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Why Ecuador? One woman’s experience at the Arajuno Jungle Lodge

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Friends were curious: “Why Ecuador?” and “Why the Amazon rainforest?” To me, it was simple. The Andes and Amazon River are bucket list items, and traveling in Ecuador with other photographers would be adventure, education, and vacation all rolled into one. True I had second thoughts: the vaccinations, my aversion to bugs and dirt, and an innate need for basic creature comforts (warm showers, comfortable beds, good food, fresh dry clothes, and a clean bathroom). But the trip was irresistible after seeing Doug Henderson’s photos and talking to several Tulsans who had taken the trip with Doug before.

That’s how I found myself headed to the Amazon River basin in a silver Mercedes van loaded with six U.S. photographers, a Spanish-speaking driver, and a guide with U.S./Ecuador dual nationality. As the condor flies, the Arajuno Jungle Lodge (AJL) is only about three hours from Quito. But it was our last stop and on the way we stayed one night at the Posada de Tigua, a hacienda in the Andean mountains, and one night in Banos, the sleepy little town that sits in the shadow of the great Tungurahua volcano.

From Banos, the silver van drove along the Anzu and Napo Rivers and then down the unpaved road from Tena to the bridge spanning the Arajuno River, where a motorized canoe waited to take us upriver. Five minutes later our canoe was met at the muddy landing below the Lodge by Tom Larson, who resembled a bespectled, serious Robin Williams wearing a ball cap, yellow rubber boots, and a white AJL t-shirt.

Tom and his wife, Charo, operate the AJL which is located on 200 acres of rainforest which Tom purchased in 2000. A former Peace Corps volunteer who grew up in Nebraska, Tom has lived in Ecuador since he worked for the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands. During our stay, we saw examples of Tom’s and Charo’s efforts to preserve the environment and support the indigenous cultures. They provide a number of Quichua communities with school and medical supplies and teach Quichuas ways to support themselves as licensed ecotourism guides and hospitality service workers.

With grant funding, Tom has built fish ponds in four rainforest communities as an alternative to the Quichua Indian practice of fishing with dynamite, and he’s involved in increasing the population of the endangered Yellow Spotted Turtle. An accomplished chef and hostess, Charo teaches her kitchen workers the culinary skills for preparing and serving sustainably raised food.

Our stay began with Charo’s homemade cookies and fresh lemonade and a brief tour as Tom dropped us at bungalows that were dotted around the main building. Three of us shared a bungalow with three sets of bunk beds draped with heavy mosquito netting, a bathroom with a hot water shower, and a solar electric lighting system. Even though we discovered we were sharing the bungalow with a gecko the first night, by the last night I could sleep without being mummy-wrapped in mosquito netting.

Arajuno Lodge Bungalow

All our meals at AJL were exceptionally prepared and presented. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners included traditional Ecuadoran aji, fruit juices, soups, baked breads, and always a sweet dessert. Most ingredients were from AJL’s self-sustaining supplies — native fish from Tom’s ponds, brood hens raised on the compound, and vegetables, fruits and herbs grown in their garden. One day we had a Maito lunch of cachama fish wrapped in bijao leaf (typical food of Amazon rainforest) and for dessert, banana upside-down cake.
Dessert at the Arajuno Jungle Lodge

Our second day in the jungle, we went upriver to El Mirador, one of the Amazon communities supported by Tom’s and Charo’s efforts. Tom had arranged for us to photograph the children and to visit one of the homes. After we gave the children some treats from the United States, the kids and the moms posed easily, happily and patiently. A smiling little girl came into the covered schoolyard, cuddling like a teddy bear a baby anteater, which was passed around for everyone to hold. Before we left Mirador, Tom led us along an overgrown footpath to one family’s home. The grandmother proudly showed us the interior of her house on stilts. In the kitchen a large rodent hung roasting in an open fire pit; one corner of the living area was a corn crib. Walking back to the river, we passed three men playing volleyball on a grass court next to the school, while others were building a new wing for the school.
Children of Mirador
We started the next day at Amazoonico, an animal rescue and rehabilitation center on the Arajuno River. The dense canopy of trees in the animal preserve shielded us from the morning rain as a Danish volunteer guided us through the reserve, describing the animals and how they came to Amazoonico. We saw some of the hundreds of different species of mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians that are native to Ecuador: parrots, a toucan, a baby tapir, turtles, caiman, jaguars, guanta, termites, and a variety of monkeys. Some animals were being rehabilitated for possible return to the wild; others were pets whose owners could no longer care for them. A jaguarondi, a small brown cat that paced incessantly at the far perimeter of its enclosure, had been found in a hotel room in Tena after its owner checked out, abandoning it.
Amazoonico Toucan

While at AJL, we were treated to an afternoon float trip on the Arajuno: the brave in inner tubes, the rest of us in the drifting dugout. One evening Tom led us single file on a night walk through the rainforest surrounding the Lodge. On the walk we saw tree frogs mating on the fence, a column of leaf cutter ants shouldering bits of leaves along their well-worn path, and AJL’s garden of herbs, flowers, vegetables, pineapple plants, and banana trees. Most days ended with stories and laughter and wine on the Lodge’s candlelit deck; one ended with Tom ringing the dinner bell and announcing to the moonless jungle night, “Obama won!”
Arajuno River float trip

Our last day we packed, enjoyed one of Charo’s yummy breakfasts, and photographed Tom demonstrating a blowgun. Then the water taxi took us to the bridge, where the Mercedes van waited to take us to Quito for our midnight flight home. Three hours from Quito to Miami. Three hours from Miami to DFW. An hour to Tulsa, armed with photos to answer “Why Ecuador?” and “Why the rainforest?” Adventure. Danger. Andes. Amazon. Mystery. History. Jungle. Indigenous children who also have photos to remember our visit.

Goodbye to Arajuno Jungle Lodge!

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

This is to be my last blog post, as the volunteer of the Arajuno Jungle Lodge. I’m spending a bit of time in Tena and in Quito, before I have to catch my flight back to the States on Thursday.

I wanted to quickly cap off my stay with an overview of all that I’ve done and seen and experienced, because it’s been unlike anything else!

The work that I’ve been doing, my time in the elementary school of San Pedro, was absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, for better people to work with. The kids were so curious and eager to pick up English, and the teachers just as much so. In turn, I learned how to write an awful lot of words in Spanish I’d not before known, as well as various Quichua words, and the basic skill of being the one in charge. This was my first prolonged experienced teaching in a classroom setting, as a fairly legitimate teacher, and I think I did well.



(working on our Libro de Ingles on the last day)


To be completely honest, how much of that information they’ll retain I couldn’t say, but at the very, very least, the thing I most hope to have instilled is the will to keep learning. Natalia, one of the profesoras, asked me to say a couple last words before leaving, and so I told the kids that the world is big. The world is huge, made up of places and people and experiences beyond the wildest imagination, and  if you want to discover it badly enough, if you are willing to work and work and make what you want possible, then you will. After which one of the kids, Jonathon, said he wanted to go to France.

And I sincerely hope that these kids, as young as they are now, will keep that drive, and keep pushing for more education, for more knowledge of the world. Leaving them was so, so difficult for me…I only knew them for a few weeks, but I feel such an empathy for them. Their situation in the world is not the easiest, by a long shot, and maybe this is why my heart hurts so much just leaving them to figure it out on their own. But they are beyond strong, and I know that if they want to do something, go somewhere, and be someone, they will.

All of Us!

And that’s the note I’m leaving the Amazon on. It’s been a trip, to be sure. I’ve seen tarantulas, ridden on top of buses, taught English in Spanish, eaten bugs, had my cookies stolen by a monkey, and I got to wake up every morning looking out on a tributary of the Amazon River. What a life, what a lucky life I lead :).

Thank you to Tom Larson, to Charo, to Mona, to Romiro, to Marco, to Natalia and Teresa, to everyone who has made this experience as unbelievable as it has been…you are all wonderful, wonderful people.

Student Volunteers from North Carolina State University at Arajuno Lodge

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

A group of fifteen students and their leader Janice Odom arrived at the lodge in the afternoon on Wednesday, June 2nd. The student group is from North Carolina State University, and they are a part of what is called the Caldwell Fellows. The aim of the program is to give driven students the means and space to explore the world and make a difference, however they so choose. Every year, they embark on a trip to somwhere in the world that means something to them, and this year it was Ecuador.

During their time here, they will be completing a turtle pond in Campo Cochoa, a community just downriver from Arajuno Lodge.  This turtle pond is a part of the sustainable living solution that Tom Larson is implementing in the river communities.

Building the Fence

Thursday and Friday were spent machete-ing, digging a trench, hauling rocks and gravel, mixing cement, and building the fence around the pond.

Digging The Ditch

Hauling Rocks

Pulling the Tree Out

The project will be completed on Monday, with the last two sides of the fence being cemented in. Soon after, turtles to be brought over!

This is a hard-working group, throwing themselves into everything 150%. I have absolutely no doubt that these are people we will be hearing more about in the world.

Batalla de Pichincha Celebration with the Communities of Napo Province

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

The 24th of May is the day Ecuador celebrates la Batalla de Pichincha, the day when Quito was liberated from the Royalist forces (loyal to Spain), and also the day when the independence of the Ecuadorian Provinces was secured. It is why the Republic of Ecuador exists today. And so it is celebrated in all of the communities and cities, with dancing and football (futbal) and the National Anthem.

I was lucky enough to participate in the festivities Monday, with the school of San Pedro, whom I’m currently working with as an English teacher. It was absolutely hilarious and wonderful, and something I’m never going to forget. The CD our dance was ‘choreographed’ to was forgotten, and the song we ended up using was started and stopped several times, but it didn’t matter, because we all looked brilliant in our brightly colored foam dresses and hats. Pictures follow:

Getting Ready for the Show


Playing Futbol

New Volunteer at the Arajuno Lodge

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Hello there!

