Alberto Vasquez speaks through a thick Mexican accent that sometimes obscures his eloquence, but when he speaks about his visit to the Achuar people of the Amazon rainforest, his speech is clear, precise, and passionate.
“It’s probably one of the most life-changing experiences that I have had,” he says. “It really gives you exposure to unique lifestyles that you’re not used to.”
The Achuar people are indeed unique, their remote civilization a long way off from American life both geographically and culturally. The Achuar were one of the last indigenous tribes in the rainforests of Peru and southeastern Ecuador to be affected by outside civilization. Today, their small community of roughly 18,500 inhabitants employs limited tourism
to help protect their land and way of life from encroaching threats to their society.
One-hundred miles removed from conventional civilization, their society is built around self-sustainability and a rich spiritual life. They worship Arutam, the energy that moves everything in the universe. Their religion, dubbed animism by anthropologists, preaches that all non-human entities, including inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence.
When Vasquez first learned of the Achuar through business associates who had visited in the past, he became determined to take the trip himself — and he did just that, through the Pachamama Alliance.
Making the Journey
He had 10 days to book and prepare for his journey.
“I had to jump through hoops,” Vasquez says. “I became very intrigued, because I’ve always felt very in touch with my spiritual life and trying to find what is important. You won’t find answers with somebody telling you. You have to go and experience it.”
After struggling to make preparations in time for departure, he began the many-legged voyage to reach the Achuar.
First, his group of 14 visitors traveled by plane to the Quito in Ecuador, the highest capital city in the world, situated at 9,350 feet above sea level and surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes. Next, they drove through the Valle de los Volvanes (Valley of the Volcanoes) and caught a bus heading to a village called Shell. Three tiny planes then took them from the tiny frontier town, one of the last strongholds of conventional civilization, and into the Amazon.
“Entering the rainforest, you see the contrast between it and these huge magnificent mountains,” Vasquez said. “You take this plane ride, [and] pretty much land in the dirt.”
Finally, they canoed through the jungle via the Patazas river and arrived at their destination— the Kapawi Lodge — where they’d stay while exploring the surrounding Achuar villages.
Discovering the Dream Culture
“You do walks into the middle of the jungle, you learn about the way they sustain themselves,” Vasquez says. “Anything they take from the jungle, they will try to take it with care, so they have a lot of abundance.”
The Achuar, Vasquez says, are very friendly and very accommodating people. Their diet consists mostly of fish, wild game, root vegetables and jungle fruits. The men are the leaders, the shamans and the hunters, while the women tend to the household and care for the children. Their society doesn’t rely on routine the way so many others do — each day’s activities are instead dictated by dreams.
“They guide most of their decisions based on the dreams they share,” Vasquez says. “It’s a culture of dreams, basically.”
The villagers wake up before sunrise and gather around a communal fireplace to share their dreams, which they believe are the real experiences that the spirit has when it leaves the body during sleep.
During his short stay, Vasquez partook in several religious rituals, incorporating Achuar customs as well as Native American and Mayan ones believed to cleanse the mind and soul. One ritual he describes involved inhaling tobacco smoke through a plantain-leaf cigarette near the edge of a waterfall to cleanse the mind and soul in preparation for a nighttime session ingesting Ayahuasca — a psychedelic brew made from several rainforest plants.
He explains another:
There was a ritual involving sharing the dreams after ingesting a tea of guayusa, a medicine plant from the Amazons, that you ingest until it makes you vomit all the contents of your stomach. Then your mind will get clearer and more receptive to understand the meaning and interpretation of the dream. The elders of the group will be the ones guiding you to interpret the meaning of the dreams.
Threats to the Achuar
Vasquez was not only immersed in their culture; he learned of the threats facing it as well.
“There’s a new era coming. We have to learn to live together,” Alberto says, speaking of the effect Western civilization has on the Achuar.
The threats began when oil was discovered in Ecuador in 1964. Oil companies made claims on the land and constructed drilling outposts, often at the expense of the Achuar and their territories. The town of Shell their voyage passed through, for example, was founded by the Shell Oil Company.
After several violent encounters between natives and developers, the tribes were excluded from the developing industrial areas but their communities still feel the effects. Their numbers have been on a consistent decline due to oil spills, related pollution and newly introduced STDs that pose a significant threat to indigenous populations that don’t incorporate safe sex practices.
“They are very conscious about that situation, and they realize what a delicate environment they live in,” Vasquez says. “That’s part of why they feel that connection with nature.”
When the oil companies first moved to the land, Ecuador had no business regulations in place, but recent government measures and several advocate organizations hope to protect the Achuar and other Amazonian populations.
When his ten days in the Amazon were up, Vasquez and his fellow adventurers made their original journey in reverse and returned home. As far as he was concerned, things were different. I ask what he learned from the experience.
“Readjusting to the fast pace of the working life, that was a challenge,” he says. “While there, you develop a close sense of love and environment.
“They spend the night watching the sky and watching the stars, just looking at life.”
“Life is about experience, about our relationships, about giving more than what you’re taking,” he says. “You wonder, what are we doing with our lives? What are we chasing here?
“You are part of a bigger project. And being part of a bigger project gives you a sense of responsibility. At the same time it gives you’re the relief that there’s intention in the universe, and you are connected to that intention.”
In all, the trip cost somewhere between $6,000 and $7,000. Vasquez has already convinced several friends, without much difficulty, to make the trek themselves.
Find out more about the Achuar at Pachamama.org.