Kuelap and Chachapoyas

The Chachapoya was one of the most mysterious and independent Pre-Incaic cultures. They lived in the isolated and hard valleys around Chachapoyas, capital of the Amazonas department. Iquitos seems so far from these places, but the immense rivers indicate us the direction towards the Amazon. The Chachapoya had been able to adapt to a hostile environment, building fortified cities (Kuelap) and necropolis of sarcophagi on the impressive slopes of the mountains (Karajia). The numerous mummies that during the last few years have been discovered, following the crescent interest for this civilization, tell us a history of warriors (“Guerreros de las Nubes”), skillful farmers and architects. Kuelap, the fortified citadel of the Chachapoya, is an example of their ability, second only to Machu Picchu for majesty, still nearly undiscovered. Kuelap was erected in about 700 d.C, on a steep slope at 3000 meters of altitude and still shows in all their greatness the defensive walls, hundreds of meters long and till 20 meters high. Manuél guide us in the Chachapoya world and their houses with circular plant and tapered thatch roof. Complex ceremonial rituals, planning the sacrifice of animals (llamas), venerated the figure of the god Sun.

Kuelap's ruins, fortified citadel Chachapoya Pre-Columbian civilization Peru South America

From Coca to Iquitos

One of the most adventurous ways to travel from Ecuador towards the Peruvian Amazonian rain forest is to cruise along the Rio Napo, embarking on the cargo boats that follow the route Coca (Equador) – Iquitos (Peru). We have been attracted by this adventure for a long time, but the extreme uncertainty on delays and distances, has forced us to renounce. This is the information we have collected, hoping it can be useful for other travellers. Coca is situated in the North-Eastern region of Ecuador and there are three ways to go there:

  • Quito-Coca, 12 hours of direct bus.
  • Quito-Tena-Coca, with a stop in Tena (rafting, canyoning, kayaking, ecotourism in the Amazonian forest).
  • Quito-Baños-Tena-Coca, with a stop in Baños for trekking and thermal baths.

Coca, a rainy city born as base for the explorations of the oil companies, it’s the place where all the roads end, the travel continuous on the cargo boats along the Rio Napo: near the port of Coca you will look for a boat going to Nuevo Rocafuerte, officially supposed to leave on Mondays and Thursdays, but there could be others. Meantime, it’s necessary to get your passport stamped at the immigration office (the last one before Ecuadorian border). The travel until Nuevo Rocafuerte lasts approximately 12 hours, but could be interesting to program a stop along the way (Limoncocha for example): it’s one of the wildest zones of the Amazon, for a long time the Rio Napo borders the Yasunì National Park, where Huaorani, Tagaeri, Achuar and Siona isolated indigenous groups still live. We advise to contact a local guide before your arrival. From Nuevo Rocafuerte, you should find a canoe to Pantoja, the first village in Peruvian territory, where it’s possible to get your passport stamped. From Pantoja the hardest part of the travel begins: four or five consecutive days by boat, until the city of Masan, from where other travelers suggest to take a moto-taxi to a port of fast lanchas (canoes) directed to Iquitos, in order to save 13 hours of boat trip.

Probably a long and debilitating travel, to be undertaken with a lot of calm in order to know a wonderful part of Amazonian forest, surely an adventure.

