Kate Siber treks into the jungle of Ecuador to spend four days at an ecolodge run by the Huaorani tribe.
By Kate Siber
From the window of a van, during a four-hour drive south from Quito to Shell, Ecuador, I watch what seems like several countries roll by. In small towns, mere jumbles of concrete houses, women dressed in colorful shawls and dark Andean hats carry bundles of thatch on their backs. Beyond the towns, Andean volcanoes rise up to over 16,000 feet in halos of clouds and snow. Farther south, the peaks soften to hillsides patched with fields, which then plunge into the steamy, jungle-choked interior, where farmers sell oranges by the side of the road and beautiful dark-haired women stir steaming pots in restaurant windows.
We arrive at a one-room aviation club in Shell, a speck of a town, and, soon after, take flight in a six-seat Cessna. Chartreuse squares of farmland quickly dissolve into a verdant carpet that stretches to the horizon. Rivers the color of milky coffee sneak beneath gorges then plow through the forest. On the horizon, a bank of clouds tumbles to the ground amidst a downpour.
After 40 minutes, the pilot dives and banks hard left. Skimming over the forest canopy, we were close enough to spot monkeys if we weren't moving so swiftly. Just as it seems we'll crash into the tangled jungle, the trees part to reveal a tiny dirt airstrip. We land in a metallic clamor and splash through a pond-sized puddle before coming to an abrupt halt. Unfolding ourselves from the cabin, we emerge into the soupy heat to find two dozen indigenous Amazonians surrounding the plane—women with babies in palm-leaf slings, wide-brown-eyed children, and toothless old men. They all stare and grin at us, such rare curiosities.
Meeting the Huaorani people is exactly what brought us here. My group consists of four travelers—an expat Brit living in Costa Rica, two business partners from San Diego, and myself—and a bilingual guide named Jorge. We are on our way to the Huaorani Ecolodge, an outpost that officially opened in January 2008. It is so hidden in Ecuador's swath of Amazon Rainforest that it takes nearly a day by car, plane, and dugout canoe to get there.
Famed as fearsome warriors in the past, the Huaorani resisted contact by Westerners through the mid-20th century. Two clans still shun Westerners and guard their villages fiercely from any visitors, including other clans. Most of the 3,000 Huaorani inhabit a 1.7-million-acre parcel of land, the largest tract set aside for any of Ecuador's indigenous peoples. They live a peaceful existence, practicing subsistence hunting, gathering, and agriculture in relative isolation.
But it's hard to maintain an isolated, peaceful existence when sitting atop a treasure trove of resources, including Ecuador's largest oil reserve and large swaths of valuable tropical hardwood trees. And oil companies, loggers, and missionaries have all negatively affected the Huaorani's way of life. Finally, in the late '90s, five villages came together to build a tiny ecolodge to help sustainably support themselves and raise awareness of their rare and fragile culture. The tribe runs the lodge entirely, though a Quito-based sustainable-travel company named Tropic Eco helps market and arrange trips. They have received funding from several NGOs, and a non-profit called Rainforest Alliance has helped train staff members.
After our arrival, Moi, a Huaorani community leader and guide, offers us fresh, warm juice made from naranjilla, a native plant that tastes slightly sweeter than an orange. Moi wears palm-leaf sashes and a headband made of red feathers. His missing teeth somehow make him look wiser, as if he had traded them for life experience, and the enormous scars on his bare chest suggest a lifetime of adventures.
We follow Moi through the tall grasses down to the river where Tewa, a canoeist, is waiting with a 25-foot-long dugout canoe carved from a single tropical cedar tree. The Shiropuno River is the Huaorani's highway, though far more pleasant than the average interstate. Barely as wide as an Olympic pool in many parts, it can rise 20 feet in one night when rains surge down from the Andes. As Moi and Tewa punt, we glide silently along, listening to the hum of insects and the twitters of tiny birds. We watch riverside trees with enormous sprawling branches compete for sunlight, spot exotic birds like lipstick-red tanagers, and contemplate the prehistoric-looking fish that lurk in the mocha waters at our elbows: catfish relatives, piranhas, eels, and freshwater rays.
