I didn’t think twice about going solo.”
When I set out on my trip to Cabañas Aliñahui, no one, least of all me, knew exactly where I was going. I had spent a few weeks on a writing retreat in Baños, a small but bustling town on the lower slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes, and needed a brief respite from the rain and punishing winds. I longed for a taste of the heat, sun, and stillness of the jungle. After mentioning to a friend in Baños my vague idea to get to Misahaulli and spend a couple of nights in a rustic cabin on the river, I threw my bathing suit in a backpack and flagged down the next bus out of town.
I didn’t think twice about going solo. By that point I’d traveled through much of Mexico and Central America by myself. I was accustomed to the worrisome stomach sensations, the reckless buses, the inevitable question, “Are you married?” usually followed by “Do you have children?” I could judge in a New York second whether I should answer with a lie or the truth. I had my super-slim, easily hidden travel wallet and my non-descript, faded Guatemalan shoulder bag that no self-respecting grab-n-go thief would take the slightest interest in. I could speak Spanish. And I had been to this part of the Amazon before, albeit with a group of Peace Corps volunteers who lived there.
Friday I arrived in Misahualli, a sleepy port on the Napo River. “Port” in this case meant a beach with a handful of motorized canoes, the most elaborate of which had metal and canvas canopies to block the sun. I didn’t see any other foreigners, save for a guy with matted hair and flip flops who dragged a guitar behind him. He looked like he’d been there a long time.
I spent one night in a spotless hostel off the central plaza and decided the next morning it was time to get out into the wilderness. Within ten minutes I was already lured away from my big adventure by the attractive, well-appointed bungalows just across the river and within spitting distance of town, but I discovered when I got there that they were closed for remodeling. Luis, the boat captain who ferried me two minutes across the river for 25 cents, then tried to sell me a $40 jungle tour, including visits to an indigenous community and bio reserve. I was tempted because I was clearly his only customer for the day, and I knew those trips were usually worth the money. In the end, lacking the interest to bargain and not sure I could get a better deal anyway, I accepted his offer of $25 for a 45-minute boat ride down the river to Cabañas Aliñuahi.
I recognized parts of the river from my last trip to the area, when I had spent a week in a rural community for work with the Peace Corps volunteers. But the canoe continued down river well past that village, and after a while I was in totally unfamiliar territory. The river was about as wide as a twelve-lane highway, and you saw nothing but rocky beach, the dense crowns of trees and swaths of tall grasses, and occasionally a wood hut or two. To the north you saw the rolling slopes of mountains, covered with the same impenetrable vegetation. Even I, tending toward type A in other situations, could not help but be seduced by the persistent current, the churning of the motor, and the lassitude of the heat. That was why I had come.
Eventually I saw the small cluster of cabañas on the river bank and spotted the large hand-painted sign: Cabañas Aliñahui, which means “butterfly” in Kichwa, the local indigenous language. Luis continued down river, where he said there was a road that would take me to them. We landed at a deserted beach, and he watched me get out of the boat and head tentatively in what I would quickly discover was the wrong direction.
“Left! To the left!” I heard him shout.
I found the “road”, actually an unmarked footpath that led straight into a thicket of trees. He waited until I scrambled up the path, and then just as I was considering coming to my senses and having him take me back to town, I heard his boat zoom off up river and leave me to my fate.
It didn’t entirely dawn on me until I’d been walking for about ten minutes on a narrow but well-trod path in the middle of the Amazon rainforest that maybe this was not the smartest thing for me to do, especially since I occasionally got lost at home in my car with my map. I also kept recalling a story a friend from Baños told me about his cousin, who was born in a jungle community but had lived in Baños for ten years. He went back to visit his family and got lost. The family launched an expedition to find him, with no luck. A month later the cousin turned up hundreds of miles away in a hospital in the Amazon town of Coca, nearly dead from dehydration and exposure. And here I was, directionally challenged even in my own neighborhood, tromping through the rainforest with just a bottle of water and insect repellent and an active imagination. Know one except for Luis knew where I was, and he didn’t even know my last name.
I tried to reason with myself: I’d seen the cabañas with my own eyes. Worst came to worst I could turn around the way I came and head back to the beach, where I could wait until the next morning to be rescued by a boat captain who would probably snicker at my lack of survival skills. That scenario, though probably not very realistic, did tamp down some of the fear. I never concentrated so hard on every leaf, every broken branch, anything that could be a trail marker so that if I had to turn around, I could keep my sanity knowing I was going in the right direction. I spoke out loud to my mother, who since she died had become my patron saint of capricious travel. I’d spent enough time in Latin America to understand that spirit guardians had a very practical purpose, and I’d adopted one or two.
I spoke out loud to my mother, who since she died had become my patron saint of capricious travel.”
