Puerto Misahuallí: An accessible slice of the Ecuadorian Amazon
Puerto Misahuallí, Ecuador, is a small town perched on the point that Río Misahuallí meets Río Napo. It really buzzes with local life, and while there aren’t many international tourists, on the weekends seems a popular destination for people from nearby towns. Puerto Misahualli is the perfect start-point for some Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest exploration; for a small point on the map, there is a fair bit to go and see. We spent a chilled 4 days in Puerto Misahualli, checking out the beach, doing an all-day river tour and getting massages at our lodge. Pretty unforgettable!
How to pronounce Puerto Misahuallí: PWER-toe miss-ah-wah-YEE
How to see the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest
There are two main options to see the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. Choose based on how much time you have, and how deeply you want to explore the terrain.
Cuyabeno National Park
For those who want to experience the best the Ecuadorian Amazon has to offer and are willing to spend both time and money doing so, Cuyabeno National Park is the best option. It’s a trek to get there, though; first you need to take a 40 minute flight or 8 hour bus from Quito to Lago Agrio. From there, your lodge should organise a 2 hour bus journey and then 2-3 hours boat ride to whichever accommodation you’ve chosen.
The advantage of this option is that you’ll be deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon’s primary rainforest, which is where all the action happens. You’re more likely but still crazily unlikely to see a jaguar, but pink dolphins are a possibility in the river and lakes, and you can expect monkeys to be common sightings in Cuyabeno.
For people who are tight on time or just straight-up lazy (own it), the better option is to travel 4-5 hours from Quito down to one of the Amazon rainforest towns along the Rio Napo – Tena is one of the largest, with Puerto Misahualli being a further 30 mins drive. Some lodges will have road access, others will need to an extra boat ride to get to – luckily the chalupa long-boats on Rio Napo act like taxis.
Here, you’re less reliant on your accommodation to provide all your food and activities (though they’ll organise it if you want!), and you get to mingle with the real everyday life of living on the edges of the Ecuadorian Amazon’s primary rainforest. You can still explore the primary, but you will be too close to urbanisation to see some of the animals.
How to get to Puerto Misahualli
The Cooperativa de Transporte Amazonas bus leaves from Quito Quitumbe Terminal for Puerto Misahualli at 11:30am, arriving in the Ecuadorian Amazon at around 6pm. Another option is to get one of the more frequent buses to Tena and then get a $10 taxi from there.
As there were 4 of us, we instead opted to negotiate with a local taxi man to drive us directly to Puerto Misahualli from Quito for $120 (plus we bought him lunch along the way). Uber was quoting $100, but we couldn’t be bothered to deal with the hassle of drivers cancelling because they didn’t want to drive that far (pretty standard in South America). The drive took 4 hours; expect the bus to be about 5. The views along the mountain road towards the Napo river are STUNNING. It made us wonder why we even bothered cycling the Ruta de las Cascadas in Baños when the waterfalls were perhaps even more epic along this taxi ride.
Things to do in Puerto Misahualli
Wind down on the river-beach
First stop, check out the beach! It’s not a beach as we know it, but more of a long stretch of sandy riverbank. On a Saturday, this will be packed out with local families. The beach stalls will be pumping out music and crowds will be gathered in equal size around the BBQs and the wild monkeys that live in the beach’s trees. On a weekday, you’ll have it nearly to yourself. It’s not exactly a paradise beach – it’s just an extended riverbank, after all – but it’s a decent place to chill when the weather is good.
Hike to Cascada de Latas Waterfall
A short hike from Puerto Napo, West of Puerto Misahualli, are the small but mighty Cascadas de Latas. We couldn’t fit it in during the time we had in Puerto Misahualli, but we have heard very good reviews!
Take an Ecuadorian Amazon tour down Rio Napo
The Napo river and surrounding Amazon rainforest provide amazing experiences for visitors to soak up (maybe a little too literally with all the rain the rainforest gets). Your best option to see these is to get straight out on the river, whether that’s by kayak, inflatable ring or one of the chalupa long-boats that taxi people from place to place. The fact that so many activities are based around random points along the river with no roads leading to them make this a difficult place to self-navigate, so you’ll have a much easier life by booking a tour.
