The Oriente is the huge area of rainforest east of the Andes that makes up nearly half the country’s geographical area, although only 5 percent of Ecuador ’s population lives here, and few of the other 95 percent have much interest in visiting, opting for beaches, spas, and mountain lakes over bug-infested rainforest treks.
For intrepid explorers, though, the idea of being up the Amazon, ideally with a paddle, is irresistible. If this is your first visit to South America, you would be missing an unforgettable experience by not venturing into the continent’s breathtaking Amazon landscapes, teeming with wildlife such as playful pink dolphins and parakeets along with less-than-playful alligators and anacondas.
Canoe rides through seemingly endless tributaries, bird-watching at the top of the 50-meter-high forest canopy, adrenaline-pumping night walks to tarantula holes, and a blowgun shooting class with indigenous people are but a few of the experiences that await you in this land where time seems to have stood still.
The wild landscapes and indigenous people of the rainforest lay undisturbed for centuries until 1542, when a certain Spaniard, Francisco de Orellana, embarked on his ambitious, ill-fated journey in search of the gold of Eldorado. Many explorers and missionaries followed in later years, only to come back empty-handed or else end up as shrunken heads.
The Spanish quest for gold was replaced in the 20th century by the quest for the black gold of petroleum. Since its discovery in the 1960s, more and more people have been drawn to rapidly growing rainforest towns such as Coca and Lago Agrio. Enormous environmental damage has been done, and lawsuits by affected indigenous communities are still ongoing. At present, battle lines are being drawn between oil companies, who want to exploit untapped oil fields, and ecologists and local indigenous groups, who want the rainforest to be left in peace.
While head-shrinking practices are thankfully a thing of the past, many indigenous people have hung on to their traditions and continue to live in large reservations in remote sections of the rainforest, attempting to withstand outside pressures to drill on their land. Throughout the region, Kichwa words on maps show the influence of the Lowland Kichwa, who inhabit the foothills and forests in western Napo and northern Pastaza Provinces.
Also in the north are pockets of Siona-Secoya and Cofán. The Huaorani have a huge reserve in central Napo Province and spill over into Yasuní National Park . To the south, the Shuar and Achuar continue to live in isolation, although their ancestral lands were divided by the decades-long border dispute with Peru, which ended in 1998.
Tours deep into indigenous territory can be organized with time and effort, as can cheaper, more easygoing excursions to communities closer to the main towns.
The rivers are the highways in the Oriente, and once you reach the literal end of the road, the only way to travel is on the waters of the Ríos Coca and Aguarico, which run into the larger Río Coca, flowing all the way to Peru, where it joins the Amazon.