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Spending Time with the Waira Churis

Balancing on the Equator
Balancing on the Equator
Felipe and his colleague Arturo picked us up (in a replacement truck) on Friday August 6 and drove us out of Quito over the Andean continental divide towards Archidona. Along the way we stopped at the Guango Lodge to view their hummingbirds. It was amazing; we have never seen anything like it. There must have been at least 100 hummingbirds. They were eating from flowers and feeders, and there were many different varieties. You could get extremely close to them to photograph them. One of them even landed on my head! One species had an extremely long beak, and had to fly while eating because his beak was too long for him to sit on the perch! We sat outside and had some coca tea and cookies while enjoying observing the hummingbirds.

We continued along our way and stopped in Baeza for lunch. Felipe said that we stopped there because the next good restaurant was 'a billion kilometers away.' We drove the rest of the way to Archidona, and stopped to pick up a boy named Herman. We then drove for 45 minutes into the jungle on a gravel road to a trail head, where Arturo dropped the four of us off. We followed the trail for about half an hour and around 4 pm came to a clearing in the jungle where there was a flat expanse of land dotted with several bamboo and wood plank huts. We were introduced to Carlos and his wife Maria. We knew that we would be spending time with 'the Waira Churi people', but we hadn´t really been able to find any information on who they were. We had thought that they were a tribe all their own. But once we arrived and spoke with Carlos, we learned that they are really a single large family of Kichwa people. Carlos is the grandfather, and his own grandfather had been a famous yachak shaman named Vicente Salazar who taught him many of the ways of the jungle. Fearing that their culture will be lost, Carlos has established this 'camp' in the jungle where his family accepts guests and practices and demonstrates their age-old customs. Carlos lost his mother in a river accident when he was very young, and viewed himself as raised by the wind, so he named his family clan the Waira Churis in the Kichwa language. He told us a lot of stories and demonstrated a lot of customs for us, and we think that this is a very honorable thing. We hope that they can get support from some kind of foundation so that they can expand their venture; currently everything they do is self-financed and managed.

Although most of Carlos' 10 children and their children live in Archidona, they come to this camp area to receive guests and they all stay overnight as a little community. Our accommodations consisted of a basic yet comfortable wooden hut with beds, sleeping pads, and mosquito nets. Their little bamboo outhouse had an actual toilet bowl (only) which you would manually flush by pouring a bucket of water down it. We were quite impressed with this. All in all it was far more comfortable than we had originally expected. There was even a little grotto area with naturally running water that we could use for a (cool) shower.

Carlos was very excited to show us his world, and like a kid he couldn´t decide what to show us first. We saw some very ugly and scary looking caterpillars, a huge snail as big as a conch, a perfectly round rock that his son had found at the bottom of a nearby waterfall...it was like show and tell and we struggled to absorb it all and reveled in all of our newfound knowledge.

The women cooked us traditional meals served on banana leaf plates. Carlos played us a song on his reed flute (he and the family only use flutes and drums (percussion, sometimes made of turtle shells) rather than post-Columbian instruments such as violins and guitars. He and the family enter musical competitions and often win. The culture here is very much sun up to sun down, so after chatting with Carlos everyone went to bed at around 8:30.

The next day, we had breakfast and at around 9 am headed off on a 'one hour hike' to a sacred waterfall. Felipe warned us that the Kichwa conception of time and distance can be a bit...different...than our own, and this turned out to be the case. It was a rather steep downhill hike through the jungle, and after an hour walking at a liesurely pace, stopping to look at various medicinal plants, we reached the river. We had to cross it and thought that the waterfall must be nearby, but it wasn´t. We continued upstream for an additional hour and a half, scurrying over slippery rocks and up and down muddy slopes. Les Stroud (on his Survivorman TV show) often says that in a survival situation, 'if you sweat you die.' Well, if that were the case today, Craig and I would both have been dead. I totally ran out of energy and was sweating up a storm. I had visions of being left for dead and not even being able to make it to the waterfall to begin with, let alone making it back to camp! But I struggled on and we eventually arrived at a beautiful 3-tiered waterfall. Carlos and his family whipped together a sturdy ladder from bamboo and vines and climbed up the waterfall. I was in no shape to do that and we weren´t sure the ladder would hold our weight anyway, so Craig and I swam in the pool below the waterfall (schistosomiasis be damned!) There were many different beautiful butterflies here, including the ethereal blue morpho. They enjoyed using our clothes as their own private salt lick while we were swimming. After spending a nice time at the waterfall, we headed back to the camp. If going downhill was bad, going up was worse and on some steep slopes the young men even had to tow me up. How embarrassing! But I´ve never been so happy to hear a rooster crow in my life as I was when one signaled our appoach to camp shortly before sundown. Lunch had been waiting many hours for us, and the entire venture had lasted from 9-5:15 (an entire work day)! Next time, we highly recommend bringing lunch with us.

After eating we took a much-deserved outdoor 'shower' and were feeling like ourselves once again. The kids showed us their fireflies, which have two 'headlights' in the front and one light in the back. Everybody was exhausted, even though the hike was much easier for all of them, and by 8pm we were the only ones still awake, sitting on a bench in the dark, taking in our surroundings.

