caliber at all - some are even fairly luxurious and provide gourmet food and hot water - but all require at least a few hours in a canoe, some desire to slosh through muddy trails and a strong mosquito repellant.

While Arashá marketing manager Jorge Cabezas admits that few people will come to Ecuador just to go to the spa, its location fits in well with tours to see other spots of interest in the country, such as the Indian markets in Otavalo or the coast. Arashá offers travelers a chance to see some of the country's tropical forests without a long trip or special gear. And while neither the flora nor fauna is as dense and exotic as in the Amazon, the palm-tree surrounded spa can help make up for that to all but the most die-hard naturalist traveler.

JOINING THE TRIBE

Which I thought I was. While not as extreme of some of my friends, in college I liked to think of myself as somewhat of a shoestring traveler, staying in low-budget hostels and eating whatever the locals did. I tried not to associate much with the Fodor's crowd, and I never thought about fixing my hair in the jungle. But since I've permanently moved to Ecuador, I noticed myself starting longingly at the Arashá sign every time we passed it on the road to stay in some dive on the beach.

My husband and I finally decided to splurge and stay at Arashá, "just to check it out for when my parents come to visit," I rationalized. I didn't tell any of my biologist friends - who consider anything more than a carp and a roll of recycled biodegradable toilet paper unnecessary luxuries and environmentally damaging - that I was going.

We drove up to the resort on a parking lot paved with the dried shells of African date palms, a local agricultural product. While waiting for a van to carry us and our luggage from the parking lot to the resort (so as to have less cars in the main area), my husband and I followed the "Mirador" sign down a short path to get an overview of the resort, which spreads across a small valley. That first impression is that of having found a lost tribe of interior decorators - 26 rustic yet elegant thatched-roof cabañas in sherbet shades blend with the vegetation and nestle naturally into the hillsides.

My feeble defenses were coming down fast - I caught myself wondering if there were hairdryers in the rooms.

No hairdryers, as it turned out, but there is electricity. The cabañas are split diagonally into two guest rooms with either two single beds or one double, decorated with distressed ceramic tile floors, carved Ecuadorian wooden furniture and decorations, bamboo architectural accents and painted ceilings with exposed wooden beams. Large windows and front porches let the laziest nature watchers observe hummingbirds and other small creatures from their rooms.

There are no radios, television or air conditioning - screened openings in the top of the cabañas let hot air escape while a ceiling fans provides all the needed ventilation. The average daily temperature is only 78 degrees. Each room does come equipped with a phone, but they are all cellular lines so expect to pay accordingly, especially for international calls.

Instead of heading first to the spa, we decided to ease more gradually into this life of leisure. We took a short walk down a self-guided path to where the resort has partially dammed a short length of the Río Negrito to form a small swimming area. Floating in the dark water, surrounded by dripping vegetation flowing down the ravine walls, it was hard to believe that we were just about two hours from the mountainous, chilly and polluted confines of Quito.

We decided to dry off during lunch, and joined several other Ecuadorian couples and families at the yellow-umbrella covered tables on a deck overlooking the pool. We noticed that most of the guests were Ecuadorians, not foreigners, a trend that we confirmed with some of the resort employees. Ecuadorians are quite family oriented, so expect to see children at all meals, in the pool and on expeditions. Especially on Sundays, some upper-class families - grandparents and nannies included -- drive from Quito just for the afternoon buffet.

The food prices are exorbitant by Ecuadorian standards, but inexpensive when compared with domestic spas. The menu - which offers mainly traditional Ecuadorian dishes with a gourmet twist - runs from $3 to $7 for most plates. Our meals for two always seemed to run between $15 and $20. Their head chef has had training in Switzerland, and the meals are worth the price.

Sated and starting to enjoy this guilty pleasure, we headed to the spa - a baby blue building on top of a hill. My husband had initially protested the idea of a facial, muttering something about real men not putting lotion on their face, but finally relented. I signed him up for the Padre Perfecto - Perfect Father - a $24 one-hour treatment that includes hydrotherapy (translation: a trip to the Jacuzzi), a back massage and men's facial. I opted for the two-hour Toque del Cielo - Touch of Heaven - for $35, which included again the Jacuzzi dip, full-body massage, facial and aromatherapy treatment (translation: being wrapped in scented, hot, wet towels). The spa offers basic but enjoyable services, with facials starting at $12.

ULTIMATE SACRIFICE

As I reposed on fresh white linens and let someone massage my back and shoulders with sandalwood-scented oil, I tried to focus on how this process was helping the tropical environment, sustainable community-based industries, the ozone layer and humanity in general. Despite my self-indulgent exaggeration, tourism industries such as this do help preserve what is left of virgin forests in this area. Unlike the Amazon, which receives a lot of press, these tropical forests have been virtually ignored until recently. Much of it has been destroyed by agriculture, which is also how most people in this region --- overwhelmingly poor both in numbers and degree - scrape out a living.

