Staying with the Secoya – Part 2

Just a reminder: please go back and read the first post in this series if you haven’t already – I’m selling prints of one of my photos and donating all profits to the Secoya people of Ecuador in order to help them raise money for their conservation fund and ecotourism business.

House in the jungle
A typical ‘zinc house’ of the Secoya. All of the timber for the house is cut with chainsaws. The house is called a zinc house because of the metal sheeting on the roof, as opposed to the palm frond thatched roof of the traditional buildings of the Secoya. This PhD thesis by Gabriel Arboleda is an excellent exploration of Secoya building styles and how they have been affected by cultural change before and since colonisation.

Tree with many hanging birds' nests in it against the sky
These birds nests hang from many trees in the clearings around the village of San Pablo and elsewhere in the upper Amazon. We called them ‘droopy nest birds’, but the Secoya called them caciques, a Spanish word for ‘chief’.

Secoya kids climbing a tree to harvest papaya fruit
Secoya children from the family we stayed with collecting papaya fruit from a tree in the rice paddy.

Secoya man harvesting rice
René, one of our hosts, harvesting rice from their dryland paddy.

People threshing rice with their feet
Georgia along with René and Lidia Payaguaje threshing the rice that was harvested that day.

Every boat trip is an opportunity for some fishing in the Rio Aguarico.

A catfish on the end of a line, pulled from the river
René with a catfish he had just caught from the river.

A giant tree overhanging the river
A giant tree overhanging the river.

Part three of this series will focus on the biology of the rainforest – plenty of plants, animals, and weird fungi.

Staying with the Secoya – Part 1

In November 2009, Georgia and I stayed for eight days in the Secoya community of San Pablo, which is found in the east of Ecuador on the Rio Aguarico.

Dugout canoes on the banks of the Rio Aguarico

Staying with the Secoya was the single most authentic experience I had in seven months of traveling in South America. It was one of the very few times when I felt a genuine connection based on mutual respect and interest. We paid for our stay there; and we also contributed food for the family we stayed with; but this felt like a fair and easy exchange and didn’t detract from the experience at all. This was in stark contrast to so many other moments when I was traveling, where an opportunity to communicate and share experience with someone from another culture very often became overshadowed by commercial considerations. I understand that people are simply trying to get by, but after months of traveling, searching for real experience rather than packaged commercial tourism, it becomes wearying. The Secoya were a breath of fresh air simply because they were normal people, interested in sharing their home and their way of life with visitors.

While we were there, we stayed with the Payaguaje family. I took this photograph of the grandfather of the family, Delfin, preparing medicinal plants.

Secoya man Delfin Payaguaje, preparing medicinal plats

In order to say thanks, I am selling prints of this image, and donating 100% of the profits to Delfin’s family. The money will help fund the Secoya’s conservation foundation, which aims to protect their land from oil exploration and illegal logging.

The prints are 16″ x 24″ inches (the images are slightly smaller, because there is a bit of white space around them), on high quality photographic paper. I will be printing a limited edition run of ten signed copies.

I am asking for $250 for an unframed print, and $400 for a framed print (all prices are in AUD). The frames are simple black wood, with high quality acid-free matting. I can post unframed prints within Australia, included in the $250 cost; if you want me to send you a framed copy, I am happy to do so but I would like you to cover the additional cost. I can send prints framed or unframed internationally, however will need buyers to cover the cost of postage so that I can send the maximum amount to the Secoya.

How will I send the money to the Secoya?
I have some contacts at the University of Quito, who are the people that originally made it possible for us to stay with the Secoya. They have agreed to pass on the money. They have been working with the Secoya for many years, and can be trusted to give them the money.

I am hoping to be able to send the money by Paypal, or else in the bank account of someone I know who is travelling to Ecuador; however if neither of those plans work, there is always the money-laundering criminal syndicate known as Western Union, who will take hefty fees, but will reliably deliver the remnants.

I have sold two three of the ten prints so far, and I would like to send the money by October 1, 2011. This means I will be taking orders for prints until September 24. Please contact me to place an order.

Thanks a lot for reading; if you’d like to read the story of our time with the Secoya, please continue…


It had taken us quite a while to organise coming to San Pablo. The idea was originally raised in June, when we met a couchsurfer in Cordoba in Argentina. Upon learning that we were interested in indigenous culture, he suggested that we get in contact with his friends, who were biologists at Quito University. They were conducting research projects with the Secoya and could possibly help us to arrange to go and stay with them. Five months, thousands of kilometers, and countless organisational emails later, it finally happened.

We caught an overnight bus from Quito to Lago Agrio, a greasy oil town in the Sucumbíos province of Ecuador. Lago Agrio is very close to the Colombian border, and serves as a base for smuggling coca, cocaine, and illegal timber. Because Ecuador uses US dollars as currency, Lago Agrio is an excellent base for laundering drug money. Coca products flow from Peru and Bolivia to Colombia through Lago Agrio, and the money they generate comes back to be laundered in the oil business. Apart from several prominent money changers on the main street, we didn’t see any obvious evidence of illicit activity – but the smell of dirty money was everywhere.

Arriving before 6 am, we stumbled into the only cafe open to try and get some breakfast. While eating our plaintains, we watched oil workers in blue overalls eating their breakfast of fried chicken and rice.

Our friends in Quito had arranged for us to be met in Lago Agrio by the son of the family we were to stay with. I had his mobile phone number, but due partly to technical (finding a working payphone) and partly to linguistic difficulties (two Spanish-as-second-language-speakers attempting to communicate on a static-y mobile phone call), this was quite hard to achieve. After a few hours, and a change of cafe, we finally succeeded. We followed him around to markets, buying up the supplies we would need. A sack of rice, some vegetables, some oil, and some gumboots. At a butcher’s stall in the market, a dead armadillo lay on its back, its innards removed. I asked the seller if I could take a photo, but got an unintelligible and unusually grumpy grunt in response, so decided against it. Eventually we were ready and got on the bus to San Pablo.

Three hours later we arrived at a rickety bridge crossing a minor tributary. There was nothing else around. We got off the bus and followed our Secoya friend to a waiting canoe. A short ride down the river, and our Secoya time had begun…

Secoya boy sitting in the front of a canoe

…Stay tuned for the next part of this story.

Northern Argentina


There is an openness and a scale of the landscape in northern Argentina that reminded us of Australia. There is a quality of the light that is softer; particularly at the higher latitudes. In the north the light can be harsh, and the mountains create deep shadows. It can be hard to take a good landscape photo.

The landscape is young and fresh; but between the mountains and where they plateau, are gorges, which are weathered ancient sediments. Strange geology abounds.

The evenings and sunrises are soft and golden. I took an early morning bus from Cafayate to Quilmes, a ruined city of the Diaguita. The people of Quilmes succesfully withstood the invasion of the Incas from the north, but could not survive the Conquistadors.

Walking from the road to the ruins in the darkness, the skin of the saguaro cacti shone dimly in the moonlight around me. When the sun rose, their silhouettes were dark against the dawn.

An epiphyte growing on cacti

The people are quiet and humble. They sit patiently on rickety buses, zigzagging back and forth along hairpin roads, chewing coca. They might ask to be let off at on the side of the road, at a place appearing no different to any other, and disappear into the cactus and scrub to a distant house.

We were there in winter, and it was cold and dry. In the town of Humahuaca, at 3500m altitude, we first ate Oca (Oxalis tuberosa), an Andean staple similar to potato in texture and flavour, but not related. Oca tubers come in an interesting range of colours. After the bland food that we had been eating for several weeks, these fresh vegetables were much appreciated.

In Chilecito

We travelled to Chilecito in order to visit Parque Nacional Talampaya, which we thought was nearby, see a botanical garden of cacti, and various other attractions. Being the first place in the northwest we had been to, we were excited to arrive in ‘outback’ Argentina after a few weeks in cities. We arrived early in the morning, and sat in the petrol station, drinking coffee and eating medialunas. When the sun rose, we walked into the centre of town to find accommodation. At the first hostel we knocked at, no one answered, so we walked around the corner to find another. At this place, there were guests eating breakfast, but we couldn’t find any staff. We left and retreated to the central plaza for some breakfast of our own, and to find an internet cafe to try and find a place to stay.

Statue of Jesus overlooking the town of Chilecito at sunrise

There was a place advertised just out of town; it was a bit expensive for us but we were running out of options, and it was close to the botanical gardens that I wanted to visit. We took a taxi out there. The driver waited while I walked to the house and knocked. Once again, there was no answer. On the way back to town, we asked the driver to let us out as we went past the cactus garden. Here also, the gates were locked and no one responded to our knocking. We walked the rest of the way back to Chilecito.

After all this had happened, we had still only been in Chilecito for a few hours, but we were starting to get discouraged. We decided to try once more to find a place to stay, and returned to the first hostel we had tried. We knocked on the door for some time, and eventually it opened. The woman that opened the door appeared flustered and confused. A man was emerging from a doorway behind her, and we got the feeling we may have interrupted them having sex. Embarrassed, she led us to a room through an open courtyard, and explained that it was the only room left. It smelled terribly, and we left.

We went straight to the bus station. When we got there, we realised that we were not even very close to Parque Nacional Talampaya, which was our main reason for going to Chilecito in the first place. We got on the next bus to Villa Union, a nearby town much closer to the park.