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.
The best accommodation is at Las Termas de Papallacta (t 06/2320620, Quito office at Foch E7-38 and Reina Victoria t 02/2568989, w www.termaspapallacta.com; over $121), which offers comfortable rooms or heated, spacious cabins for up to six people, some fitted with sunken bath and a private outdoor hot tub ($152). There are several other hotels dotted along the road between the Termas de Papallacta and the village, including the friendly Hostería Pampa Llacta (t 06/2320624, e firstname.lastname@example.org; $36–50), halfway down; it has a nice indoor pool, two outdoor pools and a restaurant, and offers a variety of lodging from compact singles with fireplaces to spacious family cabins sleeping four ($61) or seven ($135). Down in the village, El Viajero (t 08/7042389; $11–15) is a simple budget hotel on the Calle Principal while Coturpa (t 06/2320640; $26–35), opposite the Complejo Santa Catalina, offers en-suite rooms and has a private thermal pool, sauna and steam room for guests at weekends. Camping is possible at the Termas de Papallacta for $6 per person.
Although Tena is most commonly used as a launching pad for jungle tours in the upper Napo region, there are a few places nearby you can visit independently. To the north of Tena, a trip to the colonial town of Archidona can be combined with a visit to the Cavernas de Jumandy, the most developed and easily accessed of many caves in the area, or one of the two local forest reserves, the Reserva Ecológica Monteverde or the Reserva El Parra. Beyond here, the scenery en route to Baeza concertinas into a range of forested gullies and ridges as you pass between two remote protected areas, the Parque Nacional Sumaco Napo-Galeras and the Reserva Ecológica Antisana.
Heading 7km south of Tena brings you to Puerto Napo, where there’s a road bridge over the eponymous river. Two roads branch off the main highway to the east at this point, servicing either side of the upper Río Napo. Along the northern bank, one runs for 17km as far as the port of Misahuallí, the long-established embarkation point for tours of this region. On the southern shore, and joined by a bridge from Misahuallí, the other road passes several tourist cabañas, the Estación Biológica Jatún Sacha and, 28km down the line, the crossing point by boat over the river at La Punta, from where the road dribbles on for a couple of kilometres as far as Ahuano. Meanwhile, the southbound main road from Tena and Puerto Napo continues to Yuralpa where a French oil company has its operational base. A bridge and 7km of road are the only things missing to make the link from Puerto Napo to Coca, but the inevitable rise of the oil and lumber industries in the area means they won’t be long in coming.
While famed for the Cavernas de Jumandy, the Tena region has many other less-visited caves, the majority of which are on private property meaning you’ll need the owner’s permission to visit them. The area is also littered with petroglyphs, rough but lyrical etchings of shapes, creatures and faces onto rocks and boulders, dating from several thousand years ago up until the sixteenth century. No one is exactly sure of their significance, but they are often found near waterways or on high ground, places of strategic and habitational importance. One of the best groupings, composed of at least sixty petroglyphs, is Los Petroglifos del Valle Sagrado, located on the hillside north of Cotundo, a village about 10km north of Archidona. The Fundación Sinchi Sacha (t 06/2889044, in Quito t02/2230609, www.sinchisacha.org) is developing a guidebook and an archeological park with trails around them; you can find out more information and hire a guide at their Centro de Turismo in Cotundo.
Anyone interested in caving should talk to Gabriel Guallo in Tena, who takes trips to the so-called “Grand Canyon” system near Mondayacu about 10km north of Archidona, as well as deep into the Cavernas de Jumandy. He’s a good guide, but better on day-trips ($40) than more logistically difficult overnighters; contact him at Las Grutas de Gabriel, Abdón Calderón and Juan León Mera (t06/2887894 or t09/8839922).
For many years MISAHUALLÍ, a bustling little port at the confluence of the ríos Misahuallí and Napo, was the place in the Oriente in which to organize a jungle tour. The road linking Tena to Coca, completed in the late 1980s, changed that, slashing the port’s commercial trade, while its surrounding forests were cleared or severely disturbed by settlers and oil prospecting. What primary forest remains in the upper Napo has shrunk to such an extent that larger animals, particularly mammals, have all but disappeared from the region. The oil industry continues to probe ever deeper into the east, opening up far remoter regions to visitors, where the big reserves protect thousands of acres of pristine rainforest and all its wildlife.
