Meet the woman leading jungle hikes to protect the Amazon rainforest.
By Jesse Mintz
Carved into a hillside deep in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, the steep steps tucked behind the Minga Lodge look like a retaining wall braced against a primeval jungle: slats of wood hold damp earth at bay as a rickety bamboo handrail climbs ever higher.
Up these steps, explains Sandra Morocho with a mischievous smile, is where the real jungle begins.
Sandra is a jungle guide with ME to WE—one of the first women to hold the adventurous position in the Amazon—and the rainforest is her home. Walking with her through its thick, sweet air, ducking beneath twisting ropes of dangling vines, you peek behind a curtain into a world directly in front of you, but hidden from view.
There are the obvious signs of the rainforest’s rambunctious wildness all around: red howler monkeys scamper through the dense canopy overhead, billions of insects thrum and vibrate, orchestras of brightly coloured parrots compete with the croaking songs of toucans.
But look closer, Sandra encourages. There’s more to see.
“If you walk by the same trail one hundred times,” Sandra tells me as our feet press into the red and black earth, “it’s always different, always full of surprises.”
As Sandra speaks, her love of the rainforest becomes obvious. And, like anyone in love, she’s eager to share her passion. ME to WE travellers who wake up with the sun for an early morning trek or don headlamps for a nighttime jungle hike with Sandra—each with their unique “choose-your-adventure” advantages—gain not only a better understanding of the rich biodiversity of the Amazon, but a sense of what the jungle means to those who have dedicated their life to protecting it.
“I was born in a unique moment of Ecuadorian history,” the 29-year-old explains. A microcosm for the fast developing nation, her Cloud Forest village in the Quijos Valley on the eastern slopes of the Andes—the most beautiful place in Ecuador, she says not hiding her bias—did not have running water or electricity. She remembers days spent birdwatching in the forest and nights around a fire while her grandfather told stories.
Electricity, water and roads soon came to her village, as they did unevenly to communities across Ecuador, but so did other, darker elements of development. Large swaths of Ecuador’s rainforest, among the most biodiverse places on the planet, sit above millions of barrels of oil, enticing developers. Sandra—the first woman in her family to finish high school—completed her studies at university before deciding to combine her textbook knowledge of eco-tourism and conservation with her passion for protecting nature and the cultures that flourish in it.
She took a job that led her deep into the jungle. Trekking with a tent on her back across many miles of rugged rainforest deep in the basin’s Yasuni National Park, through rain and swamps, past clouds of mosquitos, prowling jaguars and slithering anacondas, she worked with isolated communities whose ancestral lands lay in the path of proposed projects. She wanted to ensure Indigenous voices were heard and the jungle was protected as development decisions were made.
That goal eventually led her to a Huaorani community near the border of Peru. Pronounced wow-rah-NEE, the Huaorani are a traditionally hunter-gatherer society, whose roots in the Amazon are said to pre-date written history.
Sandra was supposed to stay one week. She stayed for nine months.
There, she learned from the Huaorani’s traditional knowledge: what it means to live in balance with nature; how to fire a blow gun and make the curare poison used to hunt; which plants are good for medicine.
When conservation plans were abandoned in 2013, allowing oil projects in the region to go ahead and massive tracts of the rainforest to come down—despite the protests of Indigenous groups and environmentalists alike—Sandra realized she had to do more. She would get others to care the same way she came to: by experiencing the rain forest first hand, through guiding.
“It’s not reading a book,” she tells me, eyes resting on a nearby pond alive with the sounds of bullfrogs that’s home to a three-foot caiman. “Here, it’s living and breathing nature […] With my passion, with my love, I can give that to others.”
For three years, she’s led jungle hikes with ME to WE, and uses tourism to spread a message of hope to entice others to want to be part of sustainable development. Through the dim jungle light (with the dense canopy overhead shielding the bright equatorial sun, the light is always dim), she introduces travellers to everything she loves about the rainforest. The sound of birds in the air, the taste of fresh fruit and the texture of an ancient tree’s layered bark are her tools to help people see the beauty and fall in love with nature. Because, “after people get to know nature, after they love it, they care,” she tells me with a smile. “They preserve it.”
Being here, it’s hard to resist. The trees and plants are the first thing you notice, bursting from every surface—even growing on each other—like explosions frozen in time. It’s said you can walk for one kilometer through the Amazon and never see the same species of tree twice. Travellers explore these wonders on the guided jungle hikes by climbing the steep steps into the primary rainforest that sits right behind the comfort of their rooms, gaining insights that will propel them to protect the environment long after they’ve left the Amazon.
“Nature is a wise teacher,” she says. And its greatest lesson is harmony. “Every single little ant, every microscopic thing we can’t see, is important. This balance in the ecology, it keeps the cycles of life going.”
Lizards run from tree to tree, hiding beneath leaves the size of car doors. Leaf cutter ants march in formation, a conveyor belt of green stretching to infinity. Giant snails as big as your palm cling fast to damp, moss-covered rocks. Blue and red moths flit in and out of your periphery. Stick bugs and praying mantises convincingly mimic tree branches. Brightly coloured frogs warn of their poison while snakes camouflage in the debris beneath foot.
Everything moves. Everything is alive.
“When all your senses are awake, when you learn from nature—and there is always something new to learn—you find beauty,” she tells me. “When you start digging into nature, you fall in love with it. You protect it.”