Adventure vacation Guide 2012: Ecuador

Most Norteamericanos are hard-pressed to locate Ecuador on the map. Those familiar with this South American country the size of Colorado usually associate it with the (admittedly) spectacular Galapagos Islands. Yet Ecuador has so much more offer besides the Galapagos, and 2012 is the year to get your hardcore on. Why? Because the country’s adventure travel industry is blowing up–but it’s still affordable, especially if you opt for independent travel or book certain activities through domestic outfitters or U.S. travel companies that work directly with Ecuadorean guides.

Whatever your recreational interests, budget, or experience, odds are Ecuador has it: mountaineering, glacier climbing, and volcano bagging; trekking on foot or horseback; Class III to VI whitewater kayaking and rafting; sea kayaking, scuba diving, and snorkeling; surfing; remote jungle lodges and endemic wildlife, and agritourism. Need more convincing? Ecuador’s adventure tourism increasingly has an emphasis on sustainability. When it comes to protecting its fragile ecosystem and indigenous communities, Ecuador has become quite progressive for a developing nation, which hasn’t always been the case.

If you like a cultural or culinary component to your travels, there’s that, too. You can opt for an active, educational trip to indigenous-owned and -operated Amazonian eco-lodges, or play in the Pacific regions, which retain a strong Afro-Ecuadorean influence.

Agritourism is also hot in Ecuador, most notably at centuries-old haciendas, although there are also coffee and cacao plantation tours. Ecuadorean food is a diverse melding of indigenous and outside ethnic influences that’s regionally influenced: be sure to patronize markets, roadside restaurants, and street food stalls for some of the most memorable eats.

[flickr image via Rinaldo W]

How to choose a great dude or guest ranch

Hang on, I need to get something out of the way. “City Slickers.” Okay, now that the inevitable has been mentioned, we can move on. Guest ranches–also known as dude ranches–are an excellent choice for a family vacation, regardless of season. Even if it’s just two of you, many ranches cater to couples, ensuring you of an active and romantic holiday.

The guest ranch tradition was established in the Western states as early as the late 19th century. They grew in popularity after the first World War, when advances in technology and the era of the automobile sparked nostalgia for the “Old West” way of life and legendary hospitality. It was also around this time that “dude” ranches spread to the eastern U.S..

While some ranches were and are dedicated to serving tourists, many are working ranches that host guests as a means of supplemental income. My dad worked as a wrangler at one such spread in northern Colorado in the mid-1950’s, when he was putting himself through vet school. Then called UT Bar Ranch, it’s now the Laramie River Ranch, and Colorado’s “newest old dude ranch.” I spent a very enjoyable week there with my extended family for my parents’ 50th anniversary five years ago.

It was the first time I’d stayed long enough at a guest ranch to really get the full experience. Even though I grew up on a ranch, I still love being immersed in the Western lifestyle and participating in ranch activities such as cattle and horse gatherings, trail rides, feeding and care of livestock, and barbecues. When kayaking, canoeing, fishing, hiking, nordic skiing or snowshoeing, horsemanship clinics, mustang/wildlife viewing, pack trips, or even yoga are thrown into the mix, a ranch stay can become a diverse holiday adventure, and you don’t need previous riding experience.

After the jump, tips on how to ensure you choose the right property and get the most out of your guest ranch experience.

%Gallery-128529%Find an online resource provides a listing of various national and international dude and guest ranch organizations, as well as state associations for Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, and Wyoming. It also describes the strict criteria required for membership. The Dude Rancher’s Association site is helpful for both potential guests and those in the industry.

Another excellent site is Top 50 Ranches, which is “dedicated to showcasing some of the most breathtaking, authentic, and luxurious [international] ranch destinations.” It also allows you to input dates, destination, and other info, highlights special-interest packages, and offers helpful articles and tips, such as what clothes to pack. American Cowboy’s website has archived features on specific properties, as well as their picks for the best guest ranches, and Writing Horseback has similar content.

Authenticity factor
There’s are all kinds of guest ranches out there, from the hokey, git-along-lil’-doggies, tenderfoot tourist mills (this is just a personal quirk, but I tend to think of these places as “dude,” rather than guest ranches, although that’s not necessarily true).

Some ranches are luxury properties (and may in fact be members of boutique hotel or high-end property organizations such as Relais & Chateaux), while others are very family-oriented, with rustic cabins. Many are working ranches, raising cattle or breeding horses. I strongly recommend the latter, for the most authentic, rewarding experience.

