Worldwide Photographic Journeys

South America & Galapagos

ECUADOR’S WAORANI: The Last Hunter Gatherers of the Amazon

Friday 14th July – Monday 24th July 2023

Leader: Julie-Anne Davies

11 Days Group Size Limit 6

ECUADOR’S WAORANI: THE LAST HUNTER GATHERERS OF THE AMAZON PHOTO TOUR WITH WILD IMAGES

Join Wild Images on a truly unique journey through the pristine rainforests of Shiripuno and the Yasunis to live and learn alongside four remote family communities of the Waorani, the last tribe of hunter gatherer people in the Amazon.  The first fully comprehensive photo tour of its kind, we will take you on walks through the rainforest to learn about medicinal plant use and the Waorani’s sophisticated use of bio-toxins.  You will meet at least one traditional Shaman and join head men on hunting trips using gigantic blow darts and spears.  We will travel by canoe along some of the wildest tributaries of the Amazon searching for monkeys, cayman, turtles and a myriad of birds including toucans, macaws and hoatzins. Joining a group of Waorani women and children we will walk deep into the rainforest to watch and photograph the capture of tiny fish from rainforest pools using a bio-toxic sap from the roots of a Barbasco plant that literally makes small fish jump out of the water into nets!  Under a blanket of millions of stars we will travel silently by canoe to search for cayman and we will learn how to harvest fruits and vegetables like platano, lulo fruit and yukka from the forest.  For meals we will sample some wild food that has been caught or harvested that day and cooked over an open fire.

Finally we will stay overnight with a traditional Waorani elder who has spent his life living on the back doorstep of the Intangible Zone where Taromenanes and Taegeri, two completely isolated tribal groups live in voluntary isolation in the forest.  Around a campfire we will sit and listen to his stories of life alongside some of the last un-contacted people on earth.

Spending time with the Waorani is truly a once in a lifetime experience.  These gentle people exist softly in one of the last pristine corners of biodiversity in the Amazon yet their lives and territories are under threat from oil drilling, colonisation and land clearing. Visiting Waorani clans in remote communities that see so few tourists, you will learn first hand about their reverence for the forest, their sophisticated understanding of natural toxins/medicines and how they conserve the wildlife in their forest homes, all while surrounded by the magic of the Amazon rainforest.

A Life in the Wild

No one knows the rivers of Shiripuno and Cononaco more intimately than the Waorani.  Just over a hundred years ago, communities of Waorani used to live high in the canopy of gargantuan Kapok trees, on platforms that acted as safe havens from any invaders below.  The impetus behind why they moved to live on the ground is not known but when they decided to live on the forest floor, they did so with very little impact, building traditional Peto Baco houses from saplings and palm fronds harvested gently from their surrounding rainforests.  Inside these tiny community clans, lived multi-generational households in a similar way as they do today.

Until the 1950s the Waorani lived untouched by the outside world in these small communities.  It wasn’t until groups of missionaries flew over in light planes seeking people to convert that anyone really even knew about them.  After they arrived the world of the Waorani changed.

They were forced to wear clothes, convert, go to school and attend church. Yet despite all of these changes, many Waorani still live a relatively wild existence, where days of the week and hours of the day are an irrelevance.  Many Waorani still live their lives with the rhythms of nature; choosing to cure ills, hunt for food, fish, gather and cultivate crops in tune with the sunrise and sunset, the onset of rains or periods of dry.

To spend time with them doing photography and exploring their rainforest homes is more than just an act of taking pictures, it is an unending learning experience of survival in some of the world’s last great wilderness areas.

Natural Worship

Your first encounter with the gentle way in which Waorani relate to nature comes from your arrival at a community where the family matriarch is charged with looking after all of the community’s young creatures including children, grandchildren and the family’s pets.  The Waorani religiously keep wild animals as pets in their homes.  An animal might be found in the forest, or end up as the unintended victim of a hunt and it is gently taken home where it is cared for until it decides to leave of its own volition.  Visiting Waorani families you might find them living alongside a collection of parrots, toucans, monkeys, kinkajou and even Caracaras, who they use as house alarms to warn them about visitors.  These animals are all kept alongside cats, dogs and chickens in a harmonious menagerie that is a wonderland for Waorani children and nature loving guests.

This relatively harmless practice underpins the way in which Waorani relate to their world.