Ecotourism in the Amazon

Ecotourism, communitarian tourism, ecolodges, ecoresorts are just many names which refer to the same experience: coming in contact with the rain forest and the people (aboriginal peoples) that inhabit it. In the case of the Amazon, because a good part of its future goes necessarily through this type of tourism, we want to give some suggestions, fruit of our experience. Firstly, you should consider that it’s difficult, if not impossible, the integration in the indigenous communities of the forest, there are too many differences. The only way to try a deeper approach to this world it’s to go there as volunteer (voluntourism): in this case better to get information in Quito on the options available, remembering that usually the period of cooperation is at least 3-6 months and that often the volunteers are asked to pay in order to cover expenses and registration fee. If instead you are travelers or tourists, our suggestion is to directly go to one of the cities/entrance gate towards the Amazon (in the case of Ecuador: Tena, Puyo, Macas, Coca or Lago Agrio) and spend there some days, trying to get information or better to know a person able to indicate you the communities that receive visits in the forest. A smart trick is to go to the travel agencies which offer organized tours and ask for their destinations; sure they will deny, but you will always be able to find a passage by bus, canoe or taxi towards the same place. Currently, Kichwa communities in the region of Tena (Napo) offer lodging in wooden cabañas and food for approximately 10 dollars a day. In this case, what you will be able to see is limited to the nearest attractions, unfortunately it’s impossible to explore the forest as independent traveller. Therefore, you’ll have the problem to find a guide who could accompany you in the remote places. After all, especially in the event your group isn’t numerous, it would be better to buy an organized tour by any travel agency, maybe after verifying that your money will be used for the development of the community itself. Last consideration: locals always deny, but tropical diseases exist (dengue, malaria, etc)… avoiding paranoias, take necessary precautions.
For many travelers the ecotourism in the Amazon it’s just a waste of time and money, but with an intelligent approach, it could transform in an opportunity to know and help to preserve one of the most incredible ecosystems of our planet.

Ecotourism in the Amazon Alucus indigenous community Tena Ecuador

Last shamans of the Amazon

Sarita and Carlito accompany us through this experience, teaching the language of a world we didn’t know before, the keys in order to understand and respect the forest. They design in our minds the symbols of nature: the anaconda (amaru), the boa, the sangre de drago (dragon blood, a medicinal resin), the butterflies, the curative plants used by the community and the shamans. Ayahuasca (the word which means “vine of the spirits” in Quechua language) or yagé, is a traditional psychotropic infusion considered sacred by the indigenous peoples in all the river basin of the Amazonian forest. It comes prepared by the shamans or curanderos in infusion and it’s consumed by night, as an instrument to expand their own mind and perception of nature. In the Napo region, Equador, it’s known with three different names:

  • Ayahuasca de las Mujeres, visions of flowers.
  • Ayahuasca de los Hombres, visions of boas.
  • Ayahuasca de los Fantasmas, visions of spirits.

Ecotourism Kichwa indigenous community shamans rain forest Amazon Tena Ecuador

An Amazon indigenous community

Sinchi Sacha means “strong forest” in the Kichwa indigenous language. Carlito, our young guide, knows every centimeter of his world, the forest; with his machete opens a way that knows by heart, he follows the “songlines” traced by his ancestors. While we listen to the fascinating lesson on the animals, trees and medicinal plants, we exceed crystalline water torrents, vine forests, mariposarios (humid cliffs where the tropical butterflies flock together) and we reach fabulous cascades dipped in the luxuriant jungle. After walking for hours we lose the orientation: the snazzy colors of the flowers, the infinite shades of green, the cries of the animals, the sound of the rain falling on the leaves, the humidity smell that every minute becomes deeper and wilder… an outbreak of emotions that take shape and dissolve in the palette of a painter, in the symphony of a single artist: the nature in all its strong creativity.

Amazon waterfall rain forest crystalline ecotourism paradise Tena Ecuador

Tena, a look to the Amazon

Now we are really in the Amazon basin… to make it clear, there are the curious smiles of the children who run towards the bus. In their black eyes and smooth like silk hairs, it’s hidden all the mystery of these wild places. Here humans continue to be just simple appearances, while nature shows itself exuberant and tenacious. Therefore, it’s a world that comes out from ancestral memories: we caress a boa and we perceive its uncontrollable power, we play with some monkeys and we perceive their likeness. Our friend, Gabriel, is a sturdy but pleasant man, son of the forest, born in a Kichwa (Quichua) indigenous community: he seems to have many stories to tell and a slight nostalgia for a world that inexorably goes away and refuses him. Tena is a city which denies the idea itself of the Amazon rainforest, even though it’s totally embedded in the jungle. Meanwhile it’s raining, raining and raining…

