Yasuní National Park ($20) is one of Ecuador ’s last great wildernesses and the country’s largest mainland national park. The 9,620-square-kilometer terrain ranges from upland tropical forest to seasonally flooded forest, marshes, swamps, lakes, and rivers.
Untouched by the last ice age, this park is one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, with 500 species of birds, including harpy eagles; 130 species of amphibians; 100,000 species of insects; and more than 60 percent of Ecuador’s mammals, including jaguars, pumas, giant otters, tapirs, and monkeys.
UNESCO declared Yasuní a biosphere reserve in 1979, but sadly this didn’t prevent oil exploration. The construction of a road, Vía Maxus, and drilling on the boundaries of the park has done damage.
The future of the park depends enormously on the government’s Yasuní-ITT project, which aims to secure payment for Ecuador to leave an estimated 900 million barrels of oil unexploited underneath the park. But with or without permission, oil companies continue to flout environmental regulations in the area.
There is a small number of indigenous people living within the park boundaries, but the biggest ethnic group from this area, the Huaorani, have their own reserve to the south.
Despite the problems, large sections of the park remain unscathed. Yasuní still offers some of the best opportunities in Ecuador to experience pristine rainforest, and most tours coming through Coca will include a visit to the park. In addition to rainforest hikes, one of the highlights of a visit to the park are the clay parrot licks, where hundreds of birds flock to drink on a daily basis in one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles.
For a completely different rainforest experience, with comfortable air-conditioned cabins, consider opting for one of the cruise boats that move up and down the Río Napo, selecting the most interesting sights for day visits.
The Manatee (Gaspar de Villarroel and 6 de Diciembre, Quito, tel. 2/244-8985, www.manateeamazonexplorer.com ), taking its name from the aquatic mammal also known as the sea cow, offers four-day ($650 pp) and five-day ($870 pp).
The Misión hotel in Coca operates the Flotel La Misión (tel. 6/288-0260, www.flotelamision.com ). The boat makes four-day ($793 pp) and five-day ($910 pp) trips as well as a seven-night trip to Iquitos, Peru (from $1,832 pp).
The Swiss-owned Sacha Lodge offers first-class accommodations and service only 2.5 hours downstream from Coca and is one of the best and most popular lodges in the area. The lodge owns 2,000 hectares of the more than 7,000 hectares of mostly primary rainforest that surround the small complex on the shore of Laguna El Pilche. Ten cabins with private baths and gas-heated hot water are connected by thatched walkways to the dining hall, where gourmet meals are served.
A 43-meter viewing tower built around a kapok tree affords guests the occasional view of Volcán Sumaco to the west along with views of up to 200 bird species that have been spotted from the tower. Birders will love the 270-meter canopy walkway and the salt lick just downriver near Añangu, where squawking flocks of parrots, parakeets, and macaws squabble over the mineral-rich soil on the riverbank.
All nature-viewing excursions from the lodge are accompanied by two guides—one local and one English-speaking biologist—for every 4–7 people. Four-day ($729 pp) and five-day ($920 pp) tours don’t include airfare from Quito , but members of South American Explorers (SAE) get a 15 percent discount. Sacha is very popular, so book well in advance. For reservations, contact the office in Quito (Julio Zaldumbide 397 at Valladolid, Quito, tel. 2/250-9115, www.sachalodge.com ).
One of the newest Amazon lodges in the country, opened in 2003, the Napo Wildlife Center is also one of the best. The lodge sits on Añangu Lake inside Yasuní National Park. It is run by local Kichwa Indians, who insure that visitors have an outstanding wildlife and cultural experience while having as little impact as possible. After a two-hour motor canoe ride down the Napo from Coca, guests switch over to dugout canoes and are paddled two more hours upstream to the lake. Ten comfortable, thatched-roof bungalows each have private baths and mosquito nets, and a five-story observation tower overlooks the dining room and lounge.