Luckily for Misahuallí, its lingering reputation as a good meeting point for arranging jungle trips at the drop of a hat has kept the port in business. With its constant trickle of tourists, almost every hotel, restaurant, craft shop and racketeer offers forays into the jungle, and the section of the Napo around here has more tourist lodges and cabañas than any other part of the river. Competition is fierce, keeping prices consistently low – another of the port’s attractions for budget travellers – and the large number of tour operators offer similar activities and facilities, such as guided jungle hikes, swimming under waterfalls, gold panning and canoeing down rivers, with accommodation either at campsites or in simple cabins. English-speaking guides are pretty thin on the ground, so meeting them before you set out is always a good idea; check they have a Ministerio de Turismo-issued guiding licence and that they can produce written authorization from the community concerned if they plan to visit the Waorani. Tours to the remoter Cuyabeno or Yasuní reserves, the Río Tiputini or more distant rivers are more expensive and need to be at least four or five days long to be worthwhile. Before you leave Misahuallí by canoe you should register your passport at the Capitanía.
Having chosen your jungle trip, there’s not a lot else to keep you busy in Misahuallí itself. You can take a dip in the river, or visit the Jardín de Mariposas, a butterfly farm located a couple of blocks north of the square on Rivadeneira, where you can see over a dozen colourful species in the various stages of the lifecycle. Ask at the Ecoselva office for someone to lead you around the farm. Outside town, there’s a good short hike up to some small waterfalls and bathing pools on the Río Latas, a favourite place for local children. Take a bus from the central square towards Puerto Napo and ask the driver to drop you off for “las cascadas”, around 7km from Misahuallí. They’ll leave you at the trailhead; the biggest falls are about a ninety-minute hike away, but most people settle for the streams and pools along the way.
Buses from Quito to Lago Agrio and Tena via Baeza pass Papallacta every forty minutes; the journey takes 1hr 30min. Some buses will drop you on the paved main road bypassing the town, from where camionetas (6am–6pm) will take you into town or up to the thermal baths for $2 per load (up to four people). Other buses take the unpaved road to the town itself, and can drop you (on request) at the junction know as “La Y”, from where you can walk up to the Termas (1.5km; signposted) or take a camioneta ($1.50 for four). Taxis (same price) can also be booked with José Quizahuano on t 08/4790698. Establish with your bus driver in advance where he will drop you off.
The booming oil town of COCA, capital of Orellana province (and officially named Puerto Fransico de Orellana), remained a forgotten outpost in the midst of virgin jungle, cut off from the rest of the world except by boat or plane, until the 1970s. It was the discovery of black gold that led to a speedy influx of oilers and colonists, and the sleepy village soon mutated into an urban nightmare.
It’s improved a little since then, but with fewer tourist facilities than Lago Agrio or Tena and with nothing to see or do, Coca is still a town you’ll not want to linger in. It’s best use is as a gateway to the primary forest downstream on the Río Napo or south along the Vía Auca, a newly colonized oil road tearing south through the jungle to the ríos Tiputini and Shiripuno. Access to the rainforest is easiest on one of the many guided tours offered by operators in Quito or Coca, ranging from short hops down the Napo to adventurous multi-day trips, deep into the jungle, including to the vast Parque Nacional Yasuní and the neighbouring Waorani Reserve. Some of Ecuador’s best jungle lodges are also found on this stretch of the Río Napo; if you’re planning on staying in one, book before arriving in Coca.
Coca is also a departure point for Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon via the newly opened border crossing at Nuevo Rocafuerte.
Until recently, its chaotic and filthy, potholed streets lined with ramshackle houses ensured visitors left Coca in a hurry, taking canoes to lodges further down the Río Napo. Yet concerted efforts by its authorities have succeeded in neatening up sections of the waterfront and in paving some of its main roads. There’s no parque central in town (a symptom of its explosive growth, as if no one had time to plan one), which sprawls outwards from the north bank of the Río Napo. Its central streets, Napo and Amazonas, run north–south and are busiest in the few blocks around the river, though the town’s produce market, municipio and bus station are a dozen blocks to the north. Napo even looks quite respectable now, but you only have to peek down the parallel roads to the east to see the town’s shabbier side. Most hotels and restaurants are along the southern end of Napo or around the waterfront.