Do not go with any of the ‘operators’ who hold signs up out on the streets – there’s a high chance that they are unregistered and therefore uninsured. Instead, make a visit to one of the handful of tour operators that have an office in the main plaza and the streets that lead from the square down to the river-beach. They will all offer similar activities, perhaps in a different order or through partnerships with different establishments. For an all-day private tour (just the 4 of us and the guide in a chalupa), it cost us $200 plus a few small tips.
This all-day Rio Napo tour included:
Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest walk led by Sacha Sisa Lodge
Despite being sopping wet from the rain (luckily Cristóbal provided welly boots or we’d have been done for!) this experience was one of our faves of the trip. Trekking through the density of primary Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, our guide from the centre was able to tell us all about the natural medicines extracted from plants and animals that have kept the Kichwa people alive and healthy for thousands of years. His grandfather was a shaman, so he’s grown up around the healing possibilities that nature can provide. This was around 90 minutes long, and although slippery in parts it wasn’t strenuous. Due to the rain, most of the animals were hiding. You can also book night walks (well, evening) where you have more chances of seeing critters and jaguars.
Amazoonico Animal Rescue Centre
Contrary to the name, this isn’t actually a zoo, it’s a rescue centre for animals who have been mistreated, most of them once exotic pets. If you’ve visited the renowned Jaguar Rescue Centre in Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, the two are very similar. You’ll be taken on a tour by a volunteer who will tell you all about the individual life stories of the animals that are at the centre at that moment, plus what’s being done to try and get them to a stage where they can be released back into the Ecuadorian Amazon to survive in the wild.
This is a weird one. After spending an hour at the rescue centre learning about the terrible implications of humans feeding wild animals as pets leading to them losing their instincts to hunt, our guide then took us to a lagoon across the river where he threw chunks of beef at the water to get a dozen or so caymans to reveal themselves. These caymans seem well-versed in the routine, so we hate to think how many groups of people feed them red meat per day. If you have a choice, perhaps ask to skip this one.
We actually said no to this on the day because the weather was pretty chilly and we didn’t fancy stripping down to our swimsuits, but you can tube on inflatable rings at multiple points along Rio Napo. Don’t worry, there’s nothing in the water that would hurt you – the caymans have all long been converted to a beef diet anyways. Some of the currents are pretty strong, so make sure you have a guide to spot you. If you don’t fancy getting wet, some of the tour operators also offered kayaking.
Meeting the Kichwa community in Puerto Misahualli
Although this was a point on our tour, this needs a blog section in itself. The indigenous Kichwa community, the true natives of the Puerto Misahualli section of the Ecuadorian Amazon, has managed to keep its traditions and ways of life in varying degrees depending on the family.
You will see a lot of Kichwa women and children in town wearing full traditional dress (or completely naked if they’re young boys) selling handmade necklaces and trinkets on the streets. Remember not to take pictures without their permission, and they’d probably expect you to tip them, too. If you stop along the river during a boat tour, it’s not unusual for local kids to jump in to get a closer look at you.
You may even see a crowd gathered around a Kichwa shaman to touch them, which we assumed may be for blessings or good health. Note – if this isn’t your culture, don’t go up and touch them yourself. They’re not a tourist attraction, they are genuine members of ancient communities with traditions older than we can fathom. Whilst the urbanised locals sometimes appear to show some sort of reverence for their ancestors’ ways, those who still live in traditional Kichwa communities very much seem like outsiders in the town, and don’t appear to interact much with those who live there.
As a tourist, you will most definitely be offered a tour to see a Kichwa family within your first 6-8 minutes of being in the main plaza of Puerto Misahualli. If you want to learn about this culture, it’s great to be able to hear about it from the people themselves, but you have to be seriously careful with the kind of visit you’re making. Some are run by organised centres where kids are made to sing and dance for coach-loads of people multiple times a day in a human zoo setup, and you can’t always be sure that they’re being paid anything by the tour company, instead relying on you purchasing their crafts after the performance.
