Amazon Jungle Tour
We went to Ecuador to consider whether we'd be interested in relocating there because some people we know have moved to Cuenca and love it. Mostly, we were disappointed. It was too high and too cold in the Andes for us. But we did try out the lowlands on both sides of the Andes and found that we were much more comfortable there.
We only had a couple of days in Tena, which is advertised (along with many other places) as the headwaters of the Amazon. Actually, Tena is wilder but similar in many ways to where we live in Mexico, which is probably why we felt comfortable there.
We had no plans for our short stay there so we decided to take the Jungle Tour offered by our hotel. It was wonderful!
Our guide was a Kichwa healer, as had been his grandparents. His main focus is to travel through the area to small villages and teach the young people about birth control. He told us that it is very common for marriages to take place between girls of 13 or 14 and boys of 15. By the time they are 20, they may have four or five children, and they just never stop. He gives these tours to raise money to fund his work in the villages.
When they passed out high rubber boots to protect us from any insects or snakes we might encounter, I began to have second thoughts, but our guide assured me that it would be fine and we set off into the jungle. We were accompanied by a large German shephard who at first seemed like a pet, but turned out to be our protector. The guide carried a machete but never took a step without that dog going ahead to watch for trouble. Oh, great!
The trail, or what there was of it, climbed steeply to the top of a high ridge, the temperature and humidity rising with every step, and we had to stop to look around, because while we were moving we had to keep our eyes on the trail. The jungle was too thick for any distant views but there seemed to be something interesting in every direction, like the rotting log above covered with perfectly white mushrooms. I was glad for the rest to catch my breath, but even happier when we started back down.
Except down was hard, too, because it was so steep. And as we approached the gully at the bottom, the ground turned into mud. As I said, it wasn't much of a trail. The guide used his machete to clear branches from our path. There were downed trees and giant rocks that we had to climb over and small streams we waded through, always holding on to something to catch ourselves when our boots slipped in the mud. And about that downhill part? It just lead to the next uphill and many more.
Our guide was very good, sharing lots of information about the types of jungle we were passing through and, most interesting to me, the many medicinal plants and their uses. One tree was called Dragon's Blood. He used his machete to cut a small slice and then a leaf to catch some of the thick blood-red sap that dripped out, explaining that this sap is used to help heal bruises. Then he scooped up some dirt from the ground to carefully seal the wound he had made in the tree.
The bumpy branch pictured above is the source of curare, which is used in anesthesia and to poison arrows. They also called it Monkey Ladder.
My favorite was the "walking trees" which actually move (a little bit) to try to stay in the best sunlight as other trees grow up around them. They do this by leaning toward the sun and then putting down an aerial root to give them support.
After hours of sweating as we tramped up and down the steep hillsides, we finally came to a refreshingly cool river and our guide passed out the lunches he had been carrying in his pack. After a nice rest in the shade, my feet in cooling in the river, we waded across and entered a flatter area with some signs of cultivation. The pod above is cacao - chocolate in it's natural form. Inside are seeds that are filled with what looks like dark chocolate but the taste is enough to cure the most passionate chocoholic!
Our final stop was at the home of a Kichwa family. The mother of the house demonstrated how they make yucca milk, which we all liked. The guide had explained to us that the reason we had seen no sign of animals in the jungle was because they had been overhunted until nothing survived. The people of this area lived almost entirely on yucca, which, while healthy, is certainly not a complete diet, so there are many health problems.
The family which occupies this house numbered around 10-12 people, probably four generations. They didn't speak Spanish, so we couldn't really communicate, but I was very happy that I had lots of leftover lunch that I could share with them.
The dog in the photo was our mascot and protector. During the tour, I had assumed that he was protecting us from animals. Our guide made sure he was always in front of us but since there were no animals, I now have to wonder if he was really there to prevent bandits from approaching. I wouldn't have wanted to know that then, because I couldn't have enjoyed such a great experience if I was worried the whole time.