March 2009: On this trip to Ecuador, aside from visiting the Galapagos Islands, the goal was to visit the Yasuni National Park in the Amazon and to venture into the wilds of the Amazon Rainforest, a place I keep coming back to. I found a guide, Robert Vaca, who had close contacts with the Woaranie Tribe, a group of Indians that lives in Yasuni, that still live very traditional lives. We would travel by boat into Yasuni and stay with the Woaranie for a week and observe their way of life and hopefully see some wildlife.
Where is Yasuni
My goal in my travels is to visit endangered places. Places with a unique ecosystem, culture or particular significance that is threatened with change or destruction by the forces of the modern world. Yasuni National Park and the Woaranie Indians both qualify in this category. Yasuni is Ecuador’s largest rainforest reserve located in the heart of the Amazon along the Peruvian border. The rainforest is still old growth and harbors countless numbers of species and is thought of as being one of the most biodiverse parks in the world given that it includes the low land forest and the transition zone from the Andes to the lowlands. It also is the home to a number of indigenous tribes such as the Woaranie and a relative tribe of the Woaranie, the  tagaeries and taromenanes, who have almost zero contact with the outside world and have responded with hostility towards any attempts to contact them. Quite simply a wild rainforest with no roads that can only be navigated by boat with roaming jaguars and uncontacted hostile Indian tribes sounded fascinating to me and I had to go. Yasuni is threated by oil companies that have drilled for oil all around its boundaries and in some parts of the reserve itself. This has brought an influx of new roads and settlers who bring hunting and disforestation. Political pressure on the government to help bring in badly needed foreign revenue to help the countries impoverished masses has also resulted in Yasuni losing protections to oil companies at the government level. Additionally, there have been massive oil spills into the waterways from oil companies that have devastated the ecosystem. Sadly, coverups have hid the impact of these spills for years until the oil companies are long gone.
Location of Yasuni
Day 1/2: My friend Sterling and I flew into Quito after a few days in the Galapagos Islands diving and exploring San Cristobal Island and we spent one night in Quito visiting the old town and its beautiful grandiose Catholic churches before flying to Coca in the morning via a domestic airline.
Old churches in Quito
The view from the plan of the Andes and rainforest was incredible. From Coca we traveled by vehicle by road for an hour until arriving at the end of the road. All we observed from the car during this part of the journey was deforestation, small wooden shacks where impoverished settlers now live and oil pipelines running through the cattle Pasteur lands that until recently were dense rainforest.  We left our vehicle and boarded a motorized canoe on the Shiripuno River, which flows into the Amazon River. From there we traveled downriver all day into the Yasuni Reserve where we rarely saw another person or settlement and we came across many caiman crocodiles, turtles, monkeys and flocks of load boisterous parrots and scarlet and blue/yellow macaws fluttering about. Yasuni was truly wild.  The miserable part of the journey was that it was raining, and our canoe did not have a roof. Despite being in the equator, it can be freezing when you are traveling by open top boat in the rain. The cool rain along with the wind relentlessly striking us left us shaking in cold. We had rain gear and hoods and tried our best to hunker down in the boat and keep ward but after a few hours of being pelted by tropical downpours in the wind, we were at our wits end. But then the rain stopped, and the jungle came to life, and we were in awe with our surroundings. In the afternoon we arrived at the Boanamo community, to visit the Woaranies.  
Traveling down the Shiripuno River
One of many river turtles we saw
Caiman
Front of our boat stocked with our food and equipment for the week
Spooked Caiman
3 foot long Monitor lizard running from us
Our camp was in the forest in a wild stretch of the river away from the Woaranie village. We set up tents under the traditional Woaranie structures for protection from the rain. After I set my tent up, I noticed something moving beneath me. When I lifted the tent up, I saw a coral snake, one of the most venemous snakes in the Amazon, which I quickly redirected away from the campsite with a stick. 
Our camp
Poisonous coral snake under my tent
We visited the nearby Boanamo Community of  Woaranies. We needed to obtain their permission before camping and entering their territory. In a world as wild as this, offending the locals is not a wise idea. The Woaranies despite having a ferocious warrior reputation, were very friendly and in my experience much warmer than the Yanomami Tribe in Brazil, I previously met. There are only about 5,000 of them and they live a semi-nomadic life. They have permanent villages but hunting parties will travel through the jungle following the movement of animals that they hunt with guns but mostly spear and blow dart still. Their villages are a cluster of small thatched open sides huts. There was no electricity. Most people have large holes in their ear lobes that have plugs maybe of rainforest nuts. The women are mostly topless, and the men wear torn ragged t shirts and shorts or are naked with a waist string that wraps around the top of their penis. All men however when hunting in the forest, do so naked. They believe that it is bad luck to hunt with western clothes on and that if naked it is harder for the animals to smell and detect them. The village is a veritable exotic petting zoo of rainforest animals. The Woaranies when hunting inevitable kill many mothers of rainforest animals leaving the young orphaned. When this happens, the young are raised by the village, sometimes as livestock for food when they grow older or just as pets. Our absolute favorite pet of the Woaranie was the kinkajou,  a small monkey like weasel creature. We discovered it wrestling with a puppy and watching the two of them playing was one of the funniest things I have ever seen, especially when the little kinkajou body slammed the puppy with by wrapping its tail around the puppies neck and flipping it over. 
Sterling and I with the Woaranie chief and his family in his house
Woaranie Chief 
Me with a kinkajou-pet of Woaranie 
4 foot tall enormous harpey eagle devoruing an animals liver covered in flies.
Small Kinkajou
Me with my new friend 
Sterling with the Woaranie chief 
Woaranie man with one of the peccarys
Cooking peccary meat 
Pet monkey
Pet monkey 
Uncontacted Tribes of tagaeries and taromenanes

