The Ecuadorian Amazon

En route to the Upper Amazon, Guayaquil (pronounced Y-a-Keel - our stepping off point), is pretty short on attractions, except for a few over-the-top baroque mansions, formerly the homes of the banana barons who owned their ports as private property.

There were ten in our troop - (Lord) Ian and Paula, Andrew and Susan, Duncan and Rosalind, Audrey the horse breeder, Annie the GP and widow of a high court judge; plus Alison and me.

The Airport was modern, and it took no time at all for the chaps in our group to notice that our fellow passengers en route to Quito included the Miss Ecuador contestants - a bevy of tall, shapely, dusky beauties. The flight to Quito was highliged by a superb view of a snow-capped volcano as we crossed the first range of the Andes. Quito nestles between the two ranges, and, at 9000’ above sea level, is the world’s highest capital city. The effect of altitude were obvious immediately on landing - wooziness and balance-impediment, but the sensations ceased after a few minutes.

Next, it was a flight to Shell - an inland entrepôt serving the small communities of the upper Amazon basin. Another volcano as we crossed the second ridge, but this one was bellowing black smoke and ash.

Shell is not a pretty town, at least near the Aeroporto Rio Amazones. There were 20 passengers for Kapawi, but no small planes in sight until one 5-seater was towed into view, whereupon the seats were fixed into place - yikes!

The call for the first planeload included me (and 4 Americans) but we were marched out to the rear of the ‘terminal’, loaded into a minibus and driven to another hangar housing two small planes. we were then weighed, sent to a concrete bunker with a water-cooler and a couple of snoozing locals and told to wait “maybe 15 minutes”.

Half an hour later, we were collected, relieved of a $2 airport fee (Ecuador uses the USD as its currency - saves confusion as to who owns the place) and jammed into our little Cessna single engine aircraft for the onward flight.

Kapawi Eco-lodge is 20km from the Peruvian border in South-Eastern Ecuador, so it’s remote, and then some. It was an hour’s flight over impenetrable rain forest cut by massive waterways. and these are only the smallest of the Amazon tributaries.

When I disembarked at the landing strip, Ian and Paula had already landed, but we were told the rest of our party was 50 minutes away, so we walked down to the river and climbed into a canoe with removable bench seating, 2 people wide, and headed up the Pastaza River - a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon. There are three types of piraña in this river, which our claimed to be edible. After 15 minutes skiing though beautiful, virgin landscape we peeled off into the Capahuari River, arriving at Kapawi, 9 hours after departing the ship in Guayaquil.

After a late lunch of chicken, red cabbage and manioc, we were given our resident instructions. Toilet paper to be placed in the bin beside the latrine, not flushed. The solar show consists of a bag of water (which might be warm, if the sun shines) suspended from a wooden hook.

Next, I checked out my accommodation. A hut with wooden-hewn floors/ palm-thatched, wooden-strutted roof/ built on stilts above a lagoon which was reduced to a green swathe with occasional stagnant pools, just the ticket for malaria-carrying mosquito breeding. I realised my balcony adjoined the next cabin, and my party wall didn’t reach half the height of the hut. There are no locks on the cabins, so I quickly sussed out the identity of my intended neighbour. Yikes, it was the whinging Pom. A speedy negotiation with the manageress had Alison ensconced instead - just in time, as the rest of the troupe arrived, fit to be tied after their lengthy delay - the administrators in Shell had failed to pay the pilot, so he’d scarpered.

Fortunately, the bar had some chilled Chilean sauvignon blanc, so our dinner of beef was quite acceptable before and early night in the company of a million or so croaking/ barking/quacking/shouting frogs, followed by a cacophony of screeching/barking/hollering/squawking birds the minute the first light broke the pitch black night sky. There are no outdoor light at Kapawi, so my headband with light, given me by Jill from Gozo, came in very handy.

I’d checked out the Kapawi visitor information guide and found some fertile ground in the menu department - “grilled gluten with coastal fenestra”, “ham quiche”, “lioness potatoes and quinoa pisto”, “salad without bacon”, “balones de verde”. “bitterweet salad”, “Naranjilla sponged”, “rice pudin”. The boutique also had some prized offerings: “neckless and brazelet”, “cheaper small sized”, “blowgun” and “dard holder” - all local handicrafts.