The 120-acres that Arashá occupies were saved only because of their unsuitability for farming - hills and valleys make planting difficult. The area that the cabañas take up is the only part that was previously cultivated in recent times. It's not a legitimate "eco-lodge" - there are no composting toilets or attempts to conserve much water or paper -- but it certainly has a lot less impact than a high-rise luxury hotel.

The owners of Arashá - ironically former and current petroleum executives -- are also working with a Quito-based non-profit foundation to buys some surrounding wilderness to both serve as a fauna buffer zone for the resort and to preserve the forest, said Arashá's Mr. Cabezas.

"The attraction of Arashá is nature," Mr. Cabezas said. "We have to preserve as much as possible."

Several other smaller lodges and tourism enterprises in this area are either slated to open soon or have just started up, creating the possibility for more local employment in the industry. Many of the headwaiters and managers at Arashá are actually from Quito, not the surrounding areas where there aren't many opportunities to learn good customer service techniques. But many of the helpers and apprentices do come from nearby towns and villages, so the resort is hoping to start developing its own local workers, Mr. Cabezas said.

KARAOKE FROGS

But our guide on a three-hour outing to a local river, the Río Caoní, was probably from the southern part of the Ecuador, judging from his accent. Henry Cárdenas pointed out different plants during the hike, such as the one with roots that glow in the dark at night. He was much more helpful and knowledgeable guides on other tours I have taken. He even swabbed alcohol from a first-aid kit on whelps that sprang up on my arm after I clumsily brushed against a toxic plant.

The resort also offers some tours that cost from $2 to $5 extra. A five-hour trip to a nearby lagoon include the park admission cost and a another tour takes guests through the entire process of making chocolate, from harvesting the locally-grown yellow cocoa fruits to eating a chocolate fondue.

After taking these tours, exhausted from so much relaxation, we expected to fall asleep to the sounds of frogs croaking. Instead, a moody Spanish love ballad sung in a croaky voice wafted through the air. It turns out that Arashá has its own small convention center, complete with a 129-person theater and karaoke machine, which seems to be a popular activity at Ecuadorian conventions. If you don't want to fall asleep to interpretations of the complete works of Ecuadorian crooner Julio Jaramillo, I suggest requesting a cabin far away from the convention center, at least on weekend nights.

But despite the late-night karaoke, I awoke the next morning convinced that staying on the beaten path once in a while in my travels might not hurt me. Arashá doesn't show the same type of ecological awareness as some of the greenest jungle lodges, but it also might provide introduce a new type of tourist and tourism dollars to the country.

And maybe my mother had a good idea - fixing my hair in the jungle was kind of nice.

 

If You Go

Arashá costs $55 a night plus 22 percent tax for double occupancy from Sunday to Thursday, and $68 plus tax Fridays and Saturdays. Contact the hotel at info@arasharesort.com or see more details at www.arasharesort.com. The Quito office is located at Av. De Los Shyris 3941 and Río Coca, Building Monte Carlo, 8th Floor. Call 593-2-265-757 or fax 593-2-260-992. The resort telephone is 593-9-820-183 and the telefax number is 593-9-8200-174. The rainy season runs from January to April or May.

To reach Arashá from Quito, buses from the Kennedy, Aloha and San Pedrito lines leave from the main bus station in Quito every hour from 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. A one-way ticket for the approximately two-and-half-hour trip costs about $2.50. The bus does not automatically stop at Arashá, located at kilometer 120, so inform the driver when you board. If you don't speak Spanish, find a friendly-looking bilingual tourist to do it for you. Keep your own eyes peeled for the resort's large sign to the left, because drivers sometimes forget to stop.

Taking a taxi from Quito is also an option, if you can find a cabby with four or five hours to spare. The one-way trip should cost between $25 and $35 - although some bargaining will be required. Establishing a fare ahead of time will be cheaper than using the taximeter.

If you have nerves of steel, arriving in a rental car is a risky possibility. Make sure to get an International Driving Permit from AAA before leaving home and watch out for the crater-like potholes, people walking in the road, cocoa and coffee beans drying on the edges of the highway and cows. (I was once stalled on this road for more than two hours by a parade of slow-marching school children.)

 
To celebrate the deal, Guide2Galapagos is offering Ecuadorial visitors an exclusive offer: Book a Luxury class yacht with them, and they'll give you THREE AIRPORT TRANSFERS FOR FREE; two for first class and one for tourist-superior. So, what are you waiting for? Check out their highly-informative site. Blue boobies, giant tortoises, sealions and marine iguanas are only a click or two away!

SMALL PRINT: On the request page, you must state you came from Ecuadorial to benefit from the airport transfer offer.
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