Misahualli and the Rio Napo
Every since I visited the jungle in Bolivia I think a piece of my heart remained there and has been calling me back this entire time! So heading back out the jungle, this time in Ecuador was both a relief and a joy. As I said in my last blog we decided to book nothing in advance and just try and get a good deal directly when we got there. As it is low season here we thought we stood a pretty good chance. I have been lucky in that arriving in Chile in November and travelling slowly north I have been following the off season everywhere I go, the only disadvantage to that is that I am also following the rains!
So I left Banos with Yvette (England), Jan (Belgium), Tara (Melbourne) and Sam (Ireland). We took a bus to the jungle side town of Tena. We then took another bus further into to jungle to the town of Misahualli, a very sleepy little jungle town with Capuchin Monkeys running wild around the town square ready to steal an unsuspecting tourist’s food or camera etc.
We checked into a small hostel called El Paisano. It was $13/night but included breakie, fans, mozzie nets and hot water. The rooms were spacious and clean and the beds very comfortable... are rare luxury in SA. It was nearly 5 by the time we arrived so we went straight to a tour operator we had read about on the net, Luis Zapata. With our numbers we had a bit of negotiating leverage (group discount please?). We eventually booked a 5 day cultural jungle tour to stay in a village with a family for $50/day each.
That night the town was dead and we ate at a cheap little restaurant and then went across the road and played pool and drank $1 600ml beers for a few hours. When we went back to the hostel our Irish friend Sam was a little bemused by his mozzie net. He saw Tara and I tucking it around the edges of our bed then lying down so he got up, tucked his mozzie net in ever so neatly and then said “there!” I lost it laughing at that point and so did Tara. Eventually he figured out what he had done when I said “Sam, aren’t you supposed to be under the mosquito net?”, hahaha!
Sam struggling with his mossie net
We had a rushed breakie the next day as we had to meet at the tour office 50m away at 9am. We met Luis again and he took us down to the shores of the Rio Napo a couple of hundred metres across town. There we met our guide Ivan (pronounced e-ban), Domingo our cook and Cristian, Luis’s son who would be joining us.
The first day was great! We sped along the Rio Napo until we arrived to a small bank where some kechuwan (indigenous Indian people) locals were fossicking for gold. It was amazing that these women load up large shallow wooded bowls with sediment from the river and then stoop over the bowl skimming it in the water and turning the bowl round and round in a certain way so that the dirt washes out. This ensures the heavier gold particles stay at the bottom. After a few minutes they are left with a few minute granules which they empty into a cup then start all over again. On a good day they say they can get 1-2 grams of gold but the value isn’t the same and they don’t really receive that much for it. I got to have a go and it was really interesting but hard work and my back killed after only a few minutes... I have a lot of admiration for these women!! As in most other places I have seen in South America, the men don’t really seem to do much of the work!
Fossicking for gold
"I found GOLD"
We continued down the river until we arrived at a small island. There was a museum here with artefacts based on the traditional hunting practices of local tribes of the area. Here we also got to try our hands or lungs rather, at the blow pipe. The pole was nearly 3 metres long and out target: a wooden picture of a parrot with a Styrofoam background. Yours truly was the first to make a hit! Haha born huntress, not a good look for a conservationist!
Getting face painted with the pigment from some red seeds at the first stop. It symbolises the monkey, how appropriate!
Some of the traps at the hunting museum
Having a go on the blowpipe
Blow pipe champion right here!
Amazing lunch spread at the hunter's museum!
Speaking of conservation our next stop down the river was Amazoonico Animal Rescue Centre. Started by a Swiss couple and run exclusively by volunteers the park takes in orphaned and abandoned animals, mostly from the pet trade. They have rehabilitation centres and parks off site where they can release suitable candidates of certain species but those who can’t be released at least get looked after properly at the centre. They have Capuchins, Spider Monkeys, Toucans, parrots including Macaws, Ocelots, Peccaries, Capybaras, Jaguarundies, Caimen, Tortoises and Turtles. A German volunteer took us around and I talked to him non-stop not only about the animals there but about volunteering there as well. It was very cheap but seemed to be more about giving guided tours that pay for the centre then working with the animals but I decided to take some information anyway.
