Steamy hot… jungle

The van drops us at an airstrip that fits every cliché of a 3rd world airport – small, grimy, hot, steamy, inhabited by shady-looking characters.  After walking through what passes for a terminal, we see the burned, wrecked remains of 2 small aircraft.

A scene guaranteed to inspire confidence!

Our group of 5 tourists and 1 guide is put on two small planes, I’m excited to be on the smaller plane alone with the pilot.  Front seat at last!  My enthusiasm is dampened somewhat by my (young) pilot, who pulls out a map and GPS, and who clearly has a “I have no idea where I’m going” look on his face.

"OK, we're flying into the jungle. What airstrip? Where exactly is it? And is this engine-thing working? How do I work this GPS?"

Engines on.  Roll down the runway.  Rev up.  And…. stop.  Return to the hanger.  Five men, in classic guy mode pop the top, peer under the hood, mutter to each other, and look at the engine for 20 minutes.  But do absolutely nothing to it.  With no explanation, they declare my plane is indeed ready to fly.  Thankfully, once in the air, all appears well, and the vast Amazon jungle in all it’s myth-filled glory is suddenly below us, overwhelming, beautiful, and a bit scary.  Our landing strip appears – a hacked-out clearing.

A bumpy landing, step out into an even-more-intense heat, and we’re surrounded by sweaty, smiling Huaorani people.

..

A muddy walk down to the river, jump into the dugout canoe, float 20 minutes to the lodge.  More mud.  A quick orientation with our guide.  5 guests.  4 Huaorani employees plus our translator-naturalist-minister-of-fun guide from Quito. Minimal electricity.  Cold water.  Dangerous critters at night.  Don’t put your hands on vegetation without looking VERY carefully first.  Nearest city or town?  Not a clue how far.

In other words, except for the heat and humidity, I’m in love.

My cabin for 2 nights. Were it 10 degrees cooler in the Amazon, I could be very comfortable living in this cabin. Which is why I loved my cabin in Vilcabamba (but that's a different story and a post for another day).

Dinner by candlelight.  A nighttime walk through the jungle to observe moths, tarantulas, and many other creatures.  Cold shower cools me off enough to allow sleep except for the… car horn?  Trumpet?  What the hell is that?  In the morning I learn from my guide that a large frog is responsible for the noise.

The next day we hike to two local villages.  What could be a wonderful experience is somewhat marred by the feeling that the villagers only goal is to have us buy their handicrafts.  We all feel a bit awkward.  After lunch by the river, fun is had by swinging into the river.

Jumping into a river with piranhas: Priceless.

During the hike our Huaorani guide (whose name I could never keep straight), showed us how they hunt with spears and blowguns.   The Huaorani are the real deal, still hunting with their primitive weapons.   It was amazing to watch him climb a tree and shoot the blowgun.  Getting to try each was a highlight, even though I was really bad at it.

The famous poison dart frog. Amazing that the skin secretions from this little guy can kill things! The Huaorani use it on their blowdarts to bring down prey.

That night I talk the staff into a silent nighttime float down the river.  Sitting in the canoe, no talking, no engine noise, just the sounds of the forest, is magical.

The next day we kayak downriver to another village.  This visit turns out to be a highlight.  The villagers welcome us as friends.  They are happy to sell us their crafts, but it doesn’t seem to be their main goal.  We dance and sing with them.  The kids play with us.  We laugh a lot.  They teach us how to make fire with stone age tools.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we are all very happy to buy crafts from this village.

Joining in the men's dance. Sort of like punk slam-dancing. Slightly anarchic, very silly, and also a lot of fun. About 10 villagers and tourists did the dance.

Many of the elders still wear minimal clothing, which takes a few minutes for us westerners to adapt to. This is the mother of Moa, a chief who has united the Huaorani people, and spoken before the U.N.

Painting us for the dances. Patrick, a doctor from the UK, was reluctant initially but eventually was a good sport about it.

These kids were just so incredibly HAPPY. They loved playing with us, and were terrible show-offs.

Floating down the Shiripuno after leaving the village. Jose (guide) and I laughed a lot on this float.

At this point you may be asking “who are the Huaorani?”  They are an indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon basin.  One of the last tribes to be contacted by the west, they were still running around naked, killing each other with spears and blowguns 40 years ago.  Three communities still refuse contact, and kill anyone who enters their lands.  Several communities built a small lodge a few years ago in the hopes of building ties to the world, educating outsiders, and providing an income source for community members.

The third and final night is spent away from the lodge, in a “campground” near a village.  This is not so pleasant.  It’s just a hacked-out opening in the jungle.  As the sun goes down we hike a mile to a beautiful waterfall.  My only disappointment is that we arrive at dark.

Absolutely beautiful! Jumping into this waterfall was magical.

The whole group, tourists and Huaorani.

The next day we leave for civilization via a (frighteningly overloaded) motorized canoe.  Two hours down the river turns terrifying a few times as we navigate logjams and some punk kids from a neighboring tribe who threaten to shake us down for money.  A long wait in a border cafe followed by one hour in a crowded van meant that we were all a little… ripe.  I felt very sorry for our seatmates on the short flight back to Quito.  A bummer end to an otherwise excellent trip – but definitely worth it.

Next up – Galapagos!

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