Thursday, January 19, 2017

Kapawi Ecolodge - Great experience, shaky start

Email subscribers - please click on the blog title for better visuals. Thanks. MK
View from the center of Kapawi Ecolodge in Ecuador's Amazon basin. 
Last year about this time our good friends Steve Lambros and Laurie Gerloff and PK and I booked a five-day four-night stay at the Kapawi Ecolodge in Ecuador's Amazon basin—along with making arrangements for other Ecuador adventures. Soon after, Laurie was felled by icy concrete steps, cracking a bone in her lower back, and I was diagnosed with freaking melanoma. 

We weren't going anywhere! Situations like ours are why God created travel insurance, and I was thankful to have purchased a policy just a few hours before the deadline. Whew.  

Laurie's back healed, and my evil little spot was surgically excised before it leaked deadly cells into my lymph system. By late November 2016, we were ready to roll. And roll we did, right into a remote lodge in Ecuador's Amazon basin, except "roll" isn't the right word. Limp? Skid? At least it wasn't "crash," which was an arrival possibility that occurred to us.

The Kapawi Ecolodge is somewhere in the green dot in southeastern Ecuador on the Pastaza River near the border with Peru. The light yellow represents the Amazon basin including parts of Columbia, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela
Getting there involved a four-hour drive, a 45-minute flight in a bush plane, and a half hour ride in a motorized canoe. Early on, we wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into.

Our driver, dispatched by Kapawi, fetched us from our Airbnb in Quito, Ecuador's capital city, at 5:30 a.m. for a four-hour ride to a bush-plane hub in Shell, a small settlement named in the 1930s after the oil company. The drive took us through stunning territory called the Avenue of Volcanoes, including a rugged stretch along the Pastaza River, which we would soon come to know.

When we informed our Spanish-speaking driver that we needed a "bano" (restroom) he thought we were talking about the tourist area of Banos, which was along our route. Finally, when the toileting situation threatened to flood the back seat, we were able to communicate the urgent need. He jolted off the road over a significant curb, and we spilled out of the pick-up seeking private spots. Those who may stand while relieving themselves, found privacy. Those who must squat, no luck.

Our six-seater was scheduled to fly us from Shell to the remote Kapawi lodge around 1 p.m. We arrived in plenty of time, despite our roadside potty break, but the skies unleashed fire-hose torrents. We were stuck inside the tiny airport watching rain pelt our luggage, even though the driver threw a piece of cardboard over it.
We're thinking that weather is going to delay our flight, possibly until the next day. Maybe someone is also thinking, Do I
really want to fly in a tiny plane in bad weather to an ecolodge 100 miles from anywhere, a 10-day walk to the closest road, and land on a short muddy runway surrounded by rainforest full of snakes giant insects? Too late. We're going! But when? 

We waited four hours before a grinning airline employee announced that it was now safe to fly, and the plane would take off as soon as we could load. The rain had stopped, but white and grey puffs were thick in the sky. We'd be taking off into what looked like cottage cheese.
The magic began soon after liftoff. As the ground and evidence of civilization fell away, so did misgivings.We were enthralled by the unfolding landscape, especially the Pastaza River. The river starts with a waterfall in the Avenue of Volcanos, carves whitewater canyons beloved by adventurous tourists, then spreads to cut through the Amazon basin. Here its braided coils of ever-changing channels create natural art and navigational challenges.
Miles later, the channels have converged to form a mighty river that rises and falls several feet a day, and where the sands are always shifting. The Pastaza is a major tributary of the Maranon River ,which flows into the Amazon itself. We spent time on the Pastaza most days during our Kapawi stay.

Our fears about a muddy runway were well founded. However, the pilot didn't appear to be at all concerned, as frequent
heavy rain is a fact of life in, duh, the rainforest. Mud splattered the plane's windows and wings as we landed, and also as we took off five days later. A little fish-tailing was no big deal. 

Thus began five adventure-and-wonder packed days, among the best of my traveling life. Our positive experience was influenced by a few key circumstances:
  • We were the only guests in a lodge that can accommodate 30 or more.
  • The weather was relatively dry, even though rain fell for a couple hours most days, and mosquitoes and other insects were not a problem. Hordes of insects and enormous beetles were no doubt present, but we didn't see many. The air was humid but not stifling. 
  • Well, we saw big beetle, but it was at the little airport.
  • Most importantly, our naturalist guide was a real-deal authentic member of the indigenous Achuar Nation who spoke English and communicated in word and deed his deep knowledge and oneness with this unique spot in the universe. I later read Trip Advisor reviews about Kapawi; most are five-star, and all but one credited the guides as much as anything else.
In a previous post, I gushed about our guide and the indigenous Achuar culture. Here I aim to describe what the lodge itself is like and how a typical tourist day unfolds. Although some of what I have to say may be perceived as negative, Kapawi provided us a one-of-a-kind travel experience that I would gladly repeat and highly recommend. Kapawi has received numerous awards including being listed in 2009 as one of National Geographic's top 50 ecolodges in the world.
Guest cabins are 100 percent Achuar style construction - made of palm trees without a single nail. Netting keeps the bugs out, for the most part. With so much rain, Kapawi structures require frequent patching and replacement.  Our cabins had a few minor leaks and bug netting needed some patching. Repairs were underway.
A dozen or so locals came by canoe with bundles of palm leaves to repair roofs.

A bundle of palm leaves awaits application to a cabin's leaky roof.
Kapawi prides itself on being eco-friendly, and solar hot water contributes to conservation efforts. The solar shower bag sits in the "sun" all day (should the sun happen to appear) and then hangs in the shower for when guests return from activities. The water was tepid at best, but I'm not complaining. We didn't visit  Kapawi for luxury.