Plan ahead
Guest ranches often book up to a year or more in advance. Plan accordingly.

How long do you plan to stay?
Most guest ranches offer a standard week-long program, says the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association (CDGRA). To get the most out of your visit, you’ll really need that amount of time. Some ranches do, however, offer weekend packages.

Ranch capacity
Depending upon where you stay, you might find yourself in the company of only a handful of other people or a hundred. If you’re looking for a quiet or kid-free holiday, be sure to take capacity into account during your research.

Are you looking for luxury or a rustic, refurbished historic cabin? Main house or separate building? Full-on Old West decor, or something a bit more modern or genteel? Mountains or desert? Tipi or luxury safari tent?

Whatever your preference, you’ll find it: Family-style, communal, formal, menu options or no, traditional Western cuisine, kid’s menus, cookouts. Some properties, such as Colorado’s Dunton Hot Springs and The Home Ranch, or Montana’s The Resort at Paws Up are justly famous for their food, made with locally-sourced ingredients. Policies differ on alcohol, as well: be sure to ask whether it’s included, or if you need to BYO.

When to go
The best thing about guest ranches is that most operate year-round. It’s hard to beat summer in the Rockies, but you may want to consider visiting in the early fall, when the aspens are changing color. Winter allows you to ride horseback in the snow and engage in traditional winter sports, or you can head to parts of the Southwest or California where the climate is mild. Depending upon where you want to go, spring is the only time I’d suggest you think twice about, because “mud season” can be a logistical pain, and blizzards well into April aren’t uncommon.

Activities and special packages
From traditional wrangling work–gathering cattle, roping, and caring for livestock–a ranch vacation revolves around horses and riding. If horses aren’t your thing, this is the wrong type of vacation for you. That said, you don’t have to ride, but you’d be missing out on a key part of the ranch experience. But there are all manner of outdoor activities offered by ranches. If paddling is your primary interest, look for a ranch on or near a river known for its whitewater. Ditto fly-fishing.

Many ranches offer specialty packages; Central California’s Alisal Ranch, for example, hosts a four-day “BBQ Bootcamp” where guests learn how to master the grill from local experts, and enjoy a traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue.

Kid/teen programs
Most ranches are very family-oriented, and I can’t think of a better–or healthier–vacation for kids. Be aware that every ranch has a different age policy, and not all offer kid’s programs or babysitting. You’ll also want to check on minimum age requirements for independent riding.

Level of horsemanship ranch caters to/Can you bring your own horse?
It may sound counter-intuitive to bring your own horse, but if you’re an experienced rider, you may have a more fulfilling holiday and equestrian experience on your own mount (be sure to get referrals, first, to ensure your animal’s health and safety).

Some ranches hold horsemanship clinics, which are as much about educating the animal as the rider. If you’re just planning to pleasure ride but are an experienced equestrian, there are many ranches that breed and train their own animals and emphasize natural horsemanship and the cowboy way of life. Regardless of your skill level, you should always ask detailed questions about instruction, safety policies, how the ranch goes about pairing horses and riders, and their horsemanship philosophy. A poorly-trained mount or injury can really take the fun out of your holiday.

Handicap accessibility
Not all properties have it. Do note that some ranches offer riding programs for those with disabilities.

Phone, wifi, and internet access
Many ranches seek to provide guests with a complete escape from the stresses of modern life. If you can’t live without your cell or computer, rest assured there’s a property that can accommodate your needs.

Pack appropriately
A good ranch will always provide you with a packing list, but you can definitely leave your fancy duds at home. If you don’t own a pair of riding boots or other heavy-duty shoe with a heel, get some (you can find an inexpensive used pair at a consignment or vintage store). These are essential for safe horseback riding, so your foot doesn’t get hung up in a stirrup.

Proximity to a major medical faciilty
If this is a concern for you, definitely bring it up in your initial conversation. Many ranches are located in isolated rural areas.

Cancellation policies
Ask what they are.

Spotting wolves in Yellowstone

America’s first national park may still be its best when it comes to wildlife viewing. Yellowstone is home to the greatest concentration of animals in the lower 48 states, offering ample opportunities to see a wide variety of species, including elk, bison, sheep, and even bear, in their natural habitats. But the park is also home to a number of unique, and distinct, wolf packs as well, and visitors come from all over the world with the hope of catching a glimpse of these mysterious and elusive animals in the wild.