Moving with them through the forest on a hunt, it is almost impossible to hear them walk and even more impossible to keep up with them on foot!  Just occasionally, a hunting party may pass by a large Kapok tree.  These forest giants can grow up to 80 metres in height and their buttress roots spread out like giant fingers clinging to the forest floor.  Arriving at a Kapok will usually stop a Waorani person in their tracks. Watching them look upwards towards the canopy of the tree overhead is a little like watching a religious person enter a place of worship for the very first time.  The Waorani will gently touch and stroke the buttress roots of the Kapok in an act of worship.  They may also hide behind these roots while hunting wild food like peccaries and also use their hands to bang on the roots of the tree to communicate to others in their party.

For the Waorani, it is shameful to raise a young boy who is afraid of the forest.  Each time an animal is killed for food, it is taken back to the community and laid on the ground.  The vines that were used to tie the animal so it could be carried, are unraveled and then used to gently ‘whip’ young boys in order to pass the spirit of that wild animal on to them.

Elders will also come and see a newly hunted animal and as they visit, they stroke the body of the animal while it is still warm before stroking their own arms, bodies and legs, an act that allows them to gain life from the deceased and carry its spirit onwards.

Hunter Gatherer Ways of Life

Contrary to what many might believe, Waorani people are extremely selective about which animals they might hunt and they only ever take what they need. Using a combination of traditional spears and poison darts, the Waorani will hunt every day looking for their mainstays of peccary and monkeys.  The Waorani selectively leave some animals alone in the knowledge that unusual creatures are rare and shouldn’t be hunted in case this disrupts the balance of nature that surrounds them.

If a hunting trip fails, the people in the hunting party will collect palm fronds from the forest to fix the roofs of houses on their rests between hunts.

While some foods are harvested wild from the rainforest it is surprising to learn that the Waorani keep ‘garden plots’ of plants they need in the direct vicinity of their houses.  Community shared plots that grow Yukka, platano, papaya and lulo fruits are created from very small forest clearings and are visited by Waorani women on a daily basis.  Once harvested the food is shared in the entire community.

Hallucinogens, Toxins and Sophisticated Medicines

The Waorani’s most spectacular method of hunting comes in the form of blow darts and blow dart pipes, some of which are up to four meters long!  Fine blow darts made from forest hardwoods are prepared prior to each hunt.  A popular myth of this style of hunting is that the poison used comes from frogs yet very few Amazonian people harvest poison from tiny frogs and the Waorani have never utilised this toxin.  Instead, the bark of native Curare vines is collected and mixed with water then boiled down to a thick syrup which is then used to coat the end of the dart.  The darts are then carefully loaded into a cylindrical carrier worn around the neck of the hunter alongside a spherical calabash which holds Kapok wool that is wrapped around each dart to help ease its passage.  When loaded and shot, a dart holds enough toxin to kill a small mammal but it is harmless to humans.

Another sophisticated use of bio-toxins involves collecting the roots of the barbasco bush and bashing them to procure a sap which is used to catch fish.  Parties of women and children will collect barbasco roots before venturing out on foot into the rainforest.  Arriving at a small rainforest stream, the root is then pounded against a piece of found wood in the forest to release a milky sap.  This sap slowly flows downstream stunning small fish and making them jump out of the water where eager Waorani children wait with nets to catch the jumping fish. Their catch is then transported back to the community using a freshly made basket of Oma palm fronds called a Lintaye. Although tiny, these fish are then salt dried and kept to use as fish stock for freshly caught fish dishes from the river.  Again, the barbasco bio-toxin is lethal for fish but harmless for human consumption.

Perhaps the most well known use of rainforest toxins by the Waorani is the practice of consuming Ayahuasco, a hallucinogen that is used by community shamans in rituals to purge people of their worries and sins.  During our tour we will witness an Ayahuasco ceremony held by a local shaman where actual participation is entirely voluntary!

A walk with Waorani people in their rainforests is more than just a hike. It is like going on a shopping spree to your local mall where pharmacy, supermarket and building supplies stores are gathered all in one trip.  Their knowledge of the forests that surrounds them is astounding.  They know intimately which vines and leaves cure stomach and intestinal upsets.  Need an insect repellant?  The Waorani use the mud from lazy ants nests.  Strings from vines are used to make strong hammocks, ropes, fishing nets and baskets.  Nothing artificial is used to collect what they harvest.  The Waorani will either use calabashes or natural fibre baskets to carry food and other goods from the forest.  As a guest of the Waorani, you will find yourself immersed in an endless learning experience with the wilderness of the Amazon rainforest as your classroom.

A Complex People with Simple Celebrations

Despite the Waorani’s sophisticated understanding of the world around them, they celebrate significant events in a rather spartan way.  Instead of festivals and long days of merriment, a simple ‘anniversary celebration’ is held once a year where young Waorani will choose their husbands and wives.  Once chosen the actual ceremony is only around ten to fifteen minutes long and the couple’s commitment will be confirmed by the elders of their respective communities.

