The northern Oriente’s wealth of natural beauty and wildlife, its indigenous communities and a hard-boiled frontier spirit have all helped make it one of the country’s most exciting destinations. Within the provinces of Sucumbíos, Napo and Orellana that make up the region, six major nature reserves and a proliferation of private reserves and protected areas provide excellent opportunities to experience the Amazonian jungle. The two most important are the Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno and the Parque Nacional Yasuní, in the east, defending over 15,000 square kilometres of pristine rainforest stretching to the Peruvian border. The reserves are reached by bus or canoe from Lago Agrio and Coca, the administrative and infrastructural centres of the oil industry. Tena, the third main town of the northern Oriente, isn’t as close to such extensive forest areas and wildlife populations are likely to be lower, but it’s the most pleasant of the three for its fresher climate, friendly atmosphere and proximity to a host of Kichwa communities offering ecotourism programmes. Tena is also rapidly becoming a centre for whitewater rafting, and at only five hours by bus from Quito is growing into the Oriente’s most popular tourist destination. The jungle traveller’s traditional favourite, Misahuallí, a river port close to Tena, provides access to the many cabañas and lodges of the upper Río Napo and boasts a number of local jungle-tour agencies and guides.
In the northwestern Oriente, three more ample reserves, Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca, Reserva Ecológica Antisana and Parque Nacional Sumaco Napo-Galeras hold dense cloudforests and montane forests, sometimes impenetrably thick, where hiking is a serious challenge. The little colonial town of Baeza sits between the three reserves, making it the most convenient base for such expeditions. In the valleys below Baeza, most notably the Quijos valley, waterfalls streak the landscape and Volcán El Reventador, a smouldering green-black cone, watches over the San Rafael falls, Ecuador’s biggest at 145m. On the uppermost reaches of the Amazon basin, Papallacta is a quiet, highland town perched in the hilly fringes of the Cayambe-Coca reserve, and its hot springs provide a good antidote to the crisp mountain air.
Catching a plane from Quito to Lago Agrio or Coca distils a lengthy bus journey into a thirty-minute hop.Read More
- Lago Agrio
The booming oil town of COCA, capital of Orellana province (and officially named Puerto Fransico de Orellana), remained a forgotten outpost in the midst of virgin jungle, cut off from the rest of the world except by boat or plane, until the 1970s. It was the discovery of black gold that led to a speedy influx of oilers and colonists, and the sleepy village soon mutated into an urban nightmare.
It’s improved a little since then, but with fewer tourist facilities than Lago Agrio or Tena and with nothing to see or do, Coca is still a town you’ll not want to linger in. It’s best use is as a gateway to the primary forest downstream on the Río Napo or south along the Vía Auca, a newly colonized oil road tearing south through the jungle to the ríos Tiputini and Shiripuno. Access to the rainforest is easiest on one of the many guided tours offered by operators in Quito or Coca, ranging from short hops down the Napo to adventurous multi-day trips, deep into the jungle, including to the vast Parque Nacional Yasuní and the neighbouring Waorani Reserve. Some of Ecuador’s best jungle lodges are also found on this stretch of the Río Napo; if you’re planning on staying in one, book before arriving in Coca.
Coca is also a departure point for Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon via the newly opened border crossing at Nuevo Rocafuerte.
Until recently, its chaotic and filthy, potholed streets lined with ramshackle houses ensured visitors left Coca in a hurry, taking canoes to lodges further down the Río Napo. Yet concerted efforts by its authorities have succeeded in neatening up sections of the waterfront and in paving some of its main roads. There’s no parque central in town (a symptom of its explosive growth, as if no one had time to plan one), which sprawls outwards from the north bank of the Río Napo. Its central streets, Napo and Amazonas, run north–south and are busiest in the few blocks around the river, though the town’s produce market, municipio and bus station are a dozen blocks to the north. Napo even looks quite respectable now, but you only have to peek down the parallel roads to the east to see the town’s shabbier side. Most hotels and restaurants are along the southern end of Napo or around the waterfront.
- East of Coca
TENA (500m), the Oriente’s largest and most important town for the best part of the last hundred years, is also by far the most agreeable of the region’s three big towns, with plenty for visitors to see and do.
This is one of the best centres for community ecotourism in the Oriente, where you can easily arrange a stay with local Kichwa families, mostly in nearby villages easily reached by road or river. Tena sits at the head of the Napo basin, where a huge number of tributaries converge to produce a cluster of river rapids, waterfalls, mountain streams, and sand and pebble beaches, allowing for a host of aquatic activities. A tour from Tena is bound to involve at least one of swimming, climbing up brooks, bathing in waterfalls or tubing, not to mention whitewater rafting and kayaking, for which the town is rapidly becoming internationally famous, thanks to the scores of runs, from Class I to Class V, all within easy striking distance. A sizeable kayaking contingent already comes to Tena during the northern hemisphere’s off season in December and January.
Within sight of the Andean foothills and cooled off by its two rivers, Tena enjoys a slightly fresher climate than its oil-town rivals, Coca and Lago Agrio, and its longer, calmer history lends it a more established and civilized atmosphere. The northern half of Tena is the oldest part, with narrow streets, a modest cathedral fronting the central park, and the post and phone offices. It’s also the quieter half, as most of the traffic is routed around it and over a bridge to the main thoroughfare, Avenida 15 de Noviembre, that divides the more sprawling southern half of the town. The bus terminal stands at the less attractive southern fringes of town, so don’t be put off by first impressions.
