In the jungle with the Shuar

We decided to go into the Amazon jungle in Ecuador for purely practical reasons, the distance to/from the jungle is much shorter in Ecuador. Plan A was to go to Macas in the southern half of Ecuador’s Amazon and try to find a Shuar guide – the Shuar tribe is most commonly known for its past ritual of shrinking heads. They are a proud people who have long defended their land and community and are the only tribe never to have signed any form of peace treaty. The back up plan was to go into the jungle in Coca in the northern part of Ecuador.

IMG_3843The journey from Cuenca to Macas was bizarre, for the first 5 hours until the lunch stop in Mendez it was very windy, very rough road with mud and fords to contend with. It was so bad that for only the second time this trip (the other being Cuzco to Lima) we put a sick bag on standby. From Mendez we were suddenly on this big newly tarmaced road in the jungle and it went all the way to Macas (probably why the journey only took 7 hours not the 8 it was meant to). We were somewhat disappointed having endured 5 rough hours.

Macas is a pretty plain and boring town, not much to see and not much to do. We spent a frustrating day and a half trying to find a jungle guide, but only managed to track down a couple of tour agencies that were a) expensive and b) so crap they couldn’t even tell you where you go. After lots of asking around we bumped into a Shuar guide (Nantu) at 5pm on the Sunday. “4 days, just us, going tomorrow” we said, “is it possible?” “sure” he said, “come back at 8pm” and then he promptly took us out to buy a mosquito net.

IMG_3850At 8pm we were back and another guy Tsunki was there. The two of them talked us through what they’d got in mind for us. It was clear that Tsunki was the boss as he had the final say on where we went and what we did, he was a proper jungle man – long black hair tied back, stocky and solid muscle, in boots and shorts (bit gutted we didn’t take his photo). We also met Melinda who would be coming with us and Nantu as our cook (seems they like both a man and a woman to go out with people as both were capable of being guides and cooks). After our meeting we took ourselves off to the market to get some supplies including plenty of big thick plastic bags. That night we packed for the jungle, everything in plastic and all non-essential items dumped in a cheap shopping bag to leave at the hotel.

IMG_3862The next morning we were there at 7am sharp but of course they run on Ecuadorian time (Nantu was 15 mins late) and Shuar time (Melinda and Tsunki were nearly an hour late and missed breakfast with us in the cafe). Before heading off Nantu took us over the road and bought us the one absolutely essential piece of jungle kit – wellies! All the locals wear them and we’d soon discover why.

We headed off to a village on the edge of the jungle via the ‘taxi’ they had arranged for us all – a friend with a minibus. From the village our destination was a waterfall an hour and a half’s hike mainly on a muddy trail through a swamp. One foot wrong and it would go over your welly and you’d have to be pulled out. It wasn’t easy with still relatively big and heavy rucksacks on and it was very hot and humid when the sun came out. Nantu was to be our guide until the next morning. He led us to a river and crossed first, we could see it was going to be tough, it was about waist height for him (so mid thigh for us) and it was pretty strong. As good guides should he crossed back twice more with our bags so we only had to get ourselves across, which we managed without falling over. After emptying the water from our wellies and trying some bitter tasting jungle plant we hiked along a narrow trail through thick jungle until finally we came to a flattish clearing. This was camp for the night and we could see the waterfall through the trees.

IMG_3871bEmma and Nantu made the roof for the camp shelter and then we turned our attention to the tents. The one they had lent us proved pretty tricky as there was a spare pole to make a porch with but no one could figure out quite how it worked. In the end Nantu and Melinda managed to wedge it in roughly the right place. Having dried off from the river crossing we put our swimming kit on and Nantu took us to the waterfall. It has to be the best waterfall we have ever seen, a 100+ metre drop onto a ledge that spilled down into a pool at the bottom. “Do you want to swim in the pool?” Nantu asked (we were getting drenched from all the spray just standing by the pool anyway), but we declined because the water was icy cold. Nantu then decided to tell Emma a story in Spanish – our guides were under strict instructions that if they saw a snake not to point it out unless it was a problem – but Marie understands the word anaconda in any language and got the gist of the rest, and there was no way she was going in after that! The story (which is true, we checked with Tsunki) is that once when swimming in the pool Tsunki looked up and saw a massive anaconda on the bank of the pool blocking the only exit. They looked at each other for a good while and eventually Tsunki got out and it let him pass by (Tsunki told us that the Shuar believe that it is good for the spirits to see an anaconda).

