Ecuador is best known for the Galapagos Islands but this tiny country is also a prime departure point to explore the Amazon. As part of our 3-week long trip in the South American state, we made sure to include a multi-day stay in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
That one morning we left our ecolodge located on the Rio Cuyabeno and boarded our wooden canoes. Our destination was a traditional Siona village, deep in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. The Sionas are one of the numerous indigenous Amazon people, that also include the Secoya, Cofan, Shuar, Zaparo, Huaorani, and Kichwa.
Traditional Siona Village
We went along the river for about two hours, slowing at every curve to absorb the scenery and checking for the elusive wildlife. We did spot some monkeys from afar, high above in the lianas, and numerous egrets and herons.
Soon we landed in the tiny village made of a couple of thatched houses on stilts, small garden patches and kids running around.
Our guide, a native of the same indigenous group, led us to one of the families. We met them working their field as the women pulled yucca out of the ground. It was impressive to see how big the yucca roots were, and how relatively easy it was to extract using a machete or a stick.
After retrieving the roots, the trunk of the plant was set aside for later replanting. Also called manioc, this plant grew wild and was easily cultivated, making it a key staple of the indigenous population of the Amazon.
Heavy with several large yuccas in hand, we accompanied the women towards their house. Up a few steps and onto a large open area that constituted their living quarters, more children and elders welcomed us.
Making Yucca Bread
Our guest showed us out to clean and peel the roots. She then took a long wooden bowl, well a rather a canoe-shaped bowl. Using a makeshift shredder – a rectangular metal plate punched with multiple tiny holes – we proceeded to shred the yucca roots and get a rough wet paste.
This was hard work as the shape of the utensils were unfamiliar and the volume of yuccas to prepare quite large. But on we went, and we managed to go through the load. Our arms were sour and painful at that stage! The difficult part was over.
We now needed to extract as much liquid as we could from the wet paste. This was achieved by putting it into mats made of palm leaves, which we rolled and wrung several times. A milky water poured out the mat, and we kept at it until only drops would come down. The juice could be reused for preparing Chicha, a drink made of fermented yucca.
The left-over mass was still tightly packed and our guest showed us how to sift it through a bamboo mat, to help break it down even further into a rough flour. We pushed and pushed it through until we finally had enough of this flour.
This moist dough-like flour was then spread over a plate made of leaves, to give it a round shape like a crepe. No other ingredient was added, the starchy component helped keep the dough together.
A metal pan had been heating over a hearth fire and was pretty hot. We were ready to cook and toast the crepe-like yucca bread. A few minutes on one side, a few more minutes on the other. Our yucca bread was ready!
The traditional way to eat it is by tearing small pieces and dipping it in sauce or jam or anything else available. Since there is no salt or any other element, the taste was rather bland but dipping or mixing with another food was the way to eat it, served with vegetables or fish.
After tasting our traditional homemade yucca bread, we walked through the rest of the village and by the river. Several kids were washing themselves and playing.
Soon it was time to get aboard our canoes again and back to our camp for the evening. What a great experience this had been! Learning first hand from the Sionas how to use the local production and how to turn it into something edible, deep in the Amazon, was truly memorable. A must-do while in Ecuador!
As the former Director of Content Marketing at Viator.com, I would recommend their Amazon tours. This is an affiliate link, which means we receive a percentage if you make a purchase using this link, at no additional cost to you. Our opinion is our own and is not impacted by this affiliate link.
The Siona People
Today the Siona population is estimated at about 1,000 people, with about 500 spread around different communities in the Sucumbios, especially in upper Cuyabeno lakes, and another 500 across into Colombia.
The word Siona is said to mean “Toward the Garden” (from sio = orchard, na = to in the Tucanoan language), possibly because the tribe was known to cultivate gardens. Their daily routine also includes traditional hunting and fishing. The Sionas in Ecuador refer themselves as the “Sa’niwi Bã” (Upriver people) as they do live in the upper sections of the Napo, Cuyabeno, Putumayo, and Aguarico rivers. Sometimes called the Siona-Secoya culture as they share many cultural similarities with the Secoya such as language and ancestry, the two groups are actually independent and live in different parts of the park.
Historically, the Siona people, like the Cofán, lived in remote areas of the forest and survived based on the local subsistence of gardening, hunting, and fishing. The rubber boom of the late 19th- early 20th-century (1885-1945) led to the enslavement of many of the tribes, wiping out large numbers of indigenous people while the European settlements expanded. Further modern development that impacted the Sionas include oil drilling, water contamination, and deforestation of the rainforest. The deterioration of their environment, especially the rainforest, was a terrible part given how important lianas are for the Sionas, from medicine, food, poisons, ropes, rituals, baskets, etc. The affluence of the Spanish also reduced the practice of the native religion which was seen as diabolic by the Catholic Church. Today, the shamans are few apart, no longer wear the traditional Chusma or practice the Yage ceremony.
Ecuador is, of course, home to several indigenous communities like the Sionas. Indeed, over a dozen different indigenous communities live in the country, including the Tsáchila, Chachi, Epera, Awa, Quichua, Shuar, Achuar, Shiwiar, Cofán, Secoya, Zápara, Andoa, and Waorani, as well as Afro-Ecuadorians, are considered minority and indigenous groups. One of the well-known groups is the Otavalo group, who live in the area of the same name northeast of Quito and which are famous for their handicrafts featured in the popular Otavalo market.
Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve
The second largest reserve of the 45 national parks in Ecuador, the Reserve abounds with wildlife and biodiversity and is home to five indigenous groups. Several relatively big animals live there, from dolphins, manatees, capibaras, caymans, herons, monkeys, sloths, and more.
