The Yachana Lodge complex is spectacular. To get there, you start in the oil boomtown of Coca, itself set deep in the Amazon rain forest. From there, Yachana is a three-hour ride up the Napo River on a motorized canoe.
The lodge building and surrounding bungalows are laid out in a line, with a thick rise of trees (filled, as it turned out, with pygmy marmosets, the world's smallest monkeys) shielding them from the river. We got incredibly lucky, though, and were assigned bungalow 18, the very last one. It was substantially larger than most of the other bungalows, had windows on three sides instead of two, and a break in the trees meant that we had the only river view in the place. On our front porch hung a large and comfortable hammock, and I spent many a free hour in that hammock, swaying gently from side to side with a book on my chest, looking out over the river.
Yachana, as noted in the article accompanying its Condé Nast award for Best Eco-Lodge 2004, is a surprisingly advanced place, given that it's in the middle of the jungle. Nowhere else in Ecuador could we put bathroom tissue in the toilet (everywhere else had a frequently-emptied little trashcan next to the toilet for this purpose). Nowhere else in Ecuador could we drink the tapwater, if we so wished. The bed was luxuriously comfortable, the solar panels on the roof stored enough energy during the day to keep the lights on at night, and a gas generator fueled a 110-volt outlet next to the bed for a few hours every evening, so we could keep our cameras charged.
The windows that circled our room on three sides had no glass, only screens, so that at night we went to sleep with the sounds of the jungle washing over us. There were surprisingly few insects in our room, and we discovered on the first night that an adorable little gecko lived on one wall, near the ceiling. We would fall asleep watching him feast on what bugs there were, sort of nature's own little bug-bomb at work.
As part of FUNEDESIN's drive toward making the region self-sustaining, they've opened a chocolate factory.
Chocolate is made from something called cacao, and the cacao in the Amazonian basin of Ecuador is some of the sweetest in the world. So Yachana has been encouraging local farmers to turn their efforts to harvesting cacao, and buying it from them at a better rate than they could possibly get in Quito. Then, right there in the jungle, the the seeds of the cacao are dried and crushed. The result (plus a dash of sugar cane) is the purest chocolate in the world, chocolate made without any milk or artificial flavors or preservatives. It's packaged and sold in specialty stores around the world (and at YachanaGourmet.com), and every penny earned goes right back into the local community.
And it's fantastic. We consumed a good deal of Yachana chocolate there in the jungle, and brought a box back for Dan, the travel agent in Quito who talked us into going to the jungle. There is only one thing in the world tastier than that Yachana chocolate...
We went on frequent hikes through the jungle. Our guide Juan led us through primary forest and secondary forest, showing us all the plant and animal life around us, and occasionally diving into bushes and emerging with an exceptionally small and incredibly deadly poison-dart frog in his hand. You know, the usual.
We were nearing the end of a sweaty and exhausting four-hour hike when he motioned for us to stop. Just off the trail, a shrivelled-looking melon hung from a tree. Flipping out his machete, he sliced it from the tree and chopped it in half. Inside were forty or so slimy little things, looking like nothing so much as bits of uncooked chicken, each the size of a clove of garlic.
And they were exquisite. The fruit of the cacao. You put the little juicy chunk of pulp into your mouth, held it against your cheek, and sucked on it. There are no words for how it tasted. It didn't taste anything like chocolate, nor like sugar, nor like any fruit I've ever had. This was something completely new and different. And I loved it.
Each piece of fruit contained one seed, a seed that could have become part of a box of Yachana chocolate. But that was not to be the fate of this particular seed: unprepared seeds are inedible, so it was spat onto the ground. Perhaps to grow into another cacao tree.
I dream of getting my hands on more cacao. But I know that even if I do, it won't be the same. I remember being a child, visiting a farm in South Africa, and eating a peach picked fresh off of a tree. And having eaten store-bought peaches since, I know that no supermarket cacao will ever taste like that wonderous fruit we ate in the jungle.
Our second day at Yachana began with a trip to the Saturday market. We sailed up the river to a nearby village, to see a the tiniest sliver of the day-to-day life of the people of the rain forest.
The Napo River is a highway. People from different farms and villages arrived in their canoes, either motorized like ours or the kind they would stand precariously in, pushing themselves along with a long pole. For those without their own canoe, a "water taxi" (another motorized canoe) shuttled them in and out for $0.50 a ride. Everyone wore rubber boots like the ones Yachana had assigned us, and nearly everyone had a machete.
