Ecuador’s southern Oriente is less developed than its northern counterpart in every way, with fewer roads, fewer towns, fewer tourists and less oil activity. The region’s two main population centres are Puyo, the provincial capital of Pastaza, and Macas, 129km further south, capital of the province of Morona-Santiago. Settlement by colonists is largely confined to a long, thin strip flanking the Troncal Amazónica (the Amazon highway), which runs from north to south through the region, in the selva alta, parallel with the eastern flank of the Andes. This road, mostly paved between Puyo and Limón, is virtually the only road in the southern Oriente, with access east into the heart of the tropical rainforest possible only by boat along the numerous rivers coiling through the forest, or by chartered light aircraft. Indigenous groups – principally the Kichwa in Pastaza, the Shuar in Morona-Santiago and pockets of Achuar in the east – communally own most of this territory.
Tourism in the southern Oriente is considerably less evolved than in the north; with the exception of the luxurious Kapawi Ecolodge, close to the Peruvian border, you’ll find none of the fancy lodges and cabañas of the kind scattered up the Río Napo. Instead, the southern Oriente has excellent opportunities for culturally focused ecotourism, offered by tour operators based in Puyo and Macas in association with host indigenous groups. In Puyo, the Organización de Pueblos Indígenas de Pastaza (OPIP) has developed a variety of programmes opening up tracts of rainforest and local communities to visitors. In Macas, which has more tour operators, guides take tourists on multi-day trips to remote Shuar communities, often with an emphasis on learning about their customs, mythology and healing rituals, while exploring the jungle.
The main route into the southern Oriente is the hundred-kilometre road from the serrano city of Ambato down to Puyo, from where you can branch south to Macas or north to Tena. A less-serviced alternative is the controversial new road from Guamote (south of Riobamba) to Macas, traversing Parque Nacional Sangay on one of the most scenic routes to the lowland east. There are also direct daily flights from Quito to Macas.
MACAS, 129km south of Puyo, is the most appealing town in the southern Oriente, mainly for its pleasant climate, laid-back atmosphere and beautiful views onto the surrounding countryside. While there are a few worthwhile sights in and around town, Macas is best visited as a base for organizing excursions into the hinterlands to the east.
A good place to take in the lie of the land is on the steps of the modern, concrete cathedral on the Parque Central, giving views across the low roofs of the town onto the eastern flanks of the sierra; on very clear days you can see the smouldering cone of Volcán Sangay, some 40km northwest. Behind the cathedral, the shelf on which Macas is built drops abruptly down to the Río Upano whose restless waters curl around the eastern edge of the town. For the best views eastwards, head five blocks north from the cathedral to the Parque Recreacional, a small, pretty space with a mirador looking down to the seemingly endless blanket of vegetation, stretching into the horizon in a fuzzy green haze. In the foreground, just across the river, you can see the whitewashed buildings of Sevilla-Don Bosco, a Salesian mission station with a handsome church, about a 45-minute walk from town. Back in the centre, the Museo Arqueológico y Cultural de Morona Santiago (Mon–Fri 9am–noon & 2–4.30pm; free) is on the top floor of the Casa de la Cultura at 10 de Agosto and Soasti. It has a fascinating display of Shuar artefacts, including feather adornments, headdresses made of animal heads, blowpipes, basketwork, large clay funerary urns traditionally used to bury dead children and a replica of a tsanta (shrunken head). There are good artesanías at the Fundación Chunkuap’ shop on the corner of Bolívar and Soasti, which sells items local Achuar communities make, including ceramics, woven baskets and bags and blowpipes.
Outside town, the Fundación Rescate Fauna Silvestre Eden is an animal rescue centre where tapirs, peccaries, turtles, boas and parrots, among others, are all cared for. It’s a short walk north of Proaño, a village that can be reached by a bus ride from Macas (hourly; 15min).
Seventy-nine kilometres south of Tena, and by far the biggest urban centre in the southern Oriente, PUYO bears out its name (derived from the Kichwa word for “cloudy”) and seems to be permanently suffused with a grey, insipid light that gives the town a gloomy air. Founded in 1899 by Dominican missionaries, very little remains of its traditional timber architecture, and these days most of the city’s buildings are modern and concrete. Although not particularly appealing in its own right, Puyo does boast several attractions on its outskirts, most notably the fabulous Jardín Botánico Las Orquídeas. It also serves as a convenient launchpad for a range of jungle tours, commonly to the Fundación Ecológica Hola Vida, a tract of secondary rainforest 27km south of town, and to the site of Indi Churis, a further 7km south, to meet local Kichwa families. Puyo is also the transport hub of the southern Oriente, with frequent bus connections north to Tena and Coca, south to Macas and west to Baños and Ambato, in the sierra.
Sitting near the coiling Río Puyo’s southern banks, Puyo’s focal point is the manicured Parque Central, featuring a paved esplanade dotted with flowering trees, ornamental lampposts and a red-roofed bandstand from where you’re treated to fine views onto the surrounding countryside. Towering over the east side of the square is the modern, angular cathedral, with flashing white walls trimmed in brown. There’s little else to grab your attention in town, save the Museo Etno-Arqueológico, located on the third floor of the Casa de la Juventud, at Atahualpa and 9 de Octubre. Displays include traditional day-to-day objects used by indigenous communities of the region, such as blowpipes, cane spears, fishing nets, musical instruments, and mucahuas used to drink chicha out of, along with a modest archeological collection of pre-Hispanic ceramics and tools.