Next morning we toddled off for our scheduled rainforest walk. We were canoed to a steep and slippery slope for the star of our 2.5 hour walk, to be followed by lunch and then a visit to one of the Achuan native communities. Getting to the drop-off point involved fighting with feral trees, dipping into the river. Within minutes of starting, the clouds decided to dump their cargo of water - it absolutely bucketed down. I’d borrowed a heavy plastic poncho from the lodge, which leaked, so despite looking like a grim reaper on a bad day, I qualified for the aged, wet-T-shirt competition within seconds.

Our guide, Celestino, pointed out a couple of bromeliads and poison frogs, plus a spider of two. We stopped by an enormous kapok tree - revered bu the Achuans as their spiritual beacon. If they suffer a death in the family, the men consume a potion made from Angel’s trumpets - a hallucinatory brew - then wobble into the forest to the kapok tree, where they tuck into another nightmarish brew and proceed to dream up a storm. They’re not allowed to be frightened by there delusions - sticks become snakes, leaves become demons - and when they come to their senses, they stagger back to the village but cannot relate their experiences because that would extinguish the magical healing of the process they’ve endures.

We finally arrived at the river bank, where our seriously bedraggled and grubby bunch was met with a hot lunch - chicken in spicy sauce, rice, coleslaw and beer - excellent, especially as the rain had eased by this time.

We boomed up-river in our motorised canoe to an Achuan village. The Achuans saw their first other humans only 340 years ago, and have never seen a car, as all interaction with the outside world is conducted by plane (it would take three weeks to travel by river to the nearest ‘civilised’ town).

We moored at the base of a steep set of mud steps and climbed up to the mud runway around which a bevy of palm-frond-roofed huts with half-timbered (as in half-height) fence-type enclosures forming the walls of the natives’ humble abodes. Dirt floors are the fashion as per the past 5,000 years although all the incumbents were wearing western clothes, apart from a couple of tiny urchins who were rolling around on the runway stark motherless naked.

This was Celestino’s village, witnessed by the immediate invasion of a couple of small folk clambering into the headman’s hut and onto Celestino’s knees. Both Celestino and the headman were wearing feathered headdresses and face paint – standard for meetings and greetings.

The headman said nothing as we mumbled our learned greeting (“g’day – how’ya goin’” in Achuar speak) and lowered our bottoms onto wooden benches either side of the front gate. The headman continued silently with his basked-weaving (literally) until his wife had served us with a pini (bowl) of the local delicacy – chichi – an appealing broth of cooked manioc, which is chewed up by the ladies, spat out and left to ferment for three days, water added, then it’s bottoms up!

I took a sip – it was neither pleasant nor revolting, but we were required to hold our pinis for the duration, so as not to cause offence to the chief. Eventually he acknowledged our presence and asked us to explain why we were in the wilds of the Amazon, which I must say was a mystery to me too, so I skipped that question. This interview session seemed to take forever and serve no purpose, although I would have liked to have been there the previous week when he asked one of the Americans why they’d invaded Iraq.

Headman was also a champion spitter (at the other village, Lordy Lordy reckoned his headman could kill a cockroach at 10 metres by dint of his spitting skills). All the while one small girl wandered around with a baby slung around her shoulders and various ladies entered the vestibule by the back door.

Once the interview session had finished the local ladies streamed in and laid out their handicrafts on banana leaves for us to peruse and buy – top price being USD6 for a large pini. These are made by shaping bowls from river clay, toasting them over a log fire, then decorating them with motifs using vegetable dye and local ochres using human hair as the instrument for fine decoration. Several of them were very fine indeed. There were also beads, darts and ribbons made from stones, buts and palm fibres. A ‘pet’ birdie with a yellow chest popped by and chirruped cheerfully. Outside a couple of small boys played with a large machete, four other toddlers climbed a tree to a height of 3m+ without their parents turning a hair.

