Ecuador · Food

Ecuador´s Amazon: Tena, guayusa and cinnamon

On the eastern side of the towering Ecuadorian Andes lies the expansive Amazon rainforest. For Ecuador it is almost half of the entire country´s total land area though it was nearly twice the size before successive wars with Peru resulted in the chipping away of the territory. Yet despite its small geographic area, the Ecuadorian Amazon is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world.

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Tena from atop the viewing tower
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A walk through the island in the middle of the city

With a metropolitan population of roughly 60,000 people the city of Tena is by far the most populous in Ecuador’s Oriente. Even here, several hundred kilometers away from the mountains, the massive Andes cast a silhouette across the entire Western horizon as the sun begins its slow descent and the night sky overtakes the region, enveloping it in absolute darkness save for the immensity of stars that are clearly visible on a cloudless night. The city was founded in the 1560s by Spanish missionaries eager to bring the faith to the frontier wilderness of the Napo river, a tributary to the sprawling Amazon river.

While I was in Tena I came to appreciate the delicious taste of guayusa, an almost  tea-like drink brewed from the leaves of the tree with the same name. It is a drink with thousands of years of history with the indigenous people of the region. Even today it is widely consumed and you can expect to be served a generous jug with virtually every meal, something uncommon in Ecuador where even water is usually sold. With a silky, sweet taste guayusa not only tastes sweet and refreshing but also has more antioxidants than tea and speeds up your metabolism thereby increasing weight-loss. Due to the rainy conditions of the region, Tena is known as the guayusa capital but equally is known for heavy production of cinnamon.

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With plenty of activities to do, from rafting to exploring waterfalls and seeing animals in their natural habitat, there is always something for everybody. For that matter, even despite its small size, it tends to have quite an active nightlife patronized by both locals and many international tourists. At Puerto Misahualli, Capuchin monkeys can be seen up close in the surrounding areas of the town and by the banks of the river that passes nearby.  Due to their close contact with people, these monkeys are often found stealing fruit from the unsuspecting passerby.

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Monkeys that steal your achiotillo

Food here is similar to the rest of Ecuador in some ways but maintains a more traditional way of presentation over all. With much of its history rooted in the people of the Amazon rather than the imperial legacy of Inca influenced mountain regions, Tena and its surroundings still eat the large protein rich worms of the region that are said to taste like coconut when raw and chicharron (pork rinds) when roasted. People make the most of what they find here just as they always have, and while it may seem primitive or unappetizing to many it is a way of life that has endured; a way of life that by and large is probably healthier than eating a faceless animal that came from factory farming or heavily processed vegetables.

But not everything is well in this wonderland of nature, that is to say, as humans encroach further and further into nature they bring with them the same issues of populated areas. Contamination of ground and river water as a result of both Texaco and PetroEcuador due to oil drilling has caused innumerable issues for the indigenous people of the area which in turn breeds resentment and resistance, sometimes violently. Despite the Ecuadorian Constitution expressly granting rights to the indigenous people as well as spelling out the protection of nature, the  government and corporations have made efforts to tap into the vast oil wealth directly under the Amazon; luckily as of now protected areas seem as though they will remain as efforts to open these up to exploitation have been halted, at least for a time.

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Even lions have been trafficked in some way or another

Other issues such as the trafficking of rare and endangered animals is a serious problem, with many exotic pet owners both locally and abroad causing a deep impact on the ecosystem. As it turns out these people hardly ever know how to take care of these wild animals and thy often do not recover from the scars they incur. Some find their way into the protection of wildlife centers and recovery centers for trafficked animals, an unfortunate necessity but one that is crucial to be supported in order to ensure rescue and conservation efforts continue. In general about 1/3 of rescued animals will die, another 1/3 will require to remain in captivity due to extensive health problems or inability to re-adapt to the wild while a lucky 1/3 will be re-released once deemed healthy.

Yet despite these issues, the region is a truly wondrous place full of natural beauty, one of the last unspoiled areas of the world and one whose integrity must be maintained for future generations to enjoy responsibly.

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