The Amazon Rainforest
The Arajuno River, Endangered Animals, Creepy Insects, and the Friendly Kichwa People.
The Amazon Rainforest
The Arajuno River, Endangered Animals, Creepy Insects, and the Friendly Kichwa People.
Through the Highlands and Into the Amazon
The next morning we woke up excited and nervous to head into the jungle with a person that we’ve never met before. We arranged the 2 night tour with a company called Adventure Journeys before we left for the trip. Our guide, Juan, was picking us up at 8am. It was a 4 hour drive through the Andean Highlands and then down into the city of Tena before kayaking the remainder of the trip on the Arajuno River.
We didn’t know what to expect from Juan, our guide. Everyone that we had met so far had a rudimentary grasp of English at best. An hour or so into our trip through the highlands we were much more comfortable. We lucked out with Juan. Not only was he fluent in English but he had been an expert tour guide in Ecuador for 18 years. Juan had previously studied as an Ecologist so he was well equipped to teach us about the Ecuador’s natural treasures. We had excellent views of the Cotopaxi and Sumaco Volcanos along the way.
After driving for about 3.5 hours we reached Tena where we were picking up a driver. The driver would take Juan’s vehicle to a parking spot along the river that we could access in a couple of days before leaving the amazon. Juan pulled off to the side and in hopped Ivan, who Juan had never met. Anna and I explored the street while they went into a nearby market to get food for our lunch. As we watched Juan walk out of sight we started to get an overwhelming feeling of being very far from home. Tena was far from the urban area of Quito without a tourist in sight.
While we stood there with perplexed looks on our faces we were approached by a middle aged man. I immediately assumed that he either wanted money from us or wanted to try and rope us into some type of scam. He spoke a small amount of English. The man wanted to know if we were American and how long we had been in Tena. We had a short conversation with him and he left with a smile on his face without asking for anything. Thinking back on this interaction, among many other similar ones, I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed of the preconceived notions I had of the people that we would meet. Everyone was friendly and no one was trying to harm us. This person was simply curious.
Paddling the Arajuno River
We all packed back into the vehicle and continued on our drive to a small village where we would inflate the kayaks and get on the water. The remaining 30 minute drive took us out of the city of Tena and into the jungle. Shortly before arriving Juan explained that we would be meeting up with a local guide who would be assisting us for the rest of our jungle journey. We were excited to have some additional expertise and we weren’t expecting this at all. The value of this tour kept getting better! It was possible for us to talk to Franklin indirectly with Juan’s translational assistance.
When we reached the village a small group of Kichwa people came out to greet us and help set up our kayaks. We met our Kichwa guide who we called Franklin. After loading our gear up in the two kayaks we pushed out onto the water. We assured Juan that we had experience kayaking back home and this trip should be a breeze for us. Unfortunately we couldn’t have been any more wrong.
It seemed nearly impossible for us to get our kayak to go in a straight line. Our natural inclination was to make circles instead. I’m not sure if it was because they kayaks were inflatable or because we weren’t used to both paddling the same boat. But, the reality of the situation was that we were struggling pretty hard. We continued this way for about an hour before finding a suitable sandbar that we could stop at to set up our lunch picnic.
Juan assembled a collapsable table and we put of a nice spread of tacos and fruit. Immediately upon setting up the food we started to get swarmed by sand flies and biting gnats. We danced around holding a plate in one hand while swatting at bugs with the other. We sustained many bites throughout this 20 minute lunch. I fared much better than Anna who collected 39 bites on her ankles. We hastily packed up and got back on the water.
Learning About the Kichwa
As we continued down the river we passed small groups of kids playing in the water. They all waved and smiled. Franklin’s home village was on this part of the route. We paddled ashore briefly as he made a quick stop to his house. Near the spot where we waited, there were two young boys about five or six years old playing by themselves in the water. Juan reached for the cooler where we had stored the leftover food from our lunch.
He pulled out the mixture of meat and beans along with some pineapple chunks. The boys happily accepted the food as Juan gestured for them to come and take it. The pair sat crouched in the water, close to us as they ate. Juan handed them the remaining tortilla as they were almost finished. One of the boys grabbed it and tore off a bite. He accidentally let it slip out of his hand and it plunked into the water. The boy reached into the water and pulled it out. He looked towards us and started smiling as he continued to eat the dripping-wet tortilla. All five of us busted out laughing for a bit. Franklin returned shortly after, visibly curious about what was so funny.
