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Orellana's Journey of Discovery

In a time when even the most remote regions of the Amazon basin seem to be easily accessible, it is hard to comprehend the challenges faced by the Spanish conquistadors. Few of that era's stories are as incredible as Francisco de Orellana's -- a man for whom an Ecuadorean province and its capital city are named, and who "discovered" and navigated the length of the Amazon.

That amazing journey began in Quito, but Orellana's tale started several decades earlier, in the south of Spain. Like most conquistadors, he came from the Spanish province of Extremadura, where conditions were grim enough to make joining expeditions to the Americas -- from which few people returned -- seem like a good idea. Orellana traveled to the West Indies at age 17, and cut his teeth in Central America. In 1535, he joined an expedition led by his cousin Francisco Pizarro that conquered the Inca empire and captured unfathomable amounts of gold.

Orellana was rewarded for his military service with the governorship of Guayaquil, but the desire for glory, or perhaps simple greed, drove him to join an expedition to find El Dorado: a mythical empire awash with gold. That expedition, led by Francisco's brother Gonzalo Pizarro, departed Quito for the jungles east of the Andes in 1541, with 220 Spaniards, horses, indigenous porters, llamas, and livestock. By the time the group reached the confluence of the Coca and Napo rivers, half the men had deserted or died, and the food stores had run out. They built two boats and Pizarro sent Orellana downriver with 50 men to raid indigenous villages for food. But once he had the goods, Orellana was unable to return against the strong current, so he decided to go with the flow. What followed was an 8-month journey down increasingly wide and voluminous rivers, ending at the Atlantic Ocean. They floated past countless indigenous settlements, including one where the riverbank was lined with human heads skewered on posts. But the mythical golden city was not to be found. Some Indians were friendly, but for much of the trip the conquistadors' boats were attacked by poison arrows. According to Orellana, one such attack was led by fierce women, like the Amazons of Greek mythology, for whom the big river was subsequently named.

On August 26, 1542, Orellana and the remnants of his crew reached the Atlantic, where they sewed their blankets into sails and made their way to a Spanish outpost in the Caribbean. Orellana then returned to Spain, where he regaled the king and aristocracy with tales of his discovery and obtained a grant to establish two colonies on the river. In 1544, he set sail with four ships and 400 men, but Orellana's luck had run out: One ship sank en route, and disease, hunger, and enemy arrows claimed most of his crew once they reached the Amazon delta. Unable to establish a viable colony, Orellana fell ill and died in November of 1546. The expedition's 44 survivors sailed to the Caribbean, where a Spanish ship rescued them.

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