Toucan at amazoonico
Two tortoises getting around the park
A Peccary (bush pig)
Ocelots waiting for their dinner
Next we went a bit further down the river to go tubing! We stupidly didn’t have our bathers on so our guides put up a sheet for us girls so we could get dressed behind it but then they walked to the front of our little boat and just sat where they could see us anyway and proceeded to stare expectantly. We couldn’t believe they would be so brazen but that’s Ecuador. After a telling them to go away at least 5 times they eventually slunk away giving us some privacy. Still, my sarong is one of the best things I have in my pack. It has so many uses including a change room. Then the real fun began and we sat back in our tubes and floated down river sometimes fast sometimes slow taking in the beauty of the jungle vegetation rising out spectacularly overhead. Then we started trying to stand up on the tubes, the guides found this very amusing and grabbed my camera to take some photos.
Getting set to tube down the river
In the boat
We climbed back in the boat (begrudgingly) and continued for a further hour down the river to our community. We all loaded up with our food and supplies for the next 4 days and trudged along the jungle track deeper into the jungle to the tiny community that would be hosting us for the next few days. When we arrived we were introduced to Domingo (another Domingo) and his family whose house we would all be staying in for the next week. The house was a wooden hut built on stilts due to the constant rain they receive in the jungle. The house was one big room: bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room. The family went to stay in the house next door because it was not big enough to house 8 extra people. They kindly laid out our mattresses on the ground with a sheet, a thin blanket and of course a mosquito net.
Inside the house
Hanging around the dining table
That day was my friend Tara’s birthday and so the guides celebrated by making a dessert with flour and sugar and something else and cooking them in small parcels wrapped in banana leaf over the fire. They even decorated the pile and made it look like a bday cake. Domingo our chef then got out the puro: sugar cane spirit that tastes like a sweet mentholated spirit, probably as potent to. He heated it up with water flavoured with lemon, sugar and cinnamon and the result was quite delicious. He also taught us some kechuwan words. One phrase he ended up saying a lot every night of that trip after dinner (the puro cocktails became a regular occurrence). The phrase was “upi warmi” which meant “women drink”! haha! Our dear guides turned out to be quite characters and were good friends by the end of the tour!
The next day we went for a 4 hour walk around the jungle learning about utilisation of certain jungle plants. Within seconds Ivan could make a fan, a back scratcher, a head band, jewellery, a grater and with a bit more time, a backpack! We saw many edible fruits like yuka (a yam), pineapples, cocao and coffee plants, many that were now farmed by the community for money, jungle apples etc. Then Ivan picked a really spiky plant and struck it against our skin where we had mosquito bites (which for me should have been everywhere). He claimed it was used as a local anaesthetic but the pain really stung and we all started to come out with tiny lump where the spines had struck us., He said it was temporary and that the pain would go away as the anaesthetic set in and although it did start to tingle a little it still hurt a lot as well and the lumps got bigger and bigger. A week later we still had itchy bumps on our arm but at least it did its job of disguising the itch of the mosquito bite!
Ivan with the Yuka root (makes delicious chips)
Weaving headbands from jungle palm fibres!
Monkey brush, monkeys in the jungle actually use these spiky pods to groom themselves!
Talk about resourcefullness: Ivan makes a backpack out of jungle plants
"uhh ouhhh ouhhhh" (say like Tarzan)
The evil spiky plant
Lumps appearing on my wrist after being struck by that awful plant
Cocao beans drying by someone's house. They are covered with little orange and black butterflies
Me with a little girl from a house near our community
One bad thing about the jungle... MOSQUITOS!!! No matter how careful I was I got eaten alive. Even 98% Deet was useless.