The next morning we hung out at the camp while Felipe and Carlos went for another hike to see the cock of the rock birds. We had brought a Frisbee and played with the kids, which was a lot of fun. The family taught us how to weave headbands out of palm leaves. Some of the younger kids were swinging from a vine and convinced me (against my better judgment) to give it a try. I couldn´t hold my weight and slid down the vine, skinning my fingers, much like a bad rope burn. Upon close examination I realized that I had taken several layers of skin off of my fingers, and that this was going to become an issue. When Felipe got back from his hike he got out his first aid kit and helped to clean my wounds. He then asked the Waira Churis for some sangre de drago (dragon´s blood), sap from a particular tree (which we learned about yesterday) which helps wounds to scab. After they inspected my injuries, someone quickly ran off and returned with a cup full of the stuff, which actually did look like blood. Felipe instructed me to rub it onto my wounds in a circular motion until it turned from scarlet to creamy white, and got a gluey consistency. Within minutes, the sting went away and I could see improvement. Rather than using creams and bandaids which would not let the wounds dry out, this created a 'second skin' coating and allowed them to dry out. I would need to be careful using my fingers, but this stuff was a godsend. I joked that I had done this on purpose in order to test out their traditional medicine. My conclusion was that the tribal remedy worked beautifully and I can´t believe how well and quickly my fingers healed. Carlos' and Maria´s faces are painted with traditional designs using the dark gray paste extracted from a palm tree. They asked if we wanted our faces painted in the same manner. We did, and Carlos' and Maria's son Edmundo did it for us. They said it should last 3 weeks, and we laughed thinking about showing up at work with what looks essentially like a tattoo on our faces. However, after sweating a lot in the next week, it would pretty much be washed off before we even arrive home.

We had a nice lunch and then Carlos and the family took us into the woods to demonstrate 4 different types of traps that they would use in the jungle for hunting animals. Using nothing but a machete and materials found in the jungle, they showed us traps which were amazingly efficient and versatile. One snare was so good that it trapped one of their unsuspecting chickens...twice!! We heard snap, whoosh, cluck cluck! We all turned to see the chicken dangling in the air helplessly. We all got a good laugh out of this and quickly released the slightly traumatized chicken. They reset the trap and minutes later the same chicken was caught again! Even more laughter. No question about the efficacy of the traps. There was another trap which created almost a guillotine and snapped down with such force that Carlos said that it had often cut a snake in two. Felipe tested the trap with his shoe, and could barely extract it afterwards. After two more traps, they demonstrated their blowdart gun. They took arrows and affixed a cotton-like substance from a ceiba tree, loaded it into the gun, and blew it at a target made from yucca and a leaf. Carlos demonstrated his prowess by routinely hitting the yucca. They let us each try and we actually hit the leaf, but our arrows didn´t penetrate the yucca. It was easier to use than I had expected.

We sat in one of the bamboo huts and Carlos played his flute while Maria sang. Felipe played along on a flute and drum in turn, and it was a nice relaxing musical interlude. Carlos asked if we would like to enact a Kichwa wedding ceremony. Felipe told him that we had just celebrated our 12 year wedding anniversary, and Carlos and Maria got very excited. They ran to get clothing to dress both of us as the rest of the family gathered and
donned their traditional outfits and headbands that we had woven earlier in the day. Craig wore Carlos´ feathered crown and I had a red veil over my head. A woman stood on either side of me and joined arms with mine. Men did the same with Craig. These symbolized our godmothers and godfathers, who would give us away for marriage. Carlos played a song and we danced, approaching one another and then backing off, until they officially handed me over to Craig, and transferred the feathered crown to me. It was very sweet that they had wanted to do this for us. This day was very much about us becoming closer to the family, and we are so glad that we added this additional day to the itinerary

After a light supper, the sun set and we sat in a covered pavilion area for a ceremony. We sat in the dark around the coals of a fire and Craig and Felipe drank a cup of a traditional ceremonial drink made from various jungle plants. Approximately half an hour later, Carlos called each of us one by one to sit in front of him for cleansing. He chanted hypnotically and patted us with a bundle of leaves. He breathed onto our heads and blew smoke all around us. It was an intense surreal personal experience. It sent shivers down my spine.

We all sat in dark silence until the ceremony was finished, at which time Carlos re-lit candles and everyone eventually wandered off to bed. Craig gazed at the stars while standing all alone in the middle of camp on his way back to our room. It had been cloudy for much of the trip and Craig wasn´t going to give up this opportunity to see some stars. Tonight was a late night, and we went to bed at 11:30 and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning, we packed up our things, and Carlos' family packed up theirs. We had a quick breakfast and then walked down the path back to the gravel road. Arturo was there in our fixed white LandCruiser to pick us up. (It turned out that the problem had been an internally broken wire to the alternator). We said goodbye to the family and heartily thanked them for everything. We gave Maria a ride back to Archidona (Carlos was staying at the camp) while the rest of the family walked back to their homes in Archidona, their weekend at camp having finished. We are so lucky to have been able to spend time with this family. We highly recommend this experience and we wish them continued success in this venture. The accommodation was comfortable and the food was far beyond expectation, both in quality and quantity. We had delicious soup with every meal and never felt hungry. With our heads swimming with all of the experiences of the past few days, we were now ready to head to the Amazon...

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