Welcome to the Jungle

A Short Walk in the Ecuadorean Amazon

by Adam Jones (1997)

Amazon Flora. (Author's photo.)

Amazon Flora (photo)

THE SCHEDULE for our first morning in Ecuador's Amazon seems leisurely enough: a pickup truck from the town of Tena to the Río Jatanyacu, a tributary of the mighty Río Napo; a crossing of the river; and a stroll through the rainforest to lunch at our base camp.

Nature, though, has other plans. It has rained heavily through the night, and when we reach the river we find the path along to the rickety-looking cable-car that traverses the Jatanyacu has been washed out by the turbulent flow.

Not to worry. "Wait here," says Olmedo Cerda, our Quechua Indian guide - a wiry, cheerful man of 42. He heads off with a machete to clear a new trail. Minutes later, we are clambering up slippery earth through thick foliage.

"Watch those blades of grass," Olmedo cautions. "Sharp as a Gillette."

Finally we reach the trolley, and Olmedo rappels us across the churning river. "You have to be careful when the river's this high," he tells us solemnly. "Two weeks ago, my uncle's canoe tipped over, and he was carried away. We didn't find his body until eight days later."

At least there are no piranhas to finish us off should we take a tumble - not in this neck of the Amazon, anyway. We are skirting what used to be Ecuador's frontier, back before oil was discovered in the jungle. The frontier has since been pushed steadily east, closer to the disputed border with Peru, and now the area around Tena is well-colonized.

There are still patches of primary rainforest left here, though, and Olmedo found one of them for his family's base-camp (campamento) at Sacha Ricsina on the Rio Ilocul. We reach it after exchanging our hiking boots for rubber wellingtons and slogging an hour or so along a mulchy, muddy trail. The smell of tropical decay fills our nostrils.

Until a couple of years ago, Olmedo farmed here. Cocoa, yucca and corn, mainly, with a little panning for river gold on the side. Then a tour operator in Tena persuaded him to start leading jungle excursions. Problem was, the operator kept most of the money, while Olmedo and his family did all the work and served as local "colour" for visitors eager to get a glimpse of indigenous life. "We were being exploited," Blanca, Olmedo's daughter, told me bluntly.

So, in March of this year, the family decided to eliminate the middleman and go their own way. Cutting ties to the tour operator also meant cutting costs - from $45 Canadian per day to $25, all-inclusive.

Their publicity efforts so far have been few, but word travels fast on the gringo trail through the Andean countries. I'd seen a glowing notice posted by a British traveller in a hotel in Popayán, in southern Colombia. My father, David - in Ecuador for three weeks - thought a trip to the Amazon sounded great.

A few days later, we were there. One of the advantages of travel in the Ecuadorean Amazon is the jungle's accessibility. From Quito to Tena is a short, cheap hop by plane, or five hours by bus a dizzying ride to the lip of the Amazon basin at 4,100 metres, then a slow descent to the lowlands, where magnificently misty forest vistas spread out before you.

And with the Cerda clan, at least, no advance booking is necessary. Just turn up, preferably with a rain-jacket and insect-repellant handy, and you can be in the forest the next morning. Nor do you have to gather a minimum number of participants for an excursion.

At least one member of your group, though, should have a working knowledge of Spanish. Many local guides, including the Cerdas, are fluently bilingual - but in Spanish and Quechua, the ancient Inca tongue that is still the dominant indigenous language in the Andean countries. Hand gestures may suffice, but there's much you'll miss.

LUNCH IS a simple, filling meal of beans, meat and rice - the South American staple diet - prepared by Lourdes and Maria, friends of the family who live and work at the campamento. Afterwards, we wander around the small clearing that will be home for the next three days. There is an eating area, an outhouse, a clear stream for washing clothes and ourselves, and a large, thatched-roof hut with comfortable beds, clean sheets, and mosquito netting. (Though there are few bloodsuckers about, and none, apparently, carrying malaria - a constant danger deeper in the Amazon.)

David Jones at the campamento. (Author's photo.)

Dad in the Campamento (Photo, 124k)

In the middle of the clearing, an army of leaf-cutter ants is methodically stripping some palm fronds and carrying them in epic chunks back to their nest near the sleeping-hut. A large, solitary spider sits splayed on the wall near my bed, motionless for hours.

In the afternoon, Oswaldo, Olmedo's 28-year-old son, leads us on our first excursion into the jungle around the camp. Soon we are immersed in dense vegetation, with a few massive trees broadly fluted at their base - there's enough room between the flutes to pitch a small tent.

A steady rain is falling, but only a few drops penetrate the thick canopy. The light, too, is all but swallowed up. We traipse in a dank nether-world of sweet jungle rot.

Oswaldo learned at the knee of his Quechua parents and grandparents how to decipher the secrets of the jungle. His expertise is impressive. "This is a filoripandio. In Quechua, a huandot." He cracks open the stem of the tightly-folded plant, and a clear sap leaks out onto his palm.

