Tena is the quintessential South American jungle town, the kind of place you expect to run in to Indiana Jones stocking up on supplies before setting out in search of a lost city. Keep that image in your head because if you’re in Tena that Indiana Jone’s type is you and you’re in for an adventure. Five hours southeast of Quito, Tena is the perfect launching point for a jungle trek, a spelunking expedition, or a rafting or kayaking trip down one of the countless rivers that pass through or by the city.
Once an important colonial trading post in the Amazon, Tena is now the commercial center and capital of the Napo Province. And though Tena is the commercial center of the province, with a population of just over 13,000, it still operates like a small town and has retained much of its culture and traditional lifestyle.
The area surrounding Tena supports a large population of lowland Quichua Indians, and significant numbers of Quijos and Chibcha Indigenous groups, among others, live further out in the forests outside the city. It’s possible to visit many of these communities and to observe and sometimes participate in traditional dancing, the preparation of chicha (an alcoholic drink made by masticating maiz, rice or yuca and fermenting the juice), shamanic rituals, and blowgun competitions.
Searching for gold within the natural jewel of Tena’s rainforest.
For a rainforest city, Tena’s climate is surprisingly comfortable, it’s cooler, due to its elevation, and drier than most people expect. There’s rainfall year-round and the heaviest rains come in June, July, and August, but even in this very wet time it doesn’t necessarily rain every day or all day when it does rain. The rain is pleasant and warm, like the rain that those of us from the northern hemisphere only get in the sweltering heat of summer, but if you plan to be outside for long periods even warm rain can bring down your body temperature so it’s wise to have a slicker.
The city is small enough so that you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting around. It’s divided into two halves by the rivers Tena and Pano and connected by two bridges, one for pedestrians and one for automobiles. There are several sand and pebble beaches on both sides of the river, as well as a number of plazas and parks, the most conspicuous of which is the Parque Amazonica, a botanical garden and zoo located on a small peninsula between the rivers Tena and Pano and visible from the pedestrian bridge. There is also a nice riverside walkway on the western bank of the river Tena. The bus terminal is located on Avenida 15 de Noviembre between Calle Montero and Avenida del Chofer. The terminal is unattractive but don’t be too quick to judge the rest of the city based its appearance, the northern part of town is much nicer.
Most roads in the Oriente are unpaved and subject to landslides and other delays, especially during the rainy season. The road from Quito to Tena is no exception, though it continues to be improved. There is regular bus service to Tena via Baeza, but you should book in advance as the buses fill up fast, particularly on Fridays and Sundays. There is a small airport outside of Tena but there are no commercial flights, only short flights over the jungle. Also, small white truck-taxis are abundant in the city. It’s a good idea to negotiate (haggle until you get them down to half or three-quarters of what they initially ask) your price before getting in because the taxi drivers in Tena, like everywhere else in South America, often overcharge.
The city offers plentiful accommodations, all of which are relatively inexpensive. Los Yutzos (Tel: 06-886717) at the south end of the city on the River Pano and Hostal Vista Hermosa (Tel: 06-886521) on 15 de Noviembre are two of the best places to stay. Both offer incredible views of the city and surrounding jungle.
Tena’s selection of good eateries is sparse. The three below are recommended, stray from these and you’re on your own.
Chuquitos - turn left after crossing the pedestrian bridge and it will be just up the road on your left. High points are the good fish and chicken dishes, a bit more lively than normal, and great views of the river from their open-air dining room.
Cositas Ricas - on Avenida 15 de Noviembre near the pedestrian bridge. Standard but good Ecuadorian fare, i.e., chicken or fish with rice, avocado, and a small salad.
Pizzeria La Massilia - located at the corner of Olmedo and Garcia Moreno. Nice thatched roofed open dining room and decent pizza and Italian food.
Shaman preparing tobacco for use in a ritual.
Tena’s claims to fame are the rainforest and rivers that surround it. The jungle, especially if you get outside the city 15 or 20 kilometers, is impressive. First-timers will be changed forever after they lay their eyes on a pristine stretch of Amazon. There is no shortage of jungle guides or tour operators, many have offices at the northern end of town on Avenida 15 de Noviembre.
Moreover, Tena has reached near legendary status with whitewater enthusiasts and boasts the best rafting and kayaking in Ecuador and, some say, the world. The jungle rivers on the Amazon side of the Andes are bigger and have more consistent flows than their west-Andean counterparts. They are also the cleanest and most scenic rivers in Ecuador. Ríos Ecuador is by far the best rafting and kayaking tour operator in the country and their headquarters is in Tena, that ought to tell you something about the quality of the rivers!
You may also want to check out:
Sumaco Volcano - is located in the isolated Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park and reaching it is easily one of the most intense experiences to be had in Ecuador. The volcano soars 3732 meters above the jungle and is surrounded by precipitous ravines and dense jungle, which have largely kept humans out and preserved its flora and fauna. You need a guide to reach Sumaco. Guides can be found in the villages along the Loreto Road, which meets the Tena-Quito road approximately 30 kilometers north of Tena.
Jatun Sacha Biological Station - is a great place to learn about the rainforest. The station is continually conducting rainforest research and, as the second largest conservation organization in Ecuador, is involved in an array of sustainable development and forest protection projects. Jatun Sacha is on a dirt road that parallels the southern bank of the Napo River. This dirt road branches off the main highway 7km south of the bridge at Puerto Napo.
Misahuallí - is a bustling and somewhat remote port at the juncture of the rivers Napo and Misahuallí. The village was the original Ecuadorian jungle tourist outpost, and after dozens of years and despite the entrance of Tena and other jungle towns into the tourism market, is still a popular starting point for jungle tours and canoe trips. Misahuallí offers well developed, though rustic, tourism services, including good craft shops, cafes, and lodging.
Cuevas de Jumandy - four kilometers north of Archidona on the road to Quito is a labyrinth of natural caves and tunnels that extend several kilometers underground. Don’t be put off by the main entrance, once you get past the gaudy pools and loud music (I turned around my first time, thinking “this can’t possibly be the place!”) you are in for a treat. You can hire a guide from the changing-area reception desk and, reportedly, there are guides in Tena who will take you into the caves through other, less obnoxious entrances – ask around.
Archidona - a colonial town, founded in 1560, north of Tena, Archidona still serves as one of the regions main missionary outposts. It’s also a business and social center for the small Quichua communities in its vicinity. Archidona’s festivals attract people from all around and several times throughout the year there are Quichua beauty and culture pageants, in which contestants, drawn from the many Quichua communities in the area, compete for the title of “Queen of the Quichua”. The pageants are a unique opportunity to hear Quichua spoken and sung and to see some very old dances and customs. There are several eliminatory rounds and the finale is usually held in April.