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 Cuyabenoand the Parque Nacional Yasuní, are best reached from the pioneer oil towns Lago Agrio and Cocarespectively, 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, Puyoand Misahuallíare 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.
The issues today
Even though there are more than 25,000 square kilometres of protected land in the Oriente – well over half of which is pristine Amazonian rainforest – conservationists are worried the cash-strapped Ecuadorian government is unable (or unwilling) to make sure it stays that way. The task of balancing the needs of a faltering economy against the obligation to protect some of the most important forests on the planet has been among Ecuador’s central problems for the past few decades. Meanwhile, oil activity is ongoing in several crucial protected areas, including Yasuní.
While most people would concede the oil industry has been very much a mixed blessing for the country, the indigenous peoples of the region – which include the Siona, Waorani, Secoya, Achuar, Shuar, Kichwa (who have rejected the Spanish spelling of their name “Quichua”), Cofán and Záparo – have had the most to lose. Many groups, rejecting the Western way of life, have been driven into ever smaller, remoter territories where it becomes increasingly hard to support themselves by traditional means. Their rivers and soil already polluted from industrial waste, most of the communities are under mounting pressure to sell out to the oil industry, both culturally and territorially. In recent years, ecotourism has emerged as a great hope for some groups seeking to adapt to a life in which external influences are inevitable, bringing in badly needed income, strengthening the case for the conservation of the forests within an economic framework and reasserting cultural identities.
Routes into the Oriente
The oil infrastructure has made the Ecuadorian Amazon one of the most easily accessed rainforest areas in the continent, with its centres of jungle tourism all within a day’s bus journey of Quito. There are two main routes to the Oriente. The first leaves the capital and descends into the Amazon basin from the Papallacta pass, splitting at Baeza, north to Lago Agrio (and then Coca), and south to Tena and the faster way to Coca. The second drops from Ambato through Baños to Puyo, where it meets the road between Tena and Macas. A new gravel road runs from Guamote (south of Riobamba) directly to Macas, slicing through Parque Nacional Sangay, and other poorer roads descend from Tulcán to Lumbaqui (on the Baeza–Lago Agrio road) and from Cuenca and Loja into the southern Oriente.
The region is militarily sensitive and you’ll be required to produce your passport at regular checkpoints. More so than at other places in the country, it’s important you have original documents rather than copies. As far as security is concerned, the areas adjacent to the Colombian border are currently unsafe due to infiltration of guerrilla and paramilitary units and should be avoided.
Visiting the jungle
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.