Tena, Ecuador: Experience Life in the Amazon
January 1, 1970
by Lucy Lundstrom
Welcome to Tena
The smoky scent of meat barbecuing filled my nose, and I knew I was getting close. I could feel the warm, humid air curling into the windows of the bus as it meandered down the road, shifting from side to side as it hugged the curves. Outside the windows of the bus, I could see chickens pecking lazily amid banana trees and haphazardly constructed wooden houses. Every so often, we would pass a woman hanging clothes out over wooden slats to dry, or children laughing and playing with family dogs among the broad-leafed trees, or a group of men sitting on upturned buckets sharing a big bottle of Pilsener beer. Everything was green. Everything was alive. I wondered how many times I had been on this bus, taken this exact route, passed these same houses. It had to have been at least 50 times. Still, each time I left Banos, where I lived, and entered first the Pastaza and later the Napo regions of the Ecuadorian Amazon en route to Tena, Napo’s biggest city, I was filled with the same indescribable feeling. In Tena, I always had the feeling that life was happening at an accelerated pace, while simultaneously moving unbelievably slowly.
Life in the Amazon
More than anywhere else I have been in South America, Tena and its people embody the stereotypical slower pace of life and relaxed attitude that Latin countries are often known for. No one is in a hurry to get things done, and it often takes days or even weeks to perform even the most simple tasks, especially bureaucratic ones. Over the course of my three years in Ecuador, I passed a massive government building in the process of construction each time I visited Tena. There were always workers in uniforms milling around, but as far as I could tell, no process was made whatsoever on the building in those three years. However, in those same three years, people fell in love, got married, separated. Babies were born. Business ideas were thrown around, investments were made. Some of those businesses thrived, others closed after a few months. Trees that were planted in friends’ backyards in my first year grew taller than their two-story houses by my last year. Lives were lost. While the obvious lack of infrastructure and organization contributed to the slowness of development and progress in many aspects of Ecuadorian life, I was always floored by how quickly life moved in other ways in the Ecuadorian amazon, and ultimately, by how alive everything was.
Why I Love This Region of Ecuador
Living in a large, developed city, as I do now, it’s often too easy to lose touch with the community that surrounds me. Given access to all creature comforts and insulated from city neighbors, it’s possible to slip into a selfish routine and live comfortably, but numbly. This was never the case in Tena. Life in the Amazon is full of pure joy, happiness, pain, sadness, difficulties, discomfort, acceptance, contentment, and it certainly isn’t always good or comfortable, but it is never numb. In Tena, you are surrounded by life. Despite the fact that Tena as a city is not particularly beautiful, outside the city limits there are mountainous jungles covered by thousands upon thousands of species of lush green flora, cut by powerful, surging rivers and active volcanoes. Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, and a great deal of that biodiversity is found in the jungle surrounding Tena. I love Tena and the Ecuadorian Amazon region for its people, for the friends and the bonds I made that I will never forget. I love it for the culture and the pride its people have for their history and traditions. I love it for the landscape. Tena and the Amazon region are not to be missed or overlooked on a trip to the beautiful country of Ecuador, because, at least to me, this is where everything truly comes alive.
What Not to Miss When You Visit Tena
If you’re an adventurous eater, this is for you! Chontacuro are grubs that are pulled from trees, then skewered and grilled. They are very typical of the region and can be found at almost any “typical food” restaurant. Depending on your culinary background, eating a chontacuro skewer might seem a little bit outside of your comfort zone, but they’re worth a try! I was surprised to find that I thought they were delicious!
Eat empanadas at Empanadas Bolivianas
Now that you’ve ventured outside of your comfort zone, reward yourself with the ultimate comfort food, empanadas! These empanadas can be found one block up the hill on the main road from Tena’s malecon. They are, hands down, the most delicious empanadas I had in Ecuador and possibly in my life.
Raft on the Rio Jatunyacu
This is my favorite activity in Tena. The river is beautiful and the views from it are even better. It’s a fun, adrenaline filled experience and a fantastic opportunity to visit the heart of Tena, its rivers. My favorite agency to raft with is called Raft Amazonia. It’s run by a local Kichwa family who are wonderful people. They also run jungle tours, kayak schools, hikes, and lots of other adventures!
Mishualli is a little town about 45 minutes outside of Tena. You can catch a bus there from the main terminal, and it will drop you off in the main park of Mishualli. From there, you can walk down the street until you arrive to the sandy beach of the Rio Mishualli, which is a lovely place to watch a sunset. Mishualli is probably most famous for the monkeys that live in town, who are very silly and fun to watch but will definitely cause trouble if you don’t guard your belongings!
Visit the Laguna Azul
A swimming hole with natural rock slides owned by the nearby Kichwa community, the Laguna Azul is the perfect place to visit on a hot day. You can get there in a taxi in about 30 minutes, or ask one of the tour agencies if they would be willing to take a trip out there. It’s usually possible to reserve a trip with an agency!