Ecuador's Andes descend quickly east of the sierras, losing 10,000ft in altitude in less than 30 miles. By this point the Amazon basin has already started although it is will be another 2,000 miles before the land descends the final 1,000ft to meet the sea.
Coca - a gateway to the Amazon
The little town of Coca lies where the Río Coca joins the Río Napo, which eventually joins the Amazon. Though Coca is only 40 miles from the sierras, it is at the edge of the Amazon rainforest (and would be well within the forest but for man's activities -- farms are expanding and oil has been found nearby).
Coca is also called Puerto Francisco de Orellana, after the Spanish captain who set off downriver in 1541 to find food for a stranded party of soldiers. Orellana claimed the weight of water flowing from the Andes was so strong his boat could not return; instead he carried on -- reaching the mouth of the Amazon over a year later.
Beyond Coca, the habitat is little touched and you are rapidly in the world of the Amazon rainforest and its peoples.
Today, Coca has a small airport and can also be reached by road from the mountains. It is a setting off point for a small number of wildlife lodges a few hours further down the river that are accessible only by boat.
Amazon wildlife along the Napo river
Rainforest tourism is a growth activity for Ecuador, with a scattering of small lodges close to the mountains. The principal three wildlife lodges down the Napo river: Napo Wildlife Centre, La Selva, and Sacha Lodge, are the best situated and best fulfil their role. Each provides a good level of comfort, knowledgeable guides, and excellent opportunities to experience the Amazon forest from trails, by boat, and from canopy towers.
What will you see in the Amazon? First, there is an astonishing variety of trees and forest plants, many with unusual survival mechanisms or folk uses. There is much to learn from the smaller things -- flashing blue morpho butterflies, tiny colourful frogs, leaf cutter and army ants. And then there are birds. In this part of the Amazon the number of different bird species is staggering -- each Napo river lodge has recorded well over 500. Clay licks provide macaws, parrots and parakeets with a digestif against the toxins that forest trees use to protect their fruit.
Most of the large animals of the Amazon, such as tapir and jaguar, are very hard to find. They can easily slip away in a jungle where sight-lines are short, and where local people are hunters they have every reason to do so. Monkeys are quite easy to see, including howlers with their compelling eerie roar, lively spider monkeys that crash overhead in family troupes, and little capuchin monkeys that delicately clamber on lower branches, unsure whether to be curious or fearful. You may also see one or two of the smaller squirrel monkeys, marmosets and tamarinds, capybara and perhaps an armadillo or an anteater. Agoutis are common, but as lunch on legs for many predators including man, they are understandably nervy.
Rivers and lakes generally produce caiman and piranhas, with giant otters and anacondas a possibility.
The people of the Amazon
Throughout Ecuador's Amazon rainforests there are people following a life of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming. It is a privilege to meet them, to hear about their communities, their use of the forest, the skills of their shamans, and the proper use of a blow-pipe or bow and arrow.
Such contact brings its own responsibilities so that local people control the impact on their communities and earn a just reward. Yachana Lodge in particular is working with this in mind.