Pioneering tourism in the Amazon: the adventures of the Flotel Orellana
By Lucho Maldonado Robles
Such was the fame and prestige acquired by its operations in the Galapagos, in 1975 the leaders of Metropolitan Touring turned their attention to the potential of Ecuador’s Amazonian Region. At the time, some tourism excursions to the region were already offered and small lodges existed in remote locations in this vast area.
The enterprising directors of the company decided that it was worth throwing their energies into another “crazy dream”… After all, they had turned the Galapagos “crazy dream” into a successful model of tourism and conservation. With this experience, the new adventure began.
As with all pioneers, they figured that what they would do should be new and different. Considering the options, they fell upon the idea of a “floating hotel” on one of Ecuador’s main Amazonian rivers, one that moved, in other words, a river boat…
Through their network of contacts, it didn’t take long for them to find two old friends, both Ecuadorians, who were managing a company working on logistic transportation for petroleum drilling operations in remote areas. For the purpose, they used large flat-bottom barges, powered by huge outboard motors. Joining forces and polishing an agreement, an Operating Company was formed, while Metropolitan would conduct the branding, marketing, selling and supervising the passenger services of the venture.
The next step was to negotiate the buying of one of those barges, a large flat-bottomed hull, made of a series of floating units, technically assembled together to form a single unit, close to 90 feet in length. A team of naval engineers, river navigation experts, technicians, architects, designers and mechanics started planning and soon beginning the actual construction of the “hotel” structure which would be built over the floating barge (cabins, bar, dining and saloon area, sun deck, offices, galley, crew accommodations, etc.). The selected barge had travelled all the way up the Amazon River from the Atlantic.
The boat to be built needed a name and it came quickly and easily: “Flotel Orellana”. “Flotel” for being a floating hotel and Orellana, in honor of the discoverer of the legendary Amazon River, Francisco de Orellana, who set off from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on his epic expedition, in 1536.
The river chosen for the venture was the Napo River, in the north-central part of Ecuador’s Amazon Region, due to its depth, length, width and navigation conditions. The town of Francisco de Orellana, also known as “El Coca”, was selected as the location to build a shipyard and to serve as the home base for the operation, due to its accessibility and other favorable conditions. The town nowadays has turned into one of the region’s most prosperous and bustling commerce and tourism centers, and a provincial capital city.
From a marketing point of view, it made sense that the Flotel would sail along the very same route which led Orellana to discover the Amazon River, more than 400 years ago, a route offering an experience of the exotic jungle, with its fabulous fauna, flora and ancestral cultures.
While the technicians were busy with the construction of the boat, a small team especially deployed by Metropolitan Touring and frequently accompanied by the company’s directors, began the fascinating task, not exempt of adventures and risks, of identifying the best visiting sites, the most accessible trails and forests, the lagoons and native communities and all the elements which would configure the overall product: the boat and its itinerary and activities, all planned to the greatest detail.
In those days, the areas which were chosen for the Flotel’s itinerary and visits were not within any of the country’s protected areas. However, their natural characteristics made it necessary to act with care and responsibility. Thus, adapted to the particular environment of the Region, a set of mitigation measures were established, following the example of the Galapagos operation and its prestigious model of responsible tourism.
With this philosophy firmly in mind, trails and boardwalks were built, improved or adapted where necessary and a set of “Rules for Visitors” were drawn up. Special care was also placed on the disposal of litter in the visiting areas, as well as for the ship itself. An important feature incorporated into the project was the establishing of alliances and bonds with the indigenous communities of the areas which would be part of the Flotel’s itineraries and programmes. A quarter of a century before the travel industry would begin talking about community tourism and involving local communities in the benefits generated by tourism visits, Metropolitan Touring, on its own initiative and with a long-term vision of social and environmental responsibility, was already setting pillars for this new type of tourism.
