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¡Hola South America!

Camp Kapawi

Friday - 29 Mar 2002
Kapawi - Ecuador

Summer Camp in the Rainforest

Dear Mom and Dad,

Well, we´ve arrived safely here at Camp Kapawi. My cabin-mate is really cute and pretty cool! There are a lot of bugs, though, and our counselor, Teresa, said it will probably rain most days...

We couldn´t help but be reminded of summer camp here at the Kapawi Lodge! Nestled deep in the rainforest near the Peruvian border, and on a small tributary of the Amazon, it is a great playground for adults.

For the uninitiated, the ecofriendly Kapawi Lodge opened in 1997 as a cooperative mission between the local community (the Achuar) and Canodros, an ecotourism company. The purpose is to educate not only guests who visit, but the Achuar people as well. The Achuars are scheduled to take control of the lodge in 2011, having trained in all aspects of running the lodge over the fifteen years previous. Read more about this fantastic project HERE.

The cabins are all set along a small lagoon (or swamp, depending on how much rain they´ve had). They have running water, mosquito nets (read: blocks for any kind of creepy-crawlies) and great decks out onto the lagoon. Oh, yes, and bats. Lots of them. They only managed to get inside on the first night, but they spent the other nights right outside our porch door making quite a racket!

All of the cabins are connected by raised wooden walkways, with the "bar" (library, meeting area, bar and store) and dining room in the center. The bar is the social center of the lodge, where we spent a great deal of time with our fellow "campers".

Our first night, the head counselor described what activities we could expect to partake in over the next four days--canoe rides, hiking, visits to a local Achuar community, cayman watching, birding, and rafting. We were then divided into groups by activities desired: we ended up in the Jaguar group, with our fearless leader Teresa leading the way.

The rest of our group consisted of David and Glynis, a doctor and nurse from the UK; Steve, a lawyer and professor from New Mexico; and Soledad and Janine, students from Guayaquil. Our honorary member was Susan, an arbitrator from Newburyport, MA. We were led by Teresa, a guide from the US, and Yawa, a local Achuar guide. As we´ve found throughout our adventures, it´s the group that makes the trip...and the same was true here. What a great crew!!

Geting There and Away

We should have known something was up when we received our information packet: it said to meet not at the main terminal in Quito, but at a separate "terminal" attached to the main one. When we arrived it all made sense: the terminal was a small room with a scale and a few chairs! They dutifully weighed both us and our luggage, gave us a quick briefing, and then told seven of us that we were the lucky ones: we got to fly directly to Kapawi, instead of having to stop and change planes in a town along the way. The reason? Our plane was SMALL enough to make it the whole way (gulp!)

We clambored aboard the 7-passenger Tonka Toy, our pilot fired up the prop, and Sarah nearly passed out. Air traffic control (a guy with a flag) waved us onto the runway after a big plane that could have squished us like a bug lumbered by, the pilots revved the engine (by kicking the hampster so he ran faster, I think), and we were off!

The ground fell away, and the views were fantastic. So Gary says, anyway, Sarah´s eyes were still clenched in terror! We flew right down the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and were afforded great vistas of some of the volcanoes, including Cotopaxi. We had to put down in a small town named Shell (insert favorite Arthur quote here) because of weather, and we were hustled into the waiting room (OK, the only room) while they wheeled the plane away. By hand. About 20 minutes later, we were hurried back onto the plane, this time with a fellow guest, Susan, as copilot! Destination: Kapawi "International" Airport.

Sarah´s eyes were now open, which was most unfortunate, because even though the views are pretty, she was convinced that the plane was going to plunge into the lush canopy below. Really. We were descending for the runway, but there wasn´t a runway, and the trees were getting closer, and there still wasn´t a runway, only some dirt, and then boom! We landed on the dirt, bumped about 20 meters, and came to a listing halt. Bravo, Susan!

Sufficiently rattled from the plane ride, we hardly realized it when they guided us down to the river, and onto a canoe. Not a canoe like you and I are used to, no, but rather one that is about 12 meters long and 1 meter wide. Think balance beam with a motor at one end! That being said, we arrived at Kapawi Lodge after 10 minutes of moseying up the Kusutkau River, having already seen a ton of birds in the canopy above.

