the Traveler's Ecuador Companion © The
Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced with permission.
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
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).
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
GUARDIANS OF THE FOREST
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
America Explorers trip reports in Quito for recommendations.