While I was traveling in Ecuador, I encountered a popular belief, mostly amongst the tourists, that it’s almost impossible to experience the Amazons without staying at one of the uber expensive forest lodges. No doubt that these lodges enjoy wonderful locations and are a great way to experience the Amazons, for independent travelers it often proves to be cost prohibitive or just lacking in the adventure quotient – after all, you are letting someone else decide on your experience.
It is quite possible to arrange your own trip for that Amazonian experience. I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I decided to head to the Yasuni Reserve. I was in Banos, a pretty town nestled in the Andes, before heading down to the forests, and my inquiries with the local folks were quite positive that I could make it on my own. An overnight bus from Banos enabled me to get to Coca, a heavily industrialized town, primarily because it servers as a base for most oil companies in the forests. Coca carries a less common appellation of Puerto Francisco de Orellana! Once you are in the city, take a taxi to the ferry terminal – the city itself doesn’t have much to offer. There are multiple tour operators by the terminal who can potentially help you get to one of the forest lodges. However, there are public ferries which connect Coca to Panacocha and Rocafuerte. The ticket sale opens on the same day at 5 a.m. or so. 4 hours on the Napo river take you down to Panacocha, and at a similar distance from Panacocha lies Rocafuerte. Do not confuse Rocafuerte of the Amazons with the myriad other namesakes in Ecuador.
“On your way to Panacocha, you would cross various lodges and oil extraction bases and that generates quite a bit of traffic on the Napo river”
Some of the locals in Panacocha offer accommodation and food, and it can be quite an immersing experience to stay with a local family. An old gentleman that I met on the ferry from Coca, offered to facilitate my stay with a local family. It was a wonderful experience – dancing salsa with the owner in the only “pub” to drink in the village, learning some Quechua, and learning about how the oil industry has affected their lives. Expect to pay $12 per night with a basic bed and food.
Exploring the Amazons:
Ask around and chat with the local boatmen for a trip to take you deeper inside the forests. From Panacocha, you could visit laguna Panacocha which is inside the Parque Nacional de Yasuni. Hire a local boatman for about $50 for 3-4 hours of trip to the lake and back.
“Prepare yourself to be mesmerized by exotic forest sounds – from all directions, sounds ‘endemic’ to the Amazons”
I was lucky to have a very nice young lad as my boatman – aware of the fact that I am interested in taking pictures, he would slow down at the right places.
Every morning a boat leaves from Panacocha to Rocafuerte – it is essentially the same ferry which drops passengers from Coca to Panacocha. You can arrange your own trips to other parts of Yasuni – it helps to keep the costs down if you have a few fellow travelers.