From Coca, the muddy waters of the lower Río Napo flow in broad curves for over 200km to Nuevo Rocafuerte on the Peruvian border. Long, motorized canoes ply the shallow river, searching for the deepest channels between large and slowly shifting sandbanks, while half-submerged logs wag vigorously in the currents. The region is only sparsely populated, and you’ll pass just the odd Kichwa homestead linked to the riverbank by steep dirt footpaths. The Río Napo is the region’s motorway, and its network of tributaries and backwaters forms the basic infrastructure to remote indigenous communities deep within the remaining tracts of pristine rainforest. In the forests to the south, between the ríos Napo and Curaray, lies the Waorani Reserve, home to about two thousand people. Their territory acts as a buffer zone to the Parque Nacional Yasuní, Ecuador’s largest national park, protecting a number of habitats and an extraordinary wealth of flora and fauna.
Since Coca became more accessible in the 1970s, this wild part of the eastern Oriente has been one of the country’s top natural attractions, and also the location of several of the best jungle lodges, which provide the most comfortable way of experiencing the rainforest here. Many of them have an observation tower – a high vantage point to see life in the jungle canopy that’s all but invisible from the ground – and own private reserves close to much larger national parks. A number of less expensive jungle-tour operators (see Tours from Coca) also run trips down the Río Napo from Coca, some using their own basic accommodation, others making do with tents and campsites. Añangu, three hours’ drive east from Coca, on the edge of the Parque Nacional Yasuní, is one of the few indigenous communities along the lower Napo that has developed its own ecotourism programme.
The Kichwa community of AÑANGU, on the south shore of the Napo, about 66km downstream of Coca, has access to two stunning natural resources. Inside the northern reaches of the Parque Nacional Yasuní and only an hour’s walk west from the community, Laguna Añangucocha is one of the largest lakes in the region. It’s bordered by dense forest, where peccaries and pumas forage and the waters twitch with caimans, piranhas and paiche, a fish that reputedly nudges the 200-pund mark (though there are rumours some weigh twice as much). The area is also excellent for birdwatchers, holding 560 species and two parrot licks (an exposed clay bank) near the community. The licks provide an extraordinary spectacle as thousands of parrots squabble over the best perches to peck at and gulp down the clay, the mineral-rich content of which helps them digest the harsh acidic fruits they usually eat.
The community has its own lodge, the A Napo Wildlife Center (reservations in advance in Quito on t02/2528261, wwww.napowildlifecenter.com), composed of ten beautiful and spacious cabins on Añangucocha, with private bathrooms, hot water, electric lights and hammocks on porches overlooking the lake. Next to the dining room, a 36-metre observation tower allows you to scan the forest canopy with binoculars for monkeys and bird species. Highlights of a stay here include possible sightings of giant otters; walks down the “manakin trail” where six species of manakin can be spotted; and visits to the parrot licks, where hides (blinds) have been built for better observation of the blue-headed and orange-cheeked parrots, cobalt-winged parakeets, scarlet-fronted parrotlets and scarlet macaws that feed there in a frenzy of sound and colour. Extremely knowledgeable local guides (who also work as Yasuní park rangers) backed up by bilingual naturalists, lead jungle walks and canoe rides. A three-night package costs $720, while four nights is $920 per person in a double, including boat transport from Coca and park entrance fees.
Parque Nacional Yasuní encompasses just under 10,000 square kilometres of tropical rainforest around the basins of the ríos Tiputini, Yasuní, Nashiño and Curaray. The gap at the western end, in the shape of a giant horseshoe, was made into Reserva Waorani in 1990 for the 21 Waorani communities living here; it is effectively a 6000-square-kilometre buffer zone preventing colonization and oil exploitation from the west.
