Ecuador, a country embedded between tourism powerhouses Colombia and Peru, is sometimes overlooked by the average traveller. But even apart from the inimitable Galápagos and colonial gems like Quito and Cuenca, it’s also got some quite cool adventure offerings around the city of Tena, 3 1/2 hours south of Quito. The capital of Napo province is located in the valley of the Misahuallí River, which starts on the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains and is surrounded by lush Amazon rainforest.
If you founded a city in the 16th century in an area where several rivers flow together amid the largest forest in the world and the slopes of South America’s greatest mountain range, even if you didn’t know it at the time, you’d be giving birth to a perfect destination for outdoor adventure travellers in the 21st century. And indeed, this sleepy city – whose population barely exceeds 20,000 inhabitants – only woke up to adventure and ecological tourism in the first decade of the 21st century. I recently spent several days there enjoying some of the activities.
Hiking in the Jungle
The Amazon provides oxygen not just to South America, but to the entire planet. The jungle area surrounding Tena is home to numerous indigenous populations: here you will find Quichuas, Quijos, and Chibcha, who live their lives away from modern civilisation. With their permission, you may watch their shamanic dances, rituals and traditions, such as the preparation of the corn chicha drink, rice or yucca, and even blowgun championships.
In addition, in the trails that pierce the jungle you will see a lot of striking animal and plant species. You’ll want to hire a knowledgeable guide, of course, and in the city itself you will find a good number of tour operators that offer their guide services.
Rafting and Kayaking
Ecuador is crossed by the Andes mountain range, from which a large number of rivers is born. Those that flow to the west toward the Pacific Ocean are calmer; however, those that run to the east are whitewater and end up feeding the great Amazon River.
Around Tena there are three rivers that are perfect for rafting:
- The Upper Napo: A Class-III river (the minimum level in whitewater is I and the maximum is V), perfect for those who do not have much experience in rafting. The excursion along this river introduces you to the exuberant Amazon rainforest, while you enjoy some exciting rapids and other calmer lagoons. Alto Napo is one of the tributaries of the Amazon and has sufficient flow throughout the year. However, the river reaches its maximum splendour between the months of October and March. The entrance to the river is less than an hour from the centre of the city and has more than 25 km (15 miles) of navigable sections.
- Misahuallí: The river that gives its name to the valley in which it sits offers Class IV and IV+ rapids, the most challenging adventure in the whole area. You’ll pass through narrow and deep canyons, and you will likely feel just a little fear when your raft or kayak rushes down a 9 m (30-foot) waterfall. Just after, you’ll reach the longest stretch of rapids in Ecuador, known as Tierra de Gigantes (Land of Giants), but you can only do it between October and March, since the rest of the year there is simply too much water.
- Jondachi and Hollín: the entrance to this grand adventure is only 45 minutes by car from Tena. The descent can be done in a day, with a lunch stop at a paradisiacal beach. Here you’ll enjoy Class III, IV and IV+ rapids, but do take moment or two to listen to the sounds of the jungle, which is alive all around you.