You’re in the jungle, babies.
By Stephanie Frias
Traveling to the world’s largest natural forest, the Amazon rainforest is a bucket list dream of many. We’ve heard it for decades: go before it’s gone. For nearly half a century the statistics have continued a daunting downward trend, proving that the ominous warnings might actually be true. An astounding 78 million acres disappear each year. In 2018 alone, we lost a portion of the Amazon Rainforest equivalent to the city perimeters of Chicago five times over. In the last 40 years, the loss totals an equivalent land area the size of Europe. Experts estimate that within 100 years, all of it will be gone.
Pondering a Trip to the Amazon Rainforest
For our family, the answer was obvious, particularly since we were already in the midst of an epic trip around South America. We must go!
But, the first few online searches were a bit discouraging. The popularized Amazon Rainforest trips were somewhat lacking in authenticity, and prices were inflated for Westerners. Other articles warned about the dangers of tribal warriors, poisonous plants, and animals, along with concerns about getting kidnapped for ransom or simply disappearing forever into the abyss.
Although we hadn’t quite come to a conclusion about our next step, we let the information simmer. We waited for the right opportunity to take the journey with a different approach and agenda than most. It wasn’t much later when the universe laid out her plan, putting us in the fated path of a family from the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest.
We bumped into the young family at a hostel on the north coast of Ecuador. A bubbly French woman, a quiet-mannered Kichwa native man, and their beautiful baby boy. He spoke Spanish and Kichwa, she spoke Spanish, French, and English. Along with our husbands, she and I, (with our kids, ages 3 and 4, and her baby ) – fostered a connection. We shared a passion for authentic travel experiences: getting off the beaten path and diving deep into local cultures. It wasn’t long until we learned more about their rainforest project and received an invitation to join them on their private land in the Amazon jungle.
Authentic Native Village in the Ecuadoran Amazon
We met up again a few months later for a five-night stay at their guesthouse: a simple, but sufficient bamboo hut raised behind their own private quarters which shelters three generations of Kichwa Quechua natives including cousins, aunts, parents and grandparents alike. The property lies about 20 km east of the Amazon port village of Misahualli, next to the Napo River. The family’s small farm includes cacao plants, banana groves, and yucca fields.
From the moment we arrived, we knew this was as authentic as it gets: dirt roads, natural energy, no water pumps, and faint cell signal at best. Forget the concierge, airport shuttle, resort-style restaurants, and waterslides. Rather than seek an experience catered to the expectations of luxury travelers, we, instead, found ourselves an experience on a true-blue indigenous homestead on the outskirts of the Amazon Rainforest.
The family went above and beyond the call of duty to immerse us in every aspect of their life. In many ways, we became part of their family, integral members, pulling our weight as much as possible to sustain our presence within their humble and fascinating way of life. On one of our first days in their village, we went on a family-made path right through the Amazon. Forget the wood planked, blatantly marked trails. We would have been lost without the natives. In fact, my husband carried a machete to cut our way through the knee-high grass and ferns. At every turn, we spotted bugs, butterflies, and creepy crawlies of astounding beauty. We were taught the intricacies of each medicinal plant we came into contact with, all of which would have simply seemed like weeds otherwise. We even ate lemon ants right out of the tree, and my husband daringly ate some live palm grubs, too!
Tribal Life: Hunting, Fishing, & Panning for Gold
We learned all about hunting in the Amazon using the traditional methods of blow dart guns and ancient fishing nets. First, they taught us how to make and use hand-made bamboo “guns” with stone arrows carefully dipped in poison from the poison dart frog. The arrow is then propelled through the air by blowing through the bamboo tube which launches the dart into the air. The technique is still used today to hunt small animals like monkeys and birds. For us, it was purely educational, and we did not use the poison, nor did we hunt any animals. But, all of us, even the kids, enjoyed the fascinating experience of learning how to shoot a blow dart gun. It is not nearly as easy as it looks!
After our archery lesson, we headed over to the river where many families spend the day both fishing and panning for gold. So far, no large-scale production outfits are here, and the locals actively protest any organization that tries to exploit the precious resources they rely upon. Primarily, the men wade into the water to go fishing, but our entire family joined in for the adventure.
After climbing into hand-carved wooden canoes and paddling our way to the inner islands of the rivers, we got out to fish where two currents collide and form shallow rapids where the fish typically congregate. The fishermen hopped out of the boat and stood in the river, hand tossing a self-clinching net into the water in the hopes of catching dinner for that night. My husband and I each gave it a try. My attempt failed miserably, sending one of the men chasing after my net before it disappeared with the current. My husband managed a perfect throw, although the net came up empty. After an hour or so, the group had caught only a handful of tiny fish (smaller than our palm). The locals explained that each season, the fish get smaller and the quantity fewer, as a result of the devastation caused by large-scale mining and vast deforestation which impact the water flow and fish habitats.
We also tried out gold panning, which proved to be a mastered art form, an act only suitable for infinitely patient personalities. Once again, we utilized handcrafted tools: wide wooden bowls hand carved from particles of this very forest. Designated community members stood in the shallow shores of the river, hunched over their bowls, and swished water in and out, for up to twelve hours a day. Many of them were women, and some had been panning gold for so many years that their backs no longer uncoil. When they turned to nod at us, they stood only partially erect to offer warm smiles from a sideways glance. It’s an admirable profession nonetheless. Our lackluster-results only offered up a sparkle of gold beneath pile after pile of sifted sand and soil. Meanwhile, next to us, the experts each guarded a gleaming, pint-sized jar filled with the golden mineral.
