Exploring Ecuador’s Amazon

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With Ecuador finally off the UK’s travel ‘red list’ now is a great time to explore its ‘Wild East’, writes AES Committee Member, David Horwell…

About a third of Ecuador lies within the vast Amazon basin. For most of history it has been home to indigenous tribes and a huge variety of flora and fauna. Until recently those tribes hunted and fished as they had for millennia. In the mid twentieth century the discovery of oil in the Oriente changed the status quo. Agricultural settlers cleared land, and missionaries arrived from North America. In the 1950’s warriors with spears killed some of these evangelists. The Spanish called the tribe Aucas, meaning ‘savages’ but they prefer Huaorani. The next decades saw a conflict between a traditional way of life and development of Ecuador’s oil. Further south, the head-hunting Jivaro lived, (now known as the Shuar). Indigenous Quichua people from the mountains had settled as farmers along the riverbanks. By the 21st century oil was Ecuador’s main source of income. The extraction of oil created health problems for the local population. This was due to poor environmental control with spills and toxic waste dumped.

Sacha Lodge walkway: Copyright David Horwell

My first trip there, more than 40 years ago, was all about adventure. We saw insects and frogs that mimicked leaves, watched busy leaf-cutter ants. We watched scary big conga ants that can knock you out with their bite and avoided stepping on pit-vipers. We learned about medicinal plants and swung on vines like Tarzan. Locals showed us how they trapped guatusas or agoutis. We slept in very rustic lean-to’s and felt like explorers for a few days.

Tree frog: Copyright David Horwell

Later trips took me to the Aguarico river further north. This Amazon tributary is reached through the oil town of Lago Agrio. Evidence of oil production is everywhere and not the sort of place to linger. Roads are made by pouring crude oil from tankers. The Aguarico snakes its way through the most amazing area of pristine wildlife. This is the Cuyabeno reserve. Much of the region are forest lagoons where time seems to have stood still. I will never forget when I spotted a rare black jaguar strolling along the riverbank or getting up-close to an anaconda curled on a log.

The indigenous groups that have turned to tourism are mainly Kichwas who descended from the mountains, and the Cofanes and Sionas. One group of veritable Amazonian inhabitants that offer a tourist experience are the Ashuar, who operate Kapawi lodge. I visited this lodge in the 1990’s, a logistical nightmare for groups as you can only arrive by light aircraft, with a dirt airstrip one can get stuck for days if the weather turns nasty. Though an intense Amazonian rainstorm, with thunder and lightning, is an unforgettable experience. We got to see how they fish and had a cleansing ceremony with the shaman. I must admit I was nervous about drinking ‘chicha’ a brew made by chewing manioc and spitting into a bowl.

Hoatzins Copyright: David Horwell

The headwaters of the Amazon are the most biodiverse region on the planet – where Andes meets Amazon. The region is most accessible in Ecuador, via either a day’s journey by land or a 45-minute flight. More than 600 species of bird exist and innumerable insects and other creatures. Tourist lodges provide a sustainable future for generating income for the forest dwellers. There is a lot of talk about how not flying around the world is a good way to reduce your carbon footprint. Yet, these small communities depend on visitors. So don’t feel guilty about it, make sure that you book a trip that works with local communities in a responsible way. Ecuador is one the best places to visit – one of the world’s true eco-tourism destinations.

To see more spectacular photos of Ecuador and learn about the country’s hidden touristic treasures click here.

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