Not long ago Coca was a cluster of lean-tos on dirt roads. Growth means concrete, lots of it, paved roads and ubiquitous hairdressing shops. The capital of the Orellana province since 1999 (and officially known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana), Coca embraces the fallout of oil exploration.
Tena has evolved as the ambassador of the jungle, a cheerful hodgepodge with two fat rivers intersecting at its heart. White-water paddlers get giddy in the rafting and kayaking capital of Ecuador; there are so many rafting options and a cold beer and toasty bed back in town.
The Southern Oriente
This small wood-and-concrete sprawl with a river slinking through it represents the juncture between northern and southern Oriente. The capital of Pastaza, Puyo is Ecuador’s largest jungle town, though in the absence of oil and the presence of so many highlanders, it doesn’t quite feel like it.
Mission roots burrow back to 1563, but they are just a layer in the complex scaffolding of this old trading post at the tip of Shuar and Achuar territories. The provincial capital of Morona-Santiago, Macas is essentially a burgeoning modern town whose identity ebbs between colonial and indigenous.
The first oil workers nicknamed Lago Agrio ‘bitter lake, ’ after Sour Lake, Texas, the former home of Texaco, which pioneered local drilling. The city’s official name is Nueva Loja, although no one will bother to call it that. Locals settle for ‘Lago.’ Whatever you call it, this unkempt oil town is not high on tourists’ lists.
From Quito to Lago Agrio
The sleepiest of all jungle towns, Misahuallí (Mee-sah-wah-YEE) sits swathed in greenery on the junction of two major rivers. On Saturday night, lights blink on and off the main square (more shortages) and a waitress from the coast longs for the thrill of a steamy salsoteca (salsa nightclub).