(Five days later)

Leaving was "same same but different". We were once again bundled onto a canoe, but this time we motored 1.5 hours up the Patsenza River, to the village of Wayusentsa, who also has a runway (read: dirt strip). Gary and I were once again the chosen ones, this time being lucky enough to have our very own teeny tiny plane! We all know what that means...

A storm was approaching, so the others were hustled to an 11-passenger plane, and we followed onto a five passenger plane (five small passengers, that is). We sat for a few minutes, and then were hustled back out and under a hut to wait for the storm to pass...I guess we need a little more ooph in our hustle! We successfully loaded again about 30 minutes later (Gary as copilot this time), splashed down the runway, wheels slipping and spinning, and we were off! The fog lifting off the canopy was really cool, not quite enough to distract Sarah from thoughts of imminent death, but still pretty cool. We stopped over in a small town to wait for others to be shuttled in, and then took a "jumbo" jet (a 21-passenger!) back to Quito.

Activities in the Forest

For us, touring the rainforest consisted of two methods: sitting in a dugout canoe (thankfully with a motor on the back and a cover on top) and cruising the rivers, or donning rubber books, rain coats, and a lot of bug repellent and tromping through the woods. Each day we tended to employ both methods. The first is more relaxing (and drier), but you are stuck in the boat and it can be difficult to see things up close. Walking through the forest does get you closer to the animals, but they are still pretty skittish, much more so than the ones in the Galapagos.

Our typical day consisted of getting up at first light for a boat ride to watch birds. While neither of us are much for birds I have to admit this was pretty cool. We really enjoyed seeing the macaws, parrots and parakeets up close at the salt-lick (a small dirt wall of the river bank where the birds gather to eat dirt...what do I know, like I said, we are not much on birds. But, we actually got downright excited when a toucan (you know, the Fruitloops bird) landed in the trees outside our hut! It is incredible that they can fly with a beak that big. The damn thing had to be 2 feet long and 1/2 foot thick.

For the birder in the crowd-Dale and Dan, this means you- the following is a list of bird we saw. More accurately, its a list of bird the guide told us we saw. [Can you pick out the one that is a rouse?]: Horned Screamer, Hoatzin, Masked Crimson Tanager, Pied Plover, Tropical Kingbird, Magpie Tanager, Osprey, Sandpiper, Great Ani, Chestnut Fronted Macaw, Plumbeons Kite, Crimson Crested Woodpecker, white-eared Jackamar, Russet-backed Oropendola, Yellow rumped Cacique, Great & Snow Egret, Orinoco Goose, Yellowbilled Tern, Dusky Headed Parakeet, Striated Heron (whew!).

After the birding we´d head back to the lodge for breakfast and to get the boots on. These are the big black rubber boots that your mother used to make you wear to school. Around 9:00 we would head out on a hike though the forest looking at plants, animals and insects...and does this place have insects! According to our guide, there is at least a million species of insects in the area that still have NOT been identified, on top of the millions that have. There are over 350 species of butterflies just in that area of the rainforest, by contrast, there are only around 200 in the entire US. The hikes were easy, walkingwise. The Amazon basin is really flat, and with the boots you just tromp through the mud. There were a few slippery mishaps, but again, no one got hurt. The hardest part was dealing with the humidity, heat, rain, and bugs. Now I know why moose in the north go mad and run into the rivers.

While we walked, our Achuar guide pointed out things that we would never have seen or known about, including monkeys, spiders, medicinal trees, and hunting techniques. We were all amazed at his knowledge of the forest, but as he said, if you live every minute of your life in a place, the same place your family and ancestors lived every minute of their lives, you get to know a lot about it.

The walks usually took until 12 or 1, and then in the afternoon we did a few lighter activities such as visiting a local Achuar family (more on this in the next section), flowing downriver on rafts and inflatable kayaks, or swimming in the river. According to our guides piranhas only bite humans when they are really hungry. But, both we had watched way to many cartoons as kids, (you know, the Tom & Jerry type) to believe that (Loonie Toons wouldn't lie, would they?). Needless to say we were very happy to watch the swimmers from our kayaks. One animal that deserves particular mention was the river dolphin. Very cool beast, and Gary's favorite as may of you would expect (they didn´t have a river Patriot, but if they did you can be sure it would have been Sarah´s favorite!).

