El Oriente, which means "the east," is a vast area that stretches from the eastern slopes of the Andes to the border with Peru. El Oriente contains over 25% of the nation's territory. This region is commonly called the Amazon (Las Amazonas), because the rivers here -- created by melting snow from the Andes -- flow into the Amazon. The rainforests of El Oriente have been home to Native Americans for thousands of years. Because of the natural barrier formed by the Andes, the people here have lived in almost complete isolation. Some tribes have only had contact with the "outside world" since the 1970s, when oil was discovered. Since then, development has increased dramatically with the construction of new roads, such as the controversial Macas-to-Guamoote road, which runs through national-park land. Various tribes inhabit Ecuador's Amazon basin, including the Shuar, Cofán, Huaorani, and Quichua. Their languages and lifestyle are markedly different from those of Ecuadoreans on the opposite side of the Andes. In order to adapt to somewhat harsh conditions, inhabitants of El Oriente have developed a special relationship with the natural resources of the area. When you take a trip to this region, you will usually have the opportunity to meet some of the indigenous people, who will share their land with you and teach you some of their age-old secrets, such as how to farm, fish, hunt, or use medicinal herbs and plants.
In addition to learning about the local cultures, you will most certainly enjoy the incredible biodiversity that exists here. Fifty-seven percent of all mammals in Ecuador live in the Amazon basin, and there are more than 15,000 species of plants in Ecuador's rainforest. You'll have the chance to see more than 500 species of tropical birds, as well as freshwater dolphins, monkeys, sloths, anacondas, boas, turtles, and, if you're extremely lucky, the rare and elusive jaguars.
A healthy ecotourism business has developed here over the past couple of decades. Several excellent jungle lodges were built to blend in with the natural environment. Naturalist guides from these lodges take visitors on all sorts of excursions: walks through the forest to learn about the medicinal properties of the local plants; fishing trips to catch piranhas; early-morning bird-watching expeditions to see parrots, macaws, and other tropical species; visits to traditional villages; nighttime canoe rides in search of caimans; and outings where you can paddle downriver in an old-fashioned canoe. Just be sure to bring plenty of mosquito repellent!
El Oriente comprises six provinces, but it is generally divided up into two areas: the northern Oriente and the southern Oriente. For the purposes of this guide, the lodges on and around the Río Napo, Río Coca, and Río Aguarico -- which are reached by the gateway cities of Lago Agrio, Coca, and Tena -- constitute the northern Oriente. This area has been most affected by the oil industry; charges of environmental destruction and uncompensated profit from indigenous lands and resources have been common, and conflicts and protests have periodically occurred. This is also the area that has been most developed for tourism. The southern Oriente, which includes everything south and east of the gateway city of Puyo, is much less developed. However, this area is more directly accessible by land from Ambato, Riobamba, and Baños, making it a good place to visit if you plan to be in one of those cities.