On Huaorani Time
|NATURAL LANDING: Indigenous Amazonians greet the six-seat Cessna as the author exits (Kate Siber)|
From the window of a van, during a four-hour drive south from Quito to Shell, Ecuador, I watch what seems like several countries roll by. In small towns, mere jumbles of concrete houses, women dressed in colorful shawls and dark Andean hats carry bundles of thatch on their backs. Beyond the towns, Andean volcanoes rise up to over 16,000 feet in halos of clouds and snow. Farther south, the peaks soften to hillsides patched with fields, which then plunge into the steamy, jungle-choked interior, where farmers sell oranges by the side of the road and beautiful dark-haired women stir steaming pots in restaurant windows.
We arrive at a one-room aviation club in Shell, a speck of a town, and, soon after, take flight in a six-seat Cessna. Chartreuse squares of farmland quickly dissolve into a verdant carpet that stretches to the horizon. Rivers the color of milky coffee sneak beneath gorges then plow through the forest. On the horizon, a bank of clouds tumbles to the ground midst a downpour.
After 40 minutes, the pilot dives and banks hard left. Skimming over the forest canopy, we were close enough to spot monkeys if we weren't moving so swiftly. Just as it seems we'll crash into the tangled jungle, the trees part to reveal a tiny dirt airstrip. We land in a metallic clamor and splash through a pond-sized puddle before coming to an abrupt halt. Unfolding ourselves from the cabin, we emerge into the soupy heat to find two dozen indigenous Amazonians surrounding the planewomen with babies in palm-leaf slings, wide-brown-eyed children, and toothless old men. They all stare and grin at us, such rare curiosities.
Meeting the Huaorani people is exactly what brought us here. My group consists of four travelersan expat Brit living in Costa Rica, two business partners from San Diego, and myselfand a bilingual guide named Jorge. We are on our way to the Huaorani Ecolodge, an outpost that officially opened in January 2008. It is so hidden in Ecuador's swath of Amazon Rainforest that it takes nearly a day by car, plane, and dugout canoe to get there.
Famed as fearsome warriors in the past, the Huaorani resisted contact by Westerners through the mid-20th century. Two clans still shun Westerners and guard their villages fiercely from any visitors, including other clans. Most of the 3,000 Huaorani inhabit a 1.7-million-acre parcel of land, the largest tract set aside for any of Ecuador's indigenous peoples. They live a peaceful existence, practicing subsistence hunting, gathering, and agriculture in relative isolation.
But it's hard to maintain an isolated, peaceful existence when sitting atop a treasure trove of resources, including Ecuador's largest oil reserve and large swaths of valuable tropical hardwood trees. And oil companies, loggers, and missionaries have all negatively affected the Huaorani's way of life. Finally, in the late '90s, five villages came together to build a tiny ecolodge to help sustainably support themselves and raise awareness of their rare and fragile culture. The tribe runs the lodge entirely, though a Quito-based sustainable-travel company named Tropic Eco helps market and arrange trips. They have received funding from several NGOs, and a non-profit called Rainforest Alliance has helped train staff members.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication