Toucans and macaws glide around the lush jungle canopy and scores of monkeys parade through the overhanging branches. Neon-green and electric-blue butterflies of preposterous sizes flit across gurgling streams, while waterfalls drop into deep pools. Welcome to one of my favorites among Ecuador’s secret spots…a place hidden in the east of the country, where indigenous shamans still perform timeless rituals and a small number of adventurous expats have found new lives surrounded by nature. You might think that you’d need to trek deep into the Amazon rainforest to find such a place.
You also might worry that malaria, dengue fever, and other exotic diseases would run rampant. Or perhaps that isolation would be a problem. You would be wrong…
Where the eastern slopes of the Andes kiss Ecuador’s share of the Amazon basin lies the small city of Tena. Today a welcoming and modern town, it was a major river port and trading post in colonial times.
Home to approximately 35,000 people, Tena is the capital of the Napo province. It’s just five hours by road from Ecuador’s capital, Quito. And because of its location at the junction of mountains and jungle, Tena has most of the benefits of the Amazon, with few of the disadvantages.
It’s slightly higher in elevation than much of the Amazon basin, giving it a more comfortable climate. There is no problem with stifling humidity or unbearable heat, and—though it can rain at any time of year—the precipitation is moderate. Average year-round temperature highs hover around 79° F.
So what does Tena have to offer potential expats? In recent years, it has become a hub for eco-tourism and adventure. Many of the several dozen expats who have settled here are active in running businesses, a number of which cater to visitors.
Tena is the place for whitewater rafting. Rainfall washes down the mountainsides into several nearby rivers, creating rapids-laced runs. Kayaking, rafting, and tubing are all options, depending upon the river and the time of year. Trekking is also popular among locals and visitors alike, with trails of varying levels running through the forest.
But you don’t have to be Indiana Jones to enjoy life in Tena. Two waterways, the Río Tena and Río Pano, merge and split the city in half. The northwest side contains the primary town square, quieter neighborhoods, and hostels—ideal for a leisurely stroll. Crossing the footbridge over the newly conjoined river brings you to the larger section of town. Here the main avenue of 15 de Noviembre showcases artisan galleries that house native crafts and local paintings. Multiple dining options line the street, as well, and include tasty pizzerias, cozy delis, and traditional Ecuadorian fare. You’ll also find a variety of produce and handicraft markets to browse.
At the junction of the two rivers sits an island containing Parque Amazónico. The park consists of 27 hectares that are home to various native animals. Two dollars will gain you admission and let you take advantage of the walking trails that meander across the island. Birds and primates can be seen in the foliage above, and docile animals free-range in the park. A large educational center was recently built on the premises, and other improvements are underway.
For those who simply want to take in the surrounding natural beauty, try dining at one of the cafés along the riverfront. Not only can you watch birds and insects dart above the gurgling waters, but it’s a pleasant spot for people watching, too.
Quite a few residents still have ties to the deep jungle, and you’ll hear Amazonian Kichwa (different from the Kichwa of the Andes) spoken along with Spanish. The people of Tena are a diverse group, and you’re likely to run into businessmen, street performers, craftsmen, and laborers on any given walk through town. Many of the eco-lodges are located just outside town, where you’ll feel as though you are the only person for miles. The singing jungle, though, will remind you that you are by no means alone. Most lodging proprietors can arrange whatever tours interest you.
If—like the expats I met—you fall in love with Tena, you may consider buying property. When looking to purchase a property, the best method is to simply hit the streets and look around. Most houses are sold by owners, with a simple “for sale” sign in the yard.
At the time of writing, $97,000 can purchase a 1,500-square-foot house with two levels. Situated in the middle of an established neighborhood within Tena, it has a yard full of fruit trees, including banana, lemon, and cherimoya (also known as the ice-cream fruit). For those who like to be right in the middle of things, this place is tough to beat.
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