 

 

Close relatives of the Woaranie Indians are the tagaeries and taromenanes that only number in the hundreds and are completely uncontacted. Well, there have been attempts to contact them, but they have ended in death for anyone reaching out to them including a group of settlers and missionaries. They have chosen to avoid outsiders and live deep in the forest but on occasion they do venture to the river and even to the Houarani village. The Woaranie informed me that they have seen them on a few occasions and when this occurs, they leave some useful cooking items and food outside of their huts for them and they go inside to avoid any conflict. I would have loved to see either group from a safe distance, but I also respect their desire for privacy and to be left alone.
Hunting in the Forest

 

 

The chief went with us by boat into a pristine part of the rainforest that he claimed had good hunting with lots of peccary, herds of mean-spirited pig like creatures that can be hundreds strong and are known to be able to rip humans apart with their tusks and teeth.
Me in front of a huge tree
Monkeys we saw
Monkeys we saw
Yasuni is easily one of the best places in the Amazon for wildlife. Everywhere we turned we saw more wildlife whether it was in the trees or on the ground. We came across jaguar tracks on the ground that the chief said belonged to a huge jaguar. I asked if we could see one and he said yes if you stay here at night. I seriously considered the idea and regret not doing so. 
Jaguar prints
A few Peccary of a herd that is a few hundred strong
At one point while hiking we heard a loud stampeding sound in the distance. it was a cacophony of clicking, branch breaking and grunting sounds. The chief turned in wild eyed excitement and readied his 4-foot-long spear and motioned for us to hide and take shelter. We quickly hit behind a tree and climbed up on some branches while the chief disappeared. In this distance the source of the loud noise became more apparent as a huge herd of peccary’s started to flood into the forest around us. They quickly swarmed passed us and we waited wondering where the chief went. Then he emerged from the forest yelling exuberantly that he had speared one and that it will die soon, and he will track it and find its corpse and bring it back to the village for a feast. In the video below he recounted his heroic tale of chasing the peccaries with his spear and claiming a trophy.
The chief recounting his heroic hunting tale
We returned to the Woaranie village where we stayed the night. The chief was excited to share his story with the other men in the village and he even got on his radio and reached out to some of the other Woaranie villages in the region. Even know there is no phone reception or electricity, there are batteries and a small generator that produce electricity for lights and the radio that the village uses to communicate with one another. It is funny how men no matter what culture are all the same and are very eager to boast about their masculine exploits with one another. The Woaranie were no different. 

One our last day we picked up a young Woaranie girl who was gravely ill and her father. We would transport them back to Coca where they would travel by bus to Quito to receive medical treatment. We traveled all day upriver against a rather strong river current. At one point our motor died, and we floated against the thick brush of the riverbank, and we had to hold on to the ant infested branches to keep our boat from floating away unrestricted into the dangerous currents. Our guide was able to take the motor apart and somehow magically fix the issue and we resumed our journey eventually making it to Quito by nightfall on an evening flight.

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