Real briefly, my name is Austen Weymueller. I’m a new volunteer at the Arajuno Jungle Lodge, and will be there for the next month, working on various projects both at the lodge and in the surrounding area. Figured I might as well introduce myself, since I’ll be keeping the blog updated for the next while.

This place is stunning, and it’s really quite unbelievable that I wake up every morning in the Amazon, and I eat my breakfast in the company of a monkey (actually, I spend half the time guarding my food from said monkey, rather than eating, but what does that matter when you’re in the Amazon eating with a monkey?).

Arajuno Foundation Dental Mission in Ecuador

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

In late October, Dr. Gary Kuenning, a Tulsa-based dentist/oral surgeon/orthodontist, performed the first annual Arajuno Foundation Dental Mission, working two long days, relieving indigenous Kichwa people of dental pain.

Dental Mission 1

Approximately 112 teeth were extracted from 79 patients. A dentist from Tena, the nearest town 40 kilometers from the Arajuno Jungle Lodge, also cleaned and charted teeth for all indigenous patients.

Dental Mission 2

None of these patients has ever seen a dentist.

Three English-Spanish interpreters worked as volunteers to ensure accurate information translated from patient to dentist. Special toothbrushes with embedded toothpaste were provided to each patient, along with a recipe for toothpaste (translated in Spanish) that could be made from simple, inexpensive ingredients.

A temporary clinic was set up and indigenous, from distances of many miles, hiked to the clinic on rainforest trails or came by river on canoes. Everybody worked from sun-up until after dark on both days of the AF Dental Mission.

Dr. Kuenning plans to donate quite a bit of dental equipment to the Tena-based dentist.

All in all, the first annual Dental Mission was a total success.

S.I.T/ WorldTeach students plant giant bamboo along river bank

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

We just had 23 students from S.I.T/World Teach visit AJL for a couple of days and perform community service activities in one of the local communities called San Pedro.  This is the first action  of the AJL/AF initiative to plant giant bamboo along the eroded banks of the Arajuno River in front of communities and schools where serious flooding could cause loss of property or life.  Giant Bamboo not only provides great stream side protection against soil erosion, but also provides edible shoots, building materials, fire wood and additional habitat for birds and other critters.  Plus, this bamboo is the world’s fastest growing plant and the world’s largest bamboo.  It also serves as a giant carbon sink, effectively fixing three times more carbon from the air than a native forest can.  We will continue to plant Giant Bamboo and a variety of native species along the banks of the Arajuno River wherever needed, especially in front of the communities we are working with.  Great initiative!  Thanks to AJL, AF and S.I.T/World Teach!

Arajuno Foundation Generates Environmental, Economic Benefits

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

turtle-pond-miradorthumbnail.jpgMy dad used to reference various quotes to try to instill wisdom in my brother and me—to which we responded by vigorously rolling our eyes and making faces, of course.  One frequently referenced adage was “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for life.”  I never really saw this principle in practice until I visited the Arajuno Jungle Lodge. While there, I learned that the key to a healthy watershed is an investment in the people that depend on the land, animals, and waters you seek to protect. 

The Arajuno Foundation projects create alternatives for the local indigenous communities so they don’t have to resort to environmentally destructive practices. A guides course equips locals to make money educating tourists about the rainforest instead of cutting down wood to sell from the nearby Reserve.  Cooking courses and new kitchen facilities help to establish an eco-tourism industry in place of mining for gold in the riverbed. And community fish and turtle ponds create a sustainable food source, ensuring that the river isn’t bombarded with destructive fishing practices that use pesticides or dynamite.  With Tom’s work, the future looks bright for the environment and people of the Arajuno River.

Sara Aminzadeh, San Francisco

AJL: Where Cultures Converge

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

A few years ago a new tradition began: if a visitor to the Aranuno Jungle Lodge (AJL) hailed from a new country, his or her country’s flag was hung in the rafters of the main Lodge building. Today, more than 30 country flags flutter in the gentle breeze off the Rio Arajuno. From Australia to South Africa to China to France, guests have trekked to AJL from all corners of the world, making it a truly international destination where the various cultures of the world converge in one of the most biodiverse bands of rainforest. The values of preserving the rainforest and experiencing and helping indigenous cultures and endangered species continue to cross all boundaries. It reconfirms the ongoing commitment and work of both AJL and the Arajuno Foundation. If you have been a part of this experience, I encourage you to blog about it on the AJL blogspot.


Arajuno Foundation Education Coordinator Leads Team of U.S. Teachers to AJL

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

melissa-021_resized.jpgLast month, Melissa Tukey (right in photo), the Arajuno Foundation Education Coordinator, led a group of U.S. teachers to the indigenous community of Santa Barbara. They worked with the Professor of the school in Santa Barbara (left in photo) to help teach classes. The group of teachers also donated a large amount of books (in Spanish) and school supplies, which were greatly appreciated by the school children. The foundation is proud of Melissa’s work in Ecuador, which has been ongoing for a number of years. (Double click on the photo if you wish to see a larger version.) John