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Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador + Head Reducers

Where to meet the head reducers (Shuars), how we got there. Story of our experience in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. We were welcomed at the gate of the Shuar civilization, ancestors of the head-shrinkers, by the experience of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. It was a clear sign that our first experience in the Amazon rainforest was going to be etched in our memory forever.

Mike et Cameron jouant les explorateurs, forêt amazonienne à Macas, Équateur
Mike and Cameron, Amazon rainforest in Macas, Ecuador


Macas is not a very touristy town, we were certainly the only gringos there during our stay. We like it, but expect to be stared at, it's normal. It is a rather ordinary city but I strongly advise you to go and see its brilliantly landscaped park with an exceptional watchtower, ''Mirador del Quilamo''. We also tried a Chinese restaurant (commonly called the Chifas there!) and also the guinea pig (cuy)... In my opinion, it's far from delicious, it was the second time I ate it and I haven't changed my mind yet, but it's a typical dish in the surrounding countries (Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia).

We had read somewhere on the internet that we could meet the ancestors of the Shuar civilizations, these famous head reducers... this subject fascinated us and I couldn't miss knowing more about it. The only way to get there is through the power of communication, and we get to work right away. We ask the hotel guy. He refers us to a cousin (Latinos always have a cousin who works in the field you are looking for, it's very funny, and sometimes very practical!) who has a tourist agency. Very helpful, he finds us exactly what we want and even changes his tour plan a bit to accommodate us! In addition, for the modest sum of $50, meals, 1 night and activities included.

I give you the contact details of our guide and not of the agency, hoping that he will answer you (contact details taken from his business card):

Danny Ayuy, tour guide: Tour a las cabanas ecologicas etza, Macas, Ecuador

For Booking:

Good! At least you'll have more information than me, already. Also he told us that the money he makes with these tricks goes directly to pay for his daughter's studies, so we are also doing a good deed!

Given that we were the only gringos in the place, as I said, imagine that we end up with a private tour of the Amazon rainforest and, as a bonus, learn about the customs of the Shuars!

La vue de notre hébergement en arrivant sur le site Macas Équateur Shuars amazonie
The view from our accommodation when arriving at the site in the Amazon rainforest

Shrunken heads?

The Shuars knew the Amazon rainforest like the back of their hand, which gave them an advantage over the Spaniards and kept its culture alive.

As the Amazonian populations do not have writing, their culture is based on the oral transmission of their history. So you can understand how pampered we felt that Daniel, our guide, passed it on to us. And on the other hand, how happy Daniel was that I captured it all on camera to pass on his tradition afterwards.

Today, the practice of shrunken heads is obviously no longer practiced (and fortunately…) But why were they shrunken heads? It was a shamanic ritual, to seize the forces and the spirit of their enemies. Once gutted and deboned, the head was desiccated using ashes and hot stones, filled with sand, sewn up and reshaped. It was then used, hanging from the neck of its owner, in a ceremony intended to show the ancestors that the revenge had indeed been accomplished.

Tête réduite, réducteurs de tête shuars
Shrunken head, Pumapungo Museum, Cuenca

Daniel, notre guide, nous expliquant tout des coutumes Shuars et de la forêt amazonienne
Daniel, our guide, explaining to us all about Shuar customs (head reducers) and the Amazon rainforest

The Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest

Daniel taught us which trees, plants and insects were once most useful to his ancestors, while showing us some survival secrets:

Bleeding trees that offer ointment against cuts and stings; ingested, its red sap calms stomach aches. Another type of tree is used for its bark to make clothes. Plants that are edible. Here, this huge tree is an excellent way to communicate without alerting the wild beasts... by hitting it with a stick, you can tell your tribe that you are lost and attract attention. Because when shouting, carnivorous creatures with the slightest intelligence would associate this noise with food! By scratching with a stick on the bark of this other tree and with the help of a match (obviously he explains to us that it is a little faster now to use matches, after all we are not in '' Survivor''!) we get excellent fuel to make a fire. Daniel finds a termite mound hanging on the bark of a tree and begins to trace the letter E in it. So we can see them at work, it's impressive. Termites are excellent for feeding ducks and were very useful to the Shuar civilization. He tells us that the termite mound will be rebuilt as if he had done nothing before the end of the afternoon... He even shows us a typical Shuar game, the hummingbird game. Difficult to explain in writing, I invite you to watch my film for free to see what it looked like (see the link at the end).

It was quite a mysterious walk, as our host listened to the forest. She seemed to guide him in what he was going to show us next, and we felt overwhelmed by this amazing ecosystem. We felt that it was not us who breathed the forest... but it was the one who inhaled us.

Satisfied with our exploration on foot, Daniel invites us to take a boat trip! We get along by boat, we mean wooden logs tied together with a wooden cube as a seat on top... I ask him, if there are crocodiles or alligators in those waters, he tells us calmly yes.

OK! If the guide is calm, so are we...

Le radeau dans l'Amazonie équatorienne à Macas shuars réducteurs de têtes
The raft in the Ecuadorian Amazon at Macas

On the river

The only problem is that we can't be 4 on the raft. Daniel wants to show us a cave with bats in it. He offers to bring Mike and me first, then come back to get Cameron and then join us. (Cabbage, wolf, goat!) We accept, it seems quite simple as a solution. It's actually rather smooth, and a little further on, Daniel drops Mike and me off in the Amazon rainforest... alone. Aye! We never thought we would be so nervous like that. Absolutely nothing happened, however... we waited, looked at the plants, we dared not venture too far, just in case! It was quite mind-blowing just to look at the nature around us, because you have the impression that everything is moving! I mean there are so many insects, ants, etc., that subconsciously you feel like the whole ground is moving under your feet. Besides, when I went to bed at night, I still saw the movement of insects like a slight wave, imprinted in my subconscious. Daniel and Cameron finally arrive, it was probably the longest 10 minutes of our lives! We did well not to venture too far because a few steps later, Daniel shows us an extremely venomous spider! The way Mike and I looked at each other when we heard that...

La fameuse araignée dans la forêt d'amazonie équatorienne
The famous spider in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest
Les chauves-souris dans une grotte d'amazonie équatorienne
Bats in a cave in the Ecuadorian Amazon

You probably thought that we had done the same principle to return to camp by raft, but no! Really not stressed, this guy!

man on a air trip hands in the water with boots
Daniel on his ''raft'' for his return

To end the day, a surprise awaited us! Daniel's daughters had made us bracelets with dried seeds the size of a red and black chickpea, originally found in the forest, following the Shuar artistic tradition. Then, Daniel took out his guitar and panpipes to perform a song for us in his native language. But what we discovered during our stay in reality is this openness and this generosity that we Ecuadorians have, their infinite kindness. It was amazing to hear Daniel explain to us his close connection with mother earth, and at the same time to feel our powerlessness against the forces of nature… an adventure that still animates our conversations and that we are far from forgetting.

Daniel, notre guide, héritier de la culture Shuars, les réducteurs de têtes
Danny (Daniel) Ayuy, our guide, heir to the Shuar culture, the head shrinkers

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