Leave the cold climes of Quito and descend to the sinuous rivers and sticky jungle of the Ecuadorian Amazon, one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth. On this 7-day itinerary, you will wildlife-spot along mighty waterways, climb into rainforest canopies, brave some of South America’s best white-water rapids and bathe in beautiful thermal pools. If you are set on exploring the Amazon, Ecuador is one of the best places to do it.

Highlights

  • Learn about the Ecuadorian Amazon’s indigenous cultures in the brand new Museo Arquelogico Centro Cultural Orellana (MACCO) in Coca
  • Take a canoe ride down Ecuador’s greatest river, the Río Napo
  • Feast your eyes on one of the Amazon’s spectacular parrot feeding grounds, or clay licks 
  • Clamber above the Amazon rainforest canopy to an observation tower and see some of the richest birdlife on the planet
  • Furiously paddle down a white-water river in the continent’s rafting capital, Tena
  • Soak in the nation’s most picturesque thermal baths at Papallacta   

Overview

Ecuador is a great place to experience the Amazon rainforest, which is easier to access here compared to neighboring countries. In just a few hours by road from Quito and even less time by air, you can be in the heart of the region with the globe’s greatest diversity of plant and animal life.

Whilst this trip does take you to Ecuadorian Amazon towns (Coca, Tena) these places serve mainly as essential stepping-stones en route to the greater wonders of the rainforest proper. This itinerary is about leaving civilization behind and maximising time in the wilderness. 

To transport you into the jungle as quickly as possible, this tour begins with a flight (Quito to Coca) and then takes you around the Amazon by boat and bus.

All across Ecuador, as with other Latin American countries, things start at dawn or before. You'll need to get up early to make your transport connections and to head out for wildlife-spotting excursions. Also be aware that darkness falls in the Ecuadorian Amazon by 6 pm, and that phone reception and Internet connectivity are poor or non-existent.

Brief itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Coca’s malecón (waterside promenade) and museum Coca
Day 2 Motorised/paddle canoe trip on Río Napo Napo Wildlife center
Day 3 Parrot clay licks, indigenous community visit Napo Wildlife center
Day 4 Rainforest canopy observation tower Napo Wildlife center
Day 5 Paddle/motorized canoe trip on Río Napo  Tena
Day 6 White-water rafting on rivers near Tena  Papallacta
Day 7 Papallacta thermal baths & Quito Old Town Quito

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Quito and East to Coca

Coca
Bridge spanning the river at the city of Coca.

Flights from Quito to Coca leave in the morning, so there is little time for exploring the capital, but the aim of this tour is to get you out into the Amazon basin as quickly as possible. And by early afternoon you will be: landing in the jungle transport hub of Coca and checked into your accommodation here by early afternoon.

Like all jungle settlements, Coca is more bustling and less pretty than most Andean towns and cities. Use the time this afternoon to adapt to the stifling (30°C+ and very humid) temperatures. Most hotels have pools – it is advisable to book one that does for a cool-off.

Coca’s malecón (waterfront promenade) is very pleasant and sports one outstanding new museum, Museo Arquelogico Centro Cultural Orellana (MACCO), which presents informative displays on the region’s indigenous cultures. Aside from the museum, Coca is mainly a good spot to start absorbing jungle life. There are decent restaurants to try jungle cuisine, such as maito (tilapia fish wrapped in jungle leaves and served with cassava).  

Accommodation in Coca is in hotels, many with swimming pools.

Day 2: Coca and East to the Napo Wildlife Center

Monkeys in Ecuador
Squirrel monkeys are often spotted in the rainforests near the Río Napo. 

Coca offers all manner of trips down the Río Napo River to the lodges, where you are well-based for excursions into primary jungle (the jungle near Coca is secondary jungle and disturbed by development). 

Trips are in the form of packages operated by the lodges themselves. These last anything from 2 nights/3 days upwards, with 3 nights/4 days being the most popular length of time. It is possible to experience the rainforest for shorter periods but it will not be in primary jungle, and the experience will be compromised as a result.

There are many lodges downriver from Coca, of which one (and arguably the best) is the Napo Wildlife Center. All lodges offer similar activities and offer tours for similar lengths of time. Some aspects that separate the Napo Wildlife center from other lodges are the paddle canoe trip to arrive and the luxuriousness of the accommodation. 

Trips downriver to the lodges from Coca take 2-3 hours. After this, you will have time for relaxing at the lodge, perhaps followed by a short jungle excursion before dinner in the lodge restaurant. The Napo Wildlife center is dramatically located down a creek off the Río Napo, which heightens the feeling of being in the wilderness.