Locals, a mixture of mestizos and Kichwas, often relax on the city’s river beaches – strips of sand or pebbles at the water’s edge – or amble around the pleasant Parque Amazónico La Isla, reached by a wooden thatched-roofed footbridge over the Río Pano about 200m south of the main pedestrian bridge. It’s not actually an island but the wooded tip of a patch of land at the confluence of the rivers. A high observation tower overlooks the treetops and town, and self-guided paths meander through botanical greenery past caged animals recovering from injury and abuse, to swimming spots along the river.
- Around Tena
The Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno
The Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno
The Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno, one of Ecuador’s largest reserves, encompasses over six thousand square kilometres of rainforest, holding the Río Cuyabeno basin and much of the watershed of the lower Río Aguarico as far as the Peruvian border. Protecting areas with species that survived the last ice age, Cuyabeno harbours abundant birdlife with 494 recorded species (a number that continues to grow) and a staggering 228 tree species per hectare. The reserve also contains a huge network of lakes and lagoons, including fourteen major interconnected bodies of water and large areas of inundated forest. Among them are two main black-water lake systems: the Cuyabeno Lakes, which include the Laguna Cuyabeno and Laguna Grande, and Lagartococha, at the eastern end of the reserve bordering Peru. In contrast to the nutrient-rich whitewater rivers originating in the Andes, black-water rivers typically form where there is little soil sediment and generally originate in the Amazon basin itself; the water takes on a dark tea-like colour from the vegetable humus that falls into it, which also makes it very acidic and rich in tannins. Some people come to the reserve specifically to see its aquatic wildlife, such as pink freshwater dolphins, turtles, black caiman, anaconda, manatee, giant otters, countless colourful frogs and toads and 450 species of fish.
The boundaries of the reserve have changed since its creation in 1979, particularly following major incursions by oil companies and settlers into the western areas around Tarapoa. The governments of the time largely ignored this destruction, but in 1991, after considerable pressure from international agencies and CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), a vast tract of land on the eastern side was added, almost tripling the size of the reserve. While the reserve is now less accessible to colonizers and far better protected by politically active indigenous communities (including Kichwa, Cofán, Secoya, Siona and Shuar), who are struggling to defend their cultures and territory against oil company encroachment, oil extraction is still causing problems through toxic waste and spills that have drained into the Cuyabeno basin.
- Walks around Papallacta
- Hikes around Baeza
Travel warning: the Colombian border
Travel warning: the Colombian border
Despite the Colombian border being only 21km north of Lago Agrio, the Oriente is not a safe place from which to enter Colombia. The US-led “Plan Colombia” has encouraged the displacement of Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary units – who are making their presence felt – into Ecuadorian territory. You should avoid all border areas in Sucumbíos; if you’re heading to Colombia, cross at Tulcán in the northern sierra.
Francisco de Orellana and the discovery of the Amazon
Francisco de Orellana and the discovery of the Amazon
In February 1541, when a band of 200 Spaniards, 4000 indígenas and thousands of assorted horses, dogs and pigs set out from Quito to explore new lands to the east, few of them could have expected that some of their party would end up making the first recorded descent of the Amazon – a journey of over 6000km down part of the largest river system in the world.
They were led by Gonzalo Pizarro, younger brother of the ruthless Francisco (the conqueror of the Incas), and soon joined by Captain Francisco de Orellana. He had won honour as a young man – and lost an eye – in the battles of Lima and Cusco, and at thirty years old was still hungry for adventure.
Even before the expedition had left the mountains, hundreds of indígenas had died in the freezing passes, and as they descended into the uncharted forests, they were running desperately low on food. By Christmas, the group had travelled around 400km from Quito, when they stumbled across the Río Coca. Having eaten all their pigs and most of their dogs, they decided their only choice was to build a boat and send a vanguard led by Orellana downstream in search of food. Orellana never made it back to his leader and the waiting men – a failure which saw him branded a traitor for centuries afterwards.
The captain had a group of sixty men, some weapons and a few supplies, but within a couple of weeks they were “eating hides, straps and the soles of their shoes cooked with certain herbs” and forest roots which poisoned them “to the point of death”. Worse still, the river (they’d now entered the Napo) had become so fast-moving they knew they wouldn’t be able to go back upstream, and they were carried down into territory where war drums raged on either side of the river. Yet Orellana was a great diplomat as well as soldier and, unlike most conquistadors, he was well versed in indigenous languages and picked new ones up with prodigious speed, an ability that saved his life many times on his journey. Here, instead of fighting, he embraced a local chief and gave him European clothes, receiving an abundance of partridges, turkeys and fish in return.
Before long, over 1000km from Pizarro’s camp, their only concern was to stay alive. By June 1542, they reached the Río Negro (near what is now Manaus), naming it after its deep-black waters. News of their presence spread before them, and they came across empty villages with decapitated heads nailed to posts in warning.
A fierce tribe of warrior-women – whom they named Amazons, after the female warriors of Greek mytholody – then attacked them. The chronicler of the journey, Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, described how the Spanish boats looked like “porcupines” after their shots rained down; the friar himself lost an eye in the exchange. Although these women were never spotted again, it has been hypothesized they were male warriors from the Yagua tribe, who sport pale yellow, grass-style skirts and headgear. On August 26, 1542, the expedition finally came to the mouth of the world’s greatest river and named it Orellana, though it soon became known as Amazonas, after the tribe.
Orellana returned to Spain in May 1543 but set out for the river again in December 1545. The ill-equipped expedition lost a ship and more than 220 men before reaching South America. As they entered the Amazon estuary, they’d already run out of food and the remaining ships became separated on the rough tidal waters. Orellana died from illness and grief in November 1546, finally defeated by the river that had brought him fame.