We only see vultures on the oil road. Wheeling patiently above the wooden shacks, phone masts, pylons, flares and storage tanks. Beside the road is a spaghetti junction of pipelines, some abandoned, some recently lain, others waiting to be connected.
Our party — me, two guides, five fellow travellers — is exiting the region on the rain-soaked E55 highway; in the opposite direction come trucks full of construction materials, fuel tankers, buses loaded with men in hard hats and flatbed lorries carrying huge diggers. At one apocalyptic bend in the road three great fires leap into the morning haze. On the gate, a sign in Mandarin Chinese and Spanish reads: ‘Andes Petroleum Ecuador/PetroOriental SA’. The backdrop: the Amazon jungle; green and impressive but bullied by the man-made infrastructure all around.
This is all a far cry from the capuchin monkeys, toucans and kingfishers of the previous day. It’s not every trip that reaches its climax in quite such a pessimistic way, but the petrochemical installations lining the road from the bridge over the Río Shiripuno to Coca Airport are only a shadow of what might befall the 3,860sq mile Yasuni National Park in eastern Ecuador, along the border with Peru.
I’ve just spent a week in a pristine area of jungle next to the park, in territory owned and controlled by the Huaorani Indians. In 1956, their obscure language and — at the time — warring ways became global news when they killed five missionaries attempting to make contact with what was at the time a mysterious and little-understood people.
The trip (mine, not the dead evangelists’) has been an often uplifting but sometimes perplexing experience, and not only because of the sense of foreboding — that all I’m seeing and feeling might soon be history.
The journey begins with a long, winding drive out of Quito and through the northern section of Ecuador’s famous Avenue of the Volcanoes. For lunch, we stop at Baños, a town that seems to be at ease with living beneath the 1,6480ft-high, highly active Tungurahua stratovolcano — an advert for a local restaurant-cum-spa promises a ‘romantic eruption in the crater’. Leaving the highlands for the warmer Amazon basin the vegetation changes, it’s warmer and there are rivers and waterfalls on all sides. The roads wind all the way to a town called Shell, the site of a basic but busy little airport.
At noon the rain’s torrential. We’re asked to wait until the storm passes. It’s still raining when we finally take off, and the Cessna monoprop occasionally feels lost in banks of dense cloud. But the 30-minute flight over the broccoli of the rainforest reveals where the roads stop and the intact jungle begins. We descend into a clearing and skid down a laterite airstrip. “Está hecho sopa,” protests the pilot. “It’s soup.” Of the primeval kind, I think, as we alight to be greeted by semi-naked tribesmen and women who invite us to a rustic communal shelter for a round of chicha, a maize-based grog, fermented using spit.
The last leg is a three-hour motor canoe journey down the Shiripuno, a tributary of the Napo, which in turn feeds the Amazon. We’re connected to the big one, but I feel wonderfully isolated from the world.
The Huaorani legacy
At the Huaorani Ecolodge, we settle into our individual huts — windowless but protected by mosquito-proof screens — and are fed and watered before setting out on a series of trips into the jungle. The lodge, which opened in 2008, is currently managed by a firm called Tropic but in 2014 all control will pass to the Huaorani. Xavier Neira, our guide from Tropic, explains this is one way for the tribe to take control of their destiny, after misconceived attempts by missionaries to ‘Westernise’ them: “They no longer have their own religion so they’re floating between the traditional beliefs they lost and Christianity. In some ways, the Huaorani are still in the business of fighting, but not with spears any more — now it’s with politics.” Tourism, he says, is part and parcel of it.
For five days, Xavier guides us with the support of Vai, a respected Huaorani hunter related by marriage to Moy, a community leader and spokesman. Vai teaches us how to hunt with a blowpipe, shin up trees barefoot — well, shows us how he can shin up trees barefoot — summon birds and spot monkeys. We swing from lianas, swim in the river, picnic on the banks of the Shiripuno, and are invited to watch local dancing and chanting displays. At the latter, I feel like Prince Philip: a bit stiff and ‘colonial’, but the Huaorani are always welcoming. Their chant is a monotone; the dance equally simple. In each community hut our faces are daubed with a natural red dye from the achiote fruit, which the rain dilutes to make it seem as if we’re wearing fake tan.