I recently traveled to the park myself, and had a rare opportunity to go wolf spotting with Ranger Rick McIntyre, a man who knows more about the wolves of Yellowstone than anyone else on the planet. McIntyre tirelessly tracks the various packs, not only recording their movement and feeding habits, but more intimate details such as changes in leadership, mating habits, and other behavioral patterns as well. In fact, he watches them so closely, he can usually identify the individual wolves by sight and give you a brief history of each animal too. McIntyre is a man who has dedicated his life to observing the wolves, and admits that he spends an average of 11 hours a day, seven days a week, in Yellowstone following the creatures that he loves so much. His dedication to the job runs so deep, that he hasn’t taken a single day off in over ten years.

Listening to Rick talk about the wolves is like listening to a master storyteller weaving an epic tale filled with passion, love, tragedy and triumph. He identifies the key players by their officially assigned numbers, but breathes life into the central characters, giving them motivations and desires to the extent that you’ll forget that you’re talking about wild animals instead of the Montagues and Capulets.

While spotting wolves can be a challenging and difficult affair, McIntyre makes it seem easy. It doesn’t hurt that he has the radio frequencies for the various tracking collars worn by a number of females in the various packs, not to mention the high tech gear used to detect the presence of those signals. While I was with him however, he wasn’t picking up much of a signal at all, picking up just very feint, and distant pings. But rather than give up and move on to another area of the park, he simply shrugged his shoulders, set up his powerful spotting scope, and aimed it at a distant hill. Peering through the powerful lens for a moment, and without adjusting it a single millimeter, he stood up and cheerfully asked “who wants to see a wolf?”
For the next 20 minutes or so, Rick, myself and several other travelers took turns watching members of the Blacktail Pack, so named because they live in the Blacktail Plateau region of Yellowstone, as they took shelter along a ridgeline. The wind was cold and biting that day, and for the most part, the wolves stayed low and huddled close to one another. At times however, a large, black wolf, which McIntyre identified as the beta female, would rise up and walk the perimeter, keeping a wary eye out for intruders. Even at the distance that we were watching them from, the profiles of the animals were distinct and unmistakable, and it was a sublime experience to catch them in their natural state while their biggest advocate in the park shared their secrets.

There was a time when wolves in the Yellowstone region were a common sight, but because the intelligent and well organized predators were so good at hunting their prey, they often ran afoul with local ranchers and other residents. It was not uncommon for wolves to kill cattle or sheep, which did little to endear them to the humans that they shared the landscape with. Because of this natural rivalry, wolves were generally shot on sight, and were eventually hunted to near extinction. By the early 20th century, they were a rare site in the American west, and completely non-existent in Yellowstone itself.

In 1995, 70 years after the last wolf has been spotted in the park, a controversial plan was announced to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone. Experts saw them as vital to managing the overall health of the park’s ecosystem, which had seen its elk herds grow to record numbers, unchecked by any natural predators. Meanwhile opponents to the plan feared that the wolves would wander out of the park and once again raid the livestock of ranchers. It turns out both parties were right, as the reintroduction of the wolves helped to thin the herds and make them stronger overall, but the number of run-ins between man and wolf also rose as well. The presence of the wolves in the region remains a point of contention, as ranchers along the Yellowstone perimeter, and beyond, would like to have the option of shooting the wolves that prey upon their livestock, something that isn’t possible while the creatures remain on the endangered species list.

For Rick McIntyre, and the other wolf specialists in Yellowstone, those political issues are off their radar. Their only concern is studying and managing the wolf packs under their care and ensuring that they continue to play their necessary role in keeping the park’s ecology healthy and strong. McIntyre wouldn’t comment on anything related to wolves that weren’t in the park, and deftly evaded the potential minefield that discussions of those predators inevitably bring. Instead, he prefers to focus on the wolves that he knows so very well, and sharing his insights into their lives.

Tracking the various wolf packs of Yellowstone is quite a job, as they are regularly on the move and prefer to stay well hidden from prying eyes. They all have their own territories however, which helps to define their locations to a degree, so if you are traveling through Yellowstone, it is worth the time and effort to see if you can spot them in the wild. Be sure to bring a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope of your own, and checking in with any of the rangers in the park can usually offer valuable tips on the best spots to catch a glimpse of the creatures. Keep an eye out for the “wolfman” himself, Rick McIntyre, as he is usually driving a distinct yellow Nissan Xterra, and is always willing to offer great tips on where to look.

When it was established back in 1872, Yellowstone was the world’s first national park. Now, nearly 140 years later, it continues to offer a host of natural wonders for all of us to marvel at, including the wolf packs that have once again taken their rightful place amongst the wildlife there.