Yasuní is part of the “Napo Pleistocene refuge”, an area of rainforest thought to have survived the ravages of the ice age, allowing species here to thrive and diversify, generating scores of endemic species. It’s theorized that this long period of development is why the Amazon rainforest is much more biodiverse than its African and Asian counterparts, which the ice age affected. Yasuní claims almost sixty percent of Ecuador’s mammal species, including 81 species of bat, larger animals such as jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, twelve primate species and aquatic mammals including pink freshwater dolphins, manatee and giant otters. Over 520 bird species have been recorded, including harpy eagles and sunbitterns, and one recent botanical study found 473 tree species in only one hectare, which is thought to be a world record. Most of the park consists of forest on well-drained soil (tierra firme), but other life zones include seasonally flooded forest (várzea) and permanently flooded swamp forest (igapó). Scientists today believe they’ve only scratched the surface of identifying all life here.
UNESCO was quick to declare Yasuní an International Biosphere Reserve in 1979 – two months prior to the park’s official creation – to strengthen its protected status before oil companies could start prospecting. Despite this, the park is under attack from several of them and roads have already been built into protected areas. At Pompeya, barges ferry oil vehicles across the Río Napo to a gravel road, known as the Vía Maxus after the oil company that built it, which cuts right through the northern arm of the park for 150km. Entrance to the park here is monitored to allow access only to oil workers and members of the three small Waorani communities who live inside Yasuní, preventing settlers from colonizing the forest. Even so, environmentalists complain the road destroyed fifty saltpans, disturbed centres of animal activity and was built of contaminated waste materials. Nor is this the only concern: as many as five oil companies are operating inside the park, and the threat of new roads, waste dumping, destruction and contamination is never very far away. The damage hasn’t only been environmental; Waorani living in and around the reserve have persistently suffered from malicious interference, as some oil companies continue to exploit community divisions, bribe leaders, spoil hunting grounds and pollute water supplies.
Eating in Papallacta is bound to involve fresh trout from the nearby fish farms and lakes. The best and most expensive restaurant is at the Termas de Papallacta, which has a dining room in the bathing complex and in the main hotel, and serves excellent food, with much of the fresh produce grown in their organic vegetable garden. For a cheaper feed, try the Hostería Pampa Llacta, whose trout is fresh out of its own pond, or the popular Choza de Don Wilson at La Y de Papallacta, where the well-prepared trout and chicken staples come with good views of the valley and a lively atmosphere.
In February 1541, when a band of 200 Spaniards, 4000 indígenas and thousands of assorted horses, dogs and pigs set out from Quito to explore new lands to the east, few of them could have expected that some of their party would end up making the first recorded descent of the Amazon – a journey of over 6000km down part of the largest river system in the world.
They were led by Gonzalo Pizarro, younger brother of the ruthless Francisco (the conqueror of the Incas), and soon joined by Captain Francisco de Orellana. He had won honour as a young man – and lost an eye – in the battles of Lima and Cusco, and at thirty years old was still hungry for adventure.
Even before the expedition had left the mountains, hundreds of indígenas had died in the freezing passes, and as they descended into the uncharted forests, they were running desperately low on food. By Christmas, the group had travelled around 400km from Quito, when they stumbled across the Río Coca. Having eaten all their pigs and most of their dogs, they decided their only choice was to build a boat and send a vanguard led by Orellana downstream in search of food. Orellana never made it back to his leader and the waiting men – a failure which saw him branded a traitor for centuries afterwards.
The captain had a group of sixty men, some weapons and a few supplies, but within a couple of weeks they were “eating hides, straps and the soles of their shoes cooked with certain herbs” and forest roots which poisoned them “to the point of death”. Worse still, the river (they’d now entered the Napo) had become so fast-moving they knew they wouldn’t be able to go back upstream, and they were carried down into territory where war drums raged on either side of the river. Yet Orellana was a great diplomat as well as soldier and, unlike most conquistadors, he was well versed in indigenous languages and picked new ones up with prodigious speed, an ability that saved his life many times on his journey. Here, instead of fighting, he embraced a local chief and gave him European clothes, receiving an abundance of partridges, turkeys and fish in return.
Before long, over 1000km from Pizarro’s camp, their only concern was to stay alive. By June 1542, they reached the Río Negro (near what is now Manaus), naming it after its deep-black waters. News of their presence spread before them, and they came across empty villages with decapitated heads nailed to posts in warning.
