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EL ORIENTE
by Dominic Hamilton and Derek Davies

Some paragraphs extracted from the Traveler's Ecuador Companion © The Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced with permission.

Nobody knows how many species of plants and animals live in the tropical rainforests. Conservative estimates suggest a figure of about 30 million species. But as scientists continue to probe this mysterious and largely unexplored realm, some believe that the figure could be as high as 80 million or more, and that rainforests could account for more than half of life forms on earth.

Roughly speaking, species already accounted for in the rainforest include 80,000 trees; 3,000 land vertebrates; 2,000 freshwater fish; almost half the world's 8,500 species of birds; 1,200 different kinds of butterflies.

Among these diverse life forms, many of them endemic to the region, and some of them endangered, there are all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures: a monkey small enough to sit in the palm of your hand (pigmy marmoset); the world's largest rodent (capybara); the world's biggest snake (anaconda); and the world's noisiest animal (the howler monkey, whose voice can carry as far as 16 km or 10 miles).

Some of our favorite foods come from the Amazon, such as chocolate (cacao), cashews, cayenne pepper and avocado. Many medicinal plants have been found in the rainforest, such as quinine for malaria and curare, used by Amazonian hunters to paralyze prey, and in western medicine as a muscle relaxant during operations and for Parkinson's disease. Hallucinogenic plants, such as ayahuasca, used by shamans in religious and curing rituals, are being studied in the west for possible medical and psychiatric use. Many more such herbs from the rainforest medicine chest are bound to be discovered in the future, as long as the oil industry, miners, loggers and farmers don't destroy it.

GUARDIANS OF THE FOREST

In the Amazon basin, some 200 tribal groups guard a priceless biological heritage contained in an area of about five million square kilometers (almost two million square miles) of tropical forest. Over a period of about 10,000 years, generations of these peoples have lived on the wettest place on earth, which has an average rainfall of 25 cm (100 inches) a year.

In the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon basin, known as El Oriente, there are many such indigenous peoples, totaling an estimated 100,000 people. The biggest groups being the Siona-Sequoia, Cofán, Huaorani, Quichua, Shuar and Achuar. Some of them have only recently been in contact with people outside their forest environment, and it is thought that there are still small groups that continue to be totally isolated. Others, however, have either been in touch with the world outside for years and have adapted to it, or have been destroyed by its alien diseases.

One of the country's most pressing problems is the future of the Oriente, balancing the need for economic growth with human rights and environmental sustainability. To date, the battle has been one by the oil and the logging industries. Ecuador enjoys the grim fate of the Basin's highest rate of deforestation.

THE ROLE OF TOURISM

Tourism can play a part in the protection of these precious forests, and ensure greater autonomy for their people. Revenues from visitors undoubtedly bolster the argument for their protection. With their wages as guides or 'hoteliers,' rainforest people are better placed to fight for their land rights, acquire decent medical care and educate their children in the ways of the Western world.

But the tourism industry has only recently truly begun to improve its sometimes quite negative environmental impact, and to establish more equitable relationships with the Oriente's Indians. Altough Ecuador ranks among the leaders of the continent in ecotourism, visitors can still play a vital role in the process of challenging the tourism industry's tendency to 'green wash' and 'window dress' activities, forcing it to effect actual, substantial changes, whether environmental or social. Even better, they can contact one of the indigenous-run tour operators which have begun to organize their companies in the last years.

Ecuador's northern share of the Amazon Basin was, until recently, probably the most visited by travelers. Thanks to the infrastructure built by oil companies since the 1960s, the region is one of the most accessible in the entire Basin. The country's most luxurious and comfortable lodges are based here, and one of the country's largest wildlife reserves, the Reserva Producción Faunística Cuyabeno. Although pockets of pristine, primary forests remain, much of the Northern Oriente has been irredeemably damaged by the oil industry and colonization. Roads have been built, airstrips cleared, rivers polluted and indigenous people virtually wiped out. Taking time to visit the more remote areas and lodges will therefore prove more rewarding.

As the effects of Plan Colombia increase, with guerrillas and refugees coming over the border, many jungle tours will move their operations further south. Depending how the situation with Ecuador's northern neighbor develops, many lodges will close. It's essential to get up-to-date information from your embassy, or another source, before heading out. Most embassies have discouraged travel to Sucumbíos province since early 2001.

The central part of the Oriente is less explored, and favored by more adventurous or budget travelers. Its main towns of Tena and Puyo have both geared up to tourism over the last years, with Misahuallí west of Tena also becoming an important spring-board. In all three, you'll find competent, often indigenous-run operators who can take you for jungle treks, river trips along the Napo, the Pastaza or one of their tributaries, caving, birding or even white-water rafting. As a rule, the farther away from the settlements and the highway you travel, the more pristine the forest.

From Puyo, the southern Oriente highway bumps and rattles along the eastern foothills of the Andes. Inca gold came from some areas in the Southern Oriente, and gold is still mined in technologically primitive open-sky operations and by ever-hopeful individuals and families. The southern part of the Oriente isn't as popular with tourists as the areas to the north. But for those who like to travel way off-the-beaten track there is the advantage of visiting places where the rare gringo is greeted with more than usual friendliness. The town of Sucúa, south of Macas, is the headquarters of the Shuar Indian federation, from where tours can be arranged to Shuar territory near the Peruvian border.

PRACTICALITIES

If your time is limited and it's within your budget, the easiest way to see something of the Oriente is to buy a package tour from a reputable operator, either in your own country or in Quito. Alternatively, you make enquiries and arrange a tour in Quito, then fly in independently to one of the gateway towns. All of which have hotels, tourist facilities and agents.

In this way you will probably save some money but it will take more time. The least expensive way is to go by bus. Of the four main land routes into the Oriente, the shortest is from Quito over the Papallacta Pass down to Baeza. From this old colonial, but somewhat by-passed, town you can head on to Lago Agrio or Tena. But the bus journey is long, bumpy and uncomfortable, and many people who go out by bus under their own steam decide to fly back.

One of the key factors in choosing a tour is the guide. If possible, meet the guide who will be taking you through the jungle to see if you get along with each other, whether he or she is knowledgeable about the things that interest you and, most importantly, how well you share a common language. Also ask to see the guide's license, as there are many stories of people being cheated by unlicensed guides. And check the terms of the agreement carefully to see what you have and have not paid for. Rubber boots, for instance, an essential item, might not be included in the deal.

Word of mouth can be one of the best ways to find a guide and a good operator. Talk to other travelers and read the comment books kept in hotels and cafés. It's also worth consulting the South America Explorers trip reports in Quito for recommendations.

 
To celebrate the deal, Guide2Galapagos is offering Ecuadorial visitors an exclusive offer: Book a Luxury class yacht with them, and they'll give you THREE AIRPORT TRANSFERS FOR FREE; two for first class and one for tourist-superior. So, what are you waiting for? Check out their highly-informative site. Blue boobies, giant tortoises, sealions and marine iguanas are only a click or two away!

SMALL PRINT: On the request page, you must state you came from Ecuadorial to benefit from the airport transfer offer.
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