Two more hours of paddling and we were approaching the Kichwa village. On the way, Franklin described to us a brief history of the natives. The Kichwa (aka Quichua or Quechua) people were ‘discovered’ by the Incas in the 1400s. In modern day, there are roughly 400 organized Amazonian Kichwa communities. Many believe that humans, plants, and animals all have souls and should be treated as equals. A fundamental respect for nature is crucial to their existence.
Brews, Fire-Roasted Bugs, and Dancing
We walked up a pathway leading uphill towards the village. Upon our arrival a few dogs ran down the path barking. The path led to an arrangement of several neatly constructed thatch roof buildings. Apparently the men were currently out hunting so the group we met there was all women and children. Several of the women came forward and started talking with us. Franklin translated to us, through Juan, that they wanted to share with us some of their food and show us a dance. Several of the children peeked over the short side wall of the building towards us.
It was great to have the chance to speak with the Kichwa, even if indirectly. We asked some questions about their daily lives. She explained how the children traveled for their schooling and how they left the forest for medical attention when necessary, even though they largely follow a shamanic system of medicine. I asked about their use of ayahuasca. They use it as a spiritual aide and for right-of-passage type rituals. Children as young as ten years old could partake in small amounts.
A couple of the women prepared fish and insect skewers over the fire while another prepared a tea and fermented beverage for us to sample. In Ecuador, you don’t drink the tap water. You have had bottled water everywhere. The prospect of accepting their drinks seemed risky at best. But, in the moment, the idea of declining their offerings felt incredibly disrespectful. Their ‘Guayusa’ Tea was refreshing and tasted similar to green tea. The milky colored brew was fermented from Yuca. It was sweet, tangy, and tasty.
We finished with our drinks and walked to the table where they had a spread of bottom-feeding fish, mashed yuca, and fire-roasted Chontacuro Beetles on a skewer. Each carefully laid out onto a banana leaf. The fish was salty and not very pleasant. I was actually very curious to try the beetles. The concept of edible insects has been very interesting to me for the past few years. We were surprised to find that the beetles were the best part. First you removed the head and then you ate the rest.
The Chontacuro Beetle has a buttery flavor and a texture that felt somewhere between chicken and shrimp. After our meal around eight of the kids assembled for their dance performed with native music (played from a tape recorder). They gestured for us to join them near the end. We hopped around treating them to some distinctly gringo dance moves. After the dance Juan realized that we were running out of daylight and we needed to get back on the water. We said our goodbyes and each bought a few of their handmade items in appreciation.
Paddle Through to The Itamandi EcoLodge
The final leg of paddling lasted an hour. We made some slight form improvements out of necessity, finishing in nearly total darkness when we landed at the concrete dock of the Itamandi EcoLodge. A group of people on the landing up the hill shined flashlights down at us while letting out a small cheer of congratulations. The lodge had 20 rooms. We learned later that we were the only ones to kayak in. The rest on motorized canoes.
Soaking wet we made our way up the stairs to be greeted by the manager of the hotel. He explained to us the general schedule for our stay and the rules. Breakfast at 8, conserve water with short showers, and no toilet paper in the toilet – use the waste bin instead. It was a relief to get into some dry clothes. Staff from the lodge had retrieved our bags from Juan’s car that was downriver and brought them to the room. (How’s that for service?) The lodge served dinner about an hour later in the open air dining space to all of the guests. We fell asleep almost immediately after retiring to the room for the night.
Parrots Clay Link and Cacao 101
The next morning Parrots Clay Lick was first on the morning agenda. We took one of the lodge’s long motorized canoes upstream to an area where green parrots were known to flock. They gathered in the trees around a patch of clay that was exposed on a cliff side. We climbed the bank of the river up and a clearing where we could see through the trees. With binoculars we watched them fly down and land on the clay, licking and biting at chunks of it. Juan explained that the parrots ate the clay to benefit their stomachs. Minerals in the clay counteract toxicity that’s present in their diets.
