Photographs: Jorge Vinueza
Balance and safeguard our energy for the day ahead before dawn with guayusa leaves… who on earth does that?
We await the sunrise in the heart of the jungle. I taste the intense sweetness of the guayusa tea. The chief of the tribe — who has been standing here since midnight, guarding the fire — begins to beat his drum. It’s five in the morning and it’s time to bathe in the river, fresh guayusa leaves in hand, passing them all over our bodies, from head to toe. While the tea energizes our skin, the leaves create a seal so that energy cannot escape. When we finally leave the river, wet and much less cold than expected, we are truly ready to start our day.
The way of the ancestors
Located on the banks of the Puyo River, the name of this route, Apu-Purina, means Path of the Leaders in Kichwa, though it can also be understood as Walking with Wise Spirits. That is how Claudia Álvarez, our guide, explains it. She says it all started when she visited the area with classmates on a field trip and fell in love. Years later, she decided to help these communities become quality tourism experiences.
Today, the 10 km walk (it’s also a race) and circuit visits several community tourism ventures, opportunities to understand the idiosyncrasies of these forest-bound villages. This goes beyond dances, shamans, ancestral practices, traditional food and the endemic fauna one finds. This is a very special trip to the heart of our intercultural world.
Between tiger and snake
In the community of Ayamta-Jea, our first stop, we meet Mariana Vargas. She’s prepared for the visit, with a beautiful blue dress adorned with huairuro seeds. “We’ll head-shrink upon request,” she says, laughing at my look of surprise. “But with animal heads! Of course, if a man misbehaves with any of us, then we’ll shrink his head at the drop of a hat,” she claims.
The river runs next to the huts and trails. “In the evenings, otters come to visit,” says Claudia. This animal is said to bring the spirit of play and sharing to the communities. Following the example, Marina continues to talk to us about her traditions: “When two people of different nationalities get married, the culture of the male prevails,” she explains. She wears a woven collar made with the head of a feline. This is the protective spirit of the “people of fire”, the Shuar Indians, and she made the necklace for her husband, a great hunter and leader, to keep him strong. She is, however, Kichwa. Her people are very different. The Kichwa like a fishing. They’re a pacific people, she says, who seek consensus always. They therefore prefer wearing an anaconda to protect them.
Traditional dance (Urkuy Wasi)
Inti Santi tells us more about the relationship between animals and people at Sacha Wasi (“the jungle house”), where up to thirty people can overnight. His necklace is made of a jaguar tooth. “Whenever someone has a tooth, a vertebra or an animal’s skin in these parts, it is because he himself has hunted the animal: that is his power.” He lowers his voice to tell us this next bit: when he walks the forest, he becomes a jaguar and many have seen him as one. Inti takes the drum and starts to sing. The fire crackles by his side. In Kichwa communities, fire is always lit to feed the life force of all the members.
Dance, maito and legend
In Wayruri, the girls welcome us and introduce us to the house macaw, Runa. With turquoise, red, green and yellow plumage, it climbs the tree trunk using its beak and shouts “hola” from above to greet us.
Inside the hut, Patricio, a jungle guide for over 25 years, calls on group of visiting foreigners to watch the men and women of the community prepare their traditional dance: the men form a circle around the women, whistle, play their drums and shout. With each shout, the women in the center change the direction and intensity of their steps. The men then mark direction and power, while the women dictate movement, cadence.
In Urkuy Wasi (the house of the ant), we have lunch. At the bottom of the communal hut there are animal-shaped seats: a turtle, an armadillo, a snake… Here men sit during ceremonies and women stand, serving chicha. While a girl paints geometric designs on my face (with achiote), Clarita approaches and serves us our first bowl of chicha.
Its flavor is slightly acidic, milky white and the bowls are called “mocawas”, which hint at their importance. Each mocawa has an animal engraved on it, which gives a message when we are finished drinking: the mocawa chooses us.
Johnny, community leader, challenges us to have a try at the blowgun. You must blow hard through a hollow chonta wood trunk so that the dart — tipped with herbs and poisonous fruits — can fly straight to the target. Johnny smiles as I struggle with the weapon’s weight and miss the target (by only half a centimeter, honestly).
Blowgun trainning (Wayruri).
Then it’s time to dance. Women go to one side and men to the other. While Claudia and I are crowned with feathers on our heads and straw skirts at our hips, Clarita tells us “a secret only women can hear”: the waving movement we will make in the dance is used to banish the men, because this is a “dance of conquest”.
The music ends and the food is ready. After a savory chicken broth comes a wrap made with bijao leaves, accompanied by cassava and salad. When you open it, the aroma fills the air, fish cooked with garlic and salt: the famous maito (watch out for the bones!).
Just before nightfall, we arrive at Lisan Wasi, a community that has a traditional celebration in store for us. People go from house to house sharing dances, chicha, bushmeat and food. They are celebrating San Pedro, the festivity of the warriors, according to Juan, leader of the community.
