Indigenous communities in the jungles of Ecuador still practice ancient social customs and traditions.
In contrast with the neighboring highlands, the Amazon Basin of Ecuador extends like a green carpet from the foot of the Andes to the borders of Colombia and Peru, encompassing several towns and villages in between. Within and around the huge protected areas of the Amazon Rain Forest, several indigenous ethnic groups coexist side by side while still observing their original traditions and distinct customs. Because of abundant rainfall and high humidity, the flora and fauna of this region is quite exuberant.
Six provinces share this warm tropical environment: Morona-Santiago, Napo, Orellana, Pastaza, Sucumbios and Zamora-Chinchipe. According to studies conducted by anthropologists and historians, the Amazon Forest was inhabited by humans as early as 10,000 B.C., and because this area was isolated from the rest of the world until recently, the societies changed very little over time. People living in the Amazon include the Quichuas, the predominant group related to the Andean people; the Shuar, the Achuar and the Huaronis, who are nomads and have maintained their traditional way of life and cultural beliefs practically unchanged; and the Siona-Secoya and Cofan people, who live near the border with Colombia.
Ecotourism is paramount in this region, and participation from the indigenous communities is strong. At present over a dozen projects are in progress involving traditional settlements that host tourists and teach them how to prepare traditional foods. In addition, local tour operators offer organized tours, which include long walks through the rainforest accompanied by local guides, and boat journeys on the Napo and Curaray rivers.
Other intriguing destinations are the Fatima Reserve in Puyo, the nearby Omaere Ethno-Botanical Park and the Hola Vida Reserve, which offer visitors the opportunity to explore the flora and fauna of the region as well as experience the customs of the local indigenous communities. Several of them host tourists in their own homes or in cabins constructed for that purpose. These settlements are authentic, not replicas built solely for tourists. All activities and tours with the indigenous population can be booked in advance with several travel agencies based in Tena, the capital of the Napo province, or in Quito.
In addition to experiencing life with some of the indigenous communities, visitors will find a wide choice of eco-lodges in the Ecuadorian Amazon. A growing number of jungle lodges were established in recent years, offering accommodations that range from basic to upscale.
The Cuyabeno Fauna Production Reserve in Sucumbios – one of the region’s most biologically rich areas – is located between the San Miguel and Aguarico river basins. Lakes, rivers, and tropical forests are home to countless species of insects, reptiles, and aquatic life, including the alligator-like caiman. The Cuyabeno reserve is generally reached by boat on the Aguarico or Cuyabeno river. Trips to the reserve can be arranged in nearby Lago Agrio (Nueva Loja) and other towns and cities such as Quito and Baños. Also worth exploring, is the Limoncocha Biological Reserve. Its main attractions are its forests, inhabited by spectacular wildlife that counts up to 350 rare species. Limoncocha is easily reached from Lago Agrio.
Towns and Villages
Puyo features a well-developed tourism infrastructure and boasts a wonderful cuisine, which consists primarily of fish and palm hearts, sanchocho, empanadas and yucca bread. The Cathedral and Parque Central are the center points of the town’s social life. The town of Mera, an important oil exploration center, is also of interest due to its large natural pool and bathing areas along the Alpayacu River. Mera also features scenic beaches along the Pastaza and Chico rivers, and spectacular falls at Mangayacu, Tigre and Quilo. Travelers can also visit caves located in the May 24th municipal district and walk to the Pindo Lookout.
Archidona, one of the region’s first Spanish settlements, dating back to the 16th century, is located about eight miles to the north of Tena. Archidona has spots of astonishing natural beauty, such as the Hollin Waterfall. Other important towns in the area are Zamora (founded in 1541) and Baeza (1558). From the Hola Vida Reserve, it is possible to reach the Quichuas’ sacred waterfall. The Indichuris community allows visitors the opportunity to participate in rituals with a rainforest shaman. In Napo, just a few minutes from Tena, you’ll find shamans who practice these ancestral traditions. They live in the community of Oriente Quichuas (Venecia Derecha). To reach these communities and participate in the rituals, clients must be accompanied by a knowledgeable indigenous guide from a nearby village. This can be arranged through a local operator based in the area or in Quito.
