The Cofán of Sinagüe: Masters of the River

Cofán canoe

Photo: Mitch Anderson

The Cofán community of Sinangüe is located in the tropical foothills of the Andes Mountains. Just beyond, the landscape levels out into the seemingly infinite Western Amazon Basin. This is the ancestral homeland of the Cofán people. They have lived here in these mountain forests for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Sinangüe offers spectacular views of lush, green mountains and narrow valleys. The air is crisp and fresh. From here, the Aguarico River steeply descends into the Amazon Basin where it steadily meanders into Peru. At this height, the river forms a series of sharp curves and powerful rapids — cold water rushing forcefully over polished stone. Reaching houses along the river can be a difficult and dangerous challenge. The Cofán are renowned for their skill at navigating these treacherous stretches of river by canoe. Going up river is a delicate dance with the elements. They must battle the fierce current and avoid large boulders and sharp rocks hidden underwater, which they accomplish with surprising agility and precision. Sometimes the water level is so low that the canoe must be hauled by hand until deeper waters are reached. This requires both strength and determination: part of everyday life for indigenous communities in the Amazon.