Three weeks earlier a hurricane had hit the capital, Belize City, and demolished a third of its flimsy infrastructure.”
Thick and damp as the air was, I was sweating from the effort to remain calm, not from the humidity. For all of the spectacular diversity of the rainforest, every green thing looked like every other green thing to me. I was surrounded, even overhead, by vegetation. Sunlight managed to filter through and spot the path, which was littered with trampled, decaying leaves, but since I couldn’t see the sun itself, I couldn’t use its position to help me get my bearings. There were no signs saying “Cabañas Aliñuahi”, or anything else for that matter, and then the trail disappeared. That was when I started to panic. Maybe I’d finally pushed it too far. Maybe I’d made a dangerous error in judgment. Yet somehow I kept moving since I couldn’t think of what else to do, praying that some force was guiding me to safety, not doom.
Then the trail reappeared, narrow but unmistakeable, and I heard human voices. I almost broke out in song. From that point I started to relax, even when I came to an unmarked fork in the road. I followed the sound of kids’ shouts and came to a little community where people hung out on the front porches of their wooden huts. Everyone was friendly, telling me that in fact I was on the road to the cabañas. One grandfather, taking pity on me, accompanied me to yet another fork where he said I would have to walk another 50 meters to arrive at my destination. On the way, he pointed proudly to the kindergarten—which looked identical to the other buildings—that they had started in their village. I was reminded of the other Kichwa village I visited on my last trip which looked to be about the same size, a hundred or so people from eight or nine families. I could never keep track of the kids. Toddlers would play where we all gathered in the community hut and then jump up, run outside squealing, and vanish silently into the rainforest. The pre-teen girls who called me “linda” and braided my hair at dinner time were nowhere to be found at breakfast. I figured that they had logical places to go and that I was just confused because I was a foreigner. When I asked the man how many kids lived in this village, he said, “Well, we’re in the process of counting them right now.” We both found that funny and walked the remaining few paces to the junction where he would leave me.
I continued down the road, which really was a road by this point, and checked with every single person who passed: Am I going the right way toward Cabañas Aliñahui? Everyone nodded, but between my lack of direction and people’s general lack of precision, I wasn’t convinced. I’d now been wandering for two hours, which seemed unfathomable given the fact that I’d seen the cabins from where Luis dropped me off at the beach. Finally, after I followed the last turn I was told to take, the road ended at a swimming hole. No sign of the cabañas anywhere. I was exhausted and entirely unsurprised and could hardly think for the humidity. What were my options? To retrace my steps and ask the grandfather if he had a hammock I could sleep in?
A teenage boy who had just finished a swim was stepping into the whitest tennis shoes I’ve ever seen. “Excuse me, do you know if there are some cabañas around here?” I asked.
“Where are they?”
“Follow me.” He picked his way through some brush to an obscured footpath, where within two minutes I saw a stone staircase that led me, indubitably, to my destination. When I realized how close I had been, I felt silly and guilty for asking him to be my guide in his spanking new shoes, but he seemed unfazed. He threw a casual wave as he headed back to the watering hole.
The cabañas were a collection of simple, sturdy wood buildings on a cleared bluff, surrounded by a wall of trees and overlooking the river I’d traveled down two hours earlier. I saw the beach where I’d landed and from where I’d slipped into the jungle. I’d been no more than a half-hour hike from the cabañas the whole time.
I strolled around the property, which appeared deserted, and called out to see if someone might answer. A man who looked like he’d just woken up from a nap greeted me and showed me to a cabin. He explained that a tour group had just left, so I had the place to myself. He invited me to join him and the two other staff people to walk to a village ten minutes away to watch a soccer game on t.v. It must have been the same one I’d just come from, where I thought I was lost. I thanked him and declined, deciding to take advantage of the solitude. He handed me a clean towel and a wrapped bar of soap and told me they would be back to cook dinner at seven.
After dropping my bag in my room, I hiked down to the swimming hole to wade in the cool water and wash off some of my stench. Refreshed, I climbed back up to the bluff, where I lay in a hammock. From there I could see the swimming hole and the Napo River, both tree-lined banks, and a volcano in the distance. I did nothing but watch the languid clouds collect on the horizon around the gradually dropping sun and the pastel trail of its wake. For hours, I felt suspended. I was in the middle of nowhere and at the center of the universe at the same time. The twitter and buzzing of birds and insects obliterated all other sound, yet the sense of utter silence was almost overwhelming. Except for the changing light, I wouldn’t have even noticed that time was passing. I never felt bored. I never felt the urge to do anything other than be in that spot. Although I was alone, I felt a deep sense of companionship. Among all of the varied, fascinating, mysterious living things with whom I shared the space, I was one of them. Everything knew where I was.
I’d been no more than a half-hour hike from the cabañas the whole time.”