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.