Finally we were allowed to leave and I explained to our Kapawi guide that 7.5 hours without a comfort stop was stretching the patience of the female members of our party, so we hightailed it back to camp, but not before stopping en route to check out some river dolphins (blue) and howler monkeys. (The howler monkey has a vibrating bone in its throat that amplifies its voice so it can be hears one kilometre distant. The mother uses its tail to form a bridge between branches for little howlers to cross.)

Unfortunately, as it had rained most of the day and we’d had zero sunshine, there was consequently no hot water, so a cold shower had to suffice.

A couple of other bits and pieces re the Achuars and their lifestyle:

when Celestino finishes his monthly stint at the Ecolodge, it takes him two days to walk home; the Achuars don’t have sex in their huts, preferring to wander into the forest for the purpose; they smoke much of their food in banana leaves, as a means of part-preserving meat (chicken, fish, monkey) they use blow-guns for hunting, padding the poisoned dart with kapok, the mouthpiece being a short piece of bone from a jaguar or peccary;

and for the women, our visit gave us a whole new insight into the meaning of ‘barefoot and pregnant’!

Back at the bar, we were served fried plantain chips with guacamole (excellent) to accompany our gins and tonic, but the bad news was that the lodge’s “well-stocked bar” had run out of white wine on day one.

Next morning we amused ourselves with a cockroach stocktake. I’d escaped unscathed, but the previous evening Alison and I had enjoyed a red-wine nightcap on our verandah, and in the morning the dregs in her glass were host to three drunken cockies. Lordy Lordy complained that he’d been cleaning his teeth when a giant ran up his arm – “flicked him off and tried to smash him on the half volley, but the bastard got away..”. Duncan had spotted another inside the plastic casing of his electric toothbrush. One of the Americans claimed her invader was wearing a saddle. The list went on. My hoard of dead spiders and bat droppings looked tame by comparison. Susan started the morning with “I’ve got a bone to pick with you..” after one of my polo shirts mysteriously migrated to their hut. Alison’s purse had been raided not long after her arrival and relieved of $190 in new notes (we suspect by the loud Ecuadorian brothers).

Our adventures for the day started with a dawn sortie in search of the clay-licking parrots on the banks of the main river. There’d been hundred of the critters the previous morning, but today they refused to co-operate. We spotted dozens of parrots and macaws in the distance, and the thought idled through my mind “why am I sitting in a canoe wearing a smelly life-vest in the middle of nowhere looking at distant parrots when they eat out of my hand in the comfort of Wye River?” I couldn’t come up with an answer, so I contented myself with counting the seconds until the next bit of clay bank slid into the river. We spent the rest of the morning puddling around and by now the sun was shining so we spent a lovely afternoon canoeing silently down the river, coming across turtles sunning themselves of logs and all manner of pretty birds and hanging basket-like formations of flowers dripping from the trees of the canopy hundreds of feet above.

On our final evening, we were treated to a traditional Achuar feast. The first course was a soup, served in a pini and accompanied by melon and plantain served on a banana leaf. I was sitting next to Ian (aka Lordy lordy), who rudely started eating his soup while Celestino was explaining the food and the ritual. In an aside Ian said “tastes quite good” to which I replied “It’s the monkey gut stock that gives it the flavour” which rather dampened his appetite. Actually it was chicken-based and quite palatable. Alison and I were both appalled when the Brit contingent started mocking the food (the fish baked in banana leaves was excellent) – they’d either forgotten (or didn’t care) that Celestino is learning English – so we quickly started another conversation at his end of the table.

Next morning we were more than ready to head out, concerned that the planes might not arrive. After the 20 minutes canoe trip, we stood on the runway waiting, waiting. Finally the planes started arriving. However, the company had only sent four planes, two of which were four-seaters instead of five, which meant we had to cool our heels in Shell for two hours while the last two passengers were flown out. This would have been OK if there had been any water in the Mujares (ladies toilet). And there was plenty of local colour – one kid had a couple of puppies who gambolled through the terminal; another local arrived with three sacks housing some form of livestock – the sacks were nearly as active as the puppies.

Finally we arrived back in Quito – phew – the flight from Kapawi to Shell had been fairly hairy, through storms, with a pilot who seemed nervous and kept referring to the ‘how to fly’ instructions, and it was difficult to ignore the fact that, had the plane gone down, it would never be found in the endless, dense rainforest.

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