Feature

This week's travel dream: A tribal view of the Amazon rain forest

The Huaorani tribe is turning to small-scale tourism to bolster its chances of survival.

Contact with outsiders often spells doom for isolated tribes, said Stanley Stewart in Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.). But one such tribe in Ecuador’s Amazon rain forest—the Huaorani—is turning to small-scale tourism to bolster its chances of survival. The tribe, just 3,000 strong and so isolated that its language bears no relation to any other on Earth, is hoping that the revenue will help it resist the efforts of energy companies to tap the vast oil reserves that lie beneath the rain forest. The tribe has partnered with an ecotourism company to create a new lodge, and I was curious about a visit: My hosts have a reputation as fierce warriors.

In Shell, a town named after the oil company, I catch a small prop plane that lands on an isolated airstrip surrounded by “exuberant greenery.” Scattered huts sit nearby, and it’s there that I’m introduced to my Huaorani guide, Bei, as well as to an elderly woman who’s said to have beheaded five missionaries more than 50 years ago. Boarding a canoe, Bei and I soon head down the Shiripuno River, “gliding through an uninhabited world” until arriving at Huaorani Ecolodge an hour later. The lodge has five thatched guest cabins, each with a porch and a bathroom and furnished with “summer-camp simplicity.” After dinner, we sit outside the main building watching fireflies and listening to “a spectacular symphony of croaking, grunting, barking, chirping, and squeaking.” In the morning, Bei and I walk into the forest. He points out medicinal plants, leaves that are used as toilet paper, and fruits that are used as soap.

We take kayaks downriver on another bright, warm morning. Three fat capybaras scurry along one bank and exotic birds fly overhead. Howler monkeys shake the treetops and a tamarin monkey, “delicate as a dancer,” skips among the brush. When my time to go arrives, Bei and two tribesmen row me to a bridge where I can catch a ride back to civilization. As we say good-bye, I can’t help but think of how these men, when in the forest, “moved with grace and confidence.” Here, in a world of rusting pipelines and pickup trucks, they look uneasy—“strangers in someone else’s world.”

Stays at the Huaorani Ecolodge (huaorani.com) start at $690 for three nights.

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