For these ceremonies they dress in the beautiful elegance of bush string harnesses with crowns made from macaw feathers.  Their most famous ‘mark’ is that of  red mask made of face paint from the Achiote tree, or lipstick bush, which grows near their forest homes.  This is gently applied by women to the wearer for special occasions. During our stay with different Waorani communities we will witness the application of Achiote and also photograph people wearing their simple and beautiful finery as they would if they were preparing for a special occasion.

A Culture and Environment Under Threat

In Ecuador the territory of the Waorani spans almost seven million hectares, however the Ecuador government has never formally recognised their territory by official title.  Instead, corrupt government officials have worked with oil and gas companies to section off their territory into blocks.  At first the Waorani fought hard to keep a region named Pastaza protected from exploitation.  Their battle was successful and in 2019 the Waorani secured over half a million acres of rainforest as a permanent reserve because they were able to prove that their community wasn’t consulted before the land was offered up for sale.

The next battle front is the Yasuni National Park where a significant number of Waorani reside alongside some of the world’s last un -contacted tribes like the Taegare.  The elders of the Yasuni Waoranis are now trapped in what may turn out to be a multi-generational fight to protect their forested territories and stop the government from mining their land.

Their struggle to sustainably live in one of the last great hotspots of biodiversity in the Amazon, is being fought by Waorani elders block by block.  At stake is their way of life which they need to secure for future generations. On our tour we will learn from Waorani elders first-hand about the battle they face to save their rainforest home.

Spending time with the Waorani is a once in a lifetime opportunity to enhance your visual storytelling skills while living alongside the Waorani who are some of the most humble, strong and intelligent people of the Americas – the last true hunter gatherers of the Amazon.

Highly Experienced Local Guides

Wild Images has engaged highly experienced guides and translators in the Amazon to work alongside our photography leader of your tour.  Chatting directly with Waorani communities through our expert translator guide on forest walks and canoe trips you will gain a first-hand insight into the Waorani way of life. When he isn’t helping you to translate, our guide is able to spot incredible wildlife, show you how to fish, hunt or collect materials from the forest. With over three decades of experience guiding guests into these forests, his knowledge of nature, medicinal plants, Waorani way of life and culture is unparalleled in the region.  Working alongside our expert photography leaders, our tour will fully immerse you in the beautiful world of the Waorani, the last true hunter gatherers of the Amazon, in Ecuador.

Walking

The walking trails in the Amazon are mostly on level ground and are easy. Some tracks and track entrances can be slippery and muddy but assistance will be provided to guests to disembark from canoes and walk up and down riverbanks.

Accommodation

Accommodation is in comfortable, insect proof tents that are erected either in wooden houses or in traditional Peto Baco homes.  Shared bathroom facilities are available at our camps in the family homes of the Waorani.

Photography

This is a tour that will involve a large variety of subjects from wildlife that you will see on rivers to portrait photography in the forest and in people’s homes.  A zoom or fixed length wildlife lens will be helpful, as will a wide angle lens and a travel lens similar to 24-105mm.

Phones and bridge cameras are also easy to use in the Waorani area.

Drone photography in the Amazon is permitted and can add an extra dimension to your portfolio of images from the tour.  The Waorani are usually happy for drones to be flown in their area if asked. Pilots must adhere to the drone rules of Ecuador that apply at the time of travel.

This tour is a fascinating way to learn the finer aspects of low light photography, portraiture, wildlife and creative aspects including double exposures, slow shutter and to learn ways of visual storytelling.

Photographic Highlights

  • Join the most culturally comprehensive photography tour of the Waorani in Ecuador
  • Visit and live alongside three different Waorani clans whose homes are deep in the remote Amazon rainforest
  • Spend time with a Waorani family who live right next to the Intangible Area of the Taromenanes and Taegeri, two of the last un-contacted tribes left on earth
  • A visually spectacular journey that features a broad range of wildlife and cultural photography opportunities
  • Experience an Ayahuasca ceremony with a traditional Waorani Shaman
  • Join Waorani hunting, fishing and gathering parties on foot in the rainforest
  • Learn first hand how the Waorani survive as hunter gatherers in the Amazon and the threats they face from developers and miners
  • Travel by Uipo canoes to visit family clans of Waorani who rarely see outsiders and tourists
  • Enjoy communing with the 'wild pets' of the Waorani people
  • Learn first hand how the Waorani utilise sophisticated bio-toxins in hunting and medicinal practices

PRICE INFORMATION

Wild Images Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

Our tour prices also include all tips for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

Deposit: 20% of the total tour price. Our office will let you know what deposit amount is due, in order to confirm your booking, following receipt of your online booking form.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates)


2023: provisional $4990, £3640, €4290, AUD6830. Quito/Quito

Single Supplement: 2023: $50, £30, €40, AUD60.

If you are travelling alone, the single supplement will not apply if you are willing to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.  The small single supplement applies to the overnight stays in hotels in Coca and Quito.  The tented accommodation on the main tour is the same cost for a single or twin share.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

ECUADOR’S WAORANI: THE LAST HUNTER GATHERERS OF THE AMAZON PHOTO TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Ecuador’s Waorani Photography Tour Day 1

Our tour begins in Quito with an overnight stay at a hotel close to the airport where we will welcome the group and brief them on the tour over dinner.

Ecuador’s Waorani Photography Tour Day 2

The next morning we will board an early morning flight to Coca where we will be transported to the headwaters of the spectacular Shiripuno river.  We will then board our canoes for our first river journey of the tour to a local family of Waorani people living around three hours away.   Arriving at our first Waorani home we will spend the rest of the day doing photography of people, wild pets and we will get our first glimpse of traditional Waorani life.

Travelling by river on the Amazon is a literal rite of passage.  To travel these rivers with the Waorani who know them intimately, is an experience not to be missed. On our river journeys we swill pot wildlife as we pass by remote communities of people, fishing parties and other river traffic.

Ecuador’s Waorani Photography Tour Day 3

After an early breakfast we will once again climb on board our motorised canoes for a full day journey along three rivers, the Shiripuno, Cononaco Chico and Cononaco to reach the main community of Waorani that will be our home for the next four nights.

This incredible journey will see us travelling through the regions of uncontacted tribes like the Tagaere and Taromenanes who deliberately choose to stay away from the outside world, even isolating themselves from Waorani people.  We may encounter species of monkeys, birds and other wildlife including capybara, cayman and river turtles.  This is our first chance to see small swarms of brightly coloured butterflies gathering minerals from the mudbanks of the rivers.  If we are lucky we may also spot freshwater turtles having their noses cleaned of salt by butterflies as they sun themselves on river logs!

Arriving at our next Waorani home we will settle into camp and enjoy our first photography of the community.

Ecuador’s Waorani Photography Tour Days 4-6

Over the next three days we will join local Waorani people on their hunting and fishing expeditions in nature.  Learning about many Waorani traditions, we will meet community elders, wild pets and shaman.  We have planned a number of excursions including joining Waorani hunting parties, fishing trips deep in the rainforest and we will walk rainforest trails searching for wildlife while we learn about medicinal plant use.

It is here that we will meet an elderly shaman and witness a traditional Ayahuasco ceremony and we will learn more about traditional songs and dance of Waorani people.  A special portrait session will be arranged so you can explore the unique relationship that Waorani people share with their wild pet animals in the community.

Ecuador’s Waorani Photography Tour Day 7

After leaving our Waorani home for the past few days, our journey back along the river will take us to the family homes of two renowned Waorani elders, one of whom is a local shaman. Our overnight stay will be with the family of the second elder living right at the edge of the territory of the un-contacted.

Ecuador’s Waorani Photography Tour Day 8

On the second last day of our tour we will once again pass through the territory of the un-contacted to reach our first Waorani family home where we will stay overnight.  During our stay here we will visit a local Oxbow lagoon in search of Giant River Otters and we will learn about the construction of the beautiful Peto Baco traditional homes of the Waorani.  This will be our last chance to photograph some of the amazing wild pets that Waorani people keep while enjoying the amazing hospitality of our host family.

Ecuador’s Waorani Photography Tour Day 9

After saying our goodbyes to our new Waorani friends we will depart on the three hour journey back to the headwaters of the Shiripuno river where we started our tour.

From there we will drive back to Coca and check into our comfortable hotel which has forested grounds that feature tame Squirrel Monkeys and tortoises!  We will enjoy a photo editing session and our final dinner here before we leave for Quito by flight on our final day of the tour.

Ecuador’s Waorani Photography Tour Day 10

The tour ends with the arrival of our flight to Quito from Coca.

Ecuador’s Waorani: The Last Hunter Gatherers of the Amazon Reconnaissance Report 2021

by Inger Vandyke

The Amazon Rainforest. It is the only place on earth where the humidity of the air has no dependence on the evaporation of seawater. Spanning nine South American countries, this gigantic stretch of rainforest, the ‘lungs of our planet, is one of the most threatened regions of biodiversity left on our planet. The world’s tropical […]

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