The Outer Limits of Soft Adventure...
Ecuador's rainforest still offers the real thing: former headhunters, magical shamans, "chicha" beverages made from masticated and fermented yucca roots, blowgun practice, rainforest treks, tropical-bird-watching and lots more for the reformed couch potato.
By Rod Lopez-Fabrega
The world continues to shrink and to become more homogenized every day. Truly exotic places are getting hard to find. There are those of us who yearn for a taste of Eden without exposing ourselves to the dangers and discomforts of truly primitive life or bringing the destructive elements of "civilization" to people who live much closer to nature than any of us ever can again. Such a place exists in the heart of the rainforest of Ecuador. It is called the Kapawi Ecolodge, and it belongs to the Achuar, "the people of the palm."
Occupying a huge rainforest expanse in Ecuador and neighboring Peru yet virtually untouched by outside influences until the late 1960's , the Achuar Amerindian nation has found a way to move into the 21st century at a rational and self-controlled pace. Where so many native-American areas have been overrun by petroleum, logging, mining and other destructive development, the Achuar people have learned rapidly to work within the system. They have received invaluable help from The Pachamama Alliance, a non-profit, U.S. based organization of private citizens concerned about protecting the rainforest. In 1991 the Achuar established FINAE (the Organization of Achuar Nationalities,) similar to a congress, with eight indigenous districts represented. In addition, they have representation in Ecuador's National Assembly, and their territory inside Ecuador's boundaries is protected by Constitutional decree; but, just in case there are rogue incursions, the Achuar haven't forgotten how to use their curare-tipped blowguns.
The days of internal warfare, headhunting and a semi-nomadic existence are past for the Achuar. In 1993, Canodros S.A., well-known Ecuadorian tour operator and owner of luxury cruise ship, Galapagos Explorer II, agreed to a partnership with the Achuar nation to build a lodge and research center near the village of Kapawi, at the heart of Achuar Territory.
The result is a splendid tourism gem recently included as one of A&E network's "The World's Top Ten Exotic Destinations". The Kapawi Ecolodge is a "village" of 20 guest cabanas, built to Achuar standards, exclusively of wood assembled with dowels and not a single nail and with complex peaked roofs made of intricately woven palm leaves. Each cabana is complete with modern en suite bathroom, dressing foyer, private verandah and spacious bedroom. Insect canopies are provided over each bed, but are not needed as each cabana is completely screened. A high-ceilinged central lodge contains lounge areas for guests, a bar, small boutique and a library. A second great house is the gathering place where excellent meals are prepared and served with fine-restaurant panache by Achuar trainees. Additional buildings house staff, kitchen and supporting workshops. The entire "village," perched on the shore of a pristine jungle pond, is built on the lines of the typical naweamu jea stilt houses of the Achuar.
In keeping with the extraordinary commitment to ecological correctness, electrical energy is provided by seventy-two solar panels, water is filtered through charcoal and purified with UV rays and ozone (bottled water is available in every room,) and the sun heats shower water. All soaps used throughout are biodegradable and trash is sorted and carried out.
Getting there is part of the experience
Direct flights from New York's JFK to Guayaquil are available on Ecuatoriana, the national airline of Ecuador, departing JFK daily at 12 midnight and arriving the following morning at 6:30 am. The same flight continues on to Quito, passing dramatic, snow-hooded Cotopaxi volcano as the flight makes its final approach to the 9,000-foot-high city. A stopover of several days in the culturally and historically rich capital of Ecuador is well worth the experience. Once a city of great importance to the Incas, then a major capital in the new world for Colonial Spain, Quito is now a modern city with its feet in the past but with four- and five-star accommodations in the Hilton Colon and other international hotels, fascinating museums and a rich Hispanic culture. An outstanding taste of the latter qualities comes with a visit to the Guayasamin Foundation. Located on a high terrace with a breathtaking overview of the city, this is a unique, three-part museum structured around the indigenous and Colonial collections and prize-winning paintings of internationally acclaimed Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin. Another outstanding stop for serious shoppers is the new Olga Fisch Gallery on Colon Avenue. It is called "Folklore," and its name describes it very well. The very finest in old and new folklore artifacts can be found there, among them the stunning shaman masks by sculptor Patricio Ormaza illustrated in this article.
