The Indigenous-Owned Ecolodge Preserving Ecuadorian Communities
By Susan Portnoy
To say I was intrigued when I first learned about Kapawi Ecolodge in Ecuador is an understatement. What I heard ticked all the right boxes. Imagine an intimate ten-cabin eco-lodge hidden beneath a canopy of pristine rainforest in a remote region called the Amazon Sacred Headwaters. A destination less traveled with plenty of outdoor activities and jaw-dropping scenery. The fact it is owned and operated by three Achuar communities was particularly of interest. It meant I’d get to know an Indigenous culture to a degree I’d not yet encountered. I’m thrilled to say I wasn’t disappointed. Achuar tradition and heritage influenced every aspect of my visit, from the architecture, food, and activities to the village visits and ceremonies I participated in. Kapawi is not for everyone. But it’s an ideal getaway for the responsible adventurer who craves a deeper connection to a place and its people than what an infinity pool and umbrella drinks can muster. These are a few of the highlights.
Getting to Kapawi from Quito requires traveling by car, bush plane, and motorized canoe. It’s long, but the stunning vistas, waterfalls, and small hamlets you come across make up for it. Once in the sacred headwaters, the seemingly endless miles of rivers and tributaries are the highways of the Amazon. The only way to travel is by boat.
My guide Ramiro Vargas, at 47, is an elder and leader of the Kapawi community 30 minutes from the lodge by boat where he grew up. During a rainforest hike, he shared how the Achuar and the rainforest are intertwined, from the medicinal uses of plants to the belief that good and bad energies (spirits) of the forest guide their everyday lives.
Sap from the “Dragon’s Blood” tree is used for stomach aches when added to tea, and when used topically, it is a mosquito repellent.
The camp was built In the style of Achuar homes by the resident Achuar using native materials.
Guests have running water, solar electricity, and ensuite bathrooms. Each room has lush rainforest views, a private porch, and a hammock to while away the hours.
Village visits and outdoor pursuits filled my days. An hour and a half upstream, we visited the Tsekunts community (one of four villages during my stay), comprised of one big extended family. On a bed of palm leaves, we ate river shrimp, blackfin pacu with heart of palm steamed in palm leaves, corn on the cob, and Chinese potatoes.
The community elder, Francisco, prepared Umpak (green tobacco water), which is snorted, then allowed to drain naturally from the nose. It’s a common ritual to cleanse the sinuses and remove bad energy. When swallowed in copious amounts, the Achuar uses it to speak with the spirits of the forest. Afterward, Ramiro taught me how to blow darts. While they also have guns, when stealth is needed, like in the case of a skittish wild boar, they still use nine-foot-long handmade blowguns.
In the early mornings and late afternoons––cooler times of day––we went kayaking, wildlife viewing, swimming, or hiking, leaving the midday heat for lunch and quieter pursuits.
Sumpa, an Achuar Shaman (one of two in the region) and the head of the Wachirpas community, presided over a couple of ceremonies. One was a brief cleansing ceremony at a waterfall (see below), and the other was an elaborate ayahuasca ritual I chose to observe. As the latter tradition is sacred, I didn’t take photos.
After snorting green tobacco juice blessed by Sumpa, guests held their heads underwater at the lip of the waterfall for purification. Afterward, there was time to swim and have fun.
Afternoon storms are not uncommon in the Amazon, but they pass quickly. When the rain falls, palm leaves really come in handy.
Village visits showcased handmade crafts for food, water, and decoration for sale.
For the Achuar, Kapawi is a vital revenue stream for the three stakeholder communities (over 500 people) that own it and additional settlements from which Kapawi buys agricultural goods and services. Its success provides the best possibility of preserving Achuar culture. The funds generated enable young men and women to live, work, learn, and raise families in the headwaters instead of moving to the cities to find opportunities.
As for me, my visit was everything I had hoped for and more.
Susan Portnoy is a multiple Lowell-Thomas award-winning photographer, travel writer, content creator, and founder of The Insatiable Traveler. In 2021, she was named the Bill Muster Award “Photographer of the Year.” Her work has appeared in Newsweek, AFAR, Travel Weekly, and The Telegraph, with upcoming stories in Hemispheres, Smithsonian, and Travel & Leisure. From Coney Island and the Altai Mountains of Mongolia to Antarctica’s frozen beaches and the streets of Lucerne, Susan loves experiential travel that creates a visceral connection with the people and places she visits. Go to Susan Portnoy Photography to see more of her work.