That night was the highlight of the trip! It was the Easter weekend after all and that night we collected some cocoa beans that had been drying in the sun for days and made...CHOCOLATE! We roasted the beans over the fire then peeled off the outer shell as they cooled. The peeled beans were then put through a grinder and the crumbly mix was then cooked with a bit of sugar and milk over the fire until a runny chocolate was the result. We ate it with bread and out of the bowl. When we were done Domingo presented us with our dinner which we were too full to eat!
Grinding up th cocao beans
Eating the chocolate YUMMY!!
One of our delicious meals, roasted palm heart wrapped in banana leaf!
The next day we went to another slightly larger community to see the process of making fermented yuka, an alcoholic drink for the local people. The men drink at least one cupful with breakfast. The process was quite simple. They skin and boil the yuka until soft and then tip large amounts into a large shallow dish on the floor about 1.5m wide. The women of the family then sit around with wooden pummelling instruments and mash the yuka into a paste gradually adding water. They then leave the mix to ferment for anywhere between 3-10 days depending how strong they want the drink. We politely had a taste (it tasted like sour fermented watery mashed potatoes!) and left the rest for our guide at that town who happily drank several bowlfuls!
Mashing the Yuka
After that went with to see the school and gave out some sweets to the kids peering shyly at us from around the corner. Then spying the football pitch next door in the middle of the town we got some of the kids from the house to play a football match with us. It was hard in the strong humid jungle heat but lots of fun! Gradually the teams grew as more and more children from the community came out to join us! At the end I went to boot the ball and then Jan cut in and my bare foot instead found contact with the side of his leg. I thought I had broken my foot. It swelled up very quickly and I couldn’t walk on it properly for the next 4 days!
The journey down river had been in a very shallow dugout canoe. For our guides, trying to push the canoe back up river was a little more difficult. Our return was delayed as me and the other 2 girls swam in the very, very shallow river, silly but necessary after our football match. We went a bit further up river then had a picnic lunch on the riverbank and found a good tree to climb and jump from. We had to walk parts of the way back up the river because the water was either too shallow and the current too strong. On one occasion Ivan accidentally hit a log and very quickly sunk the canoe!! So funny! We also found a very long collection of vines to swing out on and drop into the river below! So much fun! When we got back we went down to the river about 40 metres away from the house and washed ourselves and our clothes in the river as had become our evening activity. While waiting for dinner we either played cards or pondered frustratingly over the riddles that Jan kept giving us.
Picnic on the river bank
And the canoe sunk hahaha!
We saw this tree on our way to the community. The trees underneath are normal size which just goes to show what a giant this tree is!
Two mating dragonflies land on my hand at the same time...what are the odds!!
Cruising along in the dug out canoe
Vine swing over the river!
That night we had 2 activities. First Ivan taught us to make some local handcraft with a fibre made from plant of the jungle. I made a bracelet and an anklet with beads made from jungle seeds threaded through. When we were finished Ivan led us out for a night stalk. We saw a miniature tarantula (about the size of a huntsman), a coral snake and a little tree mouse. The jungle was alive at night more than during the day and the roar of insects and frogs calling was so loud. Back inside I had a large green cricket, longer than my finger fly into my hair, and yes, I dod freak out a bit! When we went to sleep we could see the glow flies flashing around the roof overhead and listen to the bats flying into the house and under the ceiling to catch moths (the outside walls were only waist high in places.
