Shamans and Avocado Trees: Riobamba and Napo's Farm

By the time I pulled into Riobamba it was dusk, and I had a two mile walk to a hostel found randomly on the internet called Donde Napo. Growing up with a friend named Napo, I had to see what this place was about. In Quito, I never would have made the walk at dusk, but Riobamba was a calmer city. The town seemed more authentic than Baños: prices were not geared to tourists and there were less foreigners walking around. After walking in a few circles looking for anything that resembled a hostel, I noticed a doorway with a rusted out sign that said “Refugio,” with an arrow pointing left. A smile came across my face. This was going to be an interesting stay.

Next to the rusted metal doors there were three doorbells with no markings. I pushed all three and nothing happened. I resorted to banging on the doors, and the sound of banging on hollow metal reverberated down the street and through the building. Soon after I broke the night’s silence, the door buzzed open. Up a dark set of stairs, there was another metal door that had a missing left window pane where the lock on the inside was. I reached in, opened the door, and walked into a wood floored front room with white walls covered in murals. People walked passed with a simple “hola.” No one seemed to work at this hostel so I went and sat in the kitchen where several people were hanging out speaking Spanish. In Spanish I asked, “does anyone work here and are there any rooms?” A woman from Venezuela chirped back that the workers would be back in a little and to just hang out. The mysteriousness of this place kept building. As I sat and waited, it came to light that most of the people in the house, I won’t call it a hostel anymore, were young Venezuelans who had fled the issues plaguing their country. The non-Venezuelans were South American backpackers from a number of countries. That left yours truly as the only non-South American Ambassador, and Spanish the only language spoken in the house.

As we were chatting, a shorter energetic man in his 40s came crashing through the metal door into the entrance hall. He came over and hugged me yelling how happy he was I was there. I couldn’t help except laugh at his excitement. He told me he had a spare bed in his room if I didn’t mind sharing a room with him. This was the famous Napo. I dropped my gear in the back room that had more than interesting decor, and headed back to the kitchen where everyone was gathered. I tried to keep up, but the mix of accents and rapid fire of stories was throwing me for a loop. In addition to the travelers, I had Napo bringing me family photos, antique books on Ecuador, and all sorts of collector items. My favorite was the Amazonian spear he had hanging on the wall of his bedroom. He did a dance for everyone with the spear while telling stories of the crazy tribes in the Amazon. He was a great source of entertainment and before going to sleep, he invited us to come to his farm the following day. His farm was an hour outside of town and on the way to a hike I wanted to do to El Altar Volcano.

With a planned departure time set by Napo of 8:00am, I was up early and at El Mercado de la Merced at 7:00am. A two block walk from the house, there were several entrances and fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, I walked into the oven roasted pork section of the market. With an army of local women with pigs on display yelling at me to come eat, the urge overtook. A couple of samples later I sat for a “light” breakfast. The succulent meat and juice was exactly what I’d expected with a pleasant crunch from the multiple variations of corn included. Following a quick plate, I picked up quinoa, oatmeal, tuna, and bananas for the days in the mountains ahead. A Sunday special at the market, I also picked up empanadas de morocho, fried pieces of dough with cheese in the middle and a dusting of sugar on top. Standard healthy Ecuadorian fare.

The empanadas were for the people at the house and Napo, but when I returned everyone was still sleeping. At 9:00 AM I woke up Napo who laughed at his tardiness, left to go pick up friends who were coming with, and returned over an hour later with his white classic 70s SUV. Napo’s friends, José and Mamá Selba, were a set of characters that would definitely add interest to our journey. I was excited about this forthcoming adventure, but, everyone else at the house continued to sleep and forget the visit to the farm. With my backpack strapped to the roof with bungee cables, we set off. Napo changed gears with the worn shifter, and I sat next to him in front. Before leaving the city limits, we made a stop at another outdoor market where Mamá Selba and Napo bought several types of vegetables and beans. Napo informed me we would be having lunch on the farm with two Argentinian women staying there. If I wanted to leave after lunch for El Altar I was more than welcome.  

As we drove on a winding mountain road, I found out Jose was actually the 14th generation of Amazonian Shamans in his family. This guy was interesting! We made two more stops before reaching the farm: one to pick up meat and fried chicken feet from a woman with a half skinned pig hanging on the side of the road, and one in a town named Penipe where a woman made us cheese tortillas cooked on volcanic rock collected from Tungurahua Volcano. The conversation was better than the tortillas, but it was all adding up to be a unique experience. At 1:00pm, and right up the road from Penipe, we made it to Napo’s farm. I opened the padlocked gate, and we drove down the long driveway to the beautiful farm nestled at the bottom of a towering valley. Pulling up to the house, a pack of five or six dogs came barking and howling towards the truck. The two Argentinians joined the dogs in coming to greet us.

