Saturday, January 7, 2017

Amazon Adventure - Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve

In December 2016 PK and I, along with our Oregon friends Laurie Gerloff and Steve Lambros, spent 3.5 weeks in Ecuador. Our journey included eight days in the Galapagos Islands and five at the Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve in the Amazon Basin. This is the first of several blog posts about our adventures, diving right into the heart of Kapawi - a place out of time that PK and I agree provided  over-the-top travel experiences. That means good! We've seen places that were more breathtaking but few where we were invited into an unfamiliar and fascinating culture. We caught glimpses of the rainforest and Achuar people as interpreted by our indigenous guide, Diego Callera.

Each day in Kapawi included a guided hike or two. Our guide spoke two local languages, is fluent in Spanish and competent in English. Most of all, he was fluent in the language of the rainforest, communicating reverence along with deep and ancient knowledge.
Our Achuar guide Diego at the sacred kapok tree where he was initiated into the spiritual heart of his culture. Now 30, he was a preadolescent at the time, 10 or 11 years old, and spent three days using local hallucinogenic plants, which enabled him to encounter the Achuar's spiritual guide, Arutam. According to Diego, one of Arutam's primary messages is about how to be a good person. (Later I learned that part of being "good" means showing self restraint in all things and not being lazy.) The experience may be repeated later if a person is having marriage troubles, or is having a hard time being "good." Arutam's spirit is embodied in this tree, and in many other extraordinary forms, and appears in dreams. I copied the statement below from a narrative about the Achuar in the anthropology museum in Cuenca: 

There was a time in which all living things were human, but by their good or bad behavior, Arutam converted them into different animals and plants and for this reason we consider them our brothers. 

We learned later that we could have spent time with a shaman and taken hallucinogens. It was too late for serious consideration, but I wouldn't rule it out if ever there's a next time. 
This was the trailhead the day our objective was to learn about the rainforest's medicinal plants.

A motorized canoe transported us to trailheads. Rivers are the roads in the Amazon Basin.
PK gets a hand with a mud landing. Rubber boots are essential and provided.


Diego went before us with his ever-present machete, an extension of his right arm, its edge honed to a glint.  With a flick here, a chop there, vines and  limbs fell alongside a muddy trail through Ecuador's lush rainforest.
Diego's orange-handled machete is a blur as he clears a path. 
The rainforest is mostly flat but rises sharply from rivers. We scrambled to keep up with Diego, then the going got easier.
Forest  music - birds, insects, frogs, moving water - was our soundtrack as we followed him in alternating states of fascination, disbelief, wonder, and sometimes fatigue. It's hot and humid! We stopped often as Diego signaled silence and pointed out something in a tree, in the air, on the ground, or in the river. And we, with untrained eyes, sought to see as he did. Not a chance.

     This video, less than a minute long, shows Diego calling in a pygmy owl. Please turn up the sound
     and listen carefully so you can hear the owl's response. The dang owl actually relocated to be closer to Diego.
Binoculars helped. Laurie Gerloff, our own birding and nature nerd, documented more than 100 individual species of noted birds and other critters during our 3.5 weeks in Ecuador. Most she'd not seen before.  
Speaking only for  myself, I could have walked the rainforest trails for hours without an interpreter, and thought, "Wow, that was cool." But I would have missed 95 percent because I didn't know what to look  for or how to use all my senses, including a sixth one I'm not sure I possess.


I may also have been stung, bitten, stuck in mud, and for sure, lost. We were often warned not to touch certain trees as they were crawling with red ants or other mean little biters. Occasionally Diego hurried us through places where unfriendly flying insects were buzzing. Oddly enough, we were not bothered by mosquitoes. Maybe a dozen times he led us across half submerged logs, boards or makeshift bridges that kept us from sinking into mud. We saw no venomous snakes, although they're present, and the only evidence of jaguars were claw marks on a tree that Diego spotted. 


Diego's oneness with his life's landscape, his knowledge and command of it,  and his enthusiasm for showing us made the difference between a regular well informed guide and one who was forged by his environment. He wanted us to know how the Achuar, reportedly among the last of the Amazonian tribes to be contacted by outsiders, live in harmony with the forest. He never boasted, but it became clear that he knew every tree, snake, insect, mammal, fish, monkey, mushroom, bird, bird call, and everything else, including what's unseen. There are layers of reality, after all.

A few things he demonstrated or described the day that our hike centered on palm trees and their myriad uses. For starters, the Achuar construct houses entirely from palms without the use of nails. Various parts of different palms are used to make arrows, blowguns, knives, fishing line and snares. 
  • This tiny "knife, made on the spot from the stem of a palm frond, easily slices through
     a cotton tee shirt hem. In the absence of a "real" knife, it is used to gut animals such
     as monkeys or wild boars, which are hunted with blowguns that project arrows
     with tips sweetened by the poison-dart frog or, more likely,  the curare plant.

The only tool Diego used to craft the items mentioned above: his machete. This is impressive when he's shaping something as small as a toothpick, such as an arrow-point, or that tiny "knife" he's using to cut up his tee shirt.
He's making string, often used as high-test fishing line. It is
strong! I have a strand of it around my wrist. I expect it
will be there for years. Might outlast me. 

I was pretty much bowled over and asked Diego  if others possess the knowledge he's demonstrated. He said, "Everyone can do what I do." By "everyone" he meant the Achuar men, but the women have another set of skills critical to group survival. And both sexes meet Arutam at the sacred tree around the same age.

Not sure what he's cutting here. Maybe a gem? NO'!
It's a stem with lemon ants, which we will soon taste.
He's fashioning a palm leaf into a miniature "backpack"
to demonstrate how to make a carrying pouch for game killed
in the rainforest. 
Here's a parting shot for this post, from our first day in the Amazon. We'd arrived at Kapawi mid-afternoon and after a late lunch, Diego escorted us on a motorized canoe to the Pastaza River to watch the sunset. The river is wide here, and we're on a huge wet sandbar, which will likely be covered with water sometime soon. We learned that the rivers rise and fall, responding to daily local rain but also to what's happening in  the Andes, not far away. The Pastaza River is a tributary of the Maronoa River, a direct tributary to the Amazon, the largest artery in Earth's anatomy. They seem alive, those rivers and sands, inhaling and exhaling, swelling and shrinking, with the rain. A few days later we'd slipped into the rhythm. This photo reminds me. 
Coming soon: 

Getting to Kapawi was half the fun; the lodge and its surroundings; everyday life as a tourist at Kapawi.

Things we saw in the Amazon rainforest: photos 

What it's like to tour the Galapagos Islands on a 16-passenger yacht.

What we saw in the Galapagos Islands: photos

Diego in his element. 



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