The region’s lodge accommodation varies from moderately basic to luxury (by rainforest standards!) and for the following three nights your chosen lodge will be where you sleep.

Day 3: Napo Wildlife Center

Parrot Clay Lick Cave
Parakeets at a clay lick cave in Amazonian Ecuador.

Today can begin with a trip to one of the area’s parrot clay licks: clay-feeding grounds popular with parrots. It is a truly spectacular sight to watch the hundreds of colorful birds, usually around ten different varieties of parrots and macaws, descending here to feed amidst a cacophony of noise.

Later in the day might be a visit to an indigenous community, many of which work with the lodges, where you can discover more about ways of life for the Ecuadorian Amazon’s native peoples. 

Night-time in your chosen lodge will almost always be lively, as travelers compare wildlife sightings and exchange stories. 

Day 4: Napo Wildlife Center

The unusual tamarin can be spotted on trees at the Napo Wildlife Center.

During your lodge stay you will experience both the forest regularly flooded by rivers (flooded forest) and the forest that stands on drained soil (Terra Firme forest). One big difference between the two is that Terra Firme forest has taller and more diverse tree life. Here, the Napo region has canopy observation towers and even a canopy walkway and depending on your chosen lodge you will visit one of these.

The Napo Wildlife Center uses a 118 foot-high observation tower from which flocks of macaws, the golden mantle tamarin, and many other bird species can be observed. 

The other fascinating type of terrain in this part of the rainforest is the black-water lagoon or cocha, where the water is far purer than in the clear-water lagoons and has its own special array of flora and fauna associated with it. A trip to one of these is likely to feature on your itinerary. Specific types of fish have evolved specifically to live in black-water lagoons. Here you might also be able to spot a larger animal such as a giant otter.

Most lodges put on a particularly special dinner for guests on the final night of their stay.

Day 5: Napo Wildlife Center and Southwest to Tena

Rio Napo
Bid farewell to the Río Napo, before traveling onto Tena.

There is a dramatic and lingering farewell to your time in primary jungle as you begin the day (if you have been staying at the Napo Wildlife Center) with a paddle canoe ride back to the main river and then (from all lodges) a motorized canoe ride down the Río Napo back to Coca. Here, get a taxi transfer to the bus station for the four-hour ride to Tena, which you should reach by mid-afternoon.

Tena is a more traveler-friendly town than Coca and has better restaurants and places to stay. Those restaurants along the riverfront are particularly atmospheric. Tena’s main claim to fame though is its rapids: it is one of the rafting capitals of South America. Take the time today to prepare for an early start on the white water tomorrow.

Day 6: Tena and Northwest to Papallacta

white water
Whitewater rafting is a popular activity outside the town of Tena. 

Before you embark on your white-water rafting, have your bags packed: when you return from the river today, you will be leaving Tena by bus.

Several rivers near Tena offer excellent whitewater rafting, and a day’s trip is a great introduction. One-day trips visit three key rivers: the Ríos Jondachi and Hollin and, perhaps the most popular, Río Jatunyacu.  Any one-day run can get you out on some serious rapids, however (class IV and V, although easier trips are possible too), and will give you four hours of time in the water before bringing you back to Tena by around 4 pm.

It is important to choose an operator that prioritizes safety and professionalism. River People are an experienced outfit with a good record and an office where you can go and chat to staff beforehand about possible adventures (kayaking is also an option).

In Tena, catch an evening bus out of the low jungle (selva baja). On the cusp between high jungle (selva alta) and the Andes (altiplano) you reach the spa town of Papallacta after three hours. Here you will spend your final night. Take a taxi from where the bus stops up the approach road to the thermal baths and check in to your chosen accommodation, likely a guesthouse or hotel along this road. The hotel nearest to the thermal baths, Termas de Papallacta, is a spa hotel with a decent restaurant.

Day 7: Papallacta and Northwest to Quito

Quito
Locals linger in the historic Plaza de Santo Domingo in Quito's Old Town.

Today is relaxation day, and after a leisurely breakfast, gravitate to the scenically located collection of thermal pools behind the Termas de Papallacta hotel. There are five thermal pools (temperatures between 36°C and 38°C) plus one polar pool outside, as well as numerous treatments available inside. 

You can choose whether to spend the full day in Papallacta or return in the earlier afternoon to Quito (1.5 hours away by bus) for sightseeing there. Head for the Unesco-listed Old Town, where you should focus your remaining time on the trio of outstanding colonial plazas - Plaza de la Independencia, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza Santa Domingo. Wind up your itinerary with dinner at a nearby restaurant. 

Map

Map of Best of the Ecuadorian Amazon: 7 Days
Map of Best of the Ecuadorian Amazon: 7 Days