The Ecuadorian Amazon presents some of the world’s most praised ecolodges – and some of the most threatened rainforest. Three indigenous communities let us in
Stretching from the eastern flank of the Andes to the borders of Colombia and Peru, Ecuador’s Amazon – the Oriente – is one of the most biologically diverse areas on earth. Covering almost half the country, it’s home to only 5% of the population. And, today, the habitats and traditions of the Oriente’s small, remote communities of Amerindians – among them the Huaorani, Achuar, Cofán and Secoya – are under threat from oil companies, palm oil plantations and loggers.
Fortunately Ecuador is at the vanguard of ethno-tourism, with indigenous groups increasingly using ecolodges as an economic alternative to selling their land. Some of the Oriente’s ecolodges are joint ventures with outside companies, others are owned outright by the local tribes – but either way profits from tourism go directly back into the community.
The experiences on offer vary: you can go jungle-lite in an air-conditioned cabaña or sleep with nothing more than a mosquito net between you and the elements. From hiking and kayaking to bird watching, animal spotting, piranha fishing and learning to use a blowpipe, there’s something for wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, photographers and adventurers alike.
However you choose to do it, the rainforest is a delicious sensory overload. To experience it with an indigenous guide, and witness an ancient way of life that is fast disappearing, is unforgettable.
This award-winning ecolodge, part set up by the indigenous Huaorani, offers an unparalleled insight into the hunter-gatherer lifestyle – authentic, interactive and fun.
The flight was short and dramatic: roads cut like gashes through the rainforest and corrugated-iron roofs glinted in the equatorial sunshine, before all evidence of humanity disappeared leaving an endless patchwork of green. We bumped down on a dirt runway and, as I clambered down into the ferocious heat, Huaorani began to emerge from the forest. Barefoot but dressed in Western clothes, they were short and wiry with strong features and black hair flowing past their shoulders. Murmuring in Huao – a nasal language unlike any other in the Amazon, unlike any other recorded – they watched as I made my way along the short trail to the copper-coloured Shiripuno River and a waiting dugout.
A tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Huaorani roamed the Oriente for unknown centuries, living off the forest, hunting with blowpipes, spearing their enemies. They had virtually no contact with cowodes (outsiders) until the 1950s and the arrival of two disparate but equally destructive forces: missionaries who wanted their souls and oil companies that wanted their land.
Nenkery, my soft-spoken guide, greeted me in Spanish with a gap-toothed smile. As he poled the low-slung craft downriver, birdsong drifted from the unbroken curtains of foliage that lined the banks until, after half an hour, we arrived at the wooden steps that led to Huaorani Ecolodge.
Camouflaged by lush vegetation, the lodge is based on sound eco-principles and mercifully free of any Bruce Parry-style privations. Each of the five palm-thatched wooden cabins has twin beds, showers – warm, when the sun shines – and flush toilets; the vista from my veranda was a dense mesh of shifting greens. After dinner – which included fried manioc chips, a delicious twist on typical Huaorani fare – the temperature dropped and a multitude of croaks and chirrups emanated from the inky blackness, lulling me to sleep.
By 6am the following morning I was sweltering in long trousers and rubber boots as I picked my way along one of the lodge’s 60km of trails in the wake of Nenkery and Jorge, my English-speaking naturalist guide. Shafts of sunlight pierced the towering canopy as I crunched over giant cecropia leaves, passed trees trapped in a strangler fig’s ruthless embrace, and squeezed between the gargantuan buttress roots of a kapok tree into the musky scent of a jaguar’s bed. Nenkery explained how the Huaorani wind the fluffy kapok around the base of their hunting darts and use poison from the sinuously twisting curare vine for the dart’s tip. Everything, it seemed, had a purpose.
We paused frequently to admire the forest’s bounty – a flamboyant poison dart frog, no bigger than a thumbnail; a prehistoric-looking Amazon forest dragon; a great potoo masquerading as a dead branch. We walked to Quehueri’ono, and to Moi Enomenga’s hand-hewn wooden stilt house, where the haunch of an agouti cooked on the open stove. Moi’s wife handed round a bowl of chicha, a mildly alcoholic drink made from chewed and fermented manioc root, while he showed me his collection of blowpipes and spears and the tiny skull of a night monkey. Moi, the founding father of Huaorani ecotourism, is justifiably proud of the lodge, ten years in the planning with four other communities along the river. “Unlike the colonists, the Huaorani don’t destroy the forest,” he explained, “we protect it.”