IMG_3871mInstead Nantu took us up to the ledge and said we could stand under the waterfall. Getting drenched from the spray we could feel the water was no warmer so again we declined and Nantu went in on his own. Marie decided that since she was drenched anyway and it looked like fun she’d give it a go. It was so weird, you couldn’t stand under the main part as it was so strong it would have swept you off, but even on the edge it was like having a bucket of hail poured over you – the water stung so much and it nearly drowned us. Definitely the most refreshing and exhilarating shower ever!

On the way back down from the ledge Marie trod in deep mud and her left leg disappeared. Once dragged out she toddled off to the pool at the bottom to wash the mud off quite happily, forgetting any mention of anacondas after being battered by the waterfall.

IMG_3874Melinda had an assistant in tow, one of the girls from the village (not that she did much but sleep in the tent as she was ill) and when we got back Melinda put dinner on the fire (everyone cooks on fires in the jungle) and we made a washing line and relaxed around camp in the sun for the rest of the afternoon. We played with the machete – just because we could – which Emma loved. Then Emma discovered that our tent was covered with ants and Nantu realised that he’d camped us on an ant highway, so we moved the tent (literally with 4 of us, one on each corner) and Emma patched the 5 cent holes in the tent chewed by the ants with strapping tape so that we didn’t sleep with an open door for any other bugs in the area.

That night we built the fire up and the four of us sat chatting until we were too tired (about 9:30pm!). The skies were clear above the clearing, we could see plenty of stars and lots of fireflies darting around, which was really cool, and it was still warm. Luckily we’d put our sleeping bags in our tent anyway rather than just use the silk liners as we planned, because it was a long night!

IMG_3878aAbout 11:30pm we were woken up by heavy rain, no problem we thought this is the jungle, then it turned torrential – too heavy to sleep through – and lasted over an hour. We were a bit anxious as to whether the battered tent they’d lent us could actually hold that amount of rain out, so every 5 minutes Emma did a paranoid torch check and we punched dents in the ground in the corners where little puddles were starting. Once it stopped we soon fell back to sleep, only to be woken up by torrential rain half an hour later. It lasted until 4 in the morning and we lay there listening and being lit up by 2 simultaneous storms. We kept ourselves busy with the leak checks, but amazingly the tent held up really well considering and the biggest problem we had was water slowly seeping through the groundsheet, but the tent was big enough for us to move around a little.

At 3am we heard big cries outside from Nantu “Melinda, Melinda, kaput, kaput.” He’d been sleeping under the shelter, as Melinda and the other girl had the second tent, and the shelter had collapsed under the volume of water, drenching him and everything under there. After the two of them managed to remake the shelter we could see and hear Nantu checking how our tent was holding up, so Emma stuck her head out but the rain was so heavy that even shouting they could hardly hear each other. All we understood was that something was kaput and for some reason he handed us Melinda’s mobile phone (you get a signal everywhere in Ecuador its amazing). Apparently it wasn’t a usual tropical jungle storm, some rain is usual but nothing like that! After the rain stopped we must have been asleep within 2 minutes and we didn’t stir until we had to get up at 7am.

IMG_3878gThe next morning and the state of Nantu curled up on a wooden plank under the shelter and Melinda and her sidekick, who’d had lots of water leak into their tent, was testimony as to how well we had fared. Our gear however didn’t fare quite so well, we’d put our rucksacks in big plastic bags, folded the top and lay them down on a bench under the shelter. When the shelter collapsed the force and volume was such that it drenched everything and water had got into the top of the plastic bags, so our rucksacks were sitting in water. Everything was dryable though except for the decent camera we’d bought a month prior to this trip. The camera was in its showerproof case, in a sealable plastic bag in Marie’s rucksack (which was in a big plastic bag, under the shelter), but it still managed to get a bit of water in it. The good news is the camera still actually works and the memory card is fine, the bad news is the screen doesn’t (we got a watch repair man in Cuenca to open the screen with a screwdriver and we can see where a little bit of water got in and has obviously shorted part of the component that lights the screen). Luckily it has a viewfinder so is usable to some extent on the auto function and we have the old crappy camera as back up so can still take some photos but we gotta sort us new decent camera out, hopefully we’ll find one in Quito.

We hiked back to the village through a lot of water. The river had risen too much for us to cross back through it, instead we had to hike higher up and cross the torrent on a log. By taking it very slowly (one section was really tricky) and holding onto Nantu, we both made it over without falling in. We had breakfast in the village and then our ‘taxi’ arrived with our guide for the remainder of the trip, Erdwin (Tsunki’s eldest son) and took us an hour away on the jungle roads to our next point.

