LAGO AGRIO, once a marginal outpost on the frontiers of the jungle and the country, has become the black, pumping heart of Ecuador’s oil industry; it’s a city so important that in 1989 it was made the capital of the new province of Sucumbíos. Lojanos looking for a new life in the Oriente founded the settlement (whose official name is Nueva Loja) only a few decades ago, but in the late 1960s it was used by Texaco as a base for oil exploration, and soon after took its nickname from Sour Lake in Texas, the company’s original headquarters.
Oil remains Lago Agrio’s raison d’être, although the basic infrastructure of hotels, paved roads and transport links the industry brought have given tourism a foothold – largely in the form of an access point for visits to the vast, forested expanse of the Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno, one of the Oriente’s most beautiful and diverse.
Lago Agrio has a hot and bustling centre along its main street, Avenida Quito, where its high-fronted buildings seem a little grandiose for a hard-edged frontier town. A couple of blocks to the north, Lago’s central park, fronted by a simple church, is about the only gesture to greenery you’ll find. Outside Lago, the signs of rapid colonization and oil exploitation are all too clear – oil pipelines crisscross a bulldozed landscape, where only a few sad scraps of forest remain from the sea of vegetation that once surrounded the town.
Around 15,000 Cofán lived in this area when Texaco arrived, but disease and displacement made them among the worst-hit by the industry; they now number only a few hundred, squeezed into five small communities, three of which are in the forests on the Río Aguarico. At Lago’s Sunday market, between avenidas Quito and Amazonas, some Cofán come wearing traditional dress – a long tunic and sometimes a headdress for the men, and colourful blouses, skirts and jewellery for the women – to trade their produce and craftwork, including hammocks, bags and occasionally necklaces made from animal teeth, iridescent insects or birds’ beaks. Artesanías Huarmi Huankurina (“United Women”), 12 de Febrero 267 and 10 de Agosto (Tues–Sun, but irregular hours), and Artesanías Cofán (irregular hours), Jorge Añasco and Vicente Narváez, also sell crafts from the region’s indigenous communities, including hammocks, bags, ceramics and blowpipes.