Our morning in Tena was off to an exciting start, in my least favorite way. Tony greeted everyone at the breakfast area with “Good morning! Have you seen the tarantula?”
Thank god it was outside.
But I still panicked. Hence the shaky blurry photo.
I will say, I’ve made strides in my arachnophobia. I live by myself. I’ve seen spiders. I usually just leave them be. But breakfast tarantulas were not the same as a little daddy long-legs in my shower.
After an awkward breakfast where we weren’t sure to order eggs or wait for them to be delivered (still unsure) we made our way onto the bus to head out for our visit to a Kichwa community. On the bus, Mayra informed us that there had been an earthquake the night before. Obviously it was just a little one, which made sense considering we’d all slept through it. But still, I can say I subconsciously experienced an earthquake in Ecuador.
We drove about thirty minutes away from the place and came into the community of Sacha Waysa. This is a community of people who were indigenous to the Napo River Valley, and still follow the traditions that have been passed down for generations. In the community, our plan was to have a guided walk through the rainforest, have lunch, experience some cultural traditions of the village, make our own chocolate from scratch, then play a soccer game with the local kids.
We started our rainforest journey learning about plants that were used for different purposes for the community. We saw leaves that could be used as plates, cups, and essentially takeaway bags for food. We got our faces painted using the berries from a special fruit that essentially made red ink. Our guide, Jaime, told us that people used to use the paint to mark people who were on their side during battles, to show what families they belong to, or to represent the symbol of their spirits. In my group, Jeanette was painted as a “jungle girl,” Max got a snake, Marisa got a toucan, and I got the sun. I really liked it. It felt right.
Next we came to a tree with a giant ants’ nest sticking out of it. Jaime explained to us that the ants and the tree have a symbiotic relationship in that the ants use the tree as a home, and the ants protect the tree from interference from animals. Cuz they bite. And we know they bite, because Jaime STUCK HIS HAND on the nest, got swarmed with ants, and then they ate the living daylight out of him. We all watched in horror. He later explained that the ant venom was relatively harmless, and in fact could be used as defense against other bugs like mosquitos.
So, lesson learned, kids: get bitten by bugs to avoid getting bitten by bugs.
The next stop on our journey was to try some “jungle delicacies.” As soon as this was presented to use, well, in the words of Jordan, “It’s definitely gonna be bugs.” It was. The bugs were known as “lime ants.” Because they were ants that tasted like limes. They lived in little flowers, and when you peeled back the stem, they were filled with the ants. A lot of people tried them. I didn’t. Trust me, I had plenty of opportunities to step out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t bring myself to eat a living bug. But kudos to those who did.
We carried forward through the jungle along the path, occasionally stopping to collect some other fun treasures from nature. The guides kept making these little hats out of leaves and giving them to everyone. Austin and Shane got special treatment in that they got a full costume made of leaves and flowers. But everyone else got a hat. Except me. At one point I looked around and saw everyone wearing leaf hats and I was like “What the hell?”
It didn’t matter a whole lot, because after we’d left the waterfall, it started raining. It was the rainforest, after all. This made the already treacherous walk even more slippery. I only fell four times. How many times did other people fall? Zero. Also I had a walking stick. It was just embarrassing. I was absolutely coated in mud.
Oh also there was a rope swing we took turns on. That was fun too.
Next was lunch. The fish had come recommended, so that’s what I ordered, even though I’m not a huge fish person. It was actually really good. And it was cooked in a leaf! We also had fresh pineapple which was amazing. Oh, and even in Kichwa country, there was still mandatory sauce.
After lunch, we went into the large hut for a taste of culture. We started with some information about Kichwa customs and traditions, including their dress, their spirituality and practices. After, the medicine woman of the town chose two people that she thought had energy that needed cleansing. She chose Billie and Jason, and then performed a cleansing ceremony. The goal of the cleansing was to balance elements, including wind (by fanning them with a leafy plant) and fire (by blowing them with tobacco smoke). She made some conjectures about them and their lives that wound up being scarily accurate, and both of them felt better afterwards. It was really cool.
Next we made our own chocolate by peeling cacao beans, ground them, added some sugar and some milk, and then melted it over the fire. It was as fresh as fondue could get. We poured it over bananas, and added either salt or chili pepper to give it a little kick. It was so good. Really hit the spot.
So it sounds like a full day yeah? Well that wasn’t all we were doing. A brave collective of us, including me, Jeanette, Jordin, Max, Trevor, Marisa, Alina, and Mike, decided to go caving. Or spelunking. They called it caving, but I’d rather use the word “spelunking,” because there are only so many opportunities to use that word.
These were caves very close to the community that were open for exploration. Though the path inside was mostly underwater, so it was basically cave swimming, with a little bit of climbing past stalactites and stalagmites.
Hey. Wanna know where all the scary Amazonian spiders were hiding? In the cave. Saying these guys were dinner plate-sized would be an exaggeration, but they were definitely salad plate-sized. Not tarantulas, but spindly, thick brown scorpion spiders. No me gusta scorpion spiders. I saw my first one and then I was paranoid I was going to touch one if I leaned on the walls, so I tried not to touch the walls, but then I had nothing to balance on. And so I thought, “Maybe that was the only one, he has no friends here…” and then we saw like four more, and then our guide tried to touch one to make it move and we all screamed.
Oh and then there was a bat. He was just chilling out taking a nap but then Trevor woke him up and he flew over all our heads and we all screamed again.
Okay so spelunking is kind of a waking nightmare.
Then we got to a point where our guide wanted to tell us a story about ancient Inca kings or something—I’m going to be honest, I completely forget the story. He made us turn off our headlamps so they weren’t shining in his face during the story. But then it was absolutely pitch black. So at that point I’m thinking I’m being stalked by scorpion spiders and bats. He also had this glow-in-the-dark rosary which was our only light source. He kept swinging it around like a helicopter but then he put it in his pocket and we literally couldn’t see anything.
When the story came to an end, we turned out lights back on and continued on our way. We took a swim in a waterfall, took turns submerging in the deep pool under the waterfall, and then climbed out of the cave back to the light of day. I was very happy to see daylight, but then we had to ascend up some boulders and up the world’s tallest stone staircase.
So, caving. Am I happy I did it? Yes. Did I come out feeling accomplished? Yes. Do I want to do it again. Nope.
To make our evening even more exciting, our bus was like fifteen minutes late to pick us up. So here we are, eight people soaking wet in bathing suits on the side of the road in rural Ecuador, looking for our bus. Also some of us still had our face paint on. We got some real funny looks from the people who drove by.
After the bus picked us up, we had a little bit of time to change before dinner, which was to be held at a party complex down the road from the hotel. The food was super good here, and featured this indigenous mushroom that was probably one of the best things I ate on the trip. We got a fried mushroom and sauce on our steaks that was made with the same mushrooms. So good.
After getting back to the hotel, a group of us decided to go down by the hotel pool for a couple of drinks. When we got down there, the only other large group staying at the hotel—an Ecuadorian Senior group—was having an absolute fiesta in the party complex. They were blasting the same reggaeton song over and over again, salsa dancing and laughing and making a conga line. It was super cute.
After their party shut down we asked if we could stay by the pool even though it was closing. They said it was fine as long as we locked the gate behind us. We agreed. Well, we stayed for about an hour, and when we were about to leave, we saw the gate had already closed. For a solid two minutes we thought we were locked in and would have to sleep in the pool, or call Mayra for help, or climb it…something. Well, eventually Jeanette said, “Oh. Right, he said it slides.” And she opened the door with no trouble. No more mimosas for us. It was time for bed.