A fierce tribe of warrior-women – whom they named Amazons, after the female warriors of Greek mytholody – then attacked them. The chronicler of the journey, Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, described how the Spanish boats looked like “porcupines” after their shots rained down; the friar himself lost an eye in the exchange. Although these women were never spotted again, it has been hypothesized they were male warriors from the Yagua tribe, who sport pale yellow, grass-style skirts and headgear. On August 26, 1542, the expedition finally came to the mouth of the world’s greatest river and named it Orellana, though it soon became known as Amazonas, after the tribe.
Orellana returned to Spain in May 1543 but set out for the river again in December 1545. The ill-equipped expedition lost a ship and more than 220 men before reaching South America. As they entered the Amazon estuary, they’d already run out of food and the remaining ships became separated on the rough tidal waters. Orellana died from illness and grief in November 1546, finally defeated by the river that had brought him fame.
There are several relatively straightforward half-day hikes around Baeza – all with good birding potential – that let you make the most of its hillside location. The IGM 1:50,000 Baeza map is a good resource; you may also need rubber boots if it’s been raining, as trails can get very muddy. To access the best local trails, start from the right-hand side of the church in the old town and take the road heading up through the pastureland. About 700m on, you’ll reach a bridge at a fork in the path. If you continue right without crossing the bridge, you follow the Río Machángara up an increasingly thickly forested hill to the southwest. The left fork over the bridge takes you up to the mountain ridge overlooking Baeza. Roughly 1km later, this latter track splits again. The steep, muddy branch to the right leads up through lush forest to some antennas on top of the hill, affording spectacular views of Baeza and the Quijos valley. The other branch continues along the mountain ridge, also with great views, but further along the forest gets very dense and the trail hard to find, so if you attempt this route it’s worthwhile seeking out a guide, which will cost around $20 a day; try Rodrigo Morales (t 06/2320467) or ask at Gina’s restaurant in Baeza. You can loop down from the mountain ridge round on a trail leading back to Nueva Andalucía.
LAGO AGRIO, once a marginal outpost on the frontiers of the jungle and the country, has become the black, pumping heart of Ecuador’s oil industry; it’s a city so important that in 1989 it was made the capital of the new province of Sucumbíos. Lojanos looking for a new life in the Oriente founded the settlement (whose official name is Nueva Loja) only a few decades ago, but in the late 1960s it was used by Texaco as a base for oil exploration, and soon after took its nickname from Sour Lake in Texas, the company’s original headquarters.
Oil remains Lago Agrio’s raison d’être, although the basic infrastructure of hotels, paved roads and transport links the industry brought have given tourism a foothold – largely in the form of an access point for visits to the vast, forested expanse of the Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno, one of the Oriente’s most beautiful and diverse.
Lago Agrio has a hot and bustling centre along its main street, Avenida Quito, where its high-fronted buildings seem a little grandiose for a hard-edged frontier town. A couple of blocks to the north, Lago’s central park, fronted by a simple church, is about the only gesture to greenery you’ll find. Outside Lago, the signs of rapid colonization and oil exploitation are all too clear – oil pipelines crisscross a bulldozed landscape, where only a few sad scraps of forest remain from the sea of vegetation that once surrounded the town.
Around 15,000 Cofán lived in this area when Texaco arrived, but disease and displacement made them among the worst-hit by the industry; they now number only a few hundred, squeezed into five small communities, three of which are in the forests on the Río Aguarico. At Lago’s Sunday market, between avenidas Quito and Amazonas, some Cofán come wearing traditional dress – a long tunic and sometimes a headdress for the men, and colourful blouses, skirts and jewellery for the women – to trade their produce and craftwork, including hammocks, bags and occasionally necklaces made from animal teeth, iridescent insects or birds’ beaks. Artesanías Huarmi Huankurina (“United Women”), 12 de Febrero 267 and 10 de Agosto (Tues–Sun, but irregular hours), and Artesanías Cofán (irregular hours), Jorge Añasco and Vicente Narváez, also sell crafts from the region’s indigenous communities, including hammocks, bags, ceramics and blowpipes.
Oil has been mined in Ecuador since 1917, but it wasn’t until Texaco struck rich with sites around Lago Agrio sixty years later that the Oriente really figured in the industry. Oil currently accounts for over forty percent of Ecuador’s export income, dominating the economy but making it vulnerable to global price fluctuations. When its value fell in the 1980s, the government signed away increasingly larger areas of the Oriente to oil production to make up for the lost revenue; today, virtually all of the Ecuadorian Amazon is available for oil extraction, even indigenous territories and protected areas. The law states that whatever the land’s designation, the oil and minerals below belong to the state, which can grant concessions for their extraction as it sees fit. The economy’s thirst for oil has been satisfied at considerable cost to the environment.