The entire area was beautifully set surrounded by trees and crops, and the trailhead for El Altar was about 15 miles up the road. From the trailhead, the hike to the lake at the bottom of El Altar, the main attraction, was another six or so hours. Already midafternoon, and with a long journey in front of me, some quick math told me that it would make sense to stay at the farm for the night. Napo told me I was welcome to stay, and that we had a few things to take care of before our lunch. First, we walked up to his mother's farm, which was a quarter mile up the hill, to pick avocados from a 300 year old avocado tree. This was no normal avocado tree and was like none I had ever seen. It looked more like an ominous character out of a witch story. This analogy was fitting for what was to come next. I lead the way and climbed the tree followed quickly by Napo. As I ascended, I carefully tested each branch before putting any weight on it. Most were okay, but some crumbled with rot and age as I grabbed or tapped them. I yelled to Napo that he was on his own to make the journey to the outer thin branches to toss the avocados to the ground.

Avocados showered the shaded ground below as Napo used a large stick to knock them free. Jose ran and collected bags full before we climbed down. Napo came down last, and while I finished collecting avocados, I noticed Jose and Mamá Selba collecting branches and plants to create a fire. During the afternoon, Jose and I spoke a lot about life, order, and the world. Now I was going to see Mama Selba and him in action. They were preparing a protection, health, and healing ceremony for us and to the tree. Napo’s cousin, nephews, and some other neighbors joined in as the ceremony began. Jose and Mamá Selba circled the fire smoking what looked like a miniature cigar of herbs. As they circled and blew puffs of smoke at the fire, they chanted between a mix of Amazonian tribal language and Spanish. They threw santo wood and different plants onto the fire, and the winds blew and changing the direction of the flame from side to side.

Before finishing the ceremony, we all took a turn being hit with a plant by Mamá Selba. She chanted away our ailments and beat us from head to toe with the needled stems of the plant. Following our cleansing, we took a handful of santo wood and one by one walked up to the fire to say what we wished for personally and in the world. After I spoke, everyone chanted (this is phonetic because the language is unknown): “Chasni Cachu Casi Sea.” The fire continued to burn and burned bright as I threw in the wood ground to a dust. I questioned what each of the plants was, and one in particular, the Marco plant that Mama Selba used to hit us caught my interest. It was supposed to keep away bed bugs and fleas. I took several stems with me to load into my backpack to ward off any unwanted guests in my gear.

Following the ceremony, I rinsed off in an irrigation stream running down the center of the farm. The sheep looked at me awkwardly, and I tried to decipher if it was because of the voodoo ceremony I just took part in, or if they were making sure I didn’t get too close. The two Argentinan women walked up from Napo’s, and the four of us sat in the afternoon sun taking in the calm of our surroundings. Right as I started to zone out to the wind, crackling fire, and clouds moving across the sky, Jose started banging a drum. He played, chanted, and circled the tree with Mamá Selba. I didn’t partake in this activity, but Jose came over when he finished and we had a nice talk about respecting the earth. He preached that protecting, not over consuming, the gifts of mother nature had generated wealth for him and repaired his health. I listened to his intriguing outlook on life until Napo shouted that it was time for lunch.

Mamá Selba was the chef and prepared all sorts of corn, beans, potatoes, vegetables, and the pork we had picked up from the side of the road. Napo told me to come with him for a walk. We walked through his front yard, and crawled under the bottom rungs of barbed wire fences on his neighbors’ properties. Not knowing what our final destination was, Napo pointed out all the farms of his cousins, and we stopped when we arrived at a farm with giant metal vats out front. When I peaked in there was a team of men and women working with strainers and tables making fresh cheese. We picked up a pound for a couple of dollars and headed back. Lunch was served on a giant wooden platter with banana leaves as plates and no silverware. They explained that family ate like this, and they were thrilled to have me there to show me the country and traditions. It was one of my favorite human interactions from travelling, and I can’t recommend more going to see Napo if you make your way to Riobamba Ecuador.

After lunch, I fell asleep on the grass next to one of the dogs while everyone talked, and woke up in time to see Napo, José, and Mamá Selba getting ready to leave. I gave them hugs and told Napo I would see him in a couple of days after El Altar. That night the Argentinians and I finished the leftovers from lunch, started a big fire, and hung out for hours chatting before bed. I closed the door to my simple room that contained only a mattress, open wood beam ceilings and exposed walls, and drifted off slowly to sleep to the sounds of donkeys, dogs, cows, pigs, and the songs of unknown creatures of the night. Tomorrow the adventure would continue alone to the majestic volcano El Altar and the mountains above.


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