COCA has enjoyed such a boom from oil that in 1998 it was deemed important enough to become the capital of its own province, Orellana. Wresting power from the old provincial capital of Tena, the country's youngest province took up the territory of the lower half of the old Napo province, extending from Coca to Peru. Coca's official name is Puerto Francisco de Orellana, after the first Spaniard to navigate the length of the Amazon, but its nickname – more commonly used – probably derives from local trade in the coca leaf during colonial times.
The settlement first appeared on maps at the end of the eighteenth century, and until even the 1970s Coca remained a forgotten outpost in the midst of virgin jungle, cut off from the rest of the world except by boat or plane. When the whiff of black gold came its way, the sleepy village mutated into an urban nightmare, the result of a speedy influx of oilers and colonists. Until recently its chaotic and filthy potholed streets lined with ramshackle houses made sure that visitors left town in a hurry, taking canoes to lodges further down the Río Napo. Lately, however, concerted efforts by its authorities have succeeded in neatening up sections of the waterfront and in paving some of its main roads. There's no main park in town, a symptom of its explosive growth, as if no one had time to plan one, and the town sprawls outwards from the north bank of the Río Napo. Its central streets, Napo and Amazonas, run north– south and are busiest in the few blocks around the river, though the town's produce market, municipio and bus station are a dozen blocks to the north. Napo even looks quite respectable now, but you only have to peek down the parallel roads to the east to see the town's shabbier side. Most hotels, restaurants and bus companies are along the southern end of Napo or around the waterfront. A block east of Amazonas, the main road from Lago Agrio leads into the town centre before continuing south to a large metal bridge over the river, the start of the Vía Auca, a newly colonized oil road tearing south through the jungle to the ríos Tiputini and Shiripuno.
With fewer tourist facilities than Lago Agrio or Tena, and with nothing to see or do, Coca is still a town you'll not want to linger in. Though it has little to see or do and few tourist facilities, Coca makes for a nice gateway to the primary forest downstream or south along the Vía Auca, as it is the last major town on the Río Napo. Coca is also an ideal jumping-off point for tours to some of the remotest parts of the Ecuadorian Amazon and offers the best access to the vast Parque Nacional Yasuní and the neighbouring Waorani Reserve. It takes the best part of a day on the river to reach the remoter areas, so consider a tour of over three days to allow for more than one full day in the jungle. Some of Ecuador's best jungle lodges are also found on this stretch of the Río Napo, though if planning to stay at one you should book before arriving in Coca. The Vía Auca is the fastest way to get to Waorani communities ("auca" means "savages" in Kichwa), but make sure your guide has full permission from the communities to visit.
Following Ecuador's improved relations with Peru since 1999, Coca is also emerging as the departure point for Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon via the newly opened border crossing at Nuevo Rocafuerte. The river journey takes at least five relatively uncomfortable – but exciting – days, and at the moment is not particularly well established for tourists. Before you attempt this route, you must check border conditions and requirements with the Jefetura Provincial de Migración (on Napo opposite El Auca), where you also need to get your exit stamp.