The northern Oriente’s wealth of natural beauty and wildlife, its indigenous communities and a hard-boiled frontier spirit have all helped make it one of the country’s most exciting destinations. Within the provinces of Sucumbíos, Napo and Orellana that make up the region, six major nature reserves and a proliferation of private reserves and protected areas provide excellent opportunities to experience the Amazonian jungle. The two most important are the Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno and the Parque Nacional Yasuní, in the east, defending over 15,000 square kilometres of pristine rainforest stretching to the Peruvian border. The reserves are reached by bus or canoe from Lago Agrio and Coca, the administrative and infrastructural centres of the oil industry. Tena, the third main town of the northern Oriente, isn’t as close to such extensive forest areas and wildlife populations are likely to be lower, but it’s the most pleasant of the three for its fresher climate, friendly atmosphere and proximity to a host of Kichwa communities offering ecotourism programmes. Tena is also rapidly becoming a centre for whitewater rafting, and at only five hours by bus from Quito is growing into the Oriente’s most popular tourist destination. The jungle traveller’s traditional favourite, Misahuallí, a river port close to Tena, provides access to the many cabañas and lodges of the upper Río Napo and boasts a number of local jungle-tour agencies and guides.
In the northwestern Oriente, three more ample reserves, Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca, Reserva Ecológica Antisana and Parque Nacional Sumaco Napo-Galeras hold dense cloudforests and montane forests, sometimes impenetrably thick, where hiking is a serious challenge. The little colonial town of Baeza sits between the three reserves, making it the most convenient base for such expeditions. In the valleys below Baeza, most notably the Quijos valley, waterfalls streak the landscape and Volcán El Reventador, a smouldering green-black cone, watches over the San Rafael falls, Ecuador’s biggest at 145m. On the uppermost reaches of the Amazon basin, Papallacta is a quiet, highland town perched in the hilly fringes of the Cayambe-Coca reserve, and its hot springs provide a good antidote to the crisp mountain air.
Catching a plane from Quito to Lago Agrio or Coca distils a lengthy bus journey into a thirty-minute hop.