The following day I embarked on a virtual hunt. Nenkery may have adopted jeans and T-shirts but he was still every inch a man of the forest. He twined a vine around his ankles, secured a 3m-long, 3kg-heavy blowpipe to it and within minutes had shimmied 10m up a tree and settled on a branch as blithely as a monkey. Then it was my turn.
I wrapped my arms around the trunk, pressed my cheek against the smooth bark and hoisted my feet inches off the ground – where they hung suspended for a moment before sliding gently back down. After several, increasingly feeble attempts I was soaked in sweat, while Nenkery looked fresh as a daisy.
Back on solid ground, I heaved the blowpipe to my lips, blew hard and watched as the silent dart sailed in a graceful arc and glanced off the target tree. I fared better with the equally long and heavy chonta palm spear once I’d banished distant memories of javelin throwing and adopted a stabbing motion. If my prey had been willing to stand motionless, no more than a few metres away, I might have put food on the table.
The next day, woken before dawn by the distant roar of howler monkeys and rain pummelling down onto my cabin roof, I was soon back on the river for the six-hour journey to the lodge’s campsite.
As the sky lightened I picked out the oropendola’s peculiar chortle interspersed with the raucous cry of a chachalaca, while water ran in rivulets down my plastic poncho and gathered in a puddle at my feet.
We stopped for breakfast at the small community of Apaika. As I scrambled up the riverbank, Bebantoque ran barefoot through the mud to greet me, followed by a gaggle of children.
“I dreamt you were coming,” she said, daubing my cheeks with scarlet streaks of achiote paste in welcome. She pointed at her grandchildren and, in an incessant stream of Huao, told me how she had run naked through the forest as a child, even as a teenager. “Now we all wear clothes,” she said, shrugging as she tugged at her canary-yellow corduroy skirt.
She sang a song that had no discernable rhythm and ended, as all Huaorani songs seem to, with a high-pitched “Eeeeeeee!”. Now you sing, she demanded. Put on the spot, I gave a reedy rendition of ‘Row, row, row your boat’. As mesmerised as I had been, Bebantoque’s lips moved as she tried to imitate the alien words.
“Huaoponi!” she cried when I’d finished, a multipurpose word conveying gratitude and happiness,
“I’ll always remember that.”
That afternoon at Nenquepare, an impromptu pre-hunting ritual – a male conga line to the accompaniment of warrior chants – quickly collapsed into gales of laughter. Nenkery’s mother sat weaving a hammock from chambira palm, the huge holes in her earlobes plugged with balsa wood. She was happy that cowodes are visiting; what makes her unhappy is the noise from the oil company that keeps her awake at night. I strained my ears but all I could hear was the rustle and hum of the forest.
The following morning, as we left Huaorani territory by motorised canoe, gallery forest gave way to fields of crops and rickety wooden stilt houses, until we arrived at the Shiripuno Bridge and the infamous Via Auca, or Road of Savages. Oil pipes snaked along the roadside like a rusting tubular fence, past oil stations and gas flares, colonists’ shacks and denuded landscape. Earth turned to tarmac, salsa blasted from radios, phones began to ring and I almost begged the driver to take me back to the Huaorani’s verdant, elemental world.
But I remembered Nenkery’s last words: “Tell your family, your friends about the Huaorani. Tell them to come, so that we can save the forest for the next generation.” Huaoponi!
Need to know: www.huaorani.com
If you like the sound of that, try…
Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve Only accessible by light aircraft, this remote and beautiful lodge opened in 1993 as a pioneering joint venture with the Achuar, a community of 6,000 living close to the Peruvian border. Now fully owned by the Achuar, it puts more emphasis on ethno-tourism than other upmarket options.
Cofán Fewer than 1,000 Cofán Indians remain; here they offer five- to seven-day tours in Zabalo, a remote community in the midst of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. Stay in traditional dwellings within the village for a full cultural immersion.
Owned by the Añangu Quichua, Napo is as plush as it gets in the jungle: as well as conserving a dazzling array of biodiversity in a vast tract of pristine rainforest it serves probably the Amazon’s finest G&T.
The canoe journey to Napo was utterly silent save for the cicadas’ song and the splash of paddles. As darkness fell, firefly larvae lit the way until the creek spilled into the starlit lake, where the lights of the lodge danced on the water.