In the rainforest
The trip to Kapawi, deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest, begins with two early morning flights. The first hop, on one of SAEREO's sleek, 18-passenger Beechcraft 1900C turboprops, departs from Quito's international airport and lands about fifty minutes later in Shell, a frontier town with connections to the petroleum industry. Minutes later, a second flight on seven-passenger, Swiss-made "Machaca," lasts about one hour and terminates on the dirt runway of a Kapawi village. This amazing aircraft almost literally could land on a distance the length of a bowling alley and requires little more space to take off. As for luggage, bring a knapsack. There are weight restrictions, and dress code in the rainforest is "no-nonsense."
From the dirt runway, a short ride in a covered, motorized long boat takes visitors on the Pastaza River and up its tributary, the Capahuari River to Kapawi Ecolodge where Argentine-born administrators Julio Osswald and Flavia Saldiva welcome them with iced cocktails. A briefing by this husband and wife team and native guide Shakai or one of his Achuar companions explains the rules and regulations observed in eco-sensitive Kapawi. A whole banquet of activities is then spread out before visitors. Activities are calibrated to suit the individual visitor's abilities and interests; and guests to Kapawi Ecolodge have included small children, octogenarians and everything in between.
The choices might include bird-watching of the more than 500 avian species in the rainforest, canoeing, swimming in the lodge's pond, fishing with the Achuar, visits to native villages, demonstrations of native hunting techniques and the preparation of curare-tipped arrows, blowgun practice, nighttime Cayman spotting, and a choice of easy, moderate or strenuous treks in the rainforest. The easiest is a self-guided hike around the pond. The strenuous might include bushwhacking in the rainforest, led by native guides, visits to remote Achuar communities and overnight camping in tents.
Whatever the choice, hikers will soon begin to understand how the people of the rainforest lack very little of the true necessities of life and how they have learned to use the biological storehouse they live in. Guides will point out the immense Ceibo Tree, the fruit of which attracts wild turkeys, where the Achuar can easily trap them. They also will pick vanilla blossoms, used by the Achuar to scent their folded clean clothing. Then, there is the Kawit Tree that exudes an oily sap that is ideal as a hair dressing and shampoo. Older hikers will be interested in Chuchuwasu, the bark of a tree that is boiled to make a potion effective against rheumatism--and, incidentally, it also is believed to improve a hunter's aim when "shopping" with a blowgun for his family's dinner.
Hikers will learn about the Wisu, a cone-shaped ant nest that hangs point down from a branch, with its peak about three feet off the ground. This strange structure is used by the Achuar to train their hunting dogs. When a dog misbehaves or does not follow a command, the animal is not beaten. Instead, the dog is placed immediately under the Wisu where biting ants administer an unforgettable lesson without damaging the direct relationship between man and pet as a beating would do.
Yet another interesting lesson is for those who wonder how wooden pilings under Kapawi's guesthouses can withstand the rigors of being submerged in water and subject to termites and other rainforest hardships. The Balsamo Tree resists all those attacks, but only if it is harvested during the new moon before the sap rises, filling the trunk with internal moisture.
Magic or autosuggestion?
A recent "easy" excursion for seven guests included a nighttime visit to a famed shaman who performed "cures" on several of them. This bewitching consultation took place in the shaman's dimly lit hut. Observers were served a bowl of "chicha" by the lady of the house. Made from masticated and fermented yucca root pulp, this nourishing beverage is drunk by young and old. Courtesy demanded that visitors at least make a show of tasting the stuff--and no one risked being discourteous to former headhunters with magical powers. The "patient" sat before the shaman on a stool and related his symptoms to the great man. After purifying himself with a hallucinogenic drink and wafting smoke over the "patient," the shaman sucked the evil out through the person's forehead, then spat the evil into a pail. A bound medicine bundle of leaves of a special tree symbolizing the curative effects of Nature was brushed over the entire person's body to waft away lingering spirits and to complete the cure. Did it help the "patient"? Quien sabe.
For Kapawi guests, this amazing experience was followed by an evening al fresco organized by the lodge. On a sandbar in the middle of the Capahuari River, a delicious candlelit dinner was served, complete with three courses and imported wines. Later, sleep came inside space age, three-man tents under a brilliantly star-studded sky, framed by a darkened horizon of great, liana-shrouded trees and accompanied by the nighttime choruses of the rainforest.
|For additional information: http://www.kapawi.com/
PHOTO CREDITS: Rod Lopez-Fabrega, postcard reproduction photo of Quito by E. Lawrie, deer-shaman mask and armadillo-shaman masks by sculptor, Patricio Ormaza, from Olga Fisch Gallery in Quito, Kapawi Ecolodge brochure
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