"The indigenous people use this to induce visions and see into the future," he explains. "A small amount produces hallucinations for twelve hours or more. A larger quantity will kill you."

Has he ever tried it? "Once." And? "It was interesting." Two recent visitors, he says, took phials of the liquid away with them, for sampling elsewhere.

Other plants have more prosaic uses. There is the ortiga (known in Quechua as the chini), shaped like a sprig of parsley. "I like to play football [soccer] a lot," explains Oswaldo with a smile, "and some of the people around here don't play with a lot of skill. Last week while I was going high for the ball I got another player's foot in my thigh. Ay, it hurt!

"So I made a poultice from the ortiga. It took the pain away immediately. And a little later, the swelling."

He demonstrates by rubbing the sprig on the back of his hand. A few minutes later, the skin has reacted with angry-looking lumps. But the area is completely anaesthetized, he reports; and the swelling soon subsides.

Oswaldo wields his machete with lethal skill, slashing through branches and vines as thick as my wrist. One length of vine he proffers for our inspection.

"If you're lost in the jungle and get thirsty, you have to know which plants contain water." He tips the vine and a trickle of pure, clean liquid emerges. "But it's easy to be fooled. Some of the vines contain poison."

"Do any have beer?" I ask hopefully. No go, but we drink gratefully enough. Oswaldo has chosen his vine well, and we are still alive a couple of hours later for the return to camp.

THE CAMPAMENTO shuts down early. By seven-thirty most of the family is in bed. The sounds of the jungle close in around us - the buzzsaw whine of cicadas, the clicking and chittering of numberless other insects, the dull rumble of the river. The paraffin lamp flickers in the gloom. I am asleep by nine o'clock, for the first time in years.

Breakfast the next morning is fish from the river with rice - unorthodox to a western palate at that time of day, but tasty. Oswaldo, who'd been a little laconic the previous afternoon, is raring to go.

He leads us on a fascinating four-hour trek: past the perimeter of cultivated land to the virgin forest, up steep slopes where roots provide the only purchase for hands and feet. We pause along the way to admire the views that open to us near the summit: the Río Napo winding its way through thick jungle, with fog-shrouded mountains in the distance.

"Listen," Oswaldo says. There is a faint background hum. "Traffic on the road to Puyo. Fifty kilometres away, but because of the way the valley's shaped, you can hear it from here."

There are more exotic discoveries to be made. Oswaldo shows us a tree, the copal, that weeps with sap when small larvae burrow into its bark. The sap, congealed, is a traditional source of fuel. He touches a match to a pebble-sized lump and it bursts into flame, exuding a smoke that smells like a cross between gasoline and spearmint.

Other plants Oswaldo points out are used in shamanic rituals, or by women to stanch excessive menstrual flow. There is the phenomenally hard wood of a certain palm used in the construction of blowpipes - a laborious three-month process that requires all the skill of a munitions machinist. And there are towering cedars that provide raw material for the best dugout canoes.

The tour is a budding botanist's delight, and there are enough weird bugs in the forest and back at camp to keep an entomologist happy. Birdwatchers and wildlife lovers, though, may be disappointed.

"My grandparents' generation lived on game from the forest," Oswaldo tells us. "They would go to sleep at sundown and get up at two a.m. Then, while the women made tea and stirred the chicha [moonshine liquor], the men would go out to hunt nocturnal animals.

"In the afternoons, they'd hunt some more. Each person would catch maybe five or ten animals. But the result is that things have completely changed for our generation. There's very few animals left, and now we grow most of our own food or raise crops to sell at market."

He's able, still, to show us a couple of traps laid to catch unwary armadillos or ocelots, and a palm-leaf hut for hunters to hide in at a favourite crossroads for small game. At one point on the trail, Oswaldo indicates the spot where he saw tiger tracks a couple of weeks ago. At another, he describes guiding a French tourist through the forest. Suddenly, he remembers, he felt a strange warning prickle through his body, and stopped dead - with a 15-foot boa constrictor blocking the path ahead.

But these are rare events. For the most part, the visitor must be content with the grandest organism of them all: the forest itself, lush and dripping wet on this rainy morning, with small streams criss-crossing the landscape, and tiny frogs perched almost invisibly against a backdrop of sodden leaves.

A SHOTGUN BLAST well after dark sends a buzz through the camp. After two hours of patient waiting, Olmedo has bagged a real prize: a huanta, a groundhog-like nocturnal mammal that lives in caves and pillages yucca roots for sustenance. Its meat Oswaldo pronounces "the tastiest in the forest."

