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Ecuador’s remote and wild lands

Ecuador’s remote and wild lands

Posted by Juan Gavasa on February 23, 2015

Sharply descending over the dense Ecuadorean rain forest, our-five seater Cessna softly landed on a lonely grass strip, from where I was paddled by rustic canoe up the remotest Amazon by my spear-wielding hosts. Never mind that they belong to one of the world’s most isolated tribes, with a hair-raising history of revenge killings.

Soon, I’d cheerily dance with ceremonial red achiote paint smeared on my face, learn which ants taste like lemons and meet a merry machete-fond man named Little Squirrel. My jaw-dropping jungle journey had begun.

This was Part Two of my awe-striking adventure in Ecuador. Earlier, I visited the far-flung, unspoiled Galapagos Islands, an eco-Eden teeming with unique wildlife so blasé about humans you can practically kiss creatures. I stepped around sea lions who basked on a dock at my feet like family dogs and shared paths with lumbering 600-pound Galapagos tortoises resembling E.T. And on the tiny, entrancing island of Floreana, I obsessed over its long-running mystery, the 1934 chicken-soup poisoning of an eccentric vegetarian doctor. More on that kooky drama in a bit.

From the Galapagos, I traveled about 1,000 miles to the deep Amazon to stay among the Huaorani indigenous people, best known for spearing to death five U.S. Christian missionaries (among many others) in 1956 and considering all outsiders “cowode” which means “cannibals.” Homicidal tendencies have mellowed, though. So I gladly followed Bai, my stoical spear-and-blowgun-toting, machete-hacking Huaorani tribesman, hiking through the mystical, muddy rain forest for four survival-skill hours until we reached the dirt-floored palm-leaf longhouse of feisty elder Weba, she of webbed feet from climbing countless trees. The wizened octogenarian, whose love story not surprisingly involves spears (she met warrior husband Dabo when their Huaorani families massacred each other) had fist-sized corks piercing extended earlobes, wore a tattered missionary-donated Red Sox T-shirt that read, “Love Me Or Ortiz Me,” was swathed in beaded necklaces and animatedly chatted nonstop in Huaorani, its own distinct language. She warmly grabbed my hand to bless me with a name.

Marine iguanas take over the islet of Tintoreras, off the coast of the island of Isabela in the Galapagos. Norma Meyer

 

“Akow,” Weba anointed me.

“I’m … a cow? Like moo?” I asked.

“Akow!”

“A cow?”

“Wang!” she shouted.

“Wang?”

And on it confusedly went until Bai (who did Huaorani-to-Spanish translation) and guide Roberto (Spanish-to-English), relayed my moniker: Sunfly Sunrise. To celebrate, Weba’s assorted relatives downed thick grayish chicha, the traditional yucca root drink fermented by spit.

This trip double-wowed. The Galapagos and Huaorani experiences couldn’t have been more vastly different but out-of-sight enthralling, like plopping into a National Geographic special. And I didn’t sweat logistics — my off-the-tourist-track escapades were planned and carried out in detail by adventure specialist Global Basecamps in Encinitas. I traveled solo last month and shared a full-time Global Basecamps-arranged guide in the Galapagos with only a retired British couple; in Floreana, we bunked at the secluded 10-cabin shorefront Lava Lodge and had much of the volcanic island to ourselves. In the Amazon, I joined a Pennsylvania couple and their three adult children; we never saw another gringo and were the only guests at the simple five-cabin Huaorani Ecolodge and later downriver at its tent camp.

The Huaorani, who have been hunter-gatherers for more than 1,000 years, opened the ecolodge to cast light on decades-old, ongoing Big Oil exploration that has deforested their jungle and threatens their culture. Their David-Goliath struggle was chronicled in the 1996 book “Savages” (the translated nickname given to them by a neighboring tribe). On our final day, after a lengthy canoe trip, we did a car “toxic tour” of ancient land where petro pipelines, oil spills and burn-off flames have replaced chirping toucans, howler monkeys and neon-blue butterflies.

The island of Floreana, one of the Galapagos Islands, has abundant wildlife and human mysteries. Norma Meyer.

PART ONE: THE GALAPAGOS

Bizarro. I inched alongside enormous elephant-legged tortoises and inspected pirate caves that sheltered 17th-century cutthroat buccaneers. This was on Floreana, one of 19 Galapagos Islands, and a quiet refuge of 100 residents, cuddly sea lions, monster-ish pink-and-teal iguanas, tropical penguins, fluorescent flamingos, red rock crabs and dark secrets. To get here, I jetted from Ecuador’s colonial capital Quito, journeyed overland and for two hours bounced in a wave-tossed dolphin-chased speedboat before an open-air “chiva” truck delivered me to the outlying Lava Lodge. From my cabin’s deck, I gaped at a pristine beach barely changed since Charles Darwin in 1835 discovered Galapagos’ strangely evolved still-present plants and critters found nowhere else on Earth.

Taking an untamed trail that crunched over lava beds, naturalist guide Marlon, the two Brits and I hiked to a deserted cove, where we snorkeled eye-to-eye with giant green sea turtles. Then, against a precious backdrop — baby sea lions backstroking in crystal waters — Marlon spilled about a macabre whodunit.

“Dr. Ritter’s tongue swelled up. He was in agony.” That would be German doctor Friedrich Ritter who in 1929 ditched civilization and ran off with patient-mistress Dore Strauch to then-uninhabited Floreana. Dubbed “Adam and Eve” by the European press, the vegetarian nudists earlier had their teeth pulled and shared a pair of metal falsies to chew.

“Supposedly he had eaten contaminated chicken soup. Or did Dore kill him?”

It got juicier. In the lush highlands, we stood over Ritter’s haphazard rock pile grave. “He died in 1934, the same year that the Baroness disappeared,” Marlon intoned. Another German family and the whip-cracking, pistol-packing self-dubbed “Baroness” and her three lover-servants had also moved to Floreana. Then boom, she abruptly went MIA with one paramour; another’s corpse shortly washed ashore. So within months, four of Floreana’s 10 denizens met dubious ends.

To cap our fun, a local made pizza and we ate outside her house under a spooky moon, viewing vintage footage of Ritter and Dore dancing with a donkey on Floreana and the flashy Baroness frolicking about.

The next morning, we speed-boated to the bigger island of Isabela, where the critters were as quirky as Floreana’s past. Blue-footed boobies looked like silly cartoon birds. And the islet of Tintoreras stunned with its armies of dragon-scary marine iguanas overrunning a moonscape of white-lichen-flocked volcanic flow. A reptilian planet. Spiky 4-foot-long iguanas unflinchingly posed for selfies, a sci-fi movie come alive.

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