Ecuador is perhaps one of the smallest countries of the Americas but it still is the most impressive place to visit for the different biodiversity offered in its four well marked regions, Coast or lowlands, Sierra or highlands, Oriente or Amazon Rain Forest and the unique Galapagos Islands.
The Amazon Basin of Ecuador
The Ecuadorian Amazon Basin, know as the Oriente, is without a doubt natures greatest achievement and it's great expanse contains more than 20% of the earth's vascular plant species. One Amazonian tree can host more ant species than all of the British Isles put together and in one hectare of forest there are as many frog species as all of North America. There are nine tribal groups sharing this rainforest, many of whom still live a traditional lifestyle and some of whom have avoided completely contact with out siders.
Moreover, forty percent of all earth's fresh water flows through the Amazon basin; more water than in the basins of the next six biggest rivers combined! In the Amazon river there are islands as big as Switzerland and otters bigger than men, and at certain points along it you can be in the middle and see neither shore. It snakes thousands of miles and draws in water from over 1500 water sources, including the RÃo Napo of Ecuador, one of its primary tributaries plants are found in this equatorial swath of green.
From the Amazon come some of our favorite foods: avocado, black pepper, Brazilian nuts, cayenne pepper, cashews, cocoa, cinnamon, eggplant, figs, ginger, sugarcane, vanilla and yams. The rainforest also produces many medicines, such as quinine for malaria; curare for multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease; as well as many industrial products, including latex, resins, timber, oil, and other minerals.
Getting to the Rainforest
You can access to the jungle through one of the three roads from the Andes. In the north from Quito. Another road in the south from BaÃ±os to Puyo, which is considered to be the best and most reliable one and the third souther road with access from Cuenca to Macas.
There are airports in Lago Agrio, Coca and Macas, all with scheduled flights from Quito. These services are notoriously unreliable and the weather can also cancel the flights, so be prepared for delay.
Once away from the roads and inside the rainforest the rivers are used for travel, as most settlements are along the banks of the rivers where dugout canoes are used for transport. Hiking through the rainforest is tough and muddy, a delightful challenge for the adventure-seeker. Also from November to April there are some fantastic hikes from the Andes to the Amazon, passing down ancient trade routes, through cloud forest and remote villages.
The Amazon rainforest, contrary to the warnings, can be a very comfortable and healthy place to visit. To avoid health problems the three most important things are to try to avoid being bitten by insects, taking care of you personal hygiene and to drink only boiled water (like anywhere else in Ecuador).
It is usually not necessary to take anti-malarials. The number tropical diseases exist only in the background and the temporary visitor is very unlikely to be exposed to them. The only time it is certainly worth taking prophylactics is ifan epidemic in the area is to be visited, in which case you should ask your embassy about before you go or if you plan to stay in the jungle for more than a week. Yellow fever injections are worth while, as is an anti-tetanus booster. Injections against hepatitis should be up to date. The precautions that you can take to avoid insect bits include the use of personal insect repellent, long sleeve shirts and slacks, never leave the door to your room or tents open, even during the day, not turning on an indoor light while the door or tent flap is opened at night. Be cautious about laying on the river shores, as sandflies may be a problem. It's also a good idea not to pet animals or birds that many people have living around their homes.
Things To Do
There are jungle lodges, deep in the forest where visitors can experience the rainforest and have their best chance of seeing monkeys and other mammals. Also canoe expeditions are an option, combined with camping or basic accommodation, usually these include something cultural from the area often with a community or family visit. There are both indigenous families and communities who welcome visitors and are usually as interested in your culture as you are in theirs.
People and Shamanism
A large proportion of modern medicine is based on the traditional herbal cures of the Amazon basin and there are many more plants such as Sangre de Drago (a good anti-biotic, the sap of this tree is said to cure stomach ulcers if taken twice a day in water, among many other illnesses) still waiting to be discovered by western society. The Shaman of the rainforest have inherited this rich tradition and today still use these traditional techniques to cure their patients. For those interested in extending their knowledge of herbal and other traditional shamanic practices this is a great place to do it. These visits are not designed to be worthwhile sightseeing trips, but are for people who wish to actively take part in a learning/healing experience.
This rainforest is home to thousands of indigenous inhabitants, who make up nearly 200 distinct nations, including the Siona, Secoya, Cofan, Shuar, Zaparo, Huaorani, and Quichua. The indigenous tribes that live in Ecuador's rainforest are the ancient keepers and guardians of the world's biological heritage - having lived there for more than 10,000 years, they know its trees, its animals and its rhythms better than anyone.
You can learn more about indigenous forest peoples and the rainforest itself by joining one of the many community-based ecotourism programs offered in the Ecuadorian Amazon or by becoming a volunteer with one of the many non-profits working in the region. Please check out the list of organizations with offices, or based in Ecuador to volunteer with one in the jungle or anywhere else in the country.