In the jungle, the night sky turns an infinite violet. Under the huge leaves and with the sound of crickets, the constellations are easy to identify and shooting stars thread through the sky. The jungle is never still, never silent.
The jungle Olympiad
This same route, the “Camino de Líderes” (Leaders’ Path) is home to an annual two-hour race (the first event was held in October, 2018). In addition to running, participants — organized by teams — must pass tests, such as hitting the target with a blowgun, identifying medicinal plants, crossing obstacle courses and even crossing rivers with buoys. In addition to safeguarding and sharing ancestral knowledge, the activity encourages teamwork. At the starting line each team receives a first aid kit, the corresponding luck and blessing … and off you go!
Maito (Lisan Wasi)
Adventure swings, enchanted waterfalls and rescue centers
After a restful night’s sleep we head to Gringo Yaku, a recreation center located twenty minutes away by car. If you’re looking for some adrenaline, this is the place.
The name is not random. While the canoe moves across the river to the entrance of this tourist center, Oswaldo Guatatuca, one of the hosts, tells the story: about 200 years ago, a foreigner visited looking for gold. He hired Severo Vargas, a local guide, to enter the jungle. One day the guide, exhausted, decided to rest. The treasure hunter, instead of staying, decided to set out on his own… and no-one ever saw him again. The shamans searched for him everywhere, in trances and even among the stars, and finally found the cave where he is said to have entered. They called for him to return, but he didn’t listen. The entrance to this cave then suddenly closed and the visitor was trapped inside forever “taking care of the jungle”.
Remigio Toscano Vargas, a former soldier in the Ecuadorian-Peruvian war and trainer of the Iwia army, walks us through the project. It is divided into three sections: the welcome (which includes crossing the river and drinking guayusa), the yachak visit and the adventure swing.
After a good breakfast of green plantain, coffee and dried meat, we arrive at the second station, where Franklin Murial, the yachak or shaman of the community, awaits. This man knows how to cure ailments by mixing fruits and leaves in teas, poultices and tinctures. There are many who come to seek his medicine that, as he points out, “is not immediate because it cures the root cause.”
He tells us about the uses of some plants and then comes the limpia (cleansing ritual): he passes a bouquet of herbs over my body while exhaling palls of tobacco smoke. Franklin knows the state of his patient’s vital energy according to how the cigar burns and smoke curls around them. After making his recommendations (which, he tells me, are only for me), he blows flower-water in my direction.
My energy duly balanced, we enter the jungle. Remigio guides us through a beautiful primary forest. He walks ahead, in case of snakes (don’t forget your rubber boots). We arrived at a 5 metre-high waterfall, the place where “the gringo got lost”. We climb up to a plateau, but rest only a little: here, at the top of the trail, we find the adventure swing everyone’s been talking about. At least it has been installed with high-end security in mind.
Once the harnesses are on, we get on to the platform, hold our breath and, with a scream, swing out over the jungle. The ride ends seconds later, but a feeling of freedom remains. This introduces us to the recreational station: a natural park with a 4-meter deep lagoon where you can swim with buoys, mats or lifevests (for children). The complex includes a restaurant, bar, bathrooms, sports fields and spaces to lounge.
These visits seem remote, but they aren’t so far away, really: globalization has made its mark. Everyday life has changed, communities no longer wear their traditional clothes every day and certain ceremonies, which were also daily, are less frequent. There are no more blowgun wars between the tribes; now they face another kind of enemy: oil extraction, mining, hydroelectric dams, monoculture, indiscriminate logging…
As we make our way back to ‘civilization’, the communal villages get smaller and smaller. This route seems like a threshold: a place where the world becomes smaller, faced by the immensity of its jungle, but a place that comes from remote legends and is now at no distance at all, lending itself to show us city-dwellers its fascinating singularities: its medicinal preparations like the chuchu-wasi made up of bark and alcohol to relieve ailments, its drums made out of monkey leather, its women who sing so that the yucca grows strong, its tales of the wito, a black natural dye with which faces used to be painted. Today, this is replaced with achiote… it’s much easier to clean off.
To visit this tourism route, it is important you reserve in advance:
(+593 9) 7909 3065
FB: Apu-Purina Camino de Líderes
We also suggest visiting Tamandúa, a wildlife study and liberation center linked to the Yanacocha Rescue Center in Puyo. This project seeks to reinsert rescued wild species into their natural habitat. The adaptation takes place at Yanacocha, and the species are then released in Tamandúa, where a team of experts and volunteers monitor them. The food is excellent and the lodging comfortable.
In addition, you can meet Jorge, a Shuar yachak (shaman), who will guide you along the forest paths, telling legends of his people and identifying medicinal jungle plants. A 20-meter waterfall and its purifying water — a true natural massage — awaits as a reward at the end.