After about an hour canoe ride from the airstrip, we arrive at the ecolodge—a dining hall, kitchen, open-air hammock house, and five guest cabins consisting of screened tents stretched between wooden poles and traditional thatch. Each has a cold-water bathroom, solar-powered lights, biodegradable soaps and shampoos, and a hardwood front porch. Wrapped in screen, they offer ideal spots to fall asleep to the foreign and wondrous sounds of the forest—the pops of the toads, the chirps of the nocturnal insects.
The next morning, we lounge about while Moi paints our faces with charcoal, which he says is a sign that we're ready for a party. the question remained: Who is going to see us? The lodge is a six-hour canoe ride from the nearest town.
"For nomadic societies, time is not an issue," says Jorge, explaining why things seem to happen in no particular rush here. "You worry about today because you don't know what happens tomorrow." Time and numbers are measured relatively here, rather than by any standards.
While Moi, shirtless with Western shorts and Wellington boots for the mud, leads us along a rough, root-infested trail—part of a network of over ten miles of trails the Huaorani built for visitors—he shows us that he has uses for what seems like every plant. He fashions headbands out of palms and cross-like charms from leaves to drop along the trail and deflect evil spirits that might be following us. In the eerie morning fog, I imagine the strange creatures or spirits this forest might hold. We spot signs of jaguarundi, tapir, and anteater, and Jorge says that even capybaras, the world's largest rodents, lurk here.
The Huaorani still use blowpipes to hunt for food, and Moi carries his eight-foot-long pipe and arrows, made of thin strands of palm, through the bush in order to teach us how to use them. He prepares an arrow by wrapping a piece of wispy cotton, taken from the seed of a local kapok tree, around it and etching a line with the teeth of a piranha jaw to prevent it from falling out of his target. He loads the pipe, formed by two long hollow pieces of wood and wrapped in thatch, lifts it with one hand, and blows, hitting the leaf target he had set with a decided thwack. When I try, I can barely lift the long plank, let alone stare down its dime-sized hole to aim it. By sheer luck, my arrow narrowly misses the target.
While Moi's lessons in rainforest survival are fascinating—and show us how utterly ill-equipped we are to survive here—so too are the natural wonders the rainforest harbors. We come across a villainous strangler fig tree that killed its host tree by burying it in roots before growing to the width of a city bus. Another tree lives symbiotically with lemon ants, which actually do taste lemony, attests Jorge, after popping the squirmy bugs into his mouth. The ants emit a fume that kills nearby competing plants, forming a clearing underneath the tree's canopy. We come across toucans flitting between branches, a vulture peering down at us from a tree limb, and even a six-foot-long giant river otter, of which there are only a few thousand left in the wild globally. Come evening, the forest turns charcoal-black beyond the focused beam of our headlamps. Somehow, in the thick, black oblivion, Moi and Jorge spot a caiman by its glowing eyes, monkeys swinging in the trees above, and freshwater crabs skittering through the muddy puddles we hop over.
The next day, we make our way down the river, stopping at tiny Huaorani villages where some of the women and children still wear tree-bark dresses. Here, life is messy. Shoes are rare and residents think nothing of walking barefoot through inches of mud. At one village, half-dressed children stand on shore with wide, curious eyes as we pull up in the canoe and stumble up the muddy slope. The village consists of little more than a couple of thatched-roof huts and a covered porch with a hammock.
One middle-aged woman with bright eyes and a constant, bemused smile greets me with hugs and non-stop chatter—none of which I understand. Her name, she makes clear, is Bebantoque, and as the matriarch of the group, she invites me to participate in a traditional dance. She grabs my hand and a pint-sized girl in nothing but underwear grabs the other, while the other village women line up. We walk back and forth while they chant a haunting, rhythmic melody.
It isn't until the following day, however, that I really begin to understand the Huaorani's alternative concept of time. Around dawn, we arise and hike along a trail that leads over steep hillsides, using ropes to lower ourselves down into a small, hidden gorge. There, a 70-foot waterfall tumbles over a cliff into a rock-rimmed pool lined with long swinging vines. I strip to my bathing suit and dive in. The water is a tonic under the weight of the humid rainforest air. I float on my back, listening only to the pound of the water hitting the surface of the pool, and forget about time altogether. It's as though this forest has been here forever.
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