I have spent quite some time in Quito, so for me it was about time to leave the big city again and immerse into the world of the Amazon Rainforest.
The plan was to spend one week in the jungle near Puyo living with the indigenous community called “Shuar” and experience their everyday life in order to get to know their culture, their way of living and their natural habitat, the tremendous rainforest that I only knew out of movies, but have never visited in real life.
So finally the day arrived – it was a Saturday – when we all got picked up with a taxi to go to Quitumbe, the big southern bus terminal of Quito, in order to start our journey to the jungle. “We” were a group of three students, one Spanish teacher and me, the intern.
The journey through the Andes was long and we were all very excited when finally, after a few hours, the incredible rainforest appeared in front of us. It was just as I had imagined it, monstrous, majestic and magical.
The journey continued for about an hour until we reached Puyo where a member of the Shuar community awaited us. His name was Juan and together with him we took the bus for another hour until we arrived at the Shuar community called “Arutam”.
By the time we got there it was late afternoon. The guest house we lived in was located on a hill about five minutes by foot from the houses of the Shuar family. It was a big house on a forest glade from where we had a beautiful view over the rainforest.
For dinner the family prepared fish and plantains for us. Beforehand, we were already warned that plantains and all other kinds of bananas were the basic food of the rainforest, and that it might get a little boring after some time, until we apparently weren't able to eat any more plantains… still, the family managed to prepare it in many different ways and we did not get as sick of plantains as we thought.
A culinary feature on the first night, however, was the plate of ants that waited for us on the dinner table. First alive, no one of us was very enthusiastic of trying this delicacy of the Shuars, but once roasted, the ants were not that bad. With some salt, they kind of tasted a little like chips; you just had to ban the thought of eating ants from your head.
The nights were usually filled with all kinds of noises. It seemed as if you were sleeping right inside of the forest as all kinds of nocturnal animals were singing you to sleep. The loudest were the kaka-frogs, because they were sitting inside of funnel-shaped plants which amplified their sound. Then there also was the massive amount of insects of which you could only hear the gentle flaps of their wings while they were flying around and into your mosquito net.
Exploring the jungle
On our first day in the jungle we explored the surroundings and got to know a couple of magical spots in the rainforest with beautiful views and amazing plants that I have never seen before in my life. The part of the jungle that belongs to our Shuar family is 2700 ha big and it takes the Shuars about a 10 hour walk to reach the boundaries on either side, starting in the middle where the houses are located. For everybody else it would probably take much longer, but when the Shuars walk through their forest it is almost as fast and smooth as a tiger on its way through the endless depths of the jungle.
On the next day we visited the school of the Shuars where all children of the family between 5 and 10 years go to, until they are old enough for secondary school and have to travel to the next city. The Shuar family has a lot of kids, because the father has two wives and with each he has about 12 kids. Part of these kids already have their own kids, and so the family is huge.
After visiting the school, we went into the forest in order to learn more about the plants and their uses. We discovered a lot of medical plants, as well as some fruits that in former times were used to color the face when going into war with other indigenous groups. Sebastian, our guide, showed us some of the patterns that were all adapted from nature.
We spent the whole day wandering through the rainforest until we reached a small waterfall. Right away, everybody got rid of their clothes and jumped under the cool and refreshing water.
Another great activity was cutting down sugar cane in order to make fresh juice out of it. The Shuars own a special machine in which we pressed the juice out of the sugar canes. Later we added some lemons to the juice and it tasted really sweet and refreshing.
On another day we harvested yucca which is eaten a lot in the rainforest. It is almost like our western potatoes and used a lot as side dish. We cooked some of the yucca, and mashed it in order to make chicha, a typical drink of the indigenous. Originally, the women of the tribe would mash the yucca in their mouths while chewing on it, but we decided to do it the modern way with bamboo sticks. Once mashed really well, it had to sit for a while, and was then mixed with some water. It tasted a little bit like buttermilk, kind of sour, but not too bad. The indigenous often let it sit for a few days to let it brew and turn into an alcoholic beverage. While drinking chicha, we were able to get to know the traditional clothes of the Shuars, as well as their music and dances.
Sleeping in the jungle
The last night we spent out in the jungle. After about a two hour hike we arrived at our sleeping place which consisted of a hut on the edge of a mountain from where we had an amazing view over the rainforest. We hiked down to a waterfall and enjoyed a long shower in the cold but refreshing water. Then we collected wood for our fire which was quite a challenge, because it had rained during the day, and the majority of wood was soaking wet. Thanks to the skills of our guide Sebastian, however, we managed to make a fire and cooked a nice meal.
It was awesome sitting around the fire in the dark, staring into the jungle while listening to all the noise that comes out of it. The night was quiet and calm and in the morning we had a nice breakfast around the fire, before we started to hike back to the community.
Living with the Shuars was quite an adventure, and I can only recommend the program. Of course, several hours of the day were filled with Spanish lessons, but I bet no one has ever had Spanish classes in such an amazing surrounding. It is definitely worth a try!