This series explains how to explore the Ecuadorian Amazon on a budget, independently, and without an expensive tour. In Part I of this series, I discussed how to get there and where to stay. In Part II, we are covering the various Amazonian adventures and activities there are that you can experience with the town of Tena as your home base (and look out for Part III, which will cover adventures around the area of Puyo).
There are a lot of Amazonian adventures to be had around Tena! If you are looking for other travelers to team up with on some of these adventures, head over to Café Tortuga, a common hangout spot for backpackers and travelers in general. Be sure to try their unbelievably refreshing “charapaté” – the best iced tea blend in the world, using local guayusa tea (“charapa” means “turtle” in Amazonian Quichua, but note that there is no actual turtle in the tea). Speaking of guayusa, another place to find fellow travelers to go on adventures with is Guayusa Lounge, a very lovely and relaxed restaurant with a great mixed drink menu. And of course, if you are just looking to avoid other travelers and just hang out with locals, head over to one of the markets where locals go to sell food and other goods that they grew and made. People are very friendly at the markets, and you’ll have the opportunity to try a number of new things and meet some amazing locals (try out some Quichua greetings! “Ali punzha” means “Good day”). You will also have no problem finding a number of restaurants specializing in “comidas típicas” (local food) with delicious standard “almuerzos” (lunches) on set menus where the locals are more likely to be hanging out.
ADVENTURES FROM TENA
1) Laguna Azul
The Laguna Azul is a gorgeous gradual cascade of blue water that creates several pools and eventually flows into the Río Napo (a tributary of the Amazon River). The pools, crystalline and unreal in color, are great for swimming and jumping into. The land is owned by a very kind local family who charge visitors just $3.
When you reach the Laguna, you are first greeted with the cascade of pools, and you can certainly spend all of your time hanging out in them; however, you can also do one of two major jungle treks: (1) through the jungle and down to the “butterfly rocks”, where you will find thousands of butterflies licking the rocks on one particular stretch of shore along the Napo, or (2) through the jungle and up to an impressive waterfall.
Getting to the Laguna Azul can be a little tricky by public transportation as the bus does not drop you off anywhere nearby and will leave you with a very long, likely unpleasant walk. Instead, take a taxi from Tena, and arrange for the driver to come back at a certain time (depending on whether you want to just swim, or both swim and hike, you’ll want about between 2 and 4 hours). It’s a 15USD cab ride each way, so this is a good one to split with fellow travelers. The Laguna closes at 5 p.m. so don’t schedule for the taxi to come back later than that.
Another great jungle trek is to the Cascada de las Latas. To get here, take a local bus that is going from the Centinela del Tena terminal to Misahuallí. About 20 minutes or so into the bus ride at around kilometro 12 on the vía a Misahuallí road is the entrance to the Cascada trek. You can ask the bus driver when you get on the bus to drop you off at the entrance if you are worried about missing the sign yourself (NOTE: if you are on a local bus in Ecuador and need to get off at your stop, you must stand and start towards the front while yelling “GRACIAS!”, and the driver will stop).
When you arrive at the entrance, the cost is about 2USD. Be sure to take one of the walking sticks they provide with you as the trek can get a little slippery and will involve some stream-crossing. Wear clothing you don’t mind getting drenched, especially for the natural waterslide/flume!
In addition the the natural waterslide, there are a few smaller waterfalls along the way. At the end of the trek (or really the halfway point as you then have to turn around and go back) you’ll find the most impressive waterfall there at about 10 meters tall.
Don’t be turned off by the punny name – this is not a sad zoo, but rather a very well-run animal rehabilitation center. This one is a bit further out into the jungle from Tena than some of the other places listed here. If you are in the area, you should definitely at least visit and take a tour given by one of the volunteers and see the wide variety of Amazonian animals they are taking care of (4USD for non-Ecuadorians), or if you have a good amount of time and aren’t afraid of dirty work, you can volunteer there yourself for at least a month!
The animals have all been rescued, mostly from the illegal animal trade. The goal is to rehabilitate and release, though not all of the animals are able to ever live in the wild again due to their individual circumstances. The enclosures are spacious (larger animals have several acres of land blocked off by a fence, birds enclosures are vaulted high so that those that can still fly have room to do so, etc.) and the people who work there are highly trained. Since they allow people to tour the area, they minimize interaction with the animals and are not allowed to speak to them so that they do not get too used to humans to be released back into the wild.