This was the one chance they had each week to buy toilet paper and canned goods, but it was something more too. This was a social event, a chance to catch up on the week's news, to share stories, to have a beer with friends and neighbors. Everywhere, children were playing and laughing and eating candy. Makeshift awnings had been erected over piles of tools and cookware and boxes of cereal. One stall was run by a family that purchased a cow each week, slaughtered it every Saturday, and served as the village butcher. Another featured a large crate of baby chicks, for the family that wanted to invest in increasing its supply of eggs. A grimy shop with a sign that read Dentista was filled with an ominous assortment of metal implements and bottles and rags.
And everyone was just so damn happy. After the dour faces we kept encountering in Peru, the broad smiles we were met by at the market were intoxicating. We'd ask children if we could take their photo, and then show them the screen on our camera afterward. The sheer, unadulterated delight in their faces at seeing their own photograph was something to treasure. It was exactly one of the little fantasies we'd always had about our trip, that we'd be able to make someone excited just by showing them their photo.
At one point, an absolutely adorable old man waved us over. He eagerly gestured for us to take his photo, and called his wife over to sit next to him. She was shopping, and seemed a little reluctant to be in the photo, but he was so excited by the idea that she couldn't say no. The first two photos we took of them, they were surrounded by their children, all making goofy faces and mugging for the camera. In the third, though, we got a picture of just the two of them together. He was just beaming when he saw them, and the kids all laughed hysterically at the photos they were in. And when his wife saw the photo of just the two of them, she smiled too.
In the canoe on the way back to Yachana, we excitedly told Juan about this lovely encounter. He asked us if we could email him the photos. He's going to have them printed up, take them back to the market with him, and give them to the couple.
We are now forever spoiled. Whenever we have a guide, they are going to have to measure up to the standard set by Juan Kunchikuy. For five days in the jungle, he was our guide, our teacher, and our interpreter. And in those five days, he became something else, too: our friend.
Juan was born in the jungle, in a tiny village on the Ecuadorian border with Peru. He was brought to Yachana by his older brother, and has been guiding there for years. And he is astounding.
On our walks in the jungle, you could point to any tree, any insect, any leaf, and ask him what it was. And he'd tell you what both the Latin and common names for it were, and then tell you some interesting little story about what drug was manufactured from it by pharmaceutical companies, or what use local people put it to.
For instance, there's an absolutely massive tree in the primary rain forest, one with these gigantic roots that are five or six feet tall where they meet the trunk. Juan told us how the hollows between these roots made good shelter for locals who had to overnight in the jungle, providing both a more or less comfortable bed, and protection.
"Protection?" one of us asked. "Protection from what?"
Juan smiled. "Jaguars. Jaguars like to attack from behind, you see, and if you sleep between these roots with the tree at your back, a jaguar can only approach you from the front."
When we asked Juan if he'd ever been in this situation, he admitted that he had. Once, when he was hunting at age 16, he got lost and had to spend two nights out in the jungle. One of those nights, he was awoken by the sound of a jaguar. Galloping right towards him.
"I slept with some ferns next to me, like this," he said, grabbing a pair of leafy branches off the ground. "And what you have to do is jump up, raising your arms to make yourself look bigger, and wave the ferns to make lots of noise, and scream and yell. But you have to do it when the jaguar is almost right on you, to scare him away."
Ten hours later, we were back into the jungle, to see it at night. At one point, on Jessica's suggestion, we all turned off our flashlights, to find out what it was like. In the impenetrable blackness that surrounded us under the jungle canopy, I tried to imagine being a 16-year-old boy, lost and alone, having to estimate just by sound whether the jaguar running towards me was close enough yet to try and scare away.
I was only too happy when we turned the flashlights back on.
We all developed a bit of hero-worship with Juan. He seemed to know absolutely everything. He told amazing stories (especially over dinner, which he ate with us). He could weave a basket from a fern and make poison from a frog. He could build a house with his bare hands, and hit a melon with a blowgun from a hundred yards. Everyone we met in the village or out in the jungle held him in the highest respect. He had a calm, easygoing demeanor, an infectious giggle, and a smile that could light up a room. We loved him.
No other guide will ever live up to Juan.
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