Creatures are everywhere but seeing them is, as ever in the rainforest, a challenge. The toucans screech but stay hidden most of the time and the parrots laugh down at us from the high canopy. But other bird species — including oily black anis, red tanagers, the Amazon kingfisher, vultures and the white-banded swallow — are more accommodating, while brilliant blue morpho butterflies are everywhere. I hear howler monkeys at dawn every day and spot an agouti (rodent) in the lodge grounds. Even more thrilling is the symphony of insects all night long, or at least until heavy rainfall drowns them out.
Dawn is at 6am and dusk 6pm. For five days, my life is peaceful and simple and with no mobile signal, let alone wi-fi, I slow down and forget about home and materialistic things. It’s fascinating to gain an insight — albeit a somewhat contrived and touristy one — into a culture so removed from my own. The Huaorani staff at the lodge are always busy cooking, preparing the boats, cleaning the buildings and tidying the grounds, but always have time to talk (they’re particularly keen to know about the animals we see in Britain). The women carry their babies in a sling, even while cooking, serving and clearing our dinner plates. Xavier explains the Huaorani don’t put their babies down — ever — until they can walk. He adds that the oldest mother in the group at the lodge is 45 and recently gave birth to her 11th child — only to be back at work the next day.
Deterring the drilling
The surrounding forest is archetypal Amazonia: twisted and tangled, damp and darkly mysterious. Vai is as comfortable with trees as I am with houses and streets. He shows us medicines, fungi, ants and dyes, and knocks up spears and walking poles on demand with a few shakes of his machete. Xavier talks us through the roles of the cecropias and kapok trees, as, respectively, pioneer and lord of the jungle, and shows us the ancient hardwoods and strangling figs. The dialogue between a Quito-born, college-educated guide and his Huaorani sidekick is revealing. Vai is never confident in Spanish, and struggles to articulate the nuances of his environment. He tells us he’ll ‘show us colours’ and ‘places to walk’, and Xavier will then expand. But asking Vai to deconstruct his forest is like asking a homeowner to expound on the building materials of his suburban property. He’s far more fluent reciting a creation myth: a wonderfully convoluted story about a squirrel that becomes a lightning bolt and a cheeky harpy eagle with an attitude problem.
In their company, I learn why the headwaters of the great river in Ecuador are revered by environmentalists: they’re relatively unspoiled and, because of their geographic position — near the Andes and on the Equator — they comprise the most biodiverse domain on the planet. There are said to be 100,000 insects per hectare, the highest concentration on earth. More woody-tree species grow in a single hectare of rainforest here than in the whole of North America. It’s home to 28 threatened or near-threatened vertebrate species — including the white-bellied spider monkey, Amazonian tapir and giant river otter, which can grow to more than 6ft — and 95 threatened or near threatened plant species. And it’s in the Huaorani region and the adjoining Yasuni National Park where this diversity reaches its many-hued, squawking, buzzing, biting, teeming apotheosis.
But the Huaorani haven’t had it easy. In the late-1930s came prospectors for Shell Oil, then, from the late-1940s, missionaries. In the 1960s, first Texaco and then the state-run firm PetroEcuador drilled intensively for oil in the northeastern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, laying roads, wells and pipelines across the territory and recruiting the tribesmen — on shockingly low wages — as unskilled labourers. Texaco is accused of polluting vast stretches of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the firm, now owned by Chevron, is mired in a long-running $27bn (£17bn) compensation lawsuit — the world’s biggest environmental case. This hasn’t stopped the drilling though.