The Newest Province in the Amazon
Orellana is the youngest province in Ecuador. It was created in 1999, and has four cantons. Orellana, rich in oil and wood, offers beautiful scenery, and a wealth of flora and fauna. It borders Sucumbios to the north, Pastaza to the south, Peru to the east and Napo to the west. The province’s main inhabitants are the Huaorani and Quichas. The province has large, wide rivers, dense tropical rain forests, huge natural reserves and a large concentration of indigenous communities. The colorful streets of Francisco de Orellana, the province’s capital, are full with artisans who create and sell their crafts. They have immigrated to the area from all over the country to practice their trade. The indigenous population, on the other hand, maintains the traditional lifestyle they have brought from the jungle. Boats depart from this port to Iquitos, Peru; Puerto Leticia, Colombia; and Tabatinga Belon in Brazil. This fascinating river journey through the dense forest flanking the Napo River is enlivened by the sounds of the jungle.
In contrast, Morona-Santiago in southeastern Ecuador is rich in prehistoric flora that dates back to the Jurassic period. Plants harboring interesting wildlife are found in El Condor Park where 127 different types of mammals thrive in this sheltered area. The park is located to the east of both the western highlands and the Huaracayo highlands mountain range, which is the source of the Zamora, Santiago, Coangos and Namangoza rivers.
The Sangay ruins, which date back to sometime between 3000 and 3400 B.C., are also found in this province. The archeological site is a complex of fountains, roads and pyramids, which are vestiges of one of Ecuador’s oldest cultures. Towering above the jungle, nearly 27 miles from the provincial capital, the still-active Volcano Sangay is an imposing sight.
Eco-Excursion and Adventure Sports
The most popular sports in the Amazon are rafting and kayaking in the crystal clear waters of the rivers. Along the Napo, Misal and Calmitoyacu rivers, near the 16th century town of Archidona, there are underground tunnels and impressive caves, which can be explored on tours offered by several eco-lodges in the area. In Tena, several tour operators can arrange for rafting through calm waters or white water rapids. Fishing trips can also be arranged. A spectacular parrot lick at the edge of the Yasuni Park can be reached on the Napo River. Here hundreds of parrots of different species gather early in the morning (if the weather is sunny and dry) on an exposed clay riverbank. Recently, the park service has set up blinds that permit visitors to watch the parrots at close range. At any time, hikers may cross paths with a family of monkeys, a three-toed sloth, an anteater or an ocelot enjoying its natural habitat. In addition, many eco-lodges in the Amazon offer intriguing walks through the jungle that lead to fabulous spots day and night. Try a night excursion on the river to watch for caimans (cousins of the alligator) from your boat. Search the black waters with a flashlight to spot pairs of shining eyes slowly moving through the surface.
Several different boas, vine snakes and a variety of lizards as well as tiny frogs have been seen during day excursions. Not to worry however, these jungle inhabitants are scared of humans and promptly shy away. Bird watching is outstanding in this part of the world. Spectators can admire countless rare species from dramatic hanging bridges, watch towers, or just from the jungle floor. Horned Screamers, Muscovy Ducks, Pavonine Quetzals, Buckley’s Forest Falcons, Sapphire Quail-doves, several kinds of egrets and herons are just a few of the many birds spotted here. Adding to this kaleidoscope of color, thousands of butterflies can be observed, either free in the jungle or in special butterfly houses. For details, visit www.kapawi.com or www.sachalodge.com.
Shopping for Handicrafts
In Puerto Bolivar, in the province of Sucumbios, the indigenous Siona community produces handicrafts such as baskets, crowns, shigras (natural-fiber bags), and hammocks. Other popular handicrafts of the area are necklaces made of seeds and fired ceramics finished with vegetable paints.
In the province of Napo, several artisan markets offer crafts such as fiber bags, hammocks, ceramics, arrows, bows, spears, knives and more. Puyo, the capital of the province of Pastaza, also has many artisan shops. This trade is so highly acknowledeged in this town, that their most important monument, the Macahua, is dedicated to the region’s artisans. There are also many handicraft stores in Macas, located in the province of Morona-Santiago, and in Zamora, in the province of Chinchipe