A hard path into Ecuador’s Amazon

(Originally published in Travelmag, 24 Jan, 2007)

Kinaweno, Ecuador. A small indigenous community of 20 in the middle of nowhere. To be more precise, in the middle of the Amazon jungle. My friend Liana, a fan of odd experiences, was easily convinced of the benefits and excitements of such a trip, so we plunged into this voyage together. It took us two days to get there: one day of strenuous walking through the dense labyrinth of the forest and one more day floating down Curaray River in a wood carved canoe. Kinaweno was our first step towards reaching our destination: an even more remote jungle village, one that nobody really visits, and the ones who do, prefer to pay $300 for a plane ride than torture and endanger themselves by walking through the virgin selva like us. With the pockets rather empty and in utter need of an adrenaline loaded experience it was not difficult to figure out that we would walk and not fly to our unusual, yet exciting destination.

Our local guide, Alberto, one of the only two in the whole region that was venturing so far inside the jungle, arranged with a villager in Kinaweno to accompany us to our next destination. It was the safest and wisest thing to do, as these indigenous people know the forest like I know my own back yard. I had seen them before at work, and I was quite impressed with their abilities of finding the way in the dense vegetation maze that required machete action to get through. I’ve seen them walking through the jungle with no hesitation in pitch black night. None of them slid, tripped, fell, or hit their head against low-hanging hard-as-rock vines, while I did all of the above numerous times.

Kempe, our indigenous guide, told us that he knew a shortcut to reach our destination. We could cut about 4 hours from the trip. He was proposing to take his canoe for one hour up the river, climb on the top of the mountain where we would encounter the trail. Sounded just right, anything to cut the torture and misery of another jungle walk. Real jungle hikes are like a woman’s labor: hours of pain and misery, but in the end, it’s worth the trip.

 

At 6 am the next day we were already packed. It was a sunny, clear tropical morning. One of the village girls whispered to me with a smile while I walked by her “it’s going to rain really hard, not a good day for travel”. Yeah, right, the sky was pleasantly blue and clean of any trace of clouds. The weather woman of the village clearly had the wrong forecast. After feeding on boiled plantains, and a delicious aromatic tea made with mysterious jungle herbs, we headed for the river, where an 18-feet, hand-made canoe was waiting for us. I think I felt a raindrop fall on my nose. As we were waiting on the river’s edge for Kempe, the drops intensified, until a hearty rain started pouring down. We were in the rainforest after all, and it was supposed to rain daily. I did not pay too much attention to the changing meteorological conditions, until I noticed that every minute we had to step away from the river. The waters were advancing fast, eating away the shore, and the intensely grey sky did not seem to be clearing any time soon. Kempe emerged from the bushes in front of us, carrying a brand new Yamaha engine on his back. He installed the engine on the stone-age style canoe. Talking about integrating the old and the new… By the time the canoe was updated with modern technology, rain was falling furiously over us, we were completely soaked and the river turned into an angry fat beast. It bloated at least 4 feet and was mightily rushing downstream. It was raining so hard it felt I was standing under a waterfall. Not a soul was out… except us, who had a day of walking ahead, plus one hour in the long, narrow and shallow canoe on a dangerously violent river.

I mounted the flimsy looking pirogue, which was floating in a very delicate balance on the rocking river. Cold anxiety sweat joined the raindrops on my forehead while I was using all my acrobatic skills to walk to the middle. There, a freshly cut bamboo stick was jammed in-between the walls making a highly uncomfortable bench. Liana followed, counting out loud the damages of her likely tumble in the gushing waters. By the time Alberto installed himself at the front of the boat, we pretty much sank our vessel. Only three inches were left out of the water.

Powered by Yamaha, we were slicing through the waters upstream, torrential rain hitting our eyes and making it difficult to see. We were going upwards, the water was rushing downwards, the shore was moving with the water, but at a slower speed, creating a very weird sensation of static motion. When our vessel started to fill with water, Liana and I started pumping it out with our rubber boots. It was not a comfortable ride; we were drenched, cold, barely hanging in the canoe which was rocking brutally on the frenzied river. On one hand, we were wondering if this whole trip was a good idea. On the other hand, we strangely enjoyed the inflated brown foamy waters, the emerald jungle merging with the river on the shores, the smell of damp rainforest, the sound of the plunging rain…

After roughly one hour, we disembarked safe and soaked, and pursued our voyage through a swampy area with tall grass and huge shrubs before we entered the real jungle. It is there that O learned about cat claw: a plant with thorns like curvy claws that tear clothes, skin, hair, or anything it gets attached to. There were lots of cat-claws in that area. In no time, it torn not only our skin, face and clothes, but racked our nerves as well. We entered the jungle on a small trail. It was wide enough for one person, but ridiculously muddy, therefore slippery. We had to climb and descend almost vertical slopes, an activity that felt like trying to climb a giant wet soap. The more we advanced, the more our nerves grew weaker, and the dirtier we became, both in appearance and language. We were still walking parallel to the marsh, so, inevitably, there were hoards of nasty mosquitoes whizzing around, making us slap ourselves every once in a while aiming to kill the hurtful nasty beasts.

