There are three ways to visit the jungle: on a guided tour; by staying at a jungle lodge; or by staying with an indigenous community. Getting into the wilderness and being immersed in the sights and sounds of the rainforest is the whole point of a tour, and modern luxuries, such as 24-hour electricity, (hot) running water and completely insect-free buildings are absent in all but the most comfortable jungle lodges. Ecuadorian authorities, conservation groups and indigenous communities frown upon unguided travel in the lower Oriente, which is not recommended for your own safety anyway. Off the main rivers, trails are few and difficult to follow, and it’s all too easy to get lost in a potentially dangerous environment. Furthermore, stumbling on indigenous groups, such as the Tagaeri, a branch of the Waorani who don’t take kindly to intruding strangers, could get you into serious trouble, as could an encounter with Colombian guerrilla groups around the Colombian border in northern Sucumbíos province.
Staying in a jungle lodge offers the most comfortable (and expensive) way to experience the rainforest. Stays usually last from three to five days and all logistical problems are taken care of for you, including river transport, food and any necessary permits and guides. Most lodges consist of cabañas and a communal dining and relaxing area, constructed in wood and thatch, close to primary forest and often a lengthy ride by motor canoe from the nearest town. The cabañas themselves range from a bed and four plank walls to handsomely adorned rooms with ceiling fans, private bath, hot water and electricity – though the nature of their location means even the most well-appointed lodge falls short of luxury. Days are clearly structured, with guided hikes or canoe trips, and guides are generally of a high standard; in the most expensive places, they’ll be English-speaking naturalists and ornithologists working with a local guide who’ll know the forest intimately.
Most lodges have contact offices in Quito, and visits must be booked prior to arrival, though generally only the higher-end lodges, such as Sacha, Kapawi and La Selva, recommend reservations be made weeks or even months in advance. Meals, guided forest walks and activities, and river transport to the lodge (where appropriate) are generally included in the price of a stay, but travel to the nearest Oriente town is usually separate; most lodges can help you arrange this if necessary.
A growing number of indigenous communities in the Oriente have started ecotourism projects, giving visitors a glimpse of village life in the rainforest by staying with a family or in simple cabañas just next to a community. The income raised from guests is intended to provide a sustainable alternative to more destructive means of subsistence, such as logging or farming the poor rainforest soil. The economic success of a project also demonstrates the value of conserving the surrounding forests – the other big attraction of a stay – to government agencies under strong pressure from commercial interests to make forest areas more financially productive, as opposed to “unproductive” community territory.
A few projects run slick operations, often in tandem with an outside partner, but the majority are starting out and remain pretty unsophisticated, so you may have to bring your own equipment (rubber boots, mosquito nets and so on). Most use simple wooden cabañas with beds and mattresses, clean sheets and sometimes mosquito netting, while bathrooms range from basic latrines to flushing toilets, with most having facilities shared between guests. Forest walks are a particular highlight, as your hosts often make excellent guides, and the majority are qualified “native” guides, though you’ll need to speak some Spanish to get the most from their extensive knowledge. A common emphasis is on intercultural understanding, and you’re likely to be treated to singing, dancing and folkloric presentations – you may even be asked to perform something yourself in return.
The main centres for organizing visits to an indigenous community are Tena, Puyo, Lago Agrio and Macas. Allow several days to organize a stay, as the communities need time to make arrangements, and it can be difficult to establish contact in the first place. A good book, combining a discussion of the virtues of indigenous ecotourism with a guide to some of the projects on offer, is Defending our Rainforest: A Guide to Community-Based Ecotourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon by Rolf Wesche and Andy Drumm. You should be able to find it in Quito’s better bookshops or at the SAE. Another good source of information is the Quito-based Federación Plurinacional de Turismo Comunitario, 9 de Octubre N27-27 and Orellana (wwww.turismocomunitario.ec).
Taking a guided tour is the cheapest way to visit the jungle, usually costing from $35–60 per person per day. The more people there are, the cheaper the tour will be, but the optimum number is between four and six so that everyone has a chance of hearing the guide and of having the wildlife pointed out to them individually before it disappears. Discounts are best negotiated in the low season, from February to mid-June and September to November. The best places to meet people looking to share a jungle tour, in roughly descending order, are Quito, Baños, Tena, Misahuallí, Puyo and Macas. Lago Agrio and Coca are home to a growing number of guides and agencies, but groups heading into the jungle from these towns are often formed in Quito, making it hard for independent travellers to find people to form their own group; still, you may be able to supplant yourself onto a trip.
All tours should provide accommodation – anything from modest cabañas to campamentos (open-sided camping platforms) to carpas (standard tents) – and adequate food and equipment, including water, rubber boots and mosquito nets if necessary. Always check what you’re getting before you hand over money. It’s also crucial to get a guide who has the knowledge and enthusiasm to illustrate the jungle as a vivid living world; meeting them yourself in advance is the best way to find out if they’re any good and check the standard of their English (where necessary). All guides should be able to produce a licence from the Ministry of Tourism, though this is no guarantee of quality. You can report guides to the ministry or SAE if they behave inappropriately, by hunting for food, leaving litter, or visiting indigenous communities without making a contribution or seeking permission. While some agencies use an accredited guide alongside a “native guide” for the same group – combining biological and scientific information with indigenous myths and local plantlore – the term “native” may not be synonymous with “indigenous”, often referring to anyone that lives in the Oriente.
If your tour includes a visit to an indigenous community, it’s crucial your guide or operator has their permission – ask to see the written convenio (agreement) between the community and the operator when booking, which helps emphasize this is a priority with tourists, and encourages the operator to follow good practices.