The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is relatively easy to reach, only a 30-minute flight from Quito to Lago Agrio, the entry point into the Amazon. The river can be accessed barely one hour and a half drive later, and within a few hours, one stands within the tall trees of the rainforest, relaxing by the river and taking in the fact that one is in the Amazon!
If you are looking for more traditional culture experiences, or Ecuador trip ideas, check out our other Ecuador travel blog posts on:
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May 5, 2016 at 7:10 pm
This looks like such an incredible experience. I have yet to set foot in this part of the world but the more I read about unique experiences like this, the more I want to go!
May 9, 2016 at 3:21 pm
Visiting the Amazon tribes is an opening experience, and highly recommended.
May 5, 2016 at 9:02 am
Isn’t it amazing how we figure out how to make something out of a plant. y peeling and shredding and reducing down to a flour, i’m always amazed at how foods are made. I’ve had yucca in Costa Rica, but but not as a bread. Sounds interesting.
May 9, 2016 at 3:23 pm
A far cry from shopping at the store for sure! And it makes you appreciate what you are eating and how you are eating it. A rewarding and humbling experience.
May 5, 2016 at 8:49 am
Great Cultural Experience you had it seems. Enjoyed reading it 🙂
May 9, 2016 at 3:25 pm
Glad you liked it! 🙂
May 5, 2016 at 7:52 am
You guys have the most fascinating experiences. And OMG, what a process but such a great way to immerse in culture.
May 5, 2016 at 4:46 am
Sounds like a very special experience. I’ve been to Ecuador in the past and visited the Amazon but had never heard about this community. Thank you for sharing!
May 4, 2016 at 11:37 pm
This place looks so great and like a great get-away for a while. It seems people over there are much happier (and especially the chickens) than in many Western countries – I love how the kids smile and seem to enjoy life though they surely struggle for other reasons. Lovely to learn about the Sionas.
May 10, 2016 at 11:21 am
Agree with that. Had a similar experience with kids in small villages in India!
May 4, 2016 at 9:07 am
What an interesting experience! I’ll be honest, I had no idea what yucca bread was before reading your post. Now I’m totally down to try it!
May 10, 2016 at 11:23 am
We did not either, until we went there. Learning something new everyday!
May 4, 2016 at 8:38 am
Interesting post! I actually tried yucca bread a few days ago and also found it to be a little bland. But I started dipping it in tomato sauce so that made it awesome
May 10, 2016 at 11:24 am
It is indeed best eaten with sauce or vegetables. It’s all about the toppings 🙂
May 4, 2016 at 7:45 am
We have been debating whether to experience the Amazon from Peru or Ecuador. I like how you can learn a lot about the local culture when you visit Siona Village. And the experience is very interactive which the kids will be sure to enjoy!
May 4, 2016 at 7:17 am
Love Yuca, but don’t think I ever had Yuca Bread. Next time in Jackson Heights, I’ll look for it!
May 4, 2016 at 8:37 am
Just be ready to pull, shred and squeeze! 🙂
May 4, 2016 at 4:03 am
So interesting! I’d love to stay in an eco-lodge. I had a couple of friends who did it in South America and really enjoyed it. It sounds like a great way to live like a local.
May 4, 2016 at 8:38 am
A small setting is definitely the way to appreciate the Amazon, to feel closer to nature and the environment.
May 4, 2016 at 3:16 am
Traditional ways of making things is so intriguing! How long does it have to cook over the fire for?
And those little chicks roaming around is so cute!
May 4, 2016 at 11:14 am
Looks like hard work, but how cool to get to experience it! I hope you got some Chicia for your efforts!
May 10, 2016 at 11:22 am
No pain, no gain 🙂
May 3, 2016 at 7:08 pm
I enjoy cultural posts. Nice one & quality pictures!
May 4, 2016 at 8:39 am
Thanks, glad you liked it!
May 3, 2016 at 6:28 pm
What a great experience! Did you spend the night in the village? Are the villagers welcoming to strangers? I would love to visit the rainforest and meet the people who call it home.
May 4, 2016 at 8:41 am
No, we did not stay in the village for the night, it would have been awesome! The villagers were very welcoming, and were keen on showing us their traditional way of life.
May 3, 2016 at 5:35 pm
I really enjoyed reading about your experience. This would be something I would be interested in doing as I like learning how other people live.
May 10, 2016 at 11:24 am
Always give a great insight about the local culture.
May 3, 2016 at 2:10 pm
Your pictures of the children are so precious. Oh and I’d love to try Yucca Bread!
May 4, 2016 at 8:42 am
Children made our day too, so friendly and genuine!
May 3, 2016 at 1:20 pm
What a fascinating and immersive way to experience the Amazon, sounds like a lot of fun as well as hard work. So did you get to try the chicha too?
May 4, 2016 at 8:44 am
We did not get to try Chicha – think we need to plan another trip 🙂
May 3, 2016 at 12:57 pm
What a great experience! I’d love to visit a village like this. Lovely post, thanks for sharing.
Happy travels 🙂
May 4, 2016 at 8:44 am
We always try to visit local villages whenever we can, these are such an eye opening to discovering the local culture.
May 3, 2016 at 11:39 am
Wow! I hope someday my children would be able to experience something like this. We love learning about new cultures through food, its how we worldschool our children. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I bet that was one of the best breads you ever had… 🙂
May 4, 2016 at 8:43 am
Agree, one can share and learn a lot around food, sharing and understanding our differences and becoming richer from it.
May 3, 2016 at 10:14 am
So, is it like a flatbread? I was trying to tell from your pictures! It sounds yummy.
May 10, 2016 at 11:25 am
It is pretty flat and thin, a bit like a crepe. Totally worth trying!