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.