As the various fronts progressed on their respective tasks, joint meetings were periodically staged in order to exchange information which was essential for the itineraries and program’s design, for instance the speed at which the Flotel would navigate, considering that on a River like the Napo, it makes a major difference if you go “downstream” versus if you go “upstream”, due to the very strong currents. Distances and times had to be well calculated, the docking points for the boat along the river’s shores had to be identified and prepared, while keeping in perspective factors such as climate and seasonal conditions, whereby some locations become too shallow during drier periods of the year.
With the main “land” trails identified, other attractions were investigated and added, such as the navigations along smaller and fascinating winding rivers like the Indillama or the Jivino, where one could observe dozens of bird species, varieties of monkeys, ant-eaters, multi-colored butterflies, amazing insects, giant boas or rare river fish and even, on seldom lucky occasions, the elusive Amazon jaguars.
A highlight of the program was the visit to the Lake of Limoncocha (from the Kichwa language: Lake of Lemons), due to the dark green color of its waters. Ornithologists from many countries identified within a short period of time a staggering number of bird species: more than 400 just in the immediate surroundings of the lagoon. Shortly thereafter, the Government of Ecuador declared Limoncocha as a Biological Reserve, part of the National System of Protected Areas.
Later on, in the 1990s, the operation of the Flotel was moved to the more remote Rio Aguarico, on the borders of Peru and Colombia. Following weeks of searching and mapping for the ideal places for camps to be constructed, Iripari and Imuya were chosen.
Even before the boat started operating, a “skeleton crew” was hired, with more than 95% of its personnel being native or resident of the area, to guarantee a deep, practical, first-hand knowledge of the environment, climate, attributes or hazards of the region. With them, times and distances were tested for the canoe rides which would usher the visitors between the Flotel and the land attractions along the shores and inland. For those smaller waterways or lakes which required paddling, native experts were hired to do the job with their ancestral expertise. Everyone’s enthusiasm was contagious.
Another feature which, of course, was not omitted on the planning was to prepare a team of Naturalist Guides. These guides acquired special training, seminars and field practices in order to introduce them to the skills of communications, human relations, languages or very specialized topics such as ornithology, considering that birds were (are) one of the main and most easily observed animal attractions.
Thus, the first team of Guides was formed by a native of the Huaorani ethnic group, who had been raised by American missionaries and spoke good English; a young descendant of mestizo settlers of the area, who also spoke English and had learned some guiding techniques; and a young American biologist, who would contribute with his share of more specialized biological and ecological knowledge. They would not only lead the daily field expeditions and nature interpretation, but also provide, just like in Galapagos, Informative lectures, specialized talks and the trademark, “made-in-Galapagos” daily briefings about the following day’s program, terrain conditions, main attractions, suggested clothing and accessories and all the practical information that the guests so much appreciate to know in advance.
In the meantime, the company’s commercial teams started promoting a new, different and fascinating product in the world markets, created and enhanced with the elements of responsible management that were the hallmarks of its Galapagos operations. a new era of organized tourism was being opened in Ecuador’s Amazonia, with two itinerary options: a four-day-three-night “weekend cruise”, Friday to Monday and a five-day-four-night cruise, from Monday to Friday. Air transportation was provided at first by chartered small private or Air Force aircraft, which took a bit less than an hour to fly the guests to and from Quito to “El Coca”.
Metropolitan Touring thus created a new landmark in the history of tourism in Ecuador, opening the country’s spectacular and richly bio-diverse Amazon Region to international visitors in a regular, organized, responsible and sustainable way.
With all these preparations in place, and many tales of sacrifice and toil, the Flotel Orellana, with 50 special guests on board, local authorities, ample media coverage and hundreds of villagers watching from the town’s shores, loosened its moorings in Puerto Francisco de Orellana, to initiate its river cruises and a new story of success, in the sunny and hot mid-day sun of the 19th of March, 1976.
Metropolitan Touring celebrates 60 years in Travel
It takes a certain type of spirit to make a real difference. It takes a certain team of people to believe in dedicating their energies to their countries.
The first steps to develop an Ecotourism model
From the onset of 1968, the visionary leaders of Metropolitan Touring started with their visits of inspection to Galapagos...