Passage Note #55: Part 1- The Oriente: Ecuadorian Amazon
“The Oriente is Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon Basin” (Lonely Planet).
Here waters from the Andes empty into the dense rainforest on their journey to the Atlantic Ocean. Enter it deeply and be prepared for unforgettable experiences of nature’s biodiversity and indigenous tribes.
We stayed in three different lodges, each with a different experience of the rainforest - one more remote (and more expensive) than the next: (1) Hakuna Matata, at the outer jungle edge yet still close to urban civilization, with its white-water rafting river and horseback riding adventures; (2) Yachana Lodge, further into the jungle on the Upper Rio Napo, recognized for its award winning geotourism and social projects benefitting the indigenous community; and (3) Napo Wildlife Center, very remote in the heart of the rainforest in Yasuni National Park along the Lower Rio Napo, where wildlife watching was supreme.
The Plight of the Amazon and Yasuni
Our ultimate desire was to get to Yasuni National Park, one of the Earth’s truly wild places and “arguably the most biologically diverse spot on Earth. The Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini region of Yasuni contains more species in a hectare than all the wildlife in North America.” It is the home to the Kichwa, Waorani, Cofan, and Shuar indigenous groups.
Unfortunately this important UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is also highly threatened because underlying its 3,800 square miles of rich ecosystems and wealth of flora and fauna lies another type of wealth - a goldmine of petroleum.....a goldmine that Ecuador can’t easily ignore since 50% of the country’s export earnings come from oil.
Perhaps you have heard of Ecuadorian President Correa’s creative initiative to crowdsource Yasuni’s preservation and protection? In 2007 Correa appealed to the world at the United Nations with a clever challenge: raise $3.6 billion in donations to compensate Ecuador for not drilling in Yasuni and leaving 846 million barrels of oil in the ground; the Park’s amazing biodiversity would be preserved, 2 “no-contact” indigenous tribes would be able to continue their self-imposed isolated existence, and the release of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere - a global warming nightmare - would be avoided. The appeal failed miserably - even with celebrity support (from the likes of Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio); it raised less than 1% of its goal in 6 years. While we were traveling in Ecuador, the inevitable happened: the Correa government voted to begin petroleum extraction in Yasuni. This decision sparked protests from environmentalists and students throughout the country and was the subject of TV news for weeks.
The specter of the catastrophe of Lago Agrio in the Northern Oriente remains strong. Here oil extraction, pollution, and spills under the auspices of Texaco(Chevron) and Petroecuador (1964-1992) turned the area into a “crime against humanity” with the greatest oil-related disaster of all time; justifiable worries of environmental degradation and contamination persist even with today’s improved industry standards.
We wanted to get to the pristine jungle before it disappeared under the oil siege; endangered places are always high on our travel list.
Hacienda Hakuna Matata, Archidona
The town of Tena, on the western edge of the Amazon Basin (Napo Province), is in the transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon. At an altitude of about 2500 feet, it is disease and mosquito free. Divided by the Tena River, the town is a white river rafting mecca; the World Championships were held nearby in 2005.
Our first lodge, the lovely Hacienda Hakuna Matata in sleepy Archidona (10 km from Tena), is owned and operated by a warm Belgian couple. Rudy and Marcellina made us, Maureen, Buzz, and Vicki feel very welcome and right at home during our four day stay. The rooms and large bathrooms in the Lodge were very comfortable, the food was superb, and there was a palm-tree shaped swimming pool. It is quite reasonably priced as these expensive lodges go and had a full activity schedule for us.
The first afternoon the five of us rode horses through the river and forest that abuts their property. But the highlight for us was the adrenaline-filled day we went into Tena for our first river running adventure ever - down a 27 km. stretch of the Jatunyacu River (a part of the Upper Rio Napo meaning “big river” in kichwa) with Class III+ rapids. Our experienced guide had been one of the athletes that represented Ecuador in the World River Rafting Championships in 2005 while his son was the safety kayaker paddling alongside us in case of a capsize.
Unfortunately, as might be expected in close proximity to development, wildlife here was diminished and relatively minimal. Birdwatching was fair and Hakuna Matata had a frog nursery on the property. The only exotic wildlife we saw (toucans, capybara, tortoises, caimans, jaguars, and monkeys) was in a rehabilitation center called AmaZOOnico, on the River Arajuno. This was not the real thing but it afforded us an opportunity to see the animals up close and witness the sad consequences for victims of illegal animal trafficking.