                          For more about Kapawi's conservation efforts, check the website.

Beds are large and comfy and protected by mosquito netting.
Rooms have an ample sitting and/or hammock area looking out on the lagoon.

Typical—more or less—tourist day at Kapawi Ecolodge
6 a.m. - Haul your keister outta bed
6:30 a.m. - Early morning activities  such as birding and pink-dolphin watching begin after coffee and a handful of animal crackers, believe it or not.
8 a.m. or so - Breakfast - typically a fried egg, something starchy, processed meat, lots of coffee, fresh juice and a plate of fresh fruits
10 a.m. or so -  Board the motorized canoe for transport to a trailhead or other activity. Usually we were out somewhere until almost noon.
Noonish - lunch  
2:30 p.m. - After a siesta, we're ready for the afternoon fun including kayaking, beach walking, birdwatching. We could have gone fishing or swimming. We could have visited a shaman. Late one afternoon, following an amazing hike, we visited an Achuar village. (see below)
6 - 6:30 p.m. - dinner
8 p.m. - night activity (caiman by canoe, night hike);  briefing about the next day's plan.
10 p.m. - Bedtime

 WIFI Note: Don't count on it. The lodge has wifi in the bar, but even with just four of us trying to use it, it was impossibly slow. Disconnect!

 Most evenings an hour or so after dinner the four of us met with our guide in the meeting room/bar with this map set up on a tripod. He'd call the meeting to order by saying something like, "Now we will discuss tomorrow's activity." And he would proceed in a formal manner to outline where we might go, what we might do, how we should prepare,  and do we have any questions? Or would we rather do something else? He was most accommodating, but we went along with all that he suggested, including a nighttime canoe ride where we spotted caiman (alligators) and fell into a trance during five minutes of silence listening to the rainforest's magical night music. We also enjoyed an 8 p.m. hike in total darkness (except for our headlamps and flashlights) to see nocturnal frogs and other creatures.
We were served a hot lunch on palm leaves after a great morning 
hike. Lunches, including this one, were a lot like dinner-
standard Ecuadorian fare of rice and/or potatoes  fish or
meat,  and typically a light fruit dessert. This particular meal was 
carried on the motorized canoe and kept warm in a cooler.
We were so surprised! All meals were tasty, 
and simply  prepared. Not surprisingly, we were 
served a lot of fish. Portions were modest, not the huge heaps
overflowing the typical plate served in the USA.

As for alcohol, in case you're wondering, Kapwai promises a "well-stocked bar". This was not the case. Wine wasn't available, small beers were $7 each, and mixed drinks were non existent because staples such as gin, vodka, whiskey were no where in sight. I managed to run up a bar bill with a nightly shot of brandy. 
We enjoyed lazy kayaking and bird watching along the Capahuari River, along which Kapawi is located, not far from where it flows into the Pastaza River. Most of our bird watching was from a motorized canoe or on trails. Only one of us is a certified birder, (Laurie Gerloff) but we all enjoyed seeing and hearing multitudes of marvelous avians throughout our Ecuador trip.
Visiting an Achuar village is part of the Kapawi experience. This young man agreed to
entertain us in his home, where, after partaking of chicha*, which partially fills his bowl, we asked questions
through our guide. Also present, his wife and several children, not necessarily his.

After "chicha" and the Q&A session, we were invited to purchase crafts made in the village. Children brought in pottery,  decorative arrows, and a few other items, displaying them on banana leaves. We were told earlier that we needed to have small bills (Ecuador uses U.S. dollars) with which to purchase stuff because they have no change. They have little money, and are largely self-sufficient through hunting, communal gardening, and crafting almost everything they need
from palm and other natural materials. A "store" housed in a large covered canoe comes in from Peru and sells items they can't make, hunt, or grow. Stuff like salt, flour, and I don't know what else. We saw one of the floating Peruvian markets but didn't get to go aboard. We failed to bring enough small bills to buy an item from each banana leaf, disappointing some of the village children.

These bowls are made from local clay and hand painted. We bought the bowl on the left and a smaller one not pictured. The large one cost $5 and the small, $3. 

* Chicha! A guidebook forewarned us that we'd be offered this mildly alcoholic drink if we visited an Achuar village, and that it might present cultural awkwardness. To avoid offending our host, it was suggested that we at least try it. What's the problem? It's made from the manioc root, a staple in the Amazon diet. But for this drink, women chew the root then spit it into a bowl to ferment. Seems to me that a whole lot of spit is required to fill bowls such as those pictured. Fermentation is said to kill bacteria, even overnight. Our host and guide each drank at least two full bowls. Three of us tasted it. One pretended to taste. It was not popular.
Back at the lodge, we took turns blowing darts into a bullseye target about 15 feet away after learning the previous day how the blowguns and darts/arrows are handmade from palm trees and continue to be used by the Achuar to hunt game. Our guide told us that Achaur hunters can fell a monkey from treetops, and pointed at one far away above the lodge. We couldn't begin to see it. We believed it was there, though, because we often needed binoculars to see what Diego could see with his naked eye trained to spot the slightest movement and color.
Our last morning, after our daily 6:30 a.m. birdwatching and blowgun practice, guide Diego decorated Laurie and me in Achuar fashion. My tattoo turned out to be an anaconda, which was the only time we saw one in Ecuador.  

Coming next - photo essay - what we saw in the rainforest

Earlier post
Amazon Adventure - Kapawi Ecolodge  - All about tramping around in the rainforest, gaining insights into Achuar culture, and seeing how various rainforest plants are used for just about everything from housing construction to medicine to spiritual enlightenment.

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.