The damage begins with prospecting; in a typical search, over a thousand helicopter sites are cleared and hundreds of seismic tests destroy thousands of acres of forest. During drilling, waste oil products are collected in filthy pits laced with toxic metals that contaminate surrounding river systems; when work is finished they’re covered under a thin layer of earth and left to continue polluting. Roads are built, unlocking the forest to colonizers who deforest large areas of unsuitable land for farming which quickly becomes degraded. Oil transportation is also hazardous; breaks in Ecuador’s pipelines have resulted in around seventeen million gallons of oil pouring into the environment – a fraction of the amount dumped as waste, thought to be many billions of gallons.
The toll on local populations has been horrific. In the north, the Cofán, Siona and Secoya have been languishing since their rivers were polluted beyond use, forcing them to overhunt the forests and move to the cities to find work in unskilled and poorly paid jobs, sometimes, ironically, in dangerous oil clean-up work. Other indigenous groups have been victims of aggressive and divisive corporate tactics: leaders are bought off or villages are bribed with cash and promises to build schools and medical centres (while neighbouring and similarly affected settlements are offered nothing) to obtain permission for oil exploration. When these tactics fail, strong-arm methods – intimidation, restriction of movement, paramilitary activity – have sometimes been used. Toxic discharges have also been linked to dramatic increases in rates of cancer, miscarriages, skin complaints and birth defects. A Harvard medical team found unusually high incidences of eight types of cancer in areas affected by oil activity.
Indigenous opposition to the oil companies has become better organized. In 1993 and 2003, a lawsuit was filed against Texaco on behalf of 30,000 indigenous people, who claim their land or health has been affected by the company allegedly dumping toxic waste-water into Oriente river systems between 1964 and 1992. It’s estimated it will cost $6 billion to clean up the 18 billion gallons of toxic waste the company is alleged to have dumped – thirty times greater than the amount of crude spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster. At the time of writing, the case was ongoing. Some indigenous groups are opting for direct action. In 2005 protestors forced Petroecuador, the state-owned oil company, to cease crude oil production for a week, and in 2006 to shut down the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil pipeline for several days. The concerted efforts of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku in Pastaza have so far successfully thwarted the attempts of an oil company to drill on its territory. Other communities of the Shuar, Achuar and Záparo have also managed to organize resistance.
It’s an uphill battle for indigenous peoples to protect their land. Ecuador is thought to be losing as much as 2000 square kilometres of forest per year, proportionally the continent’s highest rate. According to US and government figures, Ecuador’s oil reserves will be exhausted in just a few years; if the destruction continues at the current rate conservationists predict the Ecuadorian Amazon will be completely deforested within thirty years.
TENA (500m), the Oriente’s largest and most important town for the best part of the last hundred years, is also by far the most agreeable of the region’s three big towns, with plenty for visitors to see and do.
This is one of the best centres for community ecotourism in the Oriente, where you can easily arrange a stay with local Kichwa families, mostly in nearby villages easily reached by road or river. Tena sits at the head of the Napo basin, where a huge number of tributaries converge to produce a cluster of river rapids, waterfalls, mountain streams, and sand and pebble beaches, allowing for a host of aquatic activities. A tour from Tena is bound to involve at least one of swimming, climbing up brooks, bathing in waterfalls or tubing, not to mention whitewater rafting and kayaking, for which the town is rapidly becoming internationally famous, thanks to the scores of runs, from Class I to Class V, all within easy striking distance. A sizeable kayaking contingent already comes to Tena during the northern hemisphere’s off season in December and January.
Within sight of the Andean foothills and cooled off by its two rivers, Tena enjoys a slightly fresher climate than its oil-town rivals, Coca and Lago Agrio, and its longer, calmer history lends it a more established and civilized atmosphere. The northern half of Tena is the oldest part, with narrow streets, a modest cathedral fronting the central park, and the post and phone offices. It’s also the quieter half, as most of the traffic is routed around it and over a bridge to the main thoroughfare, Avenida 15 de Noviembre, that divides the more sprawling southern half of the town. The bus terminal stands at the less attractive southern fringes of town, so don’t be put off by first impressions.