Excursions include climbing the 36-meter canopy observation tower, visiting local indigenous communities, hiking through the forest, and spending time at two of the most easily accessible clay licks in the country, where dozens of parrots and parakeets converge (the best months are December–January). More than 560 species of birds have been recorded nearby. Four-day ($760 pp) and five-day ($950 pp) tours are possible to the center, which is very popular, so advanced booking is essential. For reservations, contact the Quito office (Río Yaupi N31-90 at Mariana de Jesús, Quito, tel. 2/600-5893 or 2/600-5819, www.napowildlifecenter.com ).
La Selva Jungle Lodge was one of the first in this area and has been offering tours since 1984. The main lodge and 16 cabins overlook the Laguna Garzacocha, which is reported to be safe for bathing, even though piranhas, white caimans, and the odd anaconda live in it.
Residents of two local indigenous communities are employed at the lodge. English-speaking and local guides lead hikes and canoe rides, both day and night, as well as excursions to Yasuní National Park across the river. Highlights include the lodge’s 30-meter canopy tower, with excellent views of birds in the early morning; the nearby butterfly farm, which exports species worldwide; and a spot for fishing for piranha in the lake (and have it served up for dinner, if you’re lucky).
The food at La Selva is renowned as the best among Ecuador ’s rainforest lodges, featuring a combination of international and Ecuadorian cuisine, including local river fish and a special Amazon pizza.
Four-day ($717 pp) and five-day ($852 pp) tours don’t include airfare to and from Coca, but last-minute discounts are sometimes offered. Make reservations in Quito  (San Salvador E7-85 at Carrión, Quito, tel. 2/255-0995, www.laselvarainforestlodge.com ).
This fairly new lodge is located on 37,000 hectares of Kichwa-owned communal lands, three hours downstream from Coca. The staff at Sani are proud of their preservation work within the community. The aim is to become a model of ecological, community-based tourism development while training the local people and maintaining international standards of service. Facilities are more basic than at some of the other nearby lodges, but the opportunities to view black caimans at night are particularly good. Four-day ($627 pp) and five-day ($814 pp) tours can be reserved through the office in Quito (San Ignacio and 6 de Diciembre, Quito, tel. 2/254-3492, www.sanilodge.com ).
The organization that used to run Yuturi Lodge has replaced it with new accommodations on Lake Pañacocha in the 56,000-hectare Lake Pañacocha Reserve. Amazon Dolphin Lodge is one of the newest and remotest lodges in the region, five hours downstream from Coca. With more than 500 species of birds in the surrounding forest, including orange-cheeked parrots, black-crowned tityras, collared puffbirds, and paradise tanagers, bird-watchers are guaranteed to add to their life lists during a visit. There are also many species of monkeys, otters, as well as pink Amazon dolphins that can be seen in the lake. Four-day ($600 pp) and five-day ($750 pp) stays can be reserved through the Yuturi Conservation Group (Amazonas N24-236 at Colón, Quito, tel. 2/250-4037 or 2/250-3225, www.amazondolphinlodge.com ).
The Yachana Foundation was opened by American Douglas McMeekin in 1995 to protect the communities and forests in the Oriente region. Located three hours by boat upstream from Coca, Yachana aims to educate visitors while providing a source of funds for local community development. Perched near the village of Mondaña, the lodge oversees 280 hectares of land stretching 30 kilometers in either direction, including primary and secondary rainforest and agricultural land.
Yachana bills itself as “a place for learning,” giving guests the opportunity to do things such as becoming a beekeeper for a day (bee suit included). Canoe excursions and 15 kilometers of trails allow you to enjoy the rainforest on your own or under the direction of local guides before returning to the rustic but comfortable accommodations for the night. Yachana isn’t a place to see animals in the virgin forest, but if you’d like to meet local people and know that part of your fee goes toward supporting the local health care center, then Yachana is for you. The lodge has won several awards, including Condé Nast Traveler’s Ecotourism Award in 2004 and the National Geographic Award in 2008.
Four-day ($630 pp) and five-day ($840 pp) visits can be reserved through the office in Quito (Reina Victoria N21-226 and Vicente Ramón, Quito, tel. 2/252-3777, www.yachana.com ).