As part of my last hurrah here in Ecuador for the semester, I headed to Tena, a town on the edge of the jungle, five hours from Quito to the north of Baños.
Scarlett and I stayed at A Welcome Break Hostel, which was simple but comfortable. There was an outdoor area with hammocks, a kitchen, and hot showers, almost everything I look for in a hostel. And for $6 a night, $8 for a room with a private bathroom, it was definitely worth it.
Most everything visitors to Tena need is located on the street 15 de Noviembre: tiendas, hostels, guide companies. Two blocks from 15 de Noviembre is the street Francisco de Orellana, which runs parallel to the river kind of like a riverwalk.
The first night we wandered around the city and got our bearings, arranging our rafting excursion and ate my favorite type of dinner in South America- street food. Most of the town’s activity centers around the bus station; there are food vendors and Ecuavolley courts and of course the normal activity of a bus station which goes a bit like this “Suba, suba, a Quito, a Quito” “A Riobamba, A Riobamba.” We stopped at one of the little vendor stands and I had typical jungle food: tilapia wrapped in a leaf and grilled, with rice and yucca. So good.
The next day was our rafting adventure, which is what Tena is known for. We went with Mundopuma, a guiding company which offers both rafting and trekking excursions from one day to four or five days. It is a Spanish-speaking company, which is cheaper than the English-speaking ones, so it was perfect for us.
Our guide, Faustus, gave a Spanglish introduction at the beginning, and yelled directions down the entire river. It was pretty hilarious and sometimes a little scary to be headed toward a bigger rapid and her Faustus yelling “ADELANTE! ADELANTE!”
We stopped to have lunch at an indigenous family’s home. It was an open wooden structure propped up on pilings, like houses on the beaches back in the states. The guides chopped up onion, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes, made guacamole and we made our own sandwiches on tortillas and sliced bread with other fixing like canned tuna, mayo, and ají (of course!). They also brought along fresh pineapple, chips and chocolate bars for everyone, and all the leftovers were left for the family we ate with.
While stopped, the other guide pointed out some of the cool plants that you can find in the jungle. For instance in the family’s yard was a cinnamon tree, whose leaves can be use for tea instead of the bark like we usually see in jars in the US but harm the tree a lot less, there were lime trees (which provided lime juice for the veggies we ate for lunch) and even several cacao trees. The guide pulled off a cacao pod and broke it open for us to see. You can suck on the pods inside and they have a fruity flavor, almost like guanabana. I bit on them just out of curiosity, and the cocoa on the inside is as bitter as they tell you.
After our rafting adventure, Scarlett and I came back to town and did some more exploring and made possibly one of the most discoveries I’ve made in Ecuador. We found an INCREDIBLE ice cream stand just on the other side of the pedestrian bridge over the Tena River. They have batidos which are more like American milkshakes, made with fresh fruit and vanilla ice cream. Scarlett got the fruit salad, which is out-of-this-world fresh and cold, and as a plus, is serve yourself.
That night, Scarlett went back to Quito and three other friends arrived. We went to dinner at Chukitos, also across the Tena river. It was a little more expensive, but absolutely worth it. The restaurant was literally right over the river and the food was delicious. I felt like I was eating fish back on the Florida panhandle. Afterward we had to go back to the ice cream place but this time I had a sundae, and the consensus from everyone was that it was possibly the best place in Ecuador.
Tena is a tiny town that doesn’t have too much going on but is a good jungle adventure is you’re into river rafting, kayaking and jungle tours. It is close to Baeza, another small town which serves as the starting point to see the San Rafael Falls, Ecuador’s highest waterfall. And it is also near Puyo, closer to Baños, where my friend Bret found a small refuge for monkeys rescued from the black market. Visitors can walk around the grounds, play with the monkeys, and even stay and volunteer. A visit to these three towns would make a great jungle-weekend getaway.