The 4-hour bus journey from Tena had spectacular, panoramic views of dense rainforest juxtaposed with hellish monstrosities in the form the fiery chimneys of oil drilling stations. Our destination was the Ecuadorian Amazon city of Coca (also known as Francisco de Orellana), and the reason was to take my sons to their first ever museum…
Opened in 2010, the Archaeological Museum and Cultural Centre of Orellana (MACCO) has since become one of the city’s most important tourist attractions. Its permanent exhibition concentrates on the Omagua people. Despite having lived in Ecuador for many years and knowing a lot about Amazon ethnicities, I had never heard of the Omagua, so was immediately intrigued. I soon learned that the reason I didn’t know about them was that they no longer inhabit the area, and in fact vanished long ago. Living along the Napo River from c.1100-1550AD, they were amongst the most advanced of the jungle cultures, leaving behind only artefacts, of which 300 are housed in the museum. Most of these archaeological pieces were found at nearby farms and houses that now belong to Kichwa people, and were collected by missionaries and initially housed in a smaller museum in a nearby village.
The first floor displays the Omagua archaeological pieces from when the culture was at its prime, before they had contact with Europeans. It is an incorrect judgement if it is said that only ‘primitive’ Amazonian cultures were found by the Spaniards taking part in Francisco de Orellana’s famous voyage of 1541 along the Amazon river. In fact, the chronicler of Orellana’s voyage, Gaspar de Carvajal, was astounded at the Omagua’s manufactured goods, writing, "there was a great deal of ceramics of many different forms... it was the best pottery ever seen in the world, because that of Malaga is not equal to it, since it is all glazed and enamelled and decorated with all colours and so alive that they shock one, and the drawings and paintings in them are so methodically worked and drawn, it resembles Roman styles*".
The second floor shows pieces from when the Omagua culture began to decline. The museum didn’t go into a lot of detail about timelines and why exactly the Omagua fled the area. That is certainly an aspect that could be developed more, as my quick search of scholarly articles soon found more information about how the isolated communities at that time were very vulnerable to European diseases. When the Spanish arrived between 1538 and 1540, the Omaguas quickly succumbed to unfamiliar illnesses. And, after joining a huge, but unsuccessful, rebellion against the Spanish in 1578, they fled further upriver into modern-day Peru. A century later, they fell on the mercy of the Jesuits and asked to live under missionary protection in order to escape Portuguese slave traders. And so it was that the Omaguas vanished from Ecuador, leaving behind only their pottery and spearheads - a sad ending for a people who were once the largest nation in the Amazon region but have largely been forgotten by history.
We were lucky to have the museum to ourselves, so could explore at our own pace and my sons could be noisy without disturbing anyone! They gasped at the brightly lit rooms with their sparkly surfaces that contrasted beautifully with the artefacts. Unusually for Ecuador, information about many of the artefacts was written in both Spanish and English, although I feel further labelling could be improved on as some objects didn’t have any.
This small museum is housed in a large and impressive modern building, which my nearly four-year-old twins loved exploring. The access is via a long zig-zag ramp that is wonderful for energetic little ones, and it also boasts a café and a brightly lit library with views of the mighty Napo River.
Website: macco.ec (although, please note that this doesn’t seem to have been updated recently, with some pages still from 2016)
Location: Coca - approx a 5.5-hour bus journey or 5-hour drive from Quito
If you’re unable to get there, there is a dramatised virtual museum tour in Spanish available here on YouTube
Admission: $3 for adults, $1.50 for children and concessions
Opening hours: Tuesdays to Sundays, 9am to 5.30pm
Image credits: Helen Pugh
*Translation by the author
Los Omaguas, A Lost Culture in the Amazon River
Regional Interaction in the Western Amazon: The Early Colonial Encounter and the Jesuit Years: 1538-1767 by Mary-Elizabeth Reeve.
* * *
Helen Pugh lived in Ecuador for 7 years, where her sons were born. They now live in Somerset where she writes books about historical women from South America. 'Intrepid Dudettes of the Inca Empire Part 1' is out now at Apple Books, Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Scribd.