The Huaorani have long inhabited the headwaters of the Ecuadorian Amazon, hunting game with blowpipes and gathering food from the forest. They were the last of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples to be contacted by missionaries – in 1956 – and they now mostly live in permanent settlements, though at least one clan continues to shun all contact with the outside world. Their chronicles tell of ancestors who escaped from cannibals and moved downriver a thousand years ago from what is now Brazil. At present their territory covers “an untouchable zone” of about 6,000 square kilometres of rainforest in northwestern Ecuador – about a third of the size of their ancestral lands, thanks to encroachment by logging and oil companies.
On this trip you are taken to meet the small community of Quehueri’ono (“Cannibal River”), hunter-gatherers who live in the northwestern part of the Huaorani territory. Such a unique encounter is the result of years of consultation between their chief Moi Enomenga and an Ecuadorian travel company. For twelve years, Tropic has run hiking tours with Moi, employing Quehueri’ono villagers as guides – a sign of its success is that a permanent ecolodge, used as a base for village trips, has now been built, with five cabins equipped with twin bed, shower and flush toilet.
As you approach their village (an hour’s walk from the ecolodge), your guide whacks a fallen tree trunk with a stick to signal your arrival. But don’t expect a welcome party: there will be no beating of drums; no-one will greet you with a refreshing face towel or a piña colada. The villagers are likely to be engrossed in their daily chores, making chucula (a sweet drink of ripe bananas) or tepe (an unfermented manioc drink), or lying on a hammock in the shade. Yet when you are introduced they welcome you warmly and often invite you to spend the whole afternoon with them, showing you how they make traditional handicrafts such as bags, woven hammocks, pots and necklaces.
For several days a Huaorani guide leads you through the rainforest, demonstrating how they use plants for medicine, shelter and clothes, and how to hunt monkeys by climbing up trees and firing poisoned darts from blowpipes. He’ll also point out an astonishing variety of wildlife, including blue morpho butterflies, greater and lesser kiskadees and several species of Amazonian kingfishers; quite often you’ll hear howler monkeys high up in the trees. Six hours downriver by canoe, guests camp at another village, Nenquepara, where you can swim at a beautiful waterfall and return for a simple meal of mashed plantain, rice and beans, prepared by the Huaorani.
On the final day you canoe to the Huaorani’s territorial border, from where you’re driven back to Coca (where there’s an air route back to Quito) through land taken over by oil firms. The road was built to service a pipeline and the 2.5hr journey reveals the full effects of deforestation as you come across oil leaks and vast stretches of rainforest stripped bare. It’s a sobering trip, in many ways a poignant reminder of the abundance of life you witnessed earlier.
The Huaorani have the phrase “wah poh nee” for anything that conveys understanding and appreciation. During your time with them you find yourself repeating it over and over again: when you see the flash of a kingfisher; when you arrive at a beautiful natural pool for bathing; when you’ve eaten a delicious meal made from ingredients found in the rainforest. But it also stays with you long after you’ve left their beautiful, unique and threatened home.
Richard Hammond travelled to meet the Huaorani with Journey Latin America. This article is taken from his book: Clean Breaks: 500 New Ways to See the World (published by Rough Guides, £18.99).