THE AMAZON JUNGLE
How many people can say they’ve been in the Amazon jungle, I bet not many? On a recent trip to Banos Ecuador, we traveled into a small portion of the Amazon Rainforest. We hired a private tour guide and driver to take us there. As we entered the Amazon border city of Puyo, it did not seem like we were in the Amazon. A little way out of the city and the massive jungle appeared.
PADDLING INTO THE AMAZON IN A CANOE
We went down a long one-lane dirt road to a clearing in the jungle. A wooden canoe made from a hollowed-out tree awaited us on the shore of the river. We hopped into our narrow and long canoe with the sun bright overhead. Some parts of the trip we drifted along with the fast current of the river and admired the raw landscape.
The days before our trip the area had a lot of rain, so there was lots of water coming down from the mountain making the navigation of the white water for our guide quite tricky at times. At one point we saw a poisonous coral snake coming towards us in the water. Due to this the guide had to paddle faster to get out of its way. He said the snakes can’t tell a canoe from a log in the water and some times climb aboard. After this little excitement, we realized that the guide was bailing water out the boat about every 10 minutes. So it was evident that the tree trunk of a canoe was not entirely waterproof.
A VISIT WITH AN INDIGENOUS TRIBE
On this adventure, we stopped to visit a small indigenous Shuar community. As we arrived, the locals took us into a dwelling made of bamboo and a thatched palm roof. A woman served us “Chica,” a drink made from fermented cassava root. It is their custom to offer this drink to all arriving guests. So, never rude, we both tried it. I was not a fan.
Two young girls ages 6 and 10 asked us if we wanted our faces painted. Keith said yes while I requested to have her decorate my wrist. Amazonian tribal face paint is often for decorative purposes. However, it can denote achievement, hierarchy, transformation or it can be war paint. We watched as our painters skillfully applied paint. They applied vibrant, dark red paint made from achiote seeds held in a small hollowed out shell, possibly from a coconut. So, even though the girls speak Shuar (spoken by only 30,000 people in Ecuador), we communicated with our artists in Spanish since that’s what they speak at a school in a nearby city.
The friendly Shuar showed us their weapons. Hand carved from wood with a sharp point; the Shuar spears are heavy. Keith held it but could not imagine hurling it accurately for any distance.
The blowpipe or blowgun was another story. The pipe is about six feet long. The darts are made of hardwood. In addition, they use this fine cotton like material from trees to create a feather to keep the dart flying straight, similar to a feather on an arrow. When hunting with the darts, the Shuar would dip the darts in poison. Using the blowgun wasn’t hard. You just take a deep breath and blow out all the air quickly. Keith hit the target several times. On my first try, I didn’t blow hard enough, and the dart sailed out of the blowgun too slow and landed about 10 feet in front of me. The second time, even though I did not hit the target, the dart shot out quickly and traveled far.
5-minute video summary on the river
MAKING CHOCOLATE IN THE AMAZON
Possibly the best part of our Amazon day trip was a visit with a local couple at their home. Our guide knew this family that makes chocolate from two cocoa trees on their property. These were very simple people. Their home consisted of multiple small buildings made of bamboo and thatched roofs. They had a bunch of animals just roaming around on their “planted by nature” property. Chickens, turkeys, parrots, and dogs all hung out and occasionally wandered into the kitchen building. They even had wild orchids growing at the back of the house. One of the buildings was used to make the chocolate which we went into to get out of the sun.
FROM RAW COCOA TO CHOCOLATE
The owners showed us the raw cocoa fruit, and we got to taste the white meaty flesh that covered the cocoa bean. I didn’t care for the taste but Keith like it. He said it was both sweet and sour in taste. The owner then roasted the beans for about 15 minutes. Then he poured the beans on a table and showed us how to husk them. This was difficult since the beans were hot.
Once we husked the beans, we transferred them to a hand grinder and ground them into a paste. The oily, cocoa butter, is removed in commercially made chocolate. The expensive cocoa butter is then used in many cosmetics. Because chocolate needs fat, a cheaper fat, lecithin is usually added to make chocolate. Our chocolate contained the natural cocoa butter. As a result, what came out of the grinder was a paste. We spread the past on a banana leaf and stored it in the refrigerator.
Vilma, the wife, served us the best, frozen bananas, dipped in milk chocolate that she had made earlier. At this point, Vilma invited us into her kitchen (actually a separate out building). She used some of the freshly made chocolate to make us hot chocolate. She served it with freshly fried yucca and queso pancakes. The kitchen building with its corrugated metal roof felt homey. That coupled with the hot sun made it incredibly warm inside. A stray chicken kept wandering in to see us only for Vilma to shoo her away. As we sat in the kitchen drinking hot chocolate and eating our pancakes, we felt like an honored guest in her home. I said to Keith what an experience we are having at this moment.
While the only way to get this chocolate is to visit Vilma's house, you can buy some of Ecuador's finest chocolate, called Pacari here. My favorite is the salt and nibs.
One of the nice things about Ecuador is that they do not have a lot of zoos but instead have animal sanctuaries. At a zoo, animals are purchased or traded for the exhibits. In a refuge, animals are rescued, rehabilitated and released into the wild if possible.
We visited the Puyo Animal Rescue Center, located at the edge of the rainforest. The center helps preserve the Amazonian wildlife. The wild animals at this center sometimes come from horrifying conditions. While some animals, illegally kept as pets end up here, others come here because they are affected by a disease, and some are orphaned. In any case, all possible efforts are taken to return the animals to the wild. If they are unable to go back to the wild, they live under natural conditions very close to their natural environment at the center.
FUN WITH A COATI
Probably the highlight of our visit here was an up close and personal experience with a young Coati. He was hanging out with a couple of parrots when we came upon him. This little guy was so happy to have new friends. He jumped from the nearby wall onto my husband's shoulder. Getting him to stay behind as we continued our journey through the center was difficult.
We love animals, and it is heartbreaking to think that some people don’t treat their lives with the love and respect they deserve. It is always a treat to be up close and personal with animals that are being cared for or rehabilitated.
As a result of this first visit to the Amazon basin, we are left wanting to explore the Amazon more. Lucky for us, the Amazon spans multiple countries, so there is much more to see. You can find this trip and others in Ecuador in this great Lonely Planet guide.
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