Getting to Tena, a smallish town cut out the western edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon, was simple enough. Before we left Rio Verde we had arranged to meet Jorge, a local taxi driver, to take us to the house of a Kichwa family who lived in the Amazon jungle so we could get a small taste of the region. Both the family and Jorge were contacts of a hostel owner where we had spent the previous night, so we didn’t expect any substantial issues to arise. Jorge met us at the bus station as planned, and we had a brief discussion of the pre-arranged cost for our outing. He then duly informed us that the family was indisposed and would not be available for us until 7 PM (it was 3:30) but he would be more than happy to entertain us for the afternoon. He had arranged a river boat to take us 30 minutes downriver to AmaZoonico, an endangered animal preserve/sanctuary for animals rescued from the black market. He also informed us that he family was going to come along for the experience, to which we had no objections. It took nearly an hour to get to the boat launch, but the powered canoe ride on the river was beautiful, particularly on the return trip during sunset.
Now, we should have guessed something was up when we had to pay our own entrance fee into the preserve, as all activities were supposed to included, but we shrugged it off as it was going towards a good cause. When we returned to the launch, Jorge then informed us that we owed the boat driver $25 (Ecuador uses US currency) for the ride. Despite five members of his family tagging along, he had no willingness to split the cost. When we finally returned to Tena, he informed us it was too late to be taken to the jungle, so we would have to stay in the city. He left us at the Kichwa families lot, informing us that we owed him $30 for his services…he forgot to mention he was not part of the package. We grudgingly paid, then were led to a room in the building, given our key, and told that breakfast was at 8 AM.
Given that we had just been taken for a couple of larks by Jorge, and given the state of the room (pictured right) we had a very long discussion as to exactly how we were going to leave without being noticed. In the end we decided, despite being incredibly uncomfortable, we would suck it up and stay…it was their family home after all.
As it turned out, the Kichwa family was wonderful, both kind and accommodating. They spoke fluent Spanish, but Kichwa was their first language and was fascinating to listen to their conversations in their native tongue. After a good breakfast they took us out to their working cacao farm nearly an hour into the jungle. After being provided a very necessary pair of rubber boots, it was a kilometer walk to the cabin where we would be staying the night.
After settling into our room, the dad (we never actually got his name) informed us that he would be our guide on a hike to see some waterfalls, and that it would take three to four hours. It had been raining all morning, and there was no indication it was going to stop, so we grabbed our raincoats and set out. The “trail” to the waterfalls was not so much a trail as the bed of the large stream which contained the three falls. We worked our way up the bottom of the very steeply walled ravine, scrambling through muddy remains of recent landslides, but were rewarded with three quite pretty falls. Just before the final falls, as we walked in the stream, we heard a loud crack and rumbling above us. Sheena and the dad ran upstream, and I bolted up the opposite bank. When nothing happened, we ventured back, and saw a massive limb had broken and fell, but nothing worse than that. The hike was concluded by a climb up to the top of a ridge and a viewpoint, somewhere around 1,300 feet of gain, then back down and home…another 8 kilometer hike under our belts.
That afternoon, the dad took us out into the farm, showing us a plethora of plants used by the Kichwa for medicinal purposes. He picked a ripe cacao pod, and we tasted the flesh around the seed (it tasted nothing like cacao)
and we helped harvest yuccafor the evening meal. The morning brought the opportunity to help in the preparation of chocolate, from raw pod to finished product, and another hike to a set of refreshingly cold natural pools along a river.
We made the decision to stay only one night, but still partake in a few activities that second day. Before we headed out, the dad gave us a lesson in gold panning…Sheena found enough to finance our next trip!