All in all, a great time was had by all. We can´t say that we are going to give up our day jobs (oh, right, we don´t have jobs) and become birders, but we definitely have a great understanding and appreciation for `The Animals Of The Amazon´. You can all start singing the National Geographic sound now.

Visit to the Achuar Family

On one of our afternoon outings we visited an Achuar family in their home. As mentioned earlier, the Achuar are the ingenious people that live in the this area of the rainforest. The Achuar people had little or no contact with the outside world until the mid 1960s. As a result, the Achuar live very much has they had for centuries.

Our visits was unlike any we had been on before, for the better I might add. The creaters of Kapawi lodge know that visitors would want to visit the Achuar villages. When they asked the Achuar how best to organize this the Achuar replied that they, too, were interested in meeting and learning about how other people lived. As a result the visit was much like a mini cultural exchange, with the Achuar family asking many questions of us as well as us asking questions of them.

The Achuar live in small villages, 50-200 people usually, located on a river. Increasingly the villages are building landing strips (flat dirt area) in or near the villages to get greater access to outworld products. We visited the Kutsutka village, and were invited to the house of Fernado (most Achuar have Achuar names as well as Christian names). Interestingly, what the Achuar call a house would most likely be called a firewood cover in North America. The house was roughly 30 feet by 10 feet with no walls and a thatched roof. At one end of the house was a large table that sat about 3-4 feet off the ground over which hung a mosquitoe net. This served as the bed for Fernado, his wife and three children (ages 1-4) as well as a work area for cooking and cleaning during the day. The only other furniture in the place was a wooded picnic type table at which our host sat, and a low bench that ran around the outer edge of one end of the place, which is where we sat. As we entered, our deepest fear was that this guy was going to ask us how our daily lives differed from his.... where do you start!!

We all entered and sat on the benches while our Achuar guide traded pleasantries with our host. While this was going on our hostess gave each of us a bowl of Chicque (sp), the traditional drink of the Achuar. Chicque is made by the lady of the house chewing (yes, in her mouth) on a type of root until it is soft. She then spits the mixture into a barrel with water, where it ferments for a period of time. Then you drink it! You think it sounds bad, you should taste it (ever had pulpy dirty socks as a kid?). Lets just say it´s an acquired taste! Luckily our guide had warned us of this and told us to politely raise the bowl of Chicque to our lips and drink if we wished, but we could fake it as well.

After this our host politely asked our name, where we were from, and what our jobs were. Well, he actually asked our Achuar guide in Achuar, our Achuar guide then translated the question into Spanish for our other guide, who then translated it into English. The answer passed back to Fernando the same way. Some things were probably lost in the translation but it worked pretty effectively.

The most surprising question from our host was that he had heard (from another tourist apparently, the village has no radio) that the US had a problem in Afghanistan and he wanted to know how it was going. We said good, as far as we know, but that there is concern that the war may spread beyond Afghanistan into other nations. Even without a CNN our host realized that this wouldn’t be good for anyone, even the Achuar. The funniest question came from our hostess (who, by the way, faced away from us the entire time, only sneaking briefs looks...shy, our guide said). She asked her husband to ask Gary if he always had the same haircut! I guess they don´t have a lot of bald men in the village. We´re not sure whether she meant since birth or just day to day, but Gary said yes anyway, figuring simplicity was the wisest choice.

We bid farewell to Fernando and his wife after an hour or so, and headed back to the canoe, much richer for the experience...

Acampe Kapawi En Español
  Gary and Sarah Girotti/Jones - Bio and Journals
  ¡Hola South America! - Intro Average Rating of 7 Viewers
Chapters of ¡Hola South America!
  Quito en Espanol
  Galapagos Islands
  Islas de Galapagos En Espanol
  South of Quito
  Sur de Quito En Espanol
  Camp Kapawi
  Acampe Kapawi En Español
  Cuzco and the Inca Trail
  Cuzco y Rastro de Inca-En Español
  Lake Titicaca
  Lago Titicaca En Español
  Desert Ramblings
  Los Cuentos de Deserte En Español
  The Final Stop
  La Parada Final


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