Afterwards we had a nice walk in a primary forest with our native English-speaking guide. He spoke about the flora and fauna and how his people, indigenous Kichwa, use the jungle environment for shelter, food, medicine and survival. He showed us how the huge buttress of a ficus tree would be turned into a shelter for the night by nomadic hunters and climbed the tree in a flash using lianas (vines) as handholds. He gave us a lesson in jungle first aid showing us how to make a leaf bandage and how bullet ants, huge 1 1/2 inch black insects with a nasty bite (which we assiduously avoided any contact with), could be used as sutures if they were held by the abdomen and allowed to bite or pinch the wound; remove the body from its jaws and voila! instant stitches!
Yachana Lodge, Upper Napo River
Yachana Lodge was an intermediate stop reached after a 2 hour 4-wheel dirt road drive from Tena followed by a 2 hour motorized canoe ride down the Upper Napo River. Located near the small village of Mondaña, it was halfway between Tena (our first lodge), and the town of Coca, the jumpoff for our third lodge. It has a reputation as a world renown model of “geotourism that sustains environment, culture and its people at its finest”. The Yachana website painted the picture of a lovely place on the Napo River and extolled the many awards for its ecological bent and social programs, especially the Technical High School for indigenous youth funded with lodge income. It also offered a unique cooking class of jungle foods that appealed to Linda.
Our last stop on the day’s itinerary was at an indigenous village to learn how they pan for gold in the river (usually finding little flakes), make chocolate from cacao seeds (yummy and served with sweet finger bananas), weave hunting bags called shigras from palm fibers (painstaking process), and paint pottery with natural dyes (made from seeds, vegetation, and minerals).
On the fourth day we said goodbye to Maureen, Buzz and Vicki who returned to Bahia while we stayed one day in Tena to visit a butterfly farm before going deeper into the jungle experience.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to us - no, actually quite a shock - when our motorized canoe transport brought us to a different location than described on the website - at a newly constructed and relocated Yachana high on a bluff above the twisting river, and then learned that the associated secondary school for indigenous youth we had wanted to see had been closed. At least the cooking class was still on!
The new wood-sided metal-roofed cabins were spacious, each with a porch and hammocks to view the river stretching out below and away, now turning gold in the sunset. The beauty of the locale allowed us to ignore the fact that they were a little too close together with not much privacy, and only had cold water showers. We went with the flow and ended up with some unique personalized treatment.
The cooking class was a big hit! One afternoon we assembled in the main Lodge building where we ate - the chef had arranged all the ingredients for our meal on a table. There was sea salt, limes that had orange pulp, yuca, banana leaves, and tilapia fish. There was a fresh heart of palm shredded into strips called chonta. Just like tinned caviar and sardines, the canned version we buy in supermarkets tastes nothing like the real thing. The chef started out by asking Linda to open a folded banana leaf packet. Inside were a dozen large yellow wiggling beetle maggots as big as your thumb which the chef called “jungle bacon”. These are true delicacies in the Amazon. We watched him and the guide each pick one up and enthusiastically pop it in their mouths....raw and squirmy. “The head is the best part” said the chef. No doubt they were used to tourist reactions of repugnance as they smiled broadly while offering them to us to try. After the initial disgust wore off, we agreed to eat them - not raw, but cooked in a frying pan as per his suggested alternative. And he was right - they tasted just like yummy bacon and the head was the best part. The rest of our delicious meal - fish steamed in banana leaf with yuca side dish and chonta salad was pretty tame.
The high point of our Yachana stay was meeting the charismatic owner and person responsible for the vision of a better Amazonian world ....the indefatigable Douglas McMeekin. Originally from Kentucky, he had been in the Amazon for 28 years and had been recognized for his efforts as a prestigious Ashoka Fellow (Innovators for the Public). At age 72, Douglas’s energy and innovative ideas are unflagging. We came to learn that the old Yachana of website fame had recently been sold and that this, the new Yachana, was being built with the income from the sale as well as his new community venture in the works. Sadly, the secondary school had been closed because it had gotten too successful for its own good - the Ecuadorian government wanted to impose its traditional educational standards which Douglas thought would ruin its efficacy. Indeed, most of the guides we met throughout our three-lodge journey had been educated there.
Instead, Douglas took us on a personal tour of his new facility under construction - an adult education center for food preparation to train employable new chefs for the outside world of restaurants but who could also stay and produce bread and baked goods to supply the area tourist lodges. He had creatively procured state-of-the-art equipment and ovens and it was quite an anomaly to see such a professional bakery in the middle of the jungle. In addition there was a top notch carpentry shop making doors and furniture for Yachana and other lodges. His dream included a conference center with lodging for meetings and students as well..... and other innovative ideas for a solar laundry and septic system.
On the way back our guide fulfilled another of our requests: we wanted to see how the mayones or beetle grubs we had eaten in the cooking class were collected. We stopped at a farmer’s house and found him in the back cultivated area of his property. He took us to some sections of fallen chonta palm trunks lying on the ground. The chonta palm is a hardwood tree that is a staple for the Kichwa who use every part of it - from the tender delicious “heart of palm” to the fronds for roofing and fiber, to the trunk for building material. When a tree is felled, they often leave a short section of the trunk lying on the ground for the beetles to lay their eggs in. He tapped the length of the trunk with his ax, listening for just the right sound of a hollow cavity. He split the trunk open at the precise place: there were two big wiggly beetle larvae munching away inside. He picked them up and gave them to us as a gift - - which we promptly gave to our excited escort who waited until we returned to the Lodge to eat the squirming treats.
Douglas told us of another project he was involved in called the Jungle Bank. Kichwa farmers could transfer 10% of their rainforest land into a “land bank” which would not be farmed but remain as jungle in return for no or low interest loans. When we told him of the successful social tourism loan program called En Via in Oaxaca, Mexico and asked if we could meet with some loan recipients to talk to them about the Jungle Bank, Douglas got excited about this potential new funding source. He arranged a meeting but unfortunately couldn’t accompany us himself. We went to a local Kichwa community and met with two leaders of the program and a recipient who used her loan for school expenses.
One day Chuck stayed behind for some RandR while Linda went with our guide and a small group to visit a local Kichwa family to see how they lived. It was a small compound not far from the river bank consisting of three wooden buildings for the extended family. Their living areas were elevated on stilts while domesticated animals (pigs, chickens, dogs) lived below; they had a small solar panel for electricity supplied by a government program. The matriarch invited us to her garden of yuca and cacao plants and showed us how they plant and harvest them.
We then followed her daughter and granddaughter up the wooden stairs into the common family room to watch her make chicha, the ubiquitous Amazon drink. The twenty-something daughter sat over a huge wooden bowl on the floor and grated yuca root with a jungle grater made from the bark of a very thorny tree; it is then boiled, pounded, liquified, mixed with water and left to ferment (the longer it ferments the more alcoholic it gets). Her 5 year old daughter snacked on the shredded white substance, helping herself to handfuls as her mother pounded. From a large gourd in the corner of the room, next to a TV showing a telenovela or soap opera (!!!), a bowlful of the milky liquid was poured and passed around. It tasted sour and not at all appetizing to our tastebuds. But here is the scoop about how the REAL stuff is made - not the tourist kind given to us. The REAL chicha is masticated by the women (women only) rather than pounded and therefore each batch has a unique taste imparted by a woman’s saliva (just like kava in the South Pacific). It is said that you can tell who made the chicha by its distinctive flavor and good tasting chicha is a highly prized commodity from a very desirable woman. Nasty tasting chicha is a bad omen; that woman will never find a husband. There were stories of tourists trying the real stuff and getting sick but it was attributed to the quality of the water added to it, not the saliva.
Outside the house, the guide showed us how to throw a long hunting spear and use the blow gun with its (normally curare-poison tipped) wooden arrows packed into the tube of the “gun” with a bit of kapok cotton. “Be sure to inhale before you put it to your lips” he laughingly warned us. With a swift exhale, the arrow found its mark. We all had a go at it with a papaya target - not so easy for the gringos. We were hoping to participate in a cleansing ceremony by the patriarch of the family who was a shaman but he was away on a hunting trip.
In the evening we went on a night walk - a great time to see strange insects. As well as having an incredible number of diverse insect species, the Amazon seems to supersize them - spiders, grasshoppers, tarantulas, scorpions. We saw some owls, night monkeys and big toads.
We had two full wonderful days in Yachana and waved goodbye to Douglas on the bank of the Napo as we boarded our wooden cayuca for the next leg of our trip yet further downriver to Yasuni National Park.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #55