It would be hard to imagine a more complicated venture than Kapawi Eco Lodge and Reserve located in the Achuar Territory of Ecuador, near Peru. You might think the most challenging aspect of Kapawi is the logistical nightmare of transporting people and supplies to to this remote region, which is not accessed by roads (because there are none). Navigation is done by small planes and canoes. This exclusive lodge, with luxurious cabins constructed of native materials, rests on the edge of a lagoon.
Though man has shown that he can continually overcome complex logistical and architectural challenges, what he is often unable to do is successfully confront his fellow man. This requires the right people with special skills.
Almost twenty years ago Carlos Perez Perasso, co-founder of Conodros S.A., a Galapagos Islands tour operator, linked up with Daniel Kouperman, an experienced adventure tour guide familiar with the Amazon jungle, to help create a hotel in the rainforest. It took them more than a year of discussions with the Achuar before the project could proceed.
"The largest obstacle was the mistrust of the Achuar towards the white and mestizo people," says Kouperman. He adds that the concept of tourism was little understood among this indigenous nation. "It did not make sense that people would work all year and save money to visit other places." He says they suspected hidden interests. Additionally, myths proliferated such as that the tourists ate human flesh.
Perez and Kouperman eventually convinced the Achuar to collaborate, under the following conditions: The hotel would cause the least environmental and cultural impact possible, Conodros would pay a lease for the land following construction, and they would have 15 years to recuperate their investment before turning the entire operation over to the Achuar Nation.
The Achuar Nation
The Achuar of Ecuador are an indigenous ethnic group whose 1.7 million acre territory spans two provinces Pastaza and Morona Santiago. Today they number approximately 7,000 divided into 70 communities. Though they traditionally lived a nomadic life and had no contact with the world outside their territory until the 1960s, by the 1990s they had organized into a self-governing body, the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador (NAE).
"When we approached them in 1993 for the first time they lived in communities and had contact with the state via military detachments, the ministries of health and education, and the Silesian missions, Dominicans, and Evangelicals," says Kouperman, who is also quick to caution how an outsider should perceive the Achuar.
"To assume that primitive and isolated cultures with little contact with the western world are not going to change is a utopia[n] [idea]. These cultures are dynamic and always adapt to the times."
The Kapawi Project
Construction of the Kapawi lodge took more than two years, including a four month break during the Ecuadorian-Peruvian war in 1996. Following a $2 million investment, Kapawi opened in 1997 and was turned over to the Achuar nation ahead of schedule in 2008. Today it is fully owned and operated by the Achuar. Though 86 percent of the staff are Achuar, they still contract outside personnel, such as general manager, Andres Ordoñez, to help run the lodge.
Ordoñez says that the intercultural management is complex. The transition of Kapawil Lodge from Conodros to the Achuar, though formalized years ago, is still a work in process. "The Achuar colleagues did not comprehend 100 percent how to manage the company," he says. That, however, is slowing changing, thanks in part to the Pacha Mama Foundation, a non-profit organization that was created precisely to support the Achuar of Ecuador through various projects.
One of those projects was Aero Achuar in which Pacha Mama helped the community acquire an airplane to establish their own air transportation service. Kouperman, who is also president of the Pacha Mama Foundation in Ecaudor, says two young Achuar members have obtained pilot licenses and are in their first 500 hours of training. Another Achuar member is a fully trained and licensed mechanic.
Pacha Mama was also involved with training future managers of Kapawi. An agreement among Pacha Mama, the NAE, and the Universidad Especiales Turisticas (UCT), has sent four Achuar youth to work towards a degree in Hotel Management at UCT. "They are the first [Achuar] who have had education in hotel management and in a way are looked upon as examples because they are the first to study something in order to take charge of the company. It is a heavy responsibility.," says Ordoñez.
Visitors come to Kapawi for a reason to have an authentic encounter with a native, Amazonian ethnic group. "From the beginning one of the principal themes of the project was to cause the least cultural impact possible," reminds Kouperman. Despite the hotel operation and the 1,400 yearly visitors, the Achuar still maintain the most traditional of rituals and they share those daily with foreign visitors.And Ordoñez insists,"You cannot go to Kapawi without having visited a community."
Visitors can make a daytime or overnight visit to one of the six communities within the defined tourism "zone of influence." Those who opt for an overnight experience are awaken at 4am to participate in the most traditional of daily activities: drinking the wayusa a tea made from a local plant. Ordoñez explains that this is a very special time for the family and the community. "At this moment they discuss important issues...The oldest of the family offers guidance to the others and interprets their dreams because they believe strongly in the spirit of the jungle and that it manifests through dreams. He gives advice and they plan their day."
Kouperman, who still works to bring foreign tourists to Kapawi, says, "This is a unique project. A bridge was made between a private, capitalist enterprise and an Amazonian, indigenous organization there was no previous model. Kapawi has been an important reference for alternative, economic development projects in marginalized, ancestral communities."
Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve is part of the Exclusive Hotels and Haciendas of Ecuador. Visits to Kapawi can be arranged through the group (www.ehhec.com) or directly with the Kapawi sales office in Quito located at Mariscal Foch E7-38 and Reina Victoria. A four day/three night tour runs $699, plus airfare (approximately $350). Call Kapawi at 600-9333 or write to email@example.com. Visit the website at www.kapawi.com