Ecuador’s southern Oriente is less developed than its northern counterpart in every way, with fewer roads, fewer towns, fewer tourists and less oil activity. The region’s two main population centres are Puyo, the provincial capital of Pastaza, and Macas, 129km further south, capital of the province of Morona-Santiago. Settlement by colonists is largely confined to a long, thin strip flanking the Troncal Amazónica (the Amazon highway), which runs from north to south through the region, in the selva alta, parallel with the eastern flank of the Andes. This road, mostly paved between Puyo and Limón, is virtually the only road in the southern Oriente, with access east into the heart of the tropical rainforest possible only by boat along the numerous rivers coiling through the forest, or by chartered light aircraft. Indigenous groups – principally the Kichwa in Pastaza, the Shuar in Morona-Santiago and pockets of Achuar in the east – communally own most of this territory.
Tourism in the southern Oriente is considerably less evolved than in the north; with the exception of the luxurious Kapawi Ecolodge, close to the Peruvian border, you’ll find none of the fancy lodges and cabañas of the kind scattered up the Río Napo. Instead, the southern Oriente has excellent opportunities for culturally focused ecotourism, offered by tour operators based in Puyo and Macas in association with host indigenous groups. In Puyo, the Organización de Pueblos Indígenas de Pastaza (OPIP) has developed a variety of programmes opening up tracts of rainforest and local communities to visitors. In Macas, which has more tour operators, guides take tourists on multi-day trips to remote Shuar communities, often with an emphasis on learning about their customs, mythology and healing rituals, while exploring the jungle.
The main route into the southern Oriente is the hundred-kilometre road from the serrano city of Ambato down to Puyo, from where you can branch south to Macas or north to Tena. A less-serviced alternative is the controversial new road from Guamote (south of Riobamba) to Macas, traversing Parque Nacional Sangay on one of the most scenic routes to the lowland east. There are also direct daily flights from Quito to Macas.Read More
Puyo and around
Puyo and around
Seventy-nine kilometres south of Tena, and by far the biggest urban centre in the southern Oriente, PUYO bears out its name (derived from the Kichwa word for “cloudy”) and seems to be permanently suffused with a grey, insipid light that gives the town a gloomy air. Founded in 1899 by Dominican missionaries, very little remains of its traditional timber architecture, and these days most of the city’s buildings are modern and concrete. Although not particularly appealing in its own right, Puyo does boast several attractions on its outskirts, most notably the fabulous Jardín Botánico Las Orquídeas. It also serves as a convenient launchpad for a range of jungle tours, commonly to the Fundación Ecológica Hola Vida, a tract of secondary rainforest 27km south of town, and to the site of Indi Churis, a further 7km south, to meet local Kichwa families. Puyo is also the transport hub of the southern Oriente, with frequent bus connections north to Tena and Coca, south to Macas and west to Baños and Ambato, in the sierra.
Sitting near the coiling Río Puyo’s southern banks, Puyo’s focal point is the manicured Parque Central, featuring a paved esplanade dotted with flowering trees, ornamental lampposts and a red-roofed bandstand from where you’re treated to fine views onto the surrounding countryside. Towering over the east side of the square is the modern, angular cathedral, with flashing white walls trimmed in brown. There’s little else to grab your attention in town, save the Museo Etno-Arqueológico, located on the third floor of the Casa de la Juventud, at Atahualpa and 9 de Octubre. Displays include traditional day-to-day objects used by indigenous communities of the region, such as blowpipes, cane spears, fishing nets, musical instruments, and mucahuas used to drink chicha out of, along with a modest archeological collection of pre-Hispanic ceramics and tools.
At the north end of 9 de Octubre, a ten-minute walk from the city centre, steps head down to the Río Puyo, snaking between dense foliage and crossed by a rickety suspension bridge leading to the Parque Pedagógico Etno-Botánico Omaere. The park offers a bite-sized chunk of native forest laced with well-maintained paths, along with a medicinal plant nursery and several examples of typical indigenous dwellings of the Shuar, Kichwa and Waorani communities. A visit here can be combined with a leisurely stroll along the Paseo Turístico, a pleasant riverside trail that continues from Omaere for a couple of kilometres as far as the road to Tena. The not-to-be-missed Jardín Botánico Las Orquídeas (t03/884855, http://www.jardinbotanicolasorquideas.com/en/), located in the suburb of Intipungo, southeast of the centre, is an outstanding private botanical garden, with over two hundred species of native Amazonian orchids poking out of a lush tangle of vegetation spread over a couple of hills. Visitors are guided through the garden by its enthusiastic owner and creator, Omar Tello, who points out the tiniest and most exquisite flowers hiding under the foliage; at a brisk pace you could get round most of the paths in an hour, but allow at least two to get the most out of it. The garden is a five-minute taxi ride ($3) from the centre, or you can take the hourly bus #2 from opposite Cooperativa San Francisco, between Atahualpa and 27 de Febrero.
Another attraction on the outskirts of town, 9km north of Puyo on the road to Tena, is the Zoocriadero El Fátima, a zoo with a mixture of walk-in enclosures where you can pet some of the smaller animals, and large, fenced-off areas mimicking the larger mammals’ natural environment. All the wildlife is from the Oriente, and includes tapirs, capibara, caimans, monkeys, guatusas and many colourful birds. You can get here on any bus to Tena (from Gasolinera Coka), or else by taxi for about $4–5.
Macas and around
Macas and around
MACAS, 129km south of Puyo, is the most appealing town in the southern Oriente, mainly for its pleasant climate, laid-back atmosphere and beautiful views onto the surrounding countryside. While there are a few worthwhile sights in and around town, Macas is best visited as a base for organizing excursions into the hinterlands to the east.
A good place to take in the lie of the land is on the steps of the modern, concrete cathedral on the Parque Central, giving views across the low roofs of the town onto the eastern flanks of the sierra; on very clear days you can see the smouldering cone of Volcán Sangay, some 40km northwest. Behind the cathedral, the shelf on which Macas is built drops abruptly down to the Río Upano whose restless waters curl around the eastern edge of the town. For the best views eastwards, head five blocks north from the cathedral to the Parque Recreacional, a small, pretty space with a mirador looking down to the seemingly endless blanket of vegetation, stretching into the horizon in a fuzzy green haze. In the foreground, just across the river, you can see the whitewashed buildings of Sevilla-Don Bosco, a Salesian mission station with a handsome church, about a 45-minute walk from town. Back in the centre, the Museo Arqueológico y Cultural de Morona Santiago (Mon–Fri 9am–noon & 2–4.30pm; free) is on the top floor of the Casa de la Cultura at 10 de Agosto and Soasti. It has a fascinating display of Shuar artefacts, including feather adornments, headdresses made of animal heads, blowpipes, basketwork, large clay funerary urns traditionally used to bury dead children and a replica of a tsanta (shrunken head). There are good artesanías at the Fundación Chunkuap’ shop on the corner of Bolívar and Soasti, which sells items local Achuar communities make, including ceramics, woven baskets and bags and blowpipes.
Outside town, the Fundación Rescate Fauna Silvestre Eden is an animal rescue centre where tapirs, peccaries, turtles, boas and parrots, among others, are all cared for. It’s a short walk north of Proaño, a village that can be reached by a bus ride from Macas (hourly; 15min).