When planning a trip to Ecuador, most people would focus their trip around the Galapagos Islands. And while I agree that is the best strategy due to the uniqueness of the islands, one shouldn’t overlook the experience of going into the Amazon jungle. Especially if you have never been before.
On part of a 10 Day Trip to Ecuador, I spent 2 nights in the Amazon near the city of Tena. I was with a tour group (Exoticca) and we stayed at the Suchipakari Lodge. Below I’ll describe my experience in the Ecuadorian Amazon and outline things to consider and expect.
The safest route would be to go by bus with an organized tour. That way you have a driver who is experienced at driving through the country - which can get a little hairy at moments. You also eliminate the possibility of getting lost, having to deal with any car issues, and get to sit back and enjoy the scenery. You will drive up into the cloud forests of the Andes mountains, past valleys and waterfalls, and down into the jungle. Most of the drive was on well maintained highways until you get closer to Tena. Although it is definitely doable to drive there yourself, I would still opt for the bus ride.
How Long to Stay
As is the case with many places known for wildlife viewing, the longer you can stay, the more likely you are to see more wildlife. I would suggest at least 2 nights, with 3-4 being the sweet spot. Remember you are facing a 4-5 hour bus ride in and out of the jungle back to Quito so that has to be factored in, and would make a 1 night stay feel rushed.
Where to Stay
You can choose to explore the jungle from Tena, but I would suggest staying at one of the jungle lodges along the river. I stayed at Suchipakari Lodge and thought the accommodations were great. They had a cool little doubled-storied tiki bar with hammocks and lounge chairs, and a small pool with a view out over the jungle. I didn’t get in the pool but I did frequent the bar. The food was pretty good, the rooms were small but nice, and most importantly it was in a good location to explore the jungle.
The city of Tena has become popular with backpackers due to inexpensive lodging and discounted tour rates.The city is surrounded by jungle and sits at the edge of the Andes Mountains. The city square was busy with locals dining, buying food, and just passing through and socializing. We even saw some members of an indigenous tribe selling handmade jewelry.
My preferred choice would be to stay at a jungle lodge on the river so I can put myself right in the heart of the jungle.
What To Do
Different lodges will offer different excursions, and if you are with a tour company they will most likely have options for you to choose from. Here were some of the activities I experienced in the Amazon:
-Night Walk - Walking around the jungle at night can be both a nightmare and a dream, depending on your mindset. The big insects come out at night, and we saw no shortage of them. Our guide gave us an easy walking tour through the jungle on the property of the lodge. He used a flashlight to locate several nocturnal species including tree frogs, a baby tarantula, a giant cockroach, and a plethora of spiders. Expect to see similar wildlife on a night walk in the jungle.
-Visit Local Families - Both times I’ve been to the Amazon, the most underrated experiences I’ve had have been visiting with local families and seeing how they conduct their everyday life. As part of a day tour we visited two different families. We accessed both properties by boat down the river.
The first family showed us how they made blow dart guns and we took turns firing darts at an owl target. One member from our group hit the owl target on her first try! We then watched a demonstration of how they make chicha - a fermented alcoholic drink - and then got to try some for ourselves. They were selling handmade wooden items including blow dart gun souvenirs, chicha cups, and bowls. I bought my chicha cup for $5 and now use it to drink wine out of :). Playing with their dogs and kicking around the soccer ball with one of their young children were also highlights of the day.
The second family we visited was also located right off the river and they specialized in handmade pottery. They gave us a demonstration of how they make their pottery from clay, and how they paint it using all natural ingredients. It was pretty wild to see how fast and accurate they can create. After a fantastic lunch (some paella-type meal), we had the opportunity to buy some of the handmade pottery they make. I bought two wonderfully crafted hanging tribal faces and now have them as part of my travel shelf.
Getting to interact with the locals and see how they live, how simple life can be, was a very refreshing experience. It helped give me perspective on life and opened up my mind. I’d definitely suggest an activity that allows you to peek into this lifestyle for a moment.
-Wildlife Rehabilitation Center - I am not a fan of zoos, but this wildlife rehabilitation center serves a great purpose as they protect injured, sick or orphaned animals and try to rehabilitate them so that they can return to the jungle one day. All the animals are native to the region so it’s an easy way to see the animals up close - many animals that you would not normally see.