Unexpectedly, the trail became a long, not so wide trunk, with many leafy branches, spanning a narrow, deep, miry abyss. The overpass was about 20 feet long and there was nothing you could hold on to. I felt a sudden discomfort realizing I had to cross over that natural balance beam. I regretted giving up gymnastics at the age of 7… imagine how in 2 summersaults and one gracious flip I could have been landing on the other side… Contemplating the passage failed to comfort my anxiety, so I looked for help from my only one hope – the indigenous guide. But Kempe was way ahead, already on the other side. He walked over the tree with maddening easiness, like a cockroach on my kitchen counter. I had the trunk at my feet. I knew I either made it, or I would be food to the monsters living in the oozing mire down below. I advanced slowly and lonely on the wet wood, with my muddy (therefore slippery) boots. My equilibrium was fine, I had a few hesitations but I recovered fast. One more step, then another… And then, when I was out of everybody’s hand reach, alone above the murky smelly water, they attacked! A pack of mosquitoes crushed into my face. It seemed the beasts covered my forehead, my cheeks, my nose. The impact was painful – at least five of them punctured my forehead, and let me tell you: jungle mosquitoes, when they sting, it’s so bad that blood comes out. I panicked. I tried smacking my forehead, but when my hand was half way, I realized that I either left the mosquitoes bite me, or I loose my balance and fall in the hell beneath. I picked the first option and walked with it to the end of the trunk. I breathed for the first time since I mounted the trunk, it was so good to be on land again. Liana came next. “Watch out for those little nasty beasts, don’t let them distract you”, I said encouragingly. “There’s nothing to hold on to…” was her feeble response. She was calm, scared, and balanced. I could see that “I’m gonna make it” look on her face, despite the squints and frowns she was making to get rid of the biting beasts. Inches before she reached the end of the trunk, she had a nervous breakdown. She smacked her mosquito-covered face then silently plunged into the mire below. I froze…was she still alive? Will she drown, sucked in by the swamp? What am I going to do all by myself in the Amazon jungle? I looked down and saw her desperately hanging on some branches. “I’m ok”, I heard a faint voice. Almost simultaneously, Kempe appeared from the forest; I felt relieved, he would save us. He stopped three feet away and looked disturbingly serenely at the scene: Liana suspended over the marsh, me kneeled over the abyss trying to grab her, and Alberto rushing at snail speed over the trunk to reach the action set.  With a totally detached look, Kempe watched us, and I could almost feel a tent of disgust: we were so incapable of crossing a slippery trunk in pouring rain without falling off it. Sensing zero compassion and no help coming from our protector, I proceeded to rescue Liana. With Alberto’s help we extracted her successfully to the surface. She was fine, with the exception of a few painful bruises. Kempe informed us with a poker-face: he took the wrong way; we were on a hunting trail. We had to go back, and take a different way. Before finishing his sentence, he disappeared ahead of us, over the trunk. If he hadn’t been our only ticket out of the jungle, we would have lynched him right then and there. We returned…the same way we came…and diligently repeated every fall.

The new direction took us in a forest so dense that we could not advance anymore, therefore we trekked up a small stream. Kempe had a very weird way of being our guide: he was walking so fast that most of the time he was out of our sight. Because of that, we did not know where to step, and we chose the most slippery and unstable rocks in the river. For about two hours we were stumbling and sliding through the jungle river. We still had not encountered the ‘road’, but we possessed a rich collection of painful bruises. We also became more and more creative with swearwords addressed to the plants, guide, rocks, and everything that came our way. I kept asking Alberto “Are we on the right way?” Alberto was confident – “Kempe knows what he’s doing”… until he became skeptical himself. He held a private conversation with Kempe. The verdict: Kempe had no idea where the ‘road’ was. Maybe it’s up this way, through the forest, but it might as well be that way too, it all kind of looks the same. He left alone to search for the trail, while we were to wait right there. And we did. Three soaked and sweaty silhouettes, standing in the middle of a jungle stream, this was us for the next hour and a half. However tired and hurt we were, we did not lose hope and we could occasionally enjoy the surroundings. The jungle was amazing. It was embracing us with lush vegetation, vines, bromelias, and other exotic plants cascading from the trees above. All you could hear was the crisp tinkling of the stream and the pounding of the raindrops on the waxy leaves. Add the buzz of a colibri every once in a while and you have the complete audio of our surroundings. When Kempe failed to show up after quite a while, we started making countless speculations – were we abandoned in the jungle? Did Kempe died, attacked by a boa? Did he get lost (which was apparently his specialty)? What if Kempe is trying right now to sell us to some slave merchant which he met farther up in the jungle? The more time passed, the worse our imagination got. We finally saw Kempe returning, to our great relief. But we were still lost. There was no way to reach the way. Our only wise option to go back, or night would trap us in the jungle stream. We were so tired that we could not react in any way to the news. We could not get angry, or scared, or upset, we just accepted the facts with a bizarre feeling of normality and we started our withdrawal. At least now we knew on what rocks not to step.

We made our way out of the forest. There was again that swampy land we had  to cross to get to the river. But while we were getting lost, the river made its way to the forest flooding the marsh. Kempe and Alberto went in first. We saw them sinking up to their waist in water, advancing through the tall grass and even taller bushes. We followed. First Liana, then myself. I told Liana to put her hands up in the air as if holding a rifle. I did the same. We were now recreating a dramatic scene in one of those Rambo movies. At least we could still laugh at ourselves.

When we finally got back on the boat, rain still whipping our faces, we had a revelation: at that same moment, all our friends and coworkers in New York were working in an air conditioned office. A shiver of disgust ran down our spine. Despite all the crap we just went through, we still preferred to be in that narrow canoe sliding down on the furious Curaray river. We didn’t want to be anywhere else than right there, in the middle of Amazonia.

 

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