Get To Know Ecuador Guide Gari Garces

Guiding in and around Tena in Ecuador since 1998, Gari Garces knows his way around the Amazon rainforest and has the low down on the best rivers to raft down too. Left in the jungle by his uncle at the tender age of 11, he never gets lost and now runs La Casa Blanca Hotel with his wife, Michelle. So strap in to learn from Gari how to make chocolate, stop monkeys from stealing your sunglasses, and which plants in the jungle are the best to help with arthritic pain.
How did you get into guiding in Ecuador?

I like exploring, I have been exploring since I was a kid, until just before 1998, when I was with a group of tourists. I was taking these guys different places and they said “You were with us for more than eight days and here’s your payment.” I said “Payment for what? I’m having fun!” So they paid me and said “You know, you can make a living from that.”

I started guiding professionally in 1998, with a license, but before that I did it just for fun, because I like it and I have a good time.

The government has classes they give on a regular basis to keep guides current. For guides that do whitewater as well, they also have to go to an annual class, held mostly in the river, that lasts a few days, and keep up First Aid, CPR, and water rescue. These are all wrapped up in my guiding license, which has a specialization in whitewater. I also took an instructor class in kayaking in order to be able to teach people to kayak in hard shell kayaks, and I worked with an entomologist for two years.

Do you ever worry about getting lost in the Amazon rainforest?

To answer that, let me go back. When I was 11, I lived in the town here in Tena, and I had a cousin who lived by the Napo River, and they called me ‘wimp’ because I didn’t know how to shoot a gun and how to hunt. So my uncle, who we call ‘Little Devil’, said “You need to be a man, you need to learn how to shoot a gun.” He took me to the forest, we walked for about four hours, and he said “Wait here.”

I was waiting there with a small machete and he never came back. Then I started walking, because it was starting to get dark, and I walked and walked and slept for two nights in the forest. So somehow, I know my way by now, because when I was 11, I already had some kind of sense of direction and I got out.

So he taught me a good lesson. I wasn’t happy in that moment, but now I’m kind of more focussed.

What’s the most bizarre or craziest experience you’ve had on a guided tour?

One time, I had a family here and I went to take a kayak trip. The boy was about six years old and he was scared of water. To begin, he was a little paralysed, looking at the water, and I said “Come on, sit down here,” and I started explaining to him: “It’s like a rollercoaster, going up and down, you will enjoy it.” He stayed still with his arms crossed because he was scared, and then I started touching the water, and said “Do you wanna do it too? It’s fun.” He started touching the water with his finger and he found that it was just wet and he kept going, and then I said ‘Hey, splash me!”

Then he started splashing me, and then we started playing, throwing water at each other, and I said to him “You want to jump in the water?’” He looked at me and I said “If I’m telling you it’s safe, it’s because it’s safe. Don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen to you.” So I put him very slowly in the water, and he was kicking and kicking, and I pulled him back, and then I asked him “Do you want to do it again?” and he said “Yes”.

So I put him in again, then I did it once more and said “Shall I let you go?” and he said “Yes, okay.” He was one metre apart from the kayak, then I grabbed him and put him back in and said, “You know what, now you can do it, it’s more fun – jump from the kayak.” He said “Really?” “Yeah.” Then he started jumping, and when his dad saw him, he said ‘Who’s that kid?”

When we got to lunchtime, they told me he was scared of fish. But we went walking and we found a few people fishing and he grabbed a fish by the tail and said “Hey Dad, look what I found” and the dad said “That’s a different kid, that’s not my child!” 

Every job has its ups and downs. Are there any aspects of your job that you don’t like or aren’t that keen on?

I like going in the river – what I don’t like is not going every day!

Your tours include a chocolate making course and a trip to visit monkeys on the beach – how hard is it to make chocolate, how good does it taste ‘fresh from the pod’ and how friendly are the monkeys?

We don’t make the chocolate fresh from the pod, we need to dry it first. After it’s dried, we roast it. That bit we do together: we roast the cacao, we peel it, we grind it and then we cook it, so it’s not that hard but it’s very delicious.

It’s not because I’m selling it, it’s because a bunch of other people have said, Hershey’s is nothing compared with it. It’s two different levels.

With the monkeys, before we get to the beach, I explain to everybody what will happen and we get out from the car with only the things we need, because they are monkeys, they are always looking for something that will catch their attention. Sometimes if you have glasses on your head, they look funny and the monkeys will take them off. I give clients grapes and the monkeys climb over them and a bunch of people have fun with it.

What lessons do you teach people about the jungle? 

I like to teach what things are, and if somebody wants to know something. One time I had a tourist who was in pain. In Ecuador, we have a plant, ortiga, that helps with pain and I taught him the way to use it. I said  “Okay, I’m going to do for myself, you will see this will work, I’m not just telling you that.” So I did it to myself, and then, because he saw that, he said “Okay, do it to me.” I did, and he was pain-free.

What you do is just grab one part of the plant and whip it. The plant has thorns that make your body release more adrenaline. We have a few kinds of ortiga: there’s the medicinal one, and there is another which the Kichwan people use to keep their kids from misbehaving. I always joke around about that, and say “My mum used both on me, that’s why I’m well behaved and don’t have arthritis.”

As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain to our readers what the benefits of hiring a guide are?

You have the experience of the guide, they will give you good guidelines, safety tips and have knowledge about that place. To put it simply, from my point of view, I don’t know New York, if I want to go to New York, I’ve got to have a guide who will explain all about the buildings, that kind of thing. If I don’t have a guide, it’s just buildings to me. It’s the same if you come over here, if you don’t have a guide and you go through the forest, it’s just green things to you.

Tell us something about Tena that only a guide would know.

We believe Tena is the place where the first Inca people started the rebellion against the Spanish people. They say it began in Peru, but they have proof it began here in Ecuador. We have the legendary caves near to Tena, which the indigenous hero Jumandi used as a hiding spot, who started rebelling against the Spanish a few years before Túpac Amaru II in Peru.

In your view, what makes a good tour guide?

They need to be a mix of a few things. They need to listen, ask and be comfortable with what they are doing, and of course, if you are comfortable, that means you have experience. Listening is not just with your ears, ‘listen’ means look at how the people are feeling, look at the group, how they are doing.

Sometimes, some of a group are into the idea of the tour and some aren’t. They all still want to go together, though. You need to get the whole group into it, so that everybody enjoys the tour.

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