When a flock arrives in the trees nearby, it begins by a single bird flying to the clay. The others observe for a few moments to see if it seemed safe for predators then they followed suit. After watching for 20 minutes we took the canoe back to the lodge for breakfast. Before coming to the Amazon we talked about setting low expectations for the food – given the remote location. It was a pleasant surprise that all the meals they prepared were very good. Breakfast seated all of the nearly 40 guests of the lodge. The majority of those people were separated into two groups that were traveling with other tour companies. We were thankful to be getting a more personal experience with the small group.
After breakfast we followed Juan and Franklin to a trailhead that was located directly behind the lodge. This narrow trail began its steep ascent up into the jungle. Juan explained that we would soon be visiting another Kichwa settlement that was a small, chocolate producing, cacao farm. Franklin knew of some cacao plants that were growing on this trail that he wanted to show us. I didn’t take us long to find a cacao plant with several large green fruits.
Franklin reached up and pulled down one of these fruits and unsheathed the machete he had been carrying. He used the blade to make chops lengthwise into the fruit, while rotating it around in his hand. Next pulling open the fruit to reveal the beans which were encased in a soft, white flesh. Juan made a disclaimer that this fruit wasn’t fully ripe, however he still encouraged us to pull out a bean to sample the sweet flesh around it. We both took the opportunity to taste the mildly sweet, yet pleasant flavor. Spitting the bean out when we were finished.
Kichwa Family-Owned Chocolate Farm
Now it was back to the motorized canoe to head downstream to the Kichwa cacao farm. We traveled downstream at a good speed for about 45 minutes. Along the way we saw many different small groups of Kichwa children swimming in the river. We also noticed several small rafts with gas powered pumps with accompanying hose used to send water up to a settlement Juan said that the settlement we were about to visit is a small, chocolate producing, cacao farm.
We docked the canoe and followed a small pathway up the bank to level land where you could immediately see some planting areas for cacao. There was the start to a long, stone pathway. The pathway was covered by an intricate arch made of red, flowering hibiscus plants. We walked along this pathway and peeked out at the various openings which revealed numerous open areas filled with cacao plants.
After following the pathway on a 3 minute walk as it snaked through the the property leading us back towards a the main building. We walked into the lower level which was open to the air with short exterior walls. There were several women and children present when we walked in.
From Bean to Chocolate
Franklin helped to translate. She explained that she was going to show us their process with harvest to consumption of the chocolate. She told us how historically Ecuadorians would just sell the raw beans and export them out of the country to larger companies. These beans were sold at very low prices. They have recently begun to do some of the processing of the beans to cocoa themselves which means better profits.
She directed our attention to a large, covered drying rack that they had build next to the main building. She explained how, after harvest, the beans are spread out on this rack to dry. Some of the beans are fermented in a pot, depending on the type of chocolate being produced. She pulled out a pot from underneath the drying rack which was overflowing with bubbling, fermenting beans. We then walked back into the lower level of their main structure. This level had a small seating area, area for processing beans, and a separated kitchen.
We were surprised to notice that they had electricity here. This was made obvious by the conspicuous Cocoa-Cola refrigerator filled with soda, water, and beer for visitors. This particular property was one of the few that was connected to power via a line that extended to the nearby village of Arajuno (like the connected river). She explained that they small amount of electricity they used was primarily for their cooler. It cost them about $20 a month to run. A little bit of gossiping between her and Franklin and she had said that they suspected their neighbor of stealing power from them.
Handmade Chocolate and Guayusa Tea
They had some beans that were already roasted then smashed in a large mortar and pestle style mixing bowl. There was also a large pan used for roasting the beans. Together we fed this mash into a metal bench-top grinder which had a crank on the back. I struggled to turn the crank and grind the beans into a powder – having sympathy for anyone who has to do this for hours on end. The ground cocoa bean powder dropped onto a plate which she then transferred to the kitchen. She placed the plate next to a stock pot she had been heating. She mixed in her other ingredients while stirring and the chocolate started to form before our eyes. In the seating area one of the children set out a pacesetting with little pieces of toasted bread and a pitcher of Guayusa Tea. We stood around the stove, staring with eager eyes as she prepared the chocolate.
