“If we’ve been given two uncommon gifts—our existence and our planet, which we’ve abused with gusto, as though earthlike jewels are as common as new cars in a showroom—shouldn’t we treasure them? Shouldn’t we revel in our time on this minuscule, miraculous world?”

The Santa Lucia cloudforest is one of the world’s most diverse areas, home to 394 species of birds, thousands of species of plants, and 45 species of mammals. I volunteered through Earthwatch, collecting data as scientists studied the effects of climate change on animals and vegetation. One activity involved tracking puma and spectacled bear populations with camera traps: you can learn more about those continuing efforts—and see images—through the British organization Rainforest Concern. For more info on Santa Lucia and the amazing Andes lodge where we stayed, which is accessible only by a two-hour hike (and yes, my panting was louder than any of the 394 bird species), check out this site.

Photo Gallery

I spent a day in Quito, as you’ll see here, then traveled with my fellow volunteers to the lodge in the Santa Lucia cloudforest, which is home to an impressive array of mountain scenery. See the shot of me with the magnifying glass? I’m examining the innards of a bromeliad to document what’s living inside. My best find: a scorpion.