The creek was equally enchanting the next morning. Reflections dappled the inky water as an iridescent blue morpho landed for an instant on the side of the dugout. Squirrel monkeys scampered from tree to tree, an inquisitive capuchin swung by its tail and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a shy saki monkey. Nearby, a green kingfisher nose-dived for breakfast and a pair of primeval hoatzin grumbled together on a branch.
On foot, I left igapó (swampy forest) for terra firma, where Delfin, my sharp-eyed guide, spotted the world’s smallest monkey. He set up a telescope and I watched entranced as a pygmy marmoset, only a few inches long, nibbled on fruit gripped in its claws.
I followed a winding trail to a hide, just metres from a mineral-rich clay lick visited daily by hundreds of parakeets. The birds followed an established pecking order and the cacophony reached a crescendo as they descended from the trees in a blur of beating wings and trembling branches.
The canopy tower was far more tranquil. I climbed its 220 steps and emerged onto a wooden deck cradled in the branches of a colossal kapok tree. From my monkey’s-eye view I spied on a three-toed sloth, some unwieldy-looking toucans and a vociferous mealy Amazon parrot.
That evening I gazed into a jaguar’s peerless eyes. The image had been captured by one of the lodge’s hidden cameras as the cat prowled around the reserve, not in the dead of night but at ten in the morning. I was thrilled to think that we could have met – and slightly relieved that we hadn’t.
Need to know: www.napowildlifecenter.com
If you like the sound of that, try…
Sacha Lodge A privately owned lodge that works with the local Quichua community. One of the area’s most luxurious options, it boasts one of the largest butterfly farms in Ecuador and a 275m-long canopy walkway.
La Selva Jungle Lodge Set on the banks of Lake Garzacocha, this upmarket lodge is North American-run in collaboration with the local Quichua community. A staggering 580 bird species have been spotted around the lodge; you can go birding with a local ornithologist.
Sani Lodge Set on a black-water oxbow lake between the Cuyabeno and Yasuní reserves, the lodge is owned by the local Sani Quichua; all profits are fed back into the lodge or community projects. There are plenty of wildlife-spotting opportunities on day and night hikes and canoe rides.
This new lodge on the banks of the Aguarico River is run by the Secoya Remolino – a tribe renowned as powerful healers and shaman, who will share their knowledge of the forest’s medicinal might.
In Sucumbíos province it’s not only crude that’s threatening the rainforest. As I headed towards Secoya territory, I passed row upon dizzying row of African palms, harvested for cooking oil. The expanding palm plantation has literally cut the Remolino community in two, and they’re under increasing pressure to sell their communal land. Instead, they’ve built a lodge.
Nestled in a tropical garden awash with exotic flowers, succulent papayas and red-hot chillies, the lodge buildings are constructed from sustainably harvested local woods and traditional palm thatch. Save for mosquito netting, the walls of the five double cabins are open to the elements.
After dinner, my guide Nelson and I squelched along a forest trail to a clearing, where we switched off our torches and sat in the enveloping darkness. Deprived of sight, my remaining senses went into overdrive. Unidentified croaks, whoops and crunches echoed around me, as my nostrils filled with the pungent aroma of damp earth and rotting vegetation. Later, safely ensconced in my netting cocoon, I could still hear the jungle chatter while tiny bats swooped from the rafters and gigantic moths hovered, lured by the flickering candle.
Early the following morning the forest took on an entirely different aspect. Nelson chopped at the tangle of vegetation that was already encroaching on the freshly cut trails as I negotiated the muddy, surprisingly hilly terrain, dodged fire ants, tasted lemon ants and wobbled unsteadily over log bridges.
The Secoya utilise more than 350 species of medicinal plants, as well as the hallucinogen ayahuasca to commune with the spirits of the forest. In the botanical garden I learned to heal a cut with antiseptic cat’s claw, cure a fever with piri-piri and a headache with bark tea. I asked if it was true that they had a cure for cancer; the shaman just smiled knowingly.
That evening I was joined by members of the community – the men in brightly coloured tunics and ornate feathered headdresses, the women with intricately painted faces. We sat in a circle and everyone, from the village elders to the kitchen staff, spoke about what the new lodge meant to them.
“It has given us options,” they told me.
Before I left I planted a sapling and christened it Esperanza – Hope.
Need to know: www.secoyalodge.com
If you like the sound of that, try…
Yachana Lodge Yachana sits in a small area of primary and secondary rainforest and agricultural land, 3.5 hours upriver from Coca. The local Quichua communities are heavily involved in the running of the lodge, which supports various education and conservation initiatives, which you can visit.
The author travelled with Last Frontiers