Some of the animals we saw included macaw parrots, spider monkeys, green parrots, peccaries, toucans and a few wild squirrel monkeys running through the trees above us. The most exciting thing I saw were two tapirs! They are such strange and interesting looking creatures, and we were just a few feet away from one as it walked right up to us. If you are counting on seeing as many of the animals that the Amazon has to offer, visiting a rehabilitation center is a good idea and the money goes towards a good cause.
-Boat Trips Down River - The main way of getting around the Amazon is by boat. It is also conveniently one of the best things to do in the Amazon. Cruising down the rivers is as soothing as it is exciting, as wildlife could be anywhere. There’s always a chance of spotting birds flying across, monkeys in the trees, or caiman basking on the river banks. You will also see locals navigating the waters past the wild, overgrown jungle flora.
Other activities offered in the Amazon include hiking, tubing down the river, and river rafting in certain areas.
Wildlife To See
The main reason many visit the Amazon is to see the wildlife, and it doesn’t take long to see! Here’s a list of some of the wildlife I saw in two days in the Ecuador Amazon.
In the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
Scarlet Macaw Parrots
Green Amazon Parrots
Other notable animals that are in the Ecuadorian Amazon that I did not see.
Puma (Mountain Lion)
Amazon River Dolphin
Giant River Otter
What to Pack
The Amazon jungle is hot, humid, rainy, and full of mosquitoes and other insects. This makes for a tricky situation when trying to find the right balance of what to wear. To read my full breakdown of what to pack for the Amazon jungle, click here.
The general rule that I’ve been told is to wear very light and breathable long sleeves and long pants. This helps cover up your skin to avoid mosquitoes and keep out the strong sun. You will also want your clothing to be breathable so you do not overheat. Khaki colored clothing is also suggested as mosquitoes are not as drawn to it as they are to black and bright colors. Believe me this is true - one of our guides wore a black shirt one day and there were *hundreds* of mosquitoes hovering around him (luckily his repellent was doing the trick) and there were none around my friend and I who were wearing khaki.
I looked a bit insane decked out in full safari gear, but it was part of the fun for me and I’ve never been bitten by a mosquito in the Amazon thus far (7 total days). Other people in my group simply wore shorts and t-shirts, of all colors and materials, and most received only a few bites. I would still prioritize wearing khaki long sleeves over a regular t-shirt and shorts. I do suggest reading my full article on what to pack for the Amazon jungle, but here is a quick list of other essentials:
Long Brimmed Hat
Breathable Hiking Socks
Sturdy, Water Resistant Hiking Boots
A light Raincoat or Poncho
Reusable Water Bottle with Purification Filter Straw
Vaccinations and Safety
It is not advised to travel alone into the Amazon jungle as it can be a confusing area to navigate solo. Going with a guided group is recommended. It is also not advised to go hiking alone in the jungle as you can get lost and there is dangerous wildlife (snakes, spiders, jaguars, etc). Hiking with a guide is highly recommended.
Having said all that, I’ve never felt remotely unsafe in the two visits I’ve taken to the Amazon jungle. The local people I met were all very friendly and the wildlife really wants to have nothing to do with you.
The most realistic dangers in the Amazon jungle are the water and mosquitoes. Don’t drink tap water in the Amazon, or from any rivers or streams as it may contain parasites or waterborne diseases. Bottled water is the way to go, or bring along some water purification tablets or a water bottle with a purifier filter. To avoid any serious diseases, make sure you are well protected with mosquito repellent and have received the recommended vaccinations before venturing into the jungle.
If you are traveling to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, here are the vaccinations the CDC recommends:
Updated MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella)
Yellow Fever - this shot is good for life and you are given a certificate after vaccination. I haven’t ever had to show my certificate before going into the jungle.
Adventuring into the Amazon jungle is a once in a lifetime experience (that you should do more than once!). I’ve been to the Amazon in both Peru and Ecuador and each trip left me wanting more. The unique culture and abundant wildlife are two of the best reasons to visit the Amazon. It’s a mystical place, ruled by nature, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.