Three more travellers have arrived in the afternoon: Sarah and Kevin, from Calgary, and Corinne, a Minnesotan. We are all called to a hut at the fringe of the clearing, where most of the family has gathered to inspect the catch. Olmedo looks on proudly, shotgun at his side. Margarita, his wife - a handsome woman, remarkably sinewy and lithe despite bearing ten children - is hard at work on the dozen kilos or so of still-warm carcass.

First she shifts it about in the wood fire, scraping off the fur with a large knife. When the huanta is scrubbed down to its pink flesh, she hauls it off to the river. There, by the light of our torches, she expertly slits it open and begins separating the edible parts - head included - from the viscera, which she discards.

"In Tena we can get 75,000 sucres for this," Olmedo boasts - about forty dollars. It is a princely sum, twice the weekly income of many Ecuadorean workers. But huanta is a delicacy in the indigenous gastronomic scheme, with a social significance that transcends mere cash considerations. As tradition dictates, family members and close friends, here and in Tena, will all get a share of the meat.

So will we. At lunch on our last day in the forest, after a leisurely morning ride along the banks of the Río Iloculin and through well-cultivated secondary forest, the huanta arrives on our table.

The first course is a hearty huanta soup with mashed and ground plantain. It is followed by a main dish of rice, lentils, and filet of huanta. The meat is indeed delicious. It has the texture of pork, with a slightly pungent, gamy flavour. We eat to bursting, thrilled to have stumbled into the Cerda family's lives at such an opportune moment.

Quechua family life itself is interesting to observe up close. The sexual division of labour is fairly rigid. Women wash, sew, take primary care of the kids, and prepare the food - which they eat separately from the men. Males fish, hunt, make trips to Tena for supplies (which they haul into camp on their backs), build houses, and guide visitors around the forest.

Unless they attend college, children tend to be married off young. Blanca, Olmedo's daughter, was wed at sixteen, a year later than her mother. Families tend to be large, but members of the present generation seem determined to cut back. Both Oswaldo and Fausto, Blanca's husband, emphasize that they plan to stop at two kids.

Family relations are strong, if the Cerda clan is anything to go by. The children are buoyant but well-behaved. Interaction between men and women seems relaxed, mutually respectful, and friendly.

OUR FINAL AFTERNOON is spent in Fausto's care. We are shown some indigenous handicraft techniques, and try our hand at whittling ashtrays out of bamboo stalks or carving maracas from a local fruit, the maté. Fausto circulates, nodding approvingly at our pathetically amateurish efforts. Then he sits down with a kitchen knife to produce a couple of masterpieces of his own, in record time.

In the evening we sit and listen to Olmedo's stories, handed down from past ages, and try to guess how much embroidering has gone into his tales of men turned into tigers and anacondas by powerful forest drugs.

At least one comfortable myth of indigenous life is further eroded. It seems the natives hereabouts have not necessarily fared better than we westerners when it comes to preserving an ecological balance. "We used to have fish of every description in the river," Olmedo tells me. "But previous generations used to make a strong poison - it looks like milk - from the plants in the forest. They put it in the river to kill the fish."

And so the fish went the way of the formerly profuse wildlife, hunted to near-extinction. "Now that poison is banned; we're only permitted to use nets. But it's too late."

Nor am I quite so eager to romanticize the indigenous medical practices in these parts. Sarah, the Calgarian, has spent some months as a volunteer at a jungle hospital near Puyo, three hours by bus from Tena. While there, she dealt with many Huoarani, members of an Indian nation based in more remote jungle east of the town of Coca.

"The problem is, they try the local remedies, and it takes them too long to get to a hospital when they fail," she tells me. "We'd get people coming in with two-week-old snakebites, with gaping holes and dead muscle all around."

In some cases, she says, the damage led to amputation - a procedure that is anathema to many Amazon native cultures. "One six-year-old girl's injuries had been left untreated, and gangrene had spread to her finger and thumb.

"We heard from other people that her father had been drunk and had abused her with a machete. They were irate when we said we had to amputate. They told us it meant she would never marry."

Nonetheless, it's one thing to hear lofty declarations of how the world's rainforests and their indigenous populations harbour a cornucopia of pharmaceutical lore and practices. It's another thing entirely to stroll a few hectares of primary jungle with an expert guide able to reveal the motherlode of secrets that may reside in an unassuming plant, tree, root, or nut.

I'VE JUST FINISHED listening to the Canadian news on my short-wave when Maria and Lourdes beckon me outside. "A present for you," they say shyly, and hand me a beaded necklace with a very special medallion. It's a local seed, fittingly known as talismán, that is said to bring good luck to the wearer. "Until we see you again!"

I'm thinking of the activities we didn't have the time or weather for in these three days: fishing, taking a swim in the river, panning for gold, learning some blowpipe technology, trekking to a waterfall a couple of hours from the campamento.

Until next time, indeed.

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Created by Adam Jones, 1998. Article under submission; individual passages may be quoted if source is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 10 October 2000.