Kichwa child portrait indigenous community Amazon Tena Ecuador

Baños hot springs

Baños is a small city which rises in a flat piece of land, where the Andean valleys begin their tortuous descent towards the Amazon basin… we get there leaving the Pan-American highway near Ambato, city center of one of the most colored carnivals of Latin America (“fiestas de las flores y las frutas”). In the subtropical climate of Baños meet all the forces of nature: the Tungurahua volcano that dominate the village and it’s currently in eruption, frequent earthquakes, some impressive cascades and the clouds that incessantly thickens on the flanks of the mountains. In reason, the inhabitants of Baños talk with emphasis about the last eruption of the Tungurahua (August 2006), when part of the pueblo was destroyed. However, several Ecuadorian tourists come here, attracted by the hot springs of warm and sulfurous water; we also find a pleasant place, where we have a good time before the breathtaking descent towards the Amazon river basin.

Baños hot springs Andes Ecuador trekking Tungurahua volcan

Maiz vs oil: Latin American mirages

During the last year, the high petrol price has stimulated the production of biofuels from alternative sources (biomass). For effect of the crescent corn demand (used to produce bio ethanol) on the part of the North-American market, the price of this cereal increases, breaking up any record. The main producers, United States, China, Argentine, Mexico, Brazil, and in general the whole Latin American region, go on consequently to increase the production and the extension of agricultural territory. In this scenery, the cultivation of transgenic maize becomes more than a temptation, rising a question: is it ethical to transfer the production of a basic element in the diet of millions of people towards the tanks of our cars? Ecuador represents an emblematic example of this contradiction: in the Amazonian river basin the extraction of oil and in the Western region the crescent maize production, while many people continue to face the challenge against starvation. As we don’t like to talk about problems that seem far from the possibilities of any single person, at least without giving a little hope, we flag some Ecuadorian associations that operate in the field of human rights, rural communities and ecology; maybe someone would be interested in activities of cooperation/volunteering in Equador: Ecuador volunteer, Jatun Sacha, and many others we didn’t contact directly (mainly aiming at supporting rights of the indigenous communities of the Amazonian rainforest).

Corncobs, maize for bioethanol production

In Quito

The Andean landscape becomes extremely variable in the northern part of Ecuador: from semi-desertic valleys to impressive green hills. After hours of roller coaster we reach Otavalo, a village where one of the most important Ecuadorian indigenous markets takes place. We continue towards Quito, the capital, a gem suspended between the snowed peaks of the Andean volcanoes. We are literally conquered by the socio-cultural ferment which enlivens the city, in a few days we know many people, artesanos and people of the street, we talk with NGOs about cooperation, voluntary work and with cultural foundations. We enter in contact with new friends who hopefully will help us to trace a good itinerary towards the eastern Amazon region. We accidentally discover the ethnographic museum managed by the organization Mindalae, an interesting mosaic of the Ecuadorian cultures. From the African influence of the north-western region to the indigenous groups of the forest (Shuar, Siona and Secoya, Achuar, Huaorani), skillful craftsmen of the nature, without forgetting the Andean culture (Quechua).

El condor Andean Condor typical Ecuadorian handicraft

Towards Ecuador, goodbye Colombia

The deep canyons dig incurable wounds along the Andean ridge and mark the border between Colombia and Equador: we reach Ipiales following the Pan-American highway from Popayan through Pasto. We greet therefore Colombia, a large and wonderfully wild country, sad and crazy, happy and “thief”… Colombia, a country that more than every other Andean state, has been underestimating its most precious treasure, the wisdom of its indigenous peoples, asphyxiating their culture in a logic of useless conflict. Colombia, the country that condenses all its seducing fascination in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Años de Soledad), written by the Colombian genius, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“Bienvenidos al Ecuador” (Welcome to Equador), says the enormous cartel: the next challenge and many projects to realize, our dream to discover the Amazon. After traveling for so many months we reach the half of the world: a foot to north and the other one to south, or vice versa, we cut the line of the Equator.

Paramo means high altitude Andean ecosystem