Ecuador // The Oriente //

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.