Planning your trip

Jungle lodges

These complexes are normally located in natural settings away from towns and villages and are in most cases built to blend into the environment through the use of local materials and elements of indigenous design. Some are owned by urban-based nationals or foreigners, have offices in Quito and often deal with national or international travel agencies. Others are joint ventures or owned outright by local communities.

Experiencing the jungle in this way usually involves the purchase of an all-inclusive package in Quito or abroad, including reasonably comfortable accommodation, three good meals a day, and a leisurely programme of guided activities suited to special interests such as birdwatching. Getting to the lodge may involve a long canoe ride, with a longer return journey upstream and perhaps a pre-dawn start. Standards of service are generally high. Most lodges employ well-qualified personnel and claim a high degree of environmental awareness. Many have made some sort of arrangement with neighbouring indigenous communities but their contribution to local employment and the local economy varies.

When staying at a jungle lodge, you will need to take a torch (flashlight), insect repellent, protection against the sun and a rain poncho. Rubber boots are usually provided, but very large sizes may not be available so ask in advance. Note that most lodges count travel days as part of their package, which means that a 'four-day/three-night tour' often spends only two days actually in the rainforest. Most lodges have fixed departure days and it may not be possible to arrange a special departure on another day; check before planning your trip. Bookings can usually be made on the internet and through most Quito agencies.

River cruises

The river cruise experience is substantially different from that of a jungle lodge. It offers a better appreciation of the grandeur of Amazonia, but less intimate contact with life in the rainforest. Passengers sleep and take their meals onboard comfortable river boats designed specifically for tourism, stopping en route to visit local communities and make excursions into the jungle. At present two such vessels sail the Río Napo downstream from Coca. When the water level is low, however, they may only be able to cover part of their usual routes.

Yet another experience may be had using public river transport along the lower Napo, from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte, with connections to Iquitos (Peru). This is much cheaper and less comfortable than a river cruise, and touring opportunities are limited. You can stop at communities along the way but facilities are basic at best. Plenty of time and patience are needed to travel the river in this way.

Guided tours

Guided tours of varying length are offered by tour operators and independent guides. These should, in principle, be licensed by the
Ministerio de Turismo
. Tour companies and guides are mainly concentrated in Quito, Baños, Puyo, Tena, Misahuallí and Coca - and to a lesser extent in Macas and Zamora - where travellers tend to congregate to form or join groups and arrange a jungle tour. In these towns there is always a sufficient number of guides offering a range of tours to suit most needs, but there may be a shortage of tourists for group travel outside the months of July and August. It may therefore take several days to assemble a reasonably sized (and priced) group trip. It may be easier to form a group in Quito or Baños.

When shopping around for a guided tour ensure that the guide or agency specifies the details of the programme, the services to be provided and whether park fees and payments to indigenous communities are included. Be especially wary of cheaper tour agencies and independent guides, some are excellent but we have also received negative reports. Try to get a personal recommendation from a previous customer. Serious breaches of contract can be reported to the
Ministerio de Turismo
, but you should be reasonable about minor details. Most guided tours involve sleeping in simple shelters (open-sided raised platforms) or camping in tents or under plastic sheets.

Community ecotourism

A number of indigenous communities and families offer ecotourism programmes in their territories. These are either community-controlled and operated, or organized as joint ventures between the indigenous community or family and a non-indigenous partner. These programmes usually involve guides who are licensed as
guías nativos
with the right to guide within their communities. Accommodation is typically in simple native shelters of varying quality. Local food may be quite good, but keep an eye on hygiene. A growing number of independent indigenous guides are working out of Puyo, Tena, Macas, Coca and Misahuallí, offering tours to their home communities. You should be prepared to be more self-sufficient on such a trip than on a visit to a jungle lodge or a tour with a high-end operator. Bring rubber boots, a light sleeping bag, rain jacket, trousers (not only shorts), long-sleeve shirt for mosquitoes, binoculars, torch (flashlight), insect repellent, sunscreen and hat, water-purifying tablets, and a first aid kit. Wrap everything in several plastic bags to keep it dry.

Tours without a guide

Though it may seem attractive from a financial point of view, this is not recommended for several reasons. Some native groups prohibit the entry of outsiders to their territory, navigation in the jungle is difficult, and there are a variety of dangerous animals. Additionally, public safety is a concern north of the Río Napo, especially along the Colombian border. For your own safety as well as to be a responsible tourist, the Oriente is not a place to wander off on your own.

Choosing a rainforest

A tropical rainforest is one of the most exciting things to see in Ecuador, but it isn't easy to find a good one. The key is to have realistic expectations and choose accordingly. Think carefully about your interests. If you simply want to relax in nature and see some interesting plants, insects, small birds and mammals, you have many choices, including some that are quite economical and easily accessible. If you want to experience something of the cultures of rainforest people, you must go further. If you want the full experience, with large mammals and birds, you will have to go further still and spend more money, because large creatures have been hunted or driven out of settled areas.

A visit to a rainforest is not like a visit to the Galápagos. The diversity of life in a good rainforest far exceeds that of the Galápagos, but creatures don't sit around and let themselves be seen. Even in the best forests, your experiences will be unpredictable - none of this 'today is Wednesday, time to see sea lions'. A rainforest trip is a real adventure; the only guarantee is that the surprises will be genuine, and hence all the more unforgettable.

There are things that can increase the odds of really special surprises. One of the most important is the presence of a canopy tower or walkway. Even the most colourful rainforest birds are mere specks up in the branches against a glaring sky, unless you are above them looking down. Towers and walkways add an important dimension to bird and mammal watching. A good guide is another necessity. Avoid guides (and lodges) that emphasize medicinal plants over everything else - this usually means that there isn't anything else around to show. If you are interested in exploring indigenous cultures, give preference to a guide from the same ethnic group as the village you will visit.

If you want to see real wilderness, with big birds and mammals, you generally can't go to any lodges you can drive to (an exception at the moment is
Gareno Lodge
). Expect to travel at least a couple of hours in a motorized canoe. Don't stay near villages even if they are in the middle of nowhere. In remote villages people hunt a lot for food, and animals will be scarce. Indigenous villages are no different in this regard; most indigenous groups (except for a very few, such as certain Cofán villages that now specialize in ecotourism) are ruthlessly efficient hunters.

Responsible jungle tourism

Some guides or their boatmen will try to hunt meat for your dinner - don't let them, and report such practices to other tourists and to guidebooks. Don't buy anything made with animal or bird parts. Avoid making a pest of yourself in indigenous villages; don't take photographs or videos without permission, and don't insist. Many native people believe that photographs can steal one's soul. In short, try to minimize your impact on the forest and its people. Also remember when choosing a tour agency or guide, that the cheapest is not the best. What happens is that agencies undercut each other and offer services that are unsafe or harm local communities and the environment. Do not encourage this practice.

A number of
centros de rescate
(wild animal rescue centres) have sprung up in Oriente, ostensibly to prepare captive animals to return to their natural habitats. They are convenient for observing fauna close-up but, while some are genuine, others are really just zoos with small cages.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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