At the north end of 9 de Octubre, a ten-minute walk from the city centre, steps head down to the Río Puyo, snaking between dense foliage and crossed by a rickety suspension bridge leading to the Parque Pedagógico Etno-Botánico Omaere. The park offers a bite-sized chunk of native forest laced with well-maintained paths, along with a medicinal plant nursery and several examples of typical indigenous dwellings of the Shuar, Kichwa and Waorani communities. A visit here can be combined with a leisurely stroll along the Paseo Turístico, a pleasant riverside trail that continues from Omaere for a couple of kilometres as far as the road to Tena. The not-to-be-missed Jardín Botánico Las Orquídeas (t03/884855, http://www.jardinbotanicolasorquideas.com/en/), located in the suburb of Intipungo, southeast of the centre, is an outstanding private botanical garden, with over two hundred species of native Amazonian orchids poking out of a lush tangle of vegetation spread over a couple of hills. Visitors are guided through the garden by its enthusiastic owner and creator, Omar Tello, who points out the tiniest and most exquisite flowers hiding under the foliage; at a brisk pace you could get round most of the paths in an hour, but allow at least two to get the most out of it. The garden is a five-minute taxi ride ($3) from the centre, or you can take the hourly bus #2 from opposite Cooperativa San Francisco, between Atahualpa and 27 de Febrero.
Another attraction on the outskirts of town, 9km north of Puyo on the road to Tena, is the Zoocriadero El Fátima, a zoo with a mixture of walk-in enclosures where you can pet some of the smaller animals, and large, fenced-off areas mimicking the larger mammals’ natural environment. All the wildlife is from the Oriente, and includes tapirs, capibara, caimans, monkeys, guatusas and many colourful birds. You can get here on any bus to Tena (from Gasolinera Coka), or else by taxi for about $4–5.
The real cheapies in Puyo aren’t too nice, leaving a cluster of fairly unremarkable but comfortable enough hotels, all around the same mid-range price bracket.
The bus station is 1km west of the centre on the road to Baños, from where it’s a short taxi ride ($1) or fifteen-minute walk into town. Some buses drop passengers at the Gasolinera Coka instead, at Avenida 20 de Julio and Cotopaxi, about six blocks north of the centre, also served by plenty of taxis. Downtown Puyo is compact and entirely manageable on foot, but if you need a taxi you’ll find plenty of yellow ones and white camionetas lined up on 9 de Octubre and Atahualpa, charging around $1 for journeys within the town.
For tourist information, head for the Oficina de Turismo (Mon–Fri 8am–12.30pm & 2–6pm; t 03/2885122, w www.pastaza.com) on the first floor of the Municipio, on the corner of 9 de Octubre and Francisco de Orellana. It doesn’t have much by way of maps and brochures, but the staff do have copious files detailing attractions around Puyo and throughout the province of Pastaza. Otherwise, the hotels are a good source of advice. Traveller’s cheques can be cashed at Casa de Cambio Puyo, at Atahualpa and 9 de Octubre. The Banco del Austro, Atahualpa and 10 de Agosto, has a Visa and MasterCard ATM and offers cash advance, while the Banco Pichincha, Francisco de Orellana and Atahualpa, also has an ATM. The telephone office is on Francisco de Orellana and General Villamil, and the post office is on 27 de Febrero and Atahualpa. There are several places around the centre offering internet access for around $1 per hour; try ciber@té opposite Hostal Araucano, or Compu-Business on Atahualpa and 10 de Agosto, which has broadband. The Lavendería La Mocita on the corner of 27 de Febrero and Bolívar launders clothes by the kilo.
There’s not a huge choice of places to eat in Puyo, but in addition to those listed below you could also try the restaurants of the Hostería Turingia and the Amazónico hotel, which are reasonably priced and among the town’s better dining establishments.
Tourism in the Puyo region is still fairly undeveloped, though a number of opportunities for ecotourism have been opening up in recent years, mainly under the initiative of OPIP (Organización de Pueblos Indígenas de Pastaza), an indigenous organization controlling the bulk of Pastaza’s territory. Some of the attractions are open to drop-in visitors, but OPIP prefers tourists to be accompanied by local indigenous guides, available at their associated tour agency, Papangu, or other affiliated operators as listed.
One popular day-tour, usually kicking off with a visit to the Zoocriadero El Fátima, is to the Fundación Hola Vida, a tract of secondary rainforest 27km south of Puyo near the village of Pomona. This can also be visited independently by taxi from Puyo for about $10 each way. On a two- to three-hour hike through the forest, you can visit a stunning thirty-metre waterfall, bathe in crystalline rivers and take in splendid views over the Amazonian plain from a mirador. Tours here often then continue to the nearby Proyecto Indi Churis (t 03/2887309 or t 2887988), where you can sample traditional Oriente dishes like maitos (meat or fish steamed in palm leaves), take part in a blowgun demonstration, participate in an evening cleansing ritual using medicinal plants, hike to a viewpoint and float on a river in a dugout canoe. Your visit can be extended by staying with a local family or sleeping in the project’s cabañas. Independent travellers can get here by taxi ($13), or on one of two daily buses, which also pass Hola Vida, leaving from the stop by the Mercado Mariscal at 6.15am and 1pm (1hr); the last bus returns at 2.30pm.
For a more costly but truly off-the-beaten-track jungle encounter, there are a number of far-flung indigenous communities (Kichwa, Záparo, Shuar, Achuar and Waorani) that have set up ecotourism projects which you can visit by making arrangements with Puyo operators. Many of the villages are reached by light aircraft from Shell, lengthy motor canoe rides with a return trip by plane, or – most adventurous of all – several days’ paddling in a dugout canoe. You’ll need at least four days to make the most of the further communities, even if flying. While facilities are rudimentary, you’ll get guided hikes in pristine forests with true experts and treated to a real insight into authentic rainforest life few outsiders experience.