IMG_3878hOur accommodation for the night was supposed to only be 5 minutes from where the taxi dropped us off but they had a problem, the torrential rain had flooded the cabaña (hut). Instead we walked on another muddy track to a proper, but small, jungle camp. The camp had a big hut with 16 beds in, a shelter hut, a kitchen hut and another small hut (and a proper western style toilet). We could stay no problem, but they had a group of 6 Germans already there and since we were supposed to be doing the trip on our own not in a group, instead of sleeping in the big hut we were allowed to sleep in the kitchen (Erdwin and Melinda crashed in the big hut and the family that runs the camp go back to their home 5 minutes away). The camp is in a pretty spot, in thick jungle next to a river. Erdwin took us on a medicinal plant walk through the jungle, but not before we almost emptied our rucksacks and hung stuff all over the shelter to dry.

We spent the afternoon chilling out, mainly hanging out with the family, Melinda and Erdwin in the kitchen (the advantage of only being 2 of us). When it had gone dark e.g. pitch black, Erdwin and Melinda took us on a night walk in the jungle to see what wildlife we could see (unfortunately the Shuar have killed all the monkeys in that area). We didn’t see much – a massive beetle, some stick insects and a venomous spider – but we did get to play on a jungle rope swing (a vine hanging off a tree) and it was fun to spend an over hour in the pitch dark walking through thick jungle.

IMG_3878iThat night the family at the camp gave us a little tourist show, they dressed up in traditional clothes and sang us some Shuar songs. It was alright, they obviously like doing it, but luckily it didn’t go on for very long. We also got our first sample of chicha – a fermented corn beer that in the jungle is chewed by women, spat in a vat and left to ferment until it became slightly alcoholic. Chicha is given to all visitors and it’s very offensive to refuse it, you have to drink a little and pass the bowl on to the next person to drink.

That night we slept like babies on our bamboo bed. We woke up to a little jungle rain in the early hours of the morning, but snug in our hut went straight back to sleep again. The next morning we had breakfast and were told that there was a problem, the river had risen too much to boat to our next camp – Melinda’s family’s house – as we had planned. As we got prepared to instead hike we were told that there was no problem and we would be taking the boat (there is always much confusion about everything in Ecuador, you just roll with it and see what eventuates).

IMG_3871jThe boat was a more modern version of a dug out canoe e.g. long and skinny and we each sat on a plank as the man from the camp poled (they don’t paddle, they pole upstream and pretty much float downstream). 5 minutes up the river 2 boys were waiting for us on a sandbank – Melinda’s 16 and 11 year old brothers. The man from the camp got out and into a smaller canoe to head back and the boys took over. The current was really strong and Erdwin had soon taken over poling at the front from the youngest boy (the 16 year old was the boat captain). We weaved a lot as the current pushed us around and then Erdwin managed to snap his pole putting so much pressure on it so we pulled over into thick jungle, the 11 year old jumped onto the bank, hacked a path with his machete, found 2 suitable ‘trees’ (the poles are like thin bamboo but solid not hollow), chopped them down, cut them into poles, dragged them through the dense vegetation and cleaned the top layer of ‘bark’ off.

Marie helped to pole with the snapped pole where the water was shallow enough, but Erdwin and the boys were certainly relieved to get there. Melinda’s father has been allowing tourists to stay with the family for over 10 years, when the only people who came were adventurers. The family have 2 big cabañas (traditional huts) for people to stay in, their own house and a separate kitchen. They also have a football field, numerous half bald/plucked chickens, a pair of ducks with little ducklings, 4 dogs (1 with new pups), 2 pet parrots and 4 children living at home – 16, 11 and 7 year old boys and a 4 year old girl. Shortly after arriving someone handed us a bowl of chicha and it tasted very different from the night before – more vile and it was easy to believe how it is made (Tsunki later told us that it tasted different because the wife at the proper jungle camp is Quecha, where’s Melinda’s mum is Shuar and makes it the proper Shuar way).

IMG_3871oBefore lunch in the kitchen Erdwin and the 11 year old took us on a walk to a basket zipline over the river. The 11 year old went first and after getting to the other side didn’t give it a hard enough shove back so the basket settled in the middle of the river. Eventually the 16 year old turned up with the canoe and with the 11 year old on the front of the boat managed to pull it back to us. Emma and Erdwin went next, Marie gave them the best shove she could and they almost got across but had to both pull the rope to get them the last bit. Erdwin came back for Marie and with no one to push off they had to haul it a good way. Once the other side we hiked (through mud of course) to a jungle lagoon with alligators in, but we weren’t lucky enough to see one. Then we went back to the canoe and floated downstream back to camp, stopping on a sandbank for slices of fresh pineapple on the way. It was only later they told us that there are piranhas in the river.