Home Life: When it Rains it Pours!
After two days of fulfilling our quest to immerse ourselves in the outdoor culture of the Kichwa natives, the inevitable happened: the rain came. When the rain comes in the Amazon rainforest, it really comes. After all, it is the rainforest! It was like nothing we’ve ever seen before or since: curtains of water pouring down nonstop for 20 hours or so. No let-up, breeze, or sunray occured: just non-stop torrential wetness. Days like this force outdoor, human activity to stop, while nature takes its course; however, there will always be plenty of work found elsewhere: primarily in the kitchen.
Along with the Kichwa family, we huddled beneath the palm awnings in the kitchen and spent indoor time doing various food-related activities. We learned to prepare all sorts of traditional dishes from whole-fish soup to meals steamed in banana leaves. Then, we knelt on the floor pulverizing yucca plants into puree to make the base for chicha, a type of fermented beverage. Perhaps the highlight of it all was learning how to make chocolate from the experts (Ecuador produces some of the best chocolate). Starting with the cacao beans straight off the backyard grove, we learned the full process: harvesting, roasting, grinding, mixing, melting, and finally serving.
The following day, when the rain let up, the biggest commotion of the morning was how much rainwater had collected in the various basins around the homestead. The amount of rainwater determines everything, as it is the sole source of potable water to these communities untouched by modern civilization. The day following a heavy rain is a day for washing: dishes, floors, clothing, and bodies. When it doesn’t rain, the only other water alternative is the river. The main water tank behind the house is a large 10-foot by 5-foot basin, about four feet deep. The day before the rain came, only puddles remained at the bottom of the tank which forced the family to haul buckets of water from the river in order to flush toilets and wash dishes. But, on this morning after a 20-hour-long downpour, the ample basin water now spilled over the top edges of the tank. It was enough water for the 10-person household to live comfortably for three days.
The Search for Wildlife
Nearing the end of our stay, we were humbled by the inner workings of this incredible, ancient, sustainable, and independent way of life. While we were encouraged to keep up with the family and their daily duties, we were also craving time for quiet reflection. We spent some time scouting for birds and monkeys that were quite active and noisy after the recent rains. Although we managed to find many notable butterflies and birds, monkeys, snakes, and big wildlife animals proved to be more evasive.
Despite our best efforts to follow the tips of the locals, we missed the chance to see wildlife during our Amazon experience. Upon reflection, we realized that our expectations to see the likes of jungle cats and boa constrictors had been a bit lofty. Luckily, our hosts had the perfect solution: visit a nearby animal rescue center to see all of the native animals we dreamed about.
First, we stopped in the village of Mishualli to hang out with the very friendly population of capuchin monkeys. Although quite feisty, they were a delight when they weren’t trying to pick a fight with our traveling dog! From there, we made our way to the Yanacocha Rescue Center, a delightful non-profit organization that rescues animals of the Amazon from the pet-trafficking trade. Not only was it an exceptional educational opportunity for our kids, but it was also blissfully far-removed from the zoo-like setting we expected. Instead, it was a large oasis, offering many species to ability roam about free from cages (only confined by the outer perimeter of the center).
Among the most impressive animals we saw were ocelots, caimans, and countless species of monkeys and birds. Although the animals in the center vary from time to time, many of the animals who live there will never return to the wild due to a variety of reasons related to domestic exposure; however, part of the charm was the approachability of the animals. Many of them even responded to their given names. Of course, they were still wild animals with unpredictable behavior, so we took great care while entering their home. For those who are interested, Yana Cocha has ongoing projects for volunteers, although none of them currently accept children.
Good to Know
The Amazon is Huge Although the Amazon Rainforest spans over 9 South American countries, our experience was within the Napo province of Ecuador. The nearest village is the tiny port town of Misahualli, a common entry point for this part of the Amazon rainforest. The nearest big city is Tena, about 25 km from Misahualli. Most visitors traveling to Ecuador will enter through the international airports in either Quito or Guayaquil; however, Quito is a closer destination in this case. Bus travel is common, safe, and affordable in Ecuador, and most people will arrive to Misahualli with this transport method. We drove our own vehicle through the highway network, and this also an option for people who ship their vehicle or buy one in Ecuador.
Budget Lodging The guesthouse where we stayed is open for tourism. It offers two private rooms in the cabin and a shared bathroom. The cabin includes beds with mosquito nets, a dining area, and a kitchenette. It’s likely the most budget-friendly (around $20 per person per night) option one can find. The guesthouse is referred to as Cabana Sacha Wasi. The easiest way to book with them is through their Facebook page. Ask for Marlene and tell her the Frias family sent you! Otherwise, you can also find them listed on AirBnB.
Animal Rescue Center The Yanacocha Rescue Center is located about 100 km from Cabana Sacha Wasi, near the city of Puyo. It is quite plausible to visit during the day and then return to the guesthouse that same day as Ecuador enjoys 12 hours of sunlight year-round, due to its unique equatorial location. However, for those who would like to visit on their way in or out of Misahualli, we recommend spending a night or two in Puyo at the bed-and-breakfast style Hostal La Molienda.
Stephanie Frias – June 2019
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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