Coral snake that we saw on our night stalk
Little tree mouse
In front of the roots of the Ceiba giant
The Rio Napo from a lookout point
Our last day in the community we went out to find the biggest tree in the area, supposedly taller than the one we saw the other day. We walked about 45min until we came to the Ceiba giant. The spaces between its buttress, wall-like roots were about the size of a bedroom. It was a truly a giant of the forest and we had a great time walking around the edge and just sitting back admiring its sheer size feeling very, very small ourselves. When we asked Ivan how tall and old the tree was we didn’t really get a straight answer so I think he didn’t know. We got back around 12, had a quick lunch and then packed up as we had to head back down the jungle trail to the Rio Napo. Our boat was waiting to take us back up the river to a larger community that was largely supported by tourism. Here we got to talk to a Shaman then be ‘cleansed’ by him. He took us individually and whistled, blew banana leaf smoke on us and tapped our head with bundle of surupanga leaves, sweeping it over us and shaking it out to remove all the bad spirits. Once cleansed, we went into a wooden hall and watched some of the local women perform a traditional dance. We even got to join in at the end haha!
Joining in the traditional dance
Getting cleansed by the shaman
After that we went further back up the river to Sinchi Sacha lodge where we had comfy beds and hot showers, a luxury after the jungle! Domingo cooked for us again in the restaurant and that night there was lots of “upi warmi” as it was our last night on the tour. The next day we were up early again and set off into the jungle one last time to see more of the incredibly unique and wonderful vegetation and wildlife. Walking through the jungle was so calming and I truly felt at peace! We also found this awesome tree swing that swung out 20m over the canopy below and Ivan had to beg us to leave and carry with our walk! So we returned to the lodge, had lunch, then sadly packed up our things and went pack down to the river for the cruise back up to Misauhualli.
Trekking through the jungle
The amazing tree swing
View of the jungle and over the Rio Napo
When we arrived back Luis offered us a good deal to stay at his hostel and we rested up and the next day was a fasting day because Jan, Tara and I had decided to visit a local shaman that evening and try ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drink made from the Banisteriopsis vine. We were driven out to the Shaman’s house and listened to the Shaman talk about the ritual and reasons for ayahuasca. He also told us the story of how his father became a shaman and the process for others. It begins by going out into the forest and fasting until you are invited by the spirit of the forest to join the spirit world where you are given are drink that gives you the powers of a Shaman. These powers vary depending on the individual and his experience but include healing, shape shifting and communicating with the spirits for various reasons through ayahuasca.
The drink was about 2/3 a shot glass and tasted awful. After about 15min my limbs started tingling and then I began to see shapes and figures come to stand in the dark room. At that point Jan ran out and was violently sick. It’s common to be sick on ayahuasca, it is part of the cleansing process but unfortunately Jan had a bad run and its effect was quite strong on him and he vomited all night and had very strong hallucinations. I went outside and sat in the Shaman’s garden and saw a garden that was completely different to the one I saw when I turned on my head torch. A wave of nausea overcame me and then I too was sick followed by Tara and the Argentinean man who was also there. I then found a quiet space to sit down and just watch the sky and the stars and the figures moving around me, some seeming more real than others. I got quite a shock when a dog came and sat beside me, I thought it was a hallucination but when it snuggled next to me I jumped out of my skin! Haha! I then became very tired and sat with my eyes closed and listened to my heart race and felt my hands shake like crazy.
The shaman then called us in one by one and cleansed us like the other shaman had down in the jungle. He whistled his song or taquina because he was afraid that if he said the words other shamans may steal them, along with his secrets. He also battered our head repeatedly with his bundle of leaves and blow smoke over us. I was thankful he didn’t spit on us which has happened to other people I have met. So he did his cleansing and washed away all the bad supais (spirits). After lying down some more with the others we went to the beds the Shaman had prepared for us and went to sleep.
We woke up the next day feeling a little tired and incredibly hungry. The experience for most people supposedly shows them a course they should follow in the immediate future but as I didn’t had any epiphany than I guessed all is right in my world!
We went back for a delicious breakfast at Luis’s and then packed our things and walked to the centre of town to wait by the wild capuchins in the park for a bus to Tena where we could get a bus to our next destination, Quito, the capital of Ecuador. But that’s the next chapter so until then...