Locals, a mixture of mestizos and Kichwas, often relax on the city’s river beaches – strips of sand or pebbles at the water’s edge – or amble around the pleasant Parque Amazónico La Isla, reached by a wooden thatched-roofed footbridge over the Río Pano about 200m south of the main pedestrian bridge. It’s not actually an island but the wooded tip of a patch of land at the confluence of the rivers. A high observation tower overlooks the treetops and town, and self-guided paths meander through botanical greenery past caged animals recovering from injury and abuse, to swimming spots along the river.
The Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno, one of Ecuador’s largest reserves, encompasses over six thousand square kilometres of rainforest, holding the Río Cuyabeno basin and much of the watershed of the lower Río Aguarico as far as the Peruvian border. Protecting areas with species that survived the last ice age, Cuyabeno harbours abundant birdlife with 494 recorded species (a number that continues to grow) and a staggering 228 tree species per hectare. The reserve also contains a huge network of lakes and lagoons, including fourteen major interconnected bodies of water and large areas of inundated forest. Among them are two main black-water lake systems: the Cuyabeno Lakes, which include the Laguna Cuyabeno and Laguna Grande, and Lagartococha, at the eastern end of the reserve bordering Peru. In contrast to the nutrient-rich whitewater rivers originating in the Andes, black-water rivers typically form where there is little soil sediment and generally originate in the Amazon basin itself; the water takes on a dark tea-like colour from the vegetable humus that falls into it, which also makes it very acidic and rich in tannins. Some people come to the reserve specifically to see its aquatic wildlife, such as pink freshwater dolphins, turtles, black caiman, anaconda, manatee, giant otters, countless colourful frogs and toads and 450 species of fish.
The boundaries of the reserve have changed since its creation in 1979, particularly following major incursions by oil companies and settlers into the western areas around Tarapoa. The governments of the time largely ignored this destruction, but in 1991, after considerable pressure from international agencies and CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), a vast tract of land on the eastern side was added, almost tripling the size of the reserve. While the reserve is now less accessible to colonizers and far better protected by politically active indigenous communities (including Kichwa, Cofán, Secoya, Siona and Shuar), who are struggling to defend their cultures and territory against oil company encroachment, oil extraction is still causing problems through toxic waste and spills that have drained into the Cuyabeno basin.
There are plenty of good hikes in the hills around Papallacta, but take a compass and the IGM 1:50,000 map for Papallacta; it’s notoriously easy to get lost in the featureless páramo, which is often wet, cold and, between June and August, snowy. The best time to come is from October to February, but you’ll need warm clothes and waterproofs year round. The Fundación Terra at the head of the valley above Las Termas de Papallacta manages three short and easy trails nearby (1–4hr), including their self-guided Sendero de la Isla ($2) along the Río Papallacta, and offers horse rides depending on the weather ($6 per hour). For more serious hikes and treks in the Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca to the north of town, talk to someone at the Fundación Ecológica Rumicocha (w www.rumicocha.org.ec), which has an office on Papallacta’s Calle Principal and is responsible for managing this part of the reserve. It offers hiking tours using either tents or its two refuges, which are small but comfortable and heated by open fires, and can provide guides for $15 a day, plus $13 per person for the reserve entrance fee and support for the foundation.
One of the longer walks begins by heading up the main road toward Quito for 2km to the slender Laguna Papallacta, disfigured at its eastern end by a promontory of lava. This is the northern tip of a six-kilometre lava flow running all the way up the Río Tumiguina valley, the remnants of Volcán Antisana’s eruption of 1773. A moderate to strenuous trail traverses the flow, passing some small lakes before ending at the larger Laguna Tuminguina, a full day’s hike from town. Another day-walk is over the waterlogged páramo of the Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca from the antennas above the Papallacta Pass down to the thermal springs, giving you the best of this bleak landscape: undulating hills, windswept grasses and silent, mist-laden lakes, with perhaps the occasional glimpse of such creatures as the South American fox, the white-tailed deer, the carunculated caracara, the plumbeous sierra finch and the Ecuadorian hillstar, a high-altitude hummingbird.