Of all the talented guides at Mashpi Lodge, Juan Carlos Narváez is among the most knowledgeable, liked, and respected. The Quito-born naturalist guide has been working at the lodge since 2013, and always sounds as passionate and interested about the wonders to be found there as he did (one presumes) on his first day.
He’s earnest, gentle and calm, qualities that make him a perfect guide for interpreting the natural world that guests suddenly find themselves enveloped in upon arrival at the lodge.
While deliberate and a natural teacher, this thirty-nine-year-old can become animated when he spots something rare or out of the ordinary, or when explaining a favourite topic, such as the cecropia tree’s symbiotic relationship with the ants that live inside its trunk and protect it from predators…
He began guiding almost by accident, in 2006. “A friend told me about a lodge in the Amazon that was looking for guides, and which would pay for biologist graduates to get certified. He said it was a great deal and that I should join him in the training,” recounts Juan Carlos.
“At the time, I was working at the Catholic University in Quito where I’d studied and not earning a lot, so I jumped at the chance. I left, did the test for the lodge (called Kapawi), and entered into the programme to become a guide. There were six of us competing for two job openings at the lodge. Funnily enough, my friend caught malaria during the course and he couldn’t continue! So I began starting to guide without him in the end.”
“To be honest, I had always imagined my path lay as a scientist. Guiding was a Plan B. But I liked it a lot, and not just because I earned more! It was completely different from what I’d been doing. I liked being out in nature, in contact with indigenous people and with foreigners. In the end, it changed the course of my life completely. I liked teaching people. My plan B became my plan A.”
What’s guiding for you?
It’s sharing an experience in nature with people. It’s imparting my passion for discovery and conservation, teaching people how ecosystems work.
What techniques are there to being a good guide?
I didn’t smile a lot at the beginning! I was very serious, a typical biologist. The older guides taught me to smile, to make people laugh, to relax. You have to enjoy what you do in order for people to learn. You have to enthuse, to share without being too formal and stuffy. You have to maintain a certain formality and a structure to be a guide, though. That’s part of it, too.
What techniques are there in Mashpi?
There has to be a logical sequence to one’s guiding. You have to start with simpler things and then broaden and deepen. If I can, I like to take people through a sequence of explanations as I guide them through the Reserve, starting with the briefing we give all guests on arrival.
But you also have to judge people’s interests as best as you can, and then I try to adapt your guiding to what people are most drawn to or excited by, or what they want from their “forest experience”. Improvised flexibility is really important.
Juan Carlos is a firm believer in people learning while they explore the forest with the team of guides. It’s about fun, of course – swimming in waterfalls, pedaling on the Sky Bike, floating above the canopy in the Gondola, spotting colourful birds and denizens of the forest – but he always hopes that Mashpi’s broader message of conservation will be taken up by the guests who experience the forest with him.
“I always hope to communicate just how unique this place on the planet is. Mashpi’s location at a transitional zone between the rainforests at lower altitudes and the cloudforests higher up is truly unique, and very threatened. Whether Ecuadorians or foreigners, I always hope to impress upon people the value of these ecosystems.”
That mission is best achieved through sincerity, knowledge and passion, qualities which anyone who has wandered these forests with Juan Carlos can attest he possesses in abundance.