This post is part 1 of 6 in the series Amazon Travel in Ecuador

The Napo River is a major tributary to the Amazon River and the large riverside town of Coca is your gateway for explorations in this popular part of the Amazon in Ecuador. Use our Amazon travel guide to the Napo River Amazon Basin in Ecuador to figure out how to get there, when to go, dispel a few Amazon myths, and learn more about environmental issues that affect this part of Ecuador and Yasuní National Park.

Napo River boat transportation Ecuador Amazon

Locals traveling on the Napo River in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

How to get to Coca and the Napo River

You can take a 30-minute flight between Quito and the riverside town of Coca, or take a bus, or join a tour, or hire a car and driver, or do the 8-9 hour drive out of Quito, over the Andes, then down into the Amazon yourself (like we did).

If you’re driving yourself or if you’ve hired a car and driver, plan to make a brief stop at the San Rafael Waterfall on the way. It’s the tallest waterfall in Ecuador (430 feet or 131 meters) and it’s part of the massive Cayambe-Coca National Park. Like all national parks and reserves in Ecuador (except Galapagos Islands National Park), entry is free. There are clean bathrooms and an enormous stuffed fake Andean Bear (aka, spectacled bear) near the small ranger station where you present your passport.

San Rafael Waterfall Ecuador

San Rafael Waterfall is the tallest waterfall in Ecuador.

After you check in, head down a well-made and mostly shaded trail (more like a small dirt road) which descends to an elevated platform with excellent views of the entire waterfall. Allow about 30 minutes each way at a reasonable walking pace.

Chinese dam construction Ecuador

Many infrastructure projects, including dams, have been built by Chinese firms using imported Chinese workers.

During the journey between Quito and Coca, you will probably notice a lot of construction projects, including dams. These are largely bankrolled by the Chinese government and Chinese workers were even brought in to do the labor. This explains one roadside town where signs are in Spanish and in Chinese (like the one pictured above). Learn more about the environmental impact of these projects in our post about how dams are threatening the San Rafael waterfall.

More Amazon travel know-how

Here are a few more important things to know before you travel to the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

The best time to go to the Amazon

There is no worst or best time to visit the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. Temperatures are warm and rain is possible all year round. One thing to consider is that during summer months (roughly October to May), the water level in the Napo River can drop which can make river travel slower.

Napo river villagers

The Napo River is home to many people.

Amazon environmental issues

No matter which Amazon lodge you choose as your base along the Napo River, you’ll have to head out of Coca, the town that serves as the gateway for travelers who want to explore the Amazon Basin in Ecuador, in a boat on the Napo in order to reach your destination. And you probably won’t be alone. There are many lodges, tours, and tourists in this part of Ecuador.

Lodge boat Napo River Amazon Basin Ecuador

Boats like these transfer travelers on the Napo River from the town of Coca to the many lodges in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

But tourism is just a small part of Coca. The town’s larger function is as a base for oil company workers involved in the exploration and extraction of oil in the region.

You may have read about the controversies and conflicts in the region between oil companies, the Ecuadorean government, local inhabitants, international environmentalists, celebrities, and advocates for Yasuní National Park.

village Napo River Amazon Basin Ecuador

A village along the Napo River in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

In 2007, after passionate global public outcry about environmental damage to Yasuní National Park and communities living within the park, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and one of the most biodiverse places on earth, then-President Rafael Correa proposed an unusual solution. Essentially, he said that if the world would put 3.6 billion dollars into the Yasuní-ITT Initiative his government would stop oil exploration in 4,000 square miles of Amazon. It was a “put your money where your mouth is” idea and it got some global attention. Leonardo DiCaprio gave some money. However, ultimately, the initiative never reached anywhere near that amount.

Napo River oil exploration flare

An oil pipeline flare on the banks of the Napo River not far from Coca.

By 2013 the initiative was declared dead and oil exploitation continues apace. We saw flares from oil pipelines along the Napo River less than an hour out of Coca. Get the basics about environmental threats to the Amazon in Ecuador before you travel there.

Yasuni oil exploration Napo River Amazon Basin Ecuador

Heavy equipment traveling on the Napo River from Coca to mining operations in the area.

Amazon travel myths

Before you go, study up on our 9 Top Amazon Travel Myths to learn surprising truths.

Tarantula Ecuador Amazon

Yes, there will be tarantulas.

For example, it may not be as hot as you think, piranhas aren’t nearly as awful as Hollywood has led you to believe, there will be tarantulas, and much more.

After the Amazon

Try to make time for at least a quick soak at Termas de Papallacta on your way back to Quito. As the road climbs out of the Amazon and up into the cold, high Andes you’ll pass the turn off for these most sophisticated hot springs in Ecuador.

Papallacta Hot Springs lodge

Pools of volcanically-heated water await at Papallacta Hot Springs Lodge.

The complex offers huge and comfortably-developed pools of volcanically-heated water, a spa with a full menu of treatments, and a wide range of rooms and cabins if you want to stay overnight. Camping is also allowed and there are a few hiking trails around the property as well.

Napo River Amazon Basin Ecuador sunset

Sunset over the Napo River.

Ecuador’s other Amazon

We also explored the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, which is Ecuador’s other Amazon. It may be the place for you if you’re looking for a more compact area, fewer visitors, and lower prices. Not to mention the fact that we saw many elusive species for the first time in the Cuyabeno Amazon region.

Continue planning your Amazon Basin adventure in the Napo River region of Ecuador with our post about an outstanding community tourism project in the Amazon, our post about a luxury lodge in the Amazon, and our post about a riverboat adventure on the Napo.


Here’s more about travel in Ecuador

Here’s more about Amazon Travel

Here’s more about Adventure Travel


Series Navigation:<< Community Tourism Done Right – Napo River Amazon Basin, Ecuador

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