Ecuador is one of Latin America’s largest oil exporters, and under current president Rafael Correa, it’s enlisted China to help modernise its oil wells. The discovery of nearly 900 million barrels-worth of oil in the Yasuni National Park’s Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini (ITT) areas threatens to devastate both the rainforest and the remaining human cultures living there. In 2007, Correa offered to leave the ITT areas untapped if wealthy nations would stump up $3.6bn (£2.3bn) — half the estimated value of the Yasuni reserves. But, to date, only a few small pledges have been made, mainly by Italy and Germany. The US has been noncommittal and Norway — which has used oil money to fund anti-deforestation programmes in Brazil and Indonesia — has passed on the Ecuador proposal. The reasons for this include global ‘recession fatigue’ and general mistrust of a nation where presidents have, in the past, blown in and out like Amazonian showers. But time is running out and unless a major backer can be found, Ecuador will no doubt start to drill.
Before leaving the territory, we make a stop at Vai’s house. His wife, two of his kids, two grandchildren, and a monkey, break into the primitive dance routine. One young woman is asked: “Don’t you want to dance?” “Yes,” she says. “If it’s salsa.”
I chat to her husband, Vai’s nephew. He is, he says, a teacher and his pupils are his family. I ask him how he qualified as a teacher? “I went away to learn how to teach my own culture in my own language,” he says ruefully. “There’s no support here for our language now and without that there’s no culture.”
So the young wife wants to dance Latino and her husband wants to keep traditions alive. This is probably a very ordinary tension in Huaorani. As French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noted, only outsiders want societies more primitive than their own to stay untainted. The Huaorani want modernity, just as they want to keep their rainforest culture and homeland.
The last journey, downriver from the lodge, is a highlight. A friend and I take a kayak, alone but shadowed by Vai, and paddle five hours to the Nenkepare campsite. Before bedding down we climb a small hill and descend a 260-step staircase to a waterfall. Capuchin and squirrel monkeys leap in the mid-canopy and Vai jumps into the pool below. We sleep beneath canvas, torrential rain drumming on the roof.
A final motor-canoe transfer takes us to the bridge, the E55 — and the oil wells. I’m arriving, not at my destination but at the meaning of my trip; coming out of natural beauty into man-made horror.
At the campsite, as I walk to the river, I snap a photo of a sign erected by the Huaorani: ‘Taking a dip in these crystalline, energising waters is just what’s needed before the return journey, and a view of the oil fields that shows why your visit to Huaorani Ecolodge has been so important’.
Everyone at present has failed to protect the Huaorani and their beautiful forest. Can tourism? I doubt it, but it’s worth a try.
There are return flights from the UK to Quito with several airlines, including KLM, American Airlines and LAN via Amsterdam, Madrid or Miami. British Airways flies from Heathrow with Iberia via Madrid www.klm.com www.aa.com www.lan.com www.ba.com
When to go
The Ecuadorean Amazon is usually hot and humid with an average temperature of 26C. It rains often and suddenly; the wettest period is June-August, with September-December the driest.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens require a return air ticket and a passport with more than six months’ validity; a tourist visa, stamped on arrival and free of charge, lasts 90 days.
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.55.
Health: Malarial prophylaxis is highly recommended, as is vaccination against a yellow fever. Ask your GP for advice well in advance of departure.
Time difference: GMT -5.
Huaorani Ecolodge: www.huaorani.com and www.waponi.org
A visit to the Huaorani Ecolodge, open all year round, involves an overland transfer from Quito by minibus and flights from Shell into the region and out via Coca. This can only be organised as a group trip with Tropic Ecuador or via a UK agent for Tropic. www.tropiceco.com
Yasuni ITT project. www.yasuni-itt.gob.ec/inicio.aspx
Rainforest Alliance. www.rainforest-alliance.org
One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest, by Wade Davis. RRP: £8.99. Savages, by Joe Kane. RRP: £39.99.
How to do it
A five-day trip to Huaorani Ecolodge with Abercrombie & Kent, including return local flights, accommodation, excursions, full board and entrance fee, costs from £895, excluding flights. It’s ideal as an add-on to a holiday in Quito and/or the Galápagos. www.abercrombiekent.co.uk
Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)