Also around the stove were their pets. A white poodle and a black cat – named Pepe and Pipi. She explained that they did a great job of altering them of intruders while keeping any pests at bay. After stirring and cooking for a few minutes she pulled the wooden spoon out of the pot for us to try. I excitedly slid my finger along the spoon, collecting the fresh chocolate and burning myself in the process. She poured the piping-hot chocolate into a bowl and placed it on the table. We gathered around with Juan and Franklin – spreading the chocolate onto the toast and pouring some tea. It was a delicious blend of flavors. Before we left Anna negotiated to buy a large batch of the leaves used to make Guyusa Tea. She charged $3 for a batch large enough to nearly fill a grocery bag.
AmaZOOnico Animal Rescue
The next step was a short canoe ride to ‘amaZOOnico’ Despite their name, Amazoonico was not a zoo at all but rather a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to rehabilitating animals and educating the public on their preservation. We had a nice, young german guide there that walked us on a 1 hour tour of the reserve – showing us an array of different native animals.
He explained that many of the animals were there because of their excessive human contact which makes it impossible for them to survive in the wild. After our visit to Amazoonico, it was back to the Itamandi EcoLodge. The animals that were on display to visitors were those that aren’t ever able to live in the wild again because of their lack of natural behaviors.
Itamandi EcoLodge and the Night Hike
We relaxed at the lodge for a few hours, taking advantage of the pool, hammocks, and bar in the common area. We had a nice dinner before our last activity of the day – the night hike into the jungle. This hike was highly anticipated because of the promise of the many nocturnal creatures to be seen. We suited up with raincoats, tall rubber boots, and flash lights before starting on a trail on the north edge of the property.
This muddy trail served as a museum for all-types of insects that were to be found on every piece of foliage. Large jungle spiders, caterpillars, frogs, walking sticks, and various types of lizards were easy for the novice to spot. We came across several large spiders which Franklin cautioned were very poisonous. The hiked provided half an hour of excited gasps at the discovery of something different with every small step. After the hike was over we exhausted and ready for bed. We found ourselves getting tired early on in the evenings on this trip.
At around 8pm it started to feel like a good time to retire. When we got back to our room we began to notice that the wet clothes we had previously hung up from the kayaking trip were not going to dry whatsoever. The intense humidity and lack of airflow were sure to prevent any drying that we were waiting for.
Finding A Better Way to Baños
During breakfast the next morning we sat with Juan to discuss logistics and our travel plans. Juan was supposed to return us back to Quito at the conclusion of our trip. However, our next destination was Baños de Agua Santa, which was not on the way to Quito in the slightest. The plan was to make the 4 hour drive with Juan back to Quito airport, rent a car, and make the 3.5 hour drive south to Baños on the Pan-American highway. Juan suggested that, to save time, we could ask Ivan (our driver from Tena) to take us to Baños. While this proposition sounding tempting, we were unsure to say the least. Juan had never met Ivan before and there was no real reason for us to trust this guy that we had no way of communicating with. However, we decided to go for it and have Juan call Ivan to arrange this ride for us.
Instead of renting a car, we would ride with Ivan to Baños and then take the bus back to Quito before leaving for the Galapagos. After breakfast we took the motorized canoe downriver to the small village of Arajuno, where Juan’s vehicle was waiting for us. On the canoe ride there Franklin spotted some howler monkeys, high up in the trees along the river. We spun the canoe back in the other direction to take a moment to observe them with the binoculars. Juan explained that Franklin was excited to see them here because it was unusual to spot them so close to this area with humans. He told us how this was a good sign for the overall health of the forest. We continued down the river to the vehicle and loaded up for the ride back into Tena. After 10 minutes on the road Juan had enough signal to try Ivan on the cell phone.
Ivan quickly agreed to take us on the 2.5 hour drive from Tena to Baños for $80, which was apparently a great deal for both parties. We stopped at a parking lot on the outside of Tena to wait for Ivan while Juan explained the process of getting over to the Island of Isabela, which was our first stop in the Galapagos. Juan had made many previous trips as a guide to the Galapagos so his advice for the seeming complicated journey was welcome. Ivan arrived and we loaded our bags into the back of his truck. We said our goodbyes to Juan and Franklin – thanking them for sharing the experience with us.