Amazon Basin

Overview

Introduction

East of the Andean highlands, Ecuador becomes jungle—a place of lowland rain forest cut by hundreds of waterways. The Amazon River itself is farther east, in what's now Peru, but the major rivers of eastern Ecuador, including the Napo, are tributaries of the Amazon. Ecuadorans often refer to the region as El Oriente—the East. It offers adventurous travelers some great opportunities to experience the rich plant and animal life of the tropical rain forest, and is also the most accessible region in any of the countries that share the basin (because of infrastructure built by the oil industry). Among the thousands of examples of flora and fauna found there are hundreds of species of birds (macaws, parrots, toucans), anacondas, monkeys, piranha, jaguars, caimans (crocodiles), freshwater dolphins, mahogany trees, giant kapok (or ceiba) trees and many huge palms.

Like rain forests the world over, the Oriente is rapidly being diminished, and the oil reserves found in the region have greatly accelerated this process. Visitors have to travel far into the wilds to get to pristine areas that are still rich in wildlife. A trip of at least four days is recommended, although travelers who want a quick, inexpensive look at the jungle can catch the bus to Misahualli and take one of the local river or hiking tours.

We also recommend visiting the Oriente as part of a guided tour: Public transport is sporadic and in some places nonexistent, and having the expertise of a knowledgeable guide will add a lot to your visit. Even on a tour, you're likely to spend a full day traveling to the jungle from Quito—by air and then overland—and a full day returning. Much of your journey will be spent on a boat (usually large canoes with outboard motors): Rivers are the principal form of transportation in the Oriente.

You can choose from a variety of tour experiences that run the gamut of comfort and expense. At the upper end of the scale are several remote but well-appointed jungle lodges that come complete with meals and nature guides. Also comfortable and more affordable is the Manatee Amazon Explorer, a two-tiered yacht that makes a great base for exploring the jungle (phone 336-0887; http://www.manateeamazonexplorer.com). If possible, choose a tour that gives you the opportunity to spend a lot of time within the rain forest: The jungle becomes much more impressive once you leave the wide rivers behind and pass into the wild tangle of greenery. In some areas, boardwalks have been built to keep you up out of the water and mud. Often jungle lodges provide rain gear and tall rubber boots to guests.

Taking a ride in a nonmotorized boat along one of the smaller waterways in the Oriente is also highly recommended: It greatly increases your chance of seeing wildlife. If you make such a journey after dusk, you'll have the unforgettable experience of gliding through darkness surrounded by the sounds of the jungle. Those flitting shapes darting past will likely be fishing bats. Night hikes are similarly rich in wildlife and other-worldly experiences.

The Amazon Basin also offers the opportunity to learn about some unique human communities: Several Amerindian groups in the region continue to practice elements of their traditional lifestyles, though they do make use of modern devices such as guns and boat motors. Some have become active in the movement to conserve Ecuador's rain forest—their traditional hunting grounds. Not all communities welcome visits from outsiders, but others are finding tourism to be a valuable source of income. One of these is the Cofan community (phone 247-4763; http://www.cofan.org) in the northeast corner of Reserva Ecologica Cayambe-Coca. Visitors can stay in a traditional Cofan dwelling, witness demonstrations of hunting and cooking practices and take a jungle walk with a Cofan guide who identifies medicinal plants and their uses. Handicrafts (blowguns, necklaces, string bags) made by members of the community are also available. Another tribe active in tourism is the Achuar, who operate the Kapawi Lodge and Ecological Reserve in the pristine southeastern Oriente (phone 600-9333; http://www.kapawi.com).

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