No other Ecuadorian habitat overwhelms the senses like the tropical rainforest, with its cacophonous soundtrack of birds and insects, the rich smell of steaming foliage and teeming soil, the glimmer of fluorescent birds and butterflies in the understorey, or the startling clamour of a troop of monkeys clattering through the canopy above. This is the Oriente’s star attraction, and what most visitors are here for – though the region, which occupies a massive area covering almost half the country, contains a good deal more besides. The alto (high) Oriente starts on the eastern Andean flank, where the high, windswept páramo steadily gives way to dripping montane forests, swathed in mist and draped with mosses and epiphytes, as the elevation decreases. Waterfalls plunge into broadening valleys, and temperatures rise the further you descend. Down in the foothills, poised between the sierra and the lowlands, lies a beguiling landscape of rippling hills and verdant, subtropical forests, home to a startling diversity of birds. Continuing east, the mountain ridges eventually taper away into the bajo (low) Oriente like talons sinking into the deep velvet of a vast emerald wilderness: Ecuador’s Amazonian jungle, one of the country’s most thrilling destinations.
The only practical way of getting into the rainforest – which in places stretches for more than 250km to the borders of Colombia and Peru – is to go on one of the numerous jungle tours on offer. These range from simple day-trips into pockets of forest close to a town, through staying with a rainforest community or at a jungle lodge, to rugged multi-day camping treks into the remotest tracts of primary jungle in the far eastern reserves. Nearly every tour will involve hiking through lush forests and navigating coiling rivers and lagoons in dugout canoes, often done at night to see the red eyes of caiman and hear the deafening chorus of nocturnal creatures. The most pristine areas, namely the Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno and the Parque Nacional Yasuní, are best reached from the pioneer oil towns Lago Agrio and Coca respectively, and demand at least four or five days to enjoy properly. Closer to Quito, and favoured by those with limited time on their hands, Tena, Puyo and Misahuallí are near smaller, more accessible patches of forest. Visits to or stays with indigenous communities are also likely to figure in tours from Tena and Puyo. Tourism is much less developed in the far southern Oriente, though Macas is home to a handful of operators and projects.
The climate in the low Oriente is what you’d expect from a rainforest – hot, humid and plenty of rain. The wettest months are April to July, but expect cloudbursts most days year round, usually in the early afternoon. Average daytime temperatures are around 25°C, though daily highs can be over 32°C. With such consistent conditions, the Oriente doesn’t have a high tourist season; at slow times of year, when there are few tourists in the country as a whole (Feb to mid-June & Sept–Nov), it’s worth asking for discounts.
The jungle – la selva – has held a curious place in the national psyche since the time of the conquistadors. Rumours of the jungle being el pais de canela (“the land of cinnamon”), a place of abundant fruits and spices, and the legend of El Dorado, the “Golden Man”, drew the early explorers here, suggesting to them a land of staggering natural riches. But the first Europeans to venture here soon found this fabled earthly paradise had a nightmarish underside; their parties were plunged into an impenetrable green hell (“el infierno verde”), teeming with poisonous snakes and biting insects. A string of catastrophic expeditions in the early colonial period quickly discouraged the Spanish from colonizing the Oriente at all. Even until the 1960s, most people, save for a sprinkling of missionaries and pioneers, kept away, leaving the forests and its inhabitants well alone.
This all changed in the late 1960s following the discovery of large oil and gas reserves, now the country’s most important source of wealth. The Oriente was divided into 200-square-kilometre bloques (blocks) and distributed between the companies, who proceeded to drill and blast in search of black gold. Roads were laid, towns sprouted virtually overnight and large areas of rainforest were cleared. The Oriente was transformed into a “productive” region and colonists streamed in on the new roads, looking for jobs and levelling still more land for farms. The speed of the destruction was dramatic and the Ecuadorian government, under widespread international pressure, began setting aside large tracts of forest as national parks and reserves; the largest three – Sangay (mainly in the Oriente, but most easily accessed from the highlands), Cuyabeno and Yasuní, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve – were created in 1979; another three medium-sized parks – Antisana, Sumaco and Llanganates – were formed in the mid-1990s.