After lunch we bathed in a stream with the youngest 3 kids in the family’s bathing spot, it was freezing but the air was warm. Erdwin and the boys then got the family’s blowpipe out and took us away from the house for a lesson – the target, a banana on a stick. But first Erdwin painted our faces in the traditional way for hunting using red ‘paint’ from a seed pod. To learn to shoot it we started off with a big banana only 6 feet from the pipe and Erdwin and the 11 year old helping us to line it up. To fire it you could just breathe, in fact its so silent that if you didn’t see the dart come out you didn’t know if you’d fired it or not. Giving it a short sharp breath is only done to give it speed to keep it straight and force to kill the target. After a few tries we’d both hit the banana, so we moved back and went solo. Marie got it pretty quick – shut the left eye, when the end of the pipe is over the target blow hard and quick. Emma got it straight after so we moved onto a more realistic target. A baby banana up a tree. Marie got it in 2, as good as Erdwin and the 11 year old who it turns out was a good shot. Emma tried and came very close, but if you don’t get it within a couple of shots your arm starts to ache holding up the pipe and then it becomes almost impossible to hit. Marie loved it and wants one when we get home.

IMG_3878pThat night we built up the fire in our cabaña and the 4 of us and the 11 year old sat round it talking. The boy sang some Shuar songs for us slightly shyly before getting bored of our conversation and going to his own bed. They taught us some Shuar words ‘thank you’ is easy to remember as phonetically its ‘Yaw-ming-som-way’ which made us giggle. Rain is ‘raspara.’

All 4 of us slept in the cabaña that night – bamboo beds aren’t quite as comfy without a thin mattress – but we slept well until the cockerel woke us up at 4:30am. After breakfast Melinda’s dad played some traditional instruments – a bow that was like a weird mouth harpsichord, something like a homemade 2 string violin and a small snare type drum – and sang us some songs. Music is very important to the Shuar and they always ask if you want to do a song, so Emma did some waiata in return.

Later that morning Melinda and Erdwin took us on another medicinal plant walk in really dense jungle with only a hint of a trail and we gathered some wild fruit from high up a tree using a bamboo pole called choncha and dug up some potatoes for lunch. Marie also tried eating an ant. There are lots of different ants but the ones you eat are about an inch big. You pull the head and legs off and eat both sections of the body, spitting out the shell. Emma declined.

After lunch we said our goodbyes and the 4 of us hiked up and down a bloody big hill to our last jungle village from where we got a proper (pick up) taxi – we of course rode in the back – back to Macas.

Melinda fed us so well – we ate all kinds of bananas cooked over the fire in every possible way, fresh fish steamed in leaves and a host of other things, and an oat drink (basically fine porridge oats with lots and lots of hot water). In return, and because we’re too stingy to tip, we invited them both over the road from the hotel for a chinese meal. Tsunki was also at the hotel as they had a group of world challenge students going out the next day so we invited him too (the meal in a decent restaurant cost us less than NZ$20 for 5 people). Afterwards Tsunki invited us for a drink – Melinda and Erdwin had already said that if we stayed in Macas that night they’d take us to the disco – so we all piled into a taxi and in true Ecuadorian style e.g. no one ever knows what is going on, we first went to some random woman’s house and after a discussion a bunch of lifejackets were produced and thrown into the back (it was 9pm at night), then we drove back to the hotel opposite the Chinese and Nantu was there (he was supposed to be out with a group in the jungle and we’d bumped into him earlier that day at Melinda’s folks house) we threw the lifejackets off to him (the world challenge group he had refused to go on the boat without lifejackets, which hadn’t even occurred to us, but I had no doubt anyway that if one of us fell out of the shallow boat that we would have been plucked out quickly) and then finally we were dropped off at some bar where we took over a private ‘green room.’

5 huge bottles of beer magically appeared and Marie had a choice, drink or offend. So drink it was and a late night followed (well late for us – it was midnight when we got back to the hotel). Erdwin sang some karaoke which here is always romantic ballads and was incredibly good and Nantu joined us. Tsunki made Marie dance despite her protests (and then believed her when she said that she couldn’t dance) and regaled us with stories in between them all making us drink (we did get away with only 1 bottle each whilst they got through 3 each). Shuar men can have multiple wives so Tsunki has 4 and wants 10, but says that women are expensive. As well as being a chief he also used to be a paramiltary commander of an elite Shuar army unit that fought in Peru and he has been a guerrilla and crossed into Colombia to fight. Amongst other things he also told us how to shrink heads – apparently if you boil it in water skin shrinks. By the end of the night we were told that they now consider us friends not tourists and we were loaded up with email addresses and offers of places to stay in the jungle (Tsunki was disappointed that he couldn’t come with us into the jungle so says that next time we have to stay at his house).

Marie found the walk to the hotel slightly tricky and neither of us were awake when we caught the bus back to Cuenca at 7am the next morning…

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