The Huaorani Life-Changing Adventure: Community Ecotourism in Ecuador

The following guest post was written by Nick DiMatteo, who is the President & Founder of Nomadico Travel. By coincidence, we were both staying at the lovely Anahi Boutique Hotel in Quito for a couple of nights before heading into the Amazon Jungle and had a lovely time sharing our experiences in the city.

While I’ve already discussed my visit to Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, I wanted Nick to share the life-changing experience he and his family had while visiting the Huaorani community (in Central Ecuador).

Our small six passenger plan touched down on the grass air strip in the middle of the Amazonian Jungle of Ecuador on a warm morning last March. The heat from the Equatorial sun combined with the humidity warmed our faces. Members of the Huaorani tribe come out of their palm thatched huts smiling and lead us to their elder’s hut. The airstrip bordered the huts, but planes only arrived once each week to bring travelers to the lodge.

They welcomed us in the traditional custom by painting our faces red and singing a traditional greeting song while the women and children dance. They sang their songs in Wao – their native tongue, which is linguistically related to no other language on earth.

I first learned of the Huaorani when I read The Savages, a book by Joe Kane, cleverly referring to the oil companies as the “savages”. The book was about the Huaorani’s struggle to retain their land from oil companies. This struggle began as early as the 1960’s when oil was discovered in this bio-diverse part of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Some indigenous communities sold their lands to the “La Compania” and soon the forest and their life as they had known disappeared. The forest was razed and people abandoned their subsistence living to work for the oil companies at minimum wages.

Fortunately, under the leadership of Moi Enomenga and the assistance a social entrepreneur named Andy Drumm, five Huaorani communities along the Shiripuno River decided to turn to community ecotourism to provide a sustainable income instead of selling their land to the oil companies. Andy had started a company called Tropic Journeys which helped managed the operations and logistics of the lodge while employing Huaorani villagers. However, the Huaorani maintained complete ownership of the lodge and they used the profits to benefit the community.

The Huaorani ecolodge is unique because it gives travelers the rare opportunity to interact and learn from the Huaorani people. Travelers learn about the typical lifestyle of the Huaorani people, their surrounding environment and their struggle to resist the oil companies. The profits from the ecolodge go directly back to funding education initiatives and healthcare costs for the communities. The lodge is sustainably built with a just five comfortable cabins that resemble the architecture style of Huaorani houses. Each cabin uses bio-degradable soaps and electricity that is available 24/7 which is generated from solar panels.

The favorite part of the whole trip was when we went for a three-hour hike to the local Huaorani community outside our ecolodge on the second day. I loved this day because I felt like all the anthropology classes I had taken in college finally came to life. The highlight was when our Huaorani guide gave us a lesson in how to throw spear, climb a tree and use a blow gun. I was so impressed by how quickly our Huaorani tour guide climbed the tree to demonstrate the blow gun and then how accurate he threw the spear. We didn’t hunt, but just practiced our hunting skills.

We also trekked in our knee high rubber boots down the path while our Huaorani guide and our bilingual naturalist guide told us of the different flora and fauna. The symphony of bird calls and monkeys was majestic. I was excited to have the opportunity to see a rare jaguar footprint. Overall, the trip to visit the Huaorani created lasting memories. It was great to meet the Huaorani and learn about their culture, their environment and social issues.

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2 Responses
  1. Avatar
    Wan Harris

    Dear Greenloons,

    My name is Harris and I am a second year University student from Malaysia. It has been an absolute treat reading the experiences that you have shared on this blog, and in particular this segment. The Huaorani are incredibly lucky in having trusted individuals such as Moi Enomenga and Andy Drumm who established an ecotourism product when corporations and oil companies only see the land as profit margins. This is significant as a potential eco-disaster has been avoided. We all know that if the corporations had their way, the jungles and rainforests would all be burned down, leaving the Huaorani homeless and destroying thousands of habitats of exotic animals. It is unfortunate however that such acts of heroism by individuals such as Moi and Andy are not celebrated and recognized.

    It is encouraging news in respect of eco-tourism in the world, knowing that a local tribe has succeeded in becoming a successful destination with the eco-tourism measures it has taken. However, do you have any opinions on how young entrepreneurs are able to penetrate into their local eco-tourism market in order to have an effective outcome such as Andy Drumm did for the Huaorani community? Are there any other advices you would give?

  2. Avatar
    Irene Lane

    Dear Mr. Harris,

    You may be interested to read this recent article about the closure of an eco-lodge due to oil drilling. We are saddened that some indigenous communities are choosing short-term cash outlays from oil companies over long-term economic viability and heritage preservation.

    However, to answer your question, the key is to facilitate discussions with these local communities so they are stakeholders in the decision making process. Whether it be the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador or another in Namibia (to establish land conservation trusts), a community that has its challenges and goals discussed with the lens of positive impact in the form of social, economic and environmental, will not encounter nearly as much resistance as others.

    Hope that helps!