Amazon adventure

Trip Start Jan 23, 2008
Trip End May 23, 2008

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I just couldnīt leave Ecuador without a trip into the Amazon basin. We found a good trip with Taylor Rodriguez at Planeta Travel in Macas. It turned out to be a different trip than we had imagined, but an even more amazing experience than we could have imagined.

The trip started with an overnight bus ride from Macas south toward the Peru border. It was another wild bus ride, and I was glad for the warm-up trip from Riobamba to Macas to get us used to the bone-rattling ride and newfound respect for dirt roads. Suffice it say, we didnīt sleep much on the 7 hour trip.

The road ended at the Rio Yauppi. From there, we boarded a dug-out canoe that serves as taxi for the communities up and down the river. In the pre-dawn mist we headed upstream into the upper Amazon basin.

The boat ride took about 2 hours, but the time went quickly. The Yauppi is generally a wide shallow river, sometimes so shallow that the canoe would scrape the rocky bottom of the river. A guy sat at the front of the boat with a long pole to test the water depth, and if necessary give us a shove over the shallows. At other times, we had to navigate small rapids. Not only were the rapids fun and exciting, but from where we sat low in the canoe, we could actually see the elevation change in the water level and appreciate that we were indeed going uphill. Very cool. All in all, the canoe was surprisingly stable, the pilot incredibly adept, and the 25 horsepower outboard eventually valiant against the current (although a couple times we wondered...).

We also passed the time taking in the innumerable types of trees and bushes and ferns and vines and bromeliads and flowers and mosses and lichens and and and..... With the sunrise, we could make out densly forested hills in the misty distance as well as occasional settlements along the river. We also caught occaisional glimpses of colorful birds and flowers.

After discharging and picking up a couple passengers along the way, we finally landed in Tukupi. Tukupi is a Shuar community, an Amazonian group who live in southeast Ecuador and northeast Peru. They used to be known as Jivaro ('Savage'), known for their practice of shrinking the heads of their enemies, although as a generally peaceful people, this was a rare practice. Both the Jivaro name and the practice have been abandoned, because of their savage connotations.

We found the people of Tukupi quite lovely. The village has about 25 families and is roughly centered around the volleyball court and their brand new concrete basketball court. Most families live primarily by subsistence agriculture, but some supplement their income by selling timber, growing products such as cacoa and coffee, or fishing. Tourism also supplements the community a bit, but as this is off the beaten track, they may only see a couple tourists a month.

Our first day, we went for an outing to the jungle to see some natural lagoons. Before we could enter the area of the lagoons, our guide Florentino painted Shuar symbols on our faces with achiote juice to ask permission for us to go there. As we made our way into the thick brush, he also stopped to point out important edible and medicinal plants. We tried most of these, to mixed reviews. One plant (guacam) tasted to me like a cross between banana and papaya. Bill thought it tasted like rotten meat. With the outrageous diversity we were wading through, I quickly went into botanical overload. Still not quite recovered.

One thing we DID pick up quickly was why rubber boots are a mandatory wardrobe essential here. The daily downpours can turn the dry clay soil into a muddy quagmire in 10 minutes. The boots are also great for warding off the myriad Things That Bike Your Ankles (mosquitos, midges, spiders, and snakes).

Many folks even play soccer in them (including Bill). When we returned the village, the afternoon soccer game was just getting started. Bill and Florentino joined in, while I watched from the sidelines with the kids too little to play. When the rain kicked in again, they went off in search of umbrellas. Precious!
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