I Discovered a Forgotten Amazonian Tribe While Trekking (And They Made Me Drink WHAT?!)

I Discovered a Forgotten Amazonian Tribe While Trekking (And They Made Me Drink WHAT?!)

Think Tarzan meets Jane meets mystery liquid.

By Rachel Grant

Haven’t you always wanted to go on a semi-clad Tarzan and Jane-like adventure, swinging through exotic trees encountering neighboring tribes and wild species? Well, I have — and a journey to the heart of Ecuador’s Amazon proved to be a very close approximation to that fantasy scene.

Ecuador is a nature-lover's paradise. It offers the Amazon, the Andes, the Pacific coast and, if that's not enough, it boasts the world treasure of the Galapagos Islands. As one of 17 countries on earth classified as "megadiverse," Ecuador tops the list per square mile with an extraordinary variety of plants and wildlife.

From Ecuador’s Guyaquil airport, a five-hour drive over the Andes Mountains brings us to the enchanting jungle village of Misahuallí. We turn uphill through exuberant rainforest and eventually come to a rocky driveway leading us to Hamadryade Lodge, which overlooks a steamy jungle canopy. The mythological wood nymph lends her name to this spectacular eco-ethnic hideaway, complete with swinging beds, exotic furniture, and luxurious trimmings handcrafted by local artisans.

Arrived and settled, I take a refreshing plunge in the infinity pool, sip a natural medicinal cocktail, and relax deep into my hammock. An early night assures we are well rested for the following day's mega activity.

The morning call of the howler monkey gets me up early and under my rainwater shower. I’m preparing for a long hike into the rainforest for a rare encounter with an Amazonian tribe. After a hearty breakfast of spicy eggs and jungle fruits, we are introduced to Pepe Tapia; a real-life Mowgli meets Indiana Jones, who speaks beautiful self-taught English. He learned three words a day since he could read, he tells me.

With Pepe, we have privileged access to a mysterious indigenous warrior tribe known as “Haourani”. Amazingly, there are still around 1,500 Haourani living in self-sufficient settlements in dense Amazon rainforest and as many as five “uncontacted” Haourani groups live in voluntary isolation from the “civilized world."

Our first stop is the village grocery store where we stock up on bread buns and Coke — Pepe's suggested offering for the primitive Amazonians.

We are then dropped off at the edge of the jungle road, at an almost invisible track, barely a foot wide and muddy in parts. Pepe bravely leads us deep into the thick greenery, hacking away with his sharp machete as we go along, crossing ravines, mudslides, and hilly country covered in exotic forest.

We stop once for a picnic lunch and regularly to look at all sorts of life and movement, listening to Pepe's wild tales and explanations. He shows us medicinal plants and remedies, the extraordinary “iron tree” that cannot be cut down, and tells us how he was once bitten by the deadly Feu De lance snake and drinking his urine and eating a certain vine saved him. He promises that if anything happens, he knows of natural remedies to help us.

The place is hot and humid, grueling at times, but the enchanting sights and sounds of the forest keep us energized. Pepe seems to enjoy my company as I eagerly accept each of his “invitations” — swinging like Tarzan on vines, donning the hat he makes, as well as smelling and tasting a thing or two like cinnamon, tree sap, eucalyptus, and even insects!

As our destination approaches, Pepe advises us on how to behave before the Haourani people and to expect to be offered the Haourani’s pounded yucca — a welcome broth mixed with “other things." We should accept the tribal cuisine, drink, and smile afterwards. Informed and warned about how it is made and how this community can react towards visitors, I understood.

The barely-clothed Haourani are happy to see us! Their dialect is fabulously loud with choppy tones and sounds like an alien language from a sci-fi film. Suddenly, an elderly lady with jaguar teeth hanging around her neck appears to question our presence. Eventually she smiles and, as expected, the delightful yucca bowl appears! Inside is a thick, white, lumpy concoction; I accept, take a big gulp and then smile. The taste is sour. I cannot confirm with 100 percent certainty, but since you are certainly wondering about the specifics: I suspect it may have been mixed with semen. That said, I'm well known to eat anything!

We offer our gifts and watch on as they indulge in bread and Coca-Cola. Eventually the elderly lady nods and they agree to take us into their hidden thatched-hut settlement to learn some ancient hunting techniques.

The Haourani demonstrate how to make poison-dipped darts using a fast-action legendary vine poison called “curare” which causes immediate paralysis. Then, with legs firm and wide as instructed, I attempt to hold their heavy, three-meter-long, wooden blowgun. After a big deep breath, I aim at the banana they have stuck in the ground as my target, and blow as hard as I can. There is a lot of laughter from the small crowd of Haourani warriors watching on as I miss my small target. Next, I learn to throw their native spears, and after a few attempts, and with spear in hand, I follow the bare-footed warriors down their ancient hunting trail.

As hunter-gatherers, the Haourani are semi-nomadic, practicing a sustainable economy without over-exhausting their natural resources. They speak a unique language unlike any other and are surrounded by related and alien ethnic groups, totaling a population of around 150,000. For centuries the Haourani have had to defend themselves against neighboring tribes as well as more recent “outsiders” coming in to claim their environment. Known only through their folklore, the Haourani migrated from "down river" a long time ago, "fleeing the cannibals."

Back on the track we observe the sights, sounds, and smells of dense, exuberant jungle. I am taught to only walk by dragging my feet — an interesting and effective technique — to ward off nearby snakes by creating vibrations. Soon, an armadillo crosses our path and a couple of snakes slither away.

The Haourani wear almost nothing of what is their millennia-old traditional clothing. The male warriors sensibly have their penises tightly pulled up, out of jungle-harm’s way. They take their foreskin, stretch it up, and roll it onto a long, pliable vine branch that is tied around their waist.

The female warriors (who also go commando) wear a soft dried tree bark as a mini skirt with some bosom-revealing decorative strands on top. The women gesture for me to wander off the path to try on some of their clothing. The chatty ladies stop by a tree, pull down some leaves, and begin to weave me a traditional hunting bag, which I sling over my shoulder to complete my attire.

After an hour, we are startled by a loud growl high in the branches. It is a jaguar that appears to be disturbed by our presence from his afternoon slumber.

At this point, we decide the Haourani adventure has far exceeded our expectations and return to the settlement where we hang out at an open-air kitchen and I pet a turtle, soon to be dinner.

Early evening, and 57 insect bites later, we give our thanks to the welcoming Haourani community, say goodbye and head off quickly through the thick jungle as we begin to lose daylight. Eventually we emerge at a riverbank where we see a string of indigenous hollowed out balsa canoes and, just like in the movies, we quickly jump into one and flee off downstream into the sunset and back to civilization.

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