Because we were extra cautious of this not being ethical, we initially said no to the Kichwa family visit as part of our all-day tour with L’Agouti Tours, asking to swap it for another activity in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Our guide, Cristóbal, completely understood, and assured us that this particular visit wouldn’t be a mass tourism activity and there would be no performances. He was able to show photos of previous visits to allay our fears. That being said, we were still a little anxious about what we were getting ourselves into and the impact we may have on this community. But it turned out to be fantastic – the lessons had originally been set up by a matriarch so that she could teach her daughters and nieces about how their grandparents used to live before being opened up to tourists. She also does workshops for Kichwa women who haven’t had their traditional ways of life passed down to them, and so tourism isn’t the sole purpose for this venture.
This one lady ran the whole explanation of cultural nuances and demonstrations of how to welcome someone into your Kichwa home (see below), how to make pottery and create clothes from leaf fibres. Her nieces chose to sit in and watch, and only helped her occasionally to pass a pot or check on the fire. No one was dressed up for us, no one sang or danced, and no one seemed uncomfortable that we were in their space, helped by the fact that our group of 4 were the only people there.
We learnt some really fascinating things about how the Kichwa people have been using the natural resources available to them in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest for millennia, and could see that the money made from these visits was going towards developing the family’s property without being so much that it might disturb the local economy. We decided before we went that we would buy some of the village’s crafts, but the family was so unreliant on the sales that when I didn’t have change from a large note to buy another bracelet they gifted it to me anyway. I’m still not sure if me taking it makes me a bad person or not but they were very insistent that I have it!
Where to eat in Puerto Misahualli
Of this, we have no doubts. Resturante Viva Mexico is run by a Mexican guy who set up shop in Puerto Misahualli with his small family. They run a Mexican restaurant with that friendly, open vibe we’d been craving after almost a week in Quito. He speaks perfect English and is very keen to find out your life story, bending over backwards to accommodate all your burrito-related needs.
You may also want to chow down on some more traditional Ecuadorian food, in which case pick one of the restaurants around the main plaza with the tamales being cooked a on a grill outside. This is where you’ll find your cheap soup+main+drink menú del día!
Where to stay in Puerto Misahualli
This area is full of high-end Ecuadorian Amazon lodges; for the most part it’s not a cheap place to stay. There isn’t much other than a few hostels in the main town itself, and they don’t look too spectacular. One of the cheapest lodges available is Banana Lodge which we didn’t see in person, but it would be a strong contender if our budget was tighter. Across the main suspension bridge is where you’ll start to find the more luxe options, and down the river by boat. We stayed in these two:
El Jardín Lodge
We chose to stay at El Jardín first, mostly because we’d get a lodge each with our own private pools. This place absolutely lived up to expectations, what an unbelievable stay! It’s just a short walk from town, over the bridge. They use solar power, and ask you only to use their biodegradable shampoos and soaps so as not to pollute the Ecuadorian Amazon ecosystem. The lodges are BEAUTIFUL and you really do get a private pool per lodge. You do pay out of your arse for it, however; 4 people in 2 lodges for 3 nights cost us around £1000.
We ended up wanting to stay an extra night in Puerto Misahualli as our next stop was via a flight from Quito airport and we couldn’t be arsed to go back to Quito city for just one night when we’d have to drive past the airport to get there anyway. So, with El Jardín booked up, we instead stayed the extra night at Selina Tena. It’s not really in Tena; it’s sort of in between there and Puerto Misahualli, and like some of the other Ecuadorian Amazon lodges, it’s a village in itself. Although accessible by car, there’s nothing else around, so you are reliant on them for food and entertainment, but they do a good job. The pool area is amazing and the accommodation itself has been kept true to its rainforest vibes with some hipster twists.