To get there, take a local bus from the Centinela del Tena terminal that is going from Tena to Puerto Barantilla. Tell the bus driver that you are getting off at Amazoonico, and they will know where to leave you. It should take about 1.5 hours to get there by bus and cost about $2.50. Now, Amazoonico cannot actually be reached by car or foot, but rather must be reached by boat as it is on the other side of the Napo. I recommend calling ahead of time and letting them know which bus you are taking so that they can have a canoe ready to take you across from the port. You can take your chances just showing up and hitch a ride with a crossing boat, but there’s no guarantee that a boat will be passing any time soon (or at all, depending on when you arrive) and you likely will not have cell service that far out, so you will not be able to call anyone. You’ll be asked to pay between $1 and $5 for the boat ride.
4. Rafting or inner tubing
Tena is perhaps best know for its river adventure sports. The Río Napo (also known as Jatun Yacu, or “big river”, in Amazonian Quichua) around Tena offers great rapids. Generally the routes go from a few minutes from Tena down to Puerto Napo and sometimes all the way down to Misahuallí. Most hostels in Tena can book a rafting trip for you, or you can walk down any of the main streets until you find a rafting tour company (of which there are many!). The cost is generally between $40 and $60. (Real talk: it is very common for river rafting guides and visiting gringas to have flings. You do you, of course – I know a number of successful relationships that have occurred in this context – but beware that  you don’t get taken advantage of, and also beware that  as a foreign woman likely from a western country, there may be some uneven distribution of power in such a relationship that is reminiscent of colonialism, and this can be problematic for a number of reasons).
If you don’t feel like spending quite that much money, you can also look into borrowing some inner tubes and heading down the Napo to Misahuallí, where you can grab a beer and then head back in a truck taxi with the tubes thrown in the back (a taxi between Misahuallí and Tena is about 10USD). If you choose this option, exercise caution! Wear a life vest and go with someone who knows the river. Without paddles, there’s no way to get to people who fall behind on the fast-moving river. If you need help, keep a look out for people navigating the river by motorized canoe – they will pick you up if you yell to them (“ayúdame!” = “help me!”). It can get dangerous and people do die on the Napo every year (not necessarily in inner tube accidents, but it happens), but if you take the proper precautions it will be some of the most fun you have while in Ecuador.
5. Reina Pageants
If you are interested in experiencing some local culture, look out for advertisements for an indigenous Rena pageant/competition. These are sort of like beauty pageants, but for indigenous cultural revitalization. Girls who compete have to be able to speak the local language (around Tena, this will be Amazonian Quichua), do traditional dances, etc. Each community has a competition at some point in the year, and the winners go on to compete at higher levels. I met a girl who was about to travel to Panama to compete at a Latin America-wide indigenous Reina competition!
These competitions are a great deal of fun to attend, and they usually end with a local Quichua band, dancing, and drinking (try the chicha!).
Known by travelers as “monkey town”, Misahuallí is a small frontier jungle town that is almost always teaming with capuchin monkeys. As usual with these little fuckers, keep an eye on your personal belongings. I once saw a middle-age tourist have his glasses stolen off his face by one of the monkeys (who eventually dropped the glasses from a tree, luckily for him).
There’s also some out-of-this-world gelato and New York style pizza there at a place run by a guy from Long Island, NY.
Lastly, there are a couple adventures that I still have not gotten around to yet about which I hear nothing but awesome things!
The first is Gran Cañon, a beautiful jungle trek up in the direction of the nearby town of Archidona, where the weather tends to be more mild and the jungle quite lush (it’s at a higher elevation than Tena).
Also the Jumandy Caves. Named for the famous Quijos leader who led an indigenous uprising several hundred years ago, these caves are a great place for amateur and experienced spelunkers alike to try. Try to avoid it after heavy rains though as it can get too flooded to explore safely. Definitely go with a guide for this one!
Now that you know what Amazonian adventures to try around Tena, next we’ll look at what kind of independent & budget adventures you can have in the Amazon around Puyo, Ecuador in Part III: Adventures around PUYO, coming soon!