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.