I had told myself I would never return to Ecuador, but there I was, standing on a city bus making my way from the airport into Quito proper. A giant duffel bag full of kayaking gear leaned against my legs.
My first trip to Ecuador in 2007 was before I was a kayaker and left a less than sweet taste in my memory. I had gone to study Spanish language, travel cheaply and be warm during the winter. The butterflies and jungle were beautiful, my language skills soared, but my recall also brought up smog and incessantly honking horns, bland food and hot humid bus rides with no pee stops.
When my friend Mark told me that he had signed up for a kayak trip in Ecuador this winter I was equal parts jealous and dismissive. Jealous because he has only been kayaking for about 5 months and after kayaking for over 5 years I still had never traveled out of the country to paddle. Dismissive because Ecuador held little allure for a return trip. Seeing him get excited for the trip though, and hearing that another friend, Dana, signed up for it, I had to at least check out the program.
They had signed on with the guiding company Small World Adventures because Dana had taken a trip with them previously and liked it. Coming from a low-budget background and used to the dirt-bag style of kayaking I never thought I would even entertain the idea of a paid trip. But I did, and it turns out that I loved it.
Plenty of friends have traveled to Ecuador, rented beaten up boats, stayed in kayaker-friendly hostels and managed to find suitable people and taxis to get themselves on the rivers and paddle. It takes more time and patience to figure it all out. There are no gauges on the river so just deciding what to paddle consumes most of the morning discussions. For many paddlers this is part of the fun, getting to know new people and take an adventure where the risk of getting skunked (water is too high, too low, taxi doesn’t show up at take-out etc.) is a bit higher. I like adventure, but as I thought about traveling solo with the goal of paddling as much as possible in a short amount of time, it seemed less appealing to try for something like this on my own.
For me, enjoying the people I am paddling with is at least half of the fun. I knew Mark and Dana would be a hoot to hang out and paddle with and I had a hunch that if I signed up, I could convince at least one more friend to join in. Turns out, I was right. Lisa signed up the day after me and none of us regretted it. No one else signed up for the trip so it was just us four friends.
From the moment Don of SWA picked us up in Quito it was game on. Fun and paddling were the goals. If we weren’t paddling (which was always fun) then we were finding other ways to have fun. We didn’t skip a beat the first day and got on the water after arriving in Borja and outfitting our boats. Darcy, the co-owner of SWA met us at the hotel and we walked the 2 blocks to the kayak warehouse. Their kayak selection is huge and ranges from old beat up standards like the Dagger Mamba (which I picked and frequently had to empty, but what did I expect, it’s a Dagger), to brand new Jackson Nirvana and Pyranha Machno that Mark and Lisa picked. Dana found his exact boat, the Liquid Logic Remix.
Below is a little day by day play by play. If you want the details of our trip according to SWA go HERE!
Day 1- We drove about 15 minutes to put in on the Oyacachi to find a playful blue creek with a perfect boof in the first 50 feet of put-in. After about a mile of easy boulder gardens and a couple rapids on the Oyacachi River we joined the Quijos River. The nature of whitewater turned to a big-ish water feel as we continued down the Bombon section.
Part way down the run we stopped to look at a rapid, Curvas Peligrosas, and take in the view. We learned (to my ecstatic surprise) that there was a lek just down stream for the Cock of the Rock birds. A lek is a location where the male birds perform a “confrontation display” to get the chicks. While these birds are not rare, they are a big, charismatic tropical bird. Many birders take trips just to see these. We paddled into an alcove in the river and sat in our kayaks with the birds 50 feet above us. They kept on with their strutting and calling not seeming to notice us. As a geeky biologist and opportunistic birder, I was in heaven. Super fun kayaking and seeing a bright gregarious new bird at the same time.
Day 2- Back to the Quijos to run the El Chaco Canyon section. This is big-ish water, fun wave trains with the long and bouldery Toro rapid. At our lunch stop a friend from the US came paddling by and proved that indeed, it is a small world.
Day 3- The Cosanga River- Since Small World Adventures has been so well established in Ecuador for so long they have many contacts along the rivers and we often put in or took out at private access points which allowed us to maximize the primo parts of the runs and avoid undesirable parts (like long shallow cobble bars). We hiked in through some serious mud and cow patties (don’t get the water in your mouth!) and put on for a short taste of the Cosanga that included a boof-tastic entry into the rapid Chibolo (bump on the head). After a drizzling take out we piled into our minibus and headed to Tena.
By now Don and Darcy have picked up that I am crazy for birds, so we make an extra stop on the way to Tena at Cabanas San Isidro. Here you can sit on the deck and watch dozens of hummingbirds at the feeders or take a walk and see tons of other birds, especially tanangers.
Day 4- Piatua River! This river was a highlight for me. I actually hadn’t done any background reading on the runs before going so each day was a surprise and this one was a great one. After a 30-minute delay passing a collapsing corner of the road, we reached the put in of this somewhat new run (the road was just built a few years ago) and saw clear water running through a maze of boulders. The run was a continuous boulder garden for 3-5 miles of class III-IV fun boofs, rapids and eddy hopping. It was similar to the easier parts of Tobin/upper part of Lobin on the North Fork Feather River in California. We had a good side of low flow. Enough water to get by without being super scrappy.
Dana was feeling under the weather so we were down to three, but Mark’s energy was zapped after a bit of GI trouble the night before. In an overreached effort to make every day count, he decided to paddle. That was the wrong decision. After the first couple rapids he was so low energy that he ended up swimming after a short hole surf and losing his paddle. If anyone finds a green map pattern 4-piece breakdown Werner powerhouse paddle out there, let me know! His name was not on it. Shortly after that he hiked out and Lisa and I were left to enjoy the rest of the run with guides Don and Andres.
Day 5- Jondachi-Hollin- Our longest day on the water, this 13-mile run is a scenic and fun must do reach! The whitewater was straight up fun and splashy with nothing much harder than class III, but the scenery was off the charts. (Because of the remoteness or different flows, it may get a class IV rating). The run starts with a slick 20-minute hike to the river where Kitchwa locals will want to porter your boat for $6 (Jan 2019). We emptied our boats and paid the money and found the trail more enjoyable without the load as we descended into the heart of the rainforest. The Jondachi is a milky blue and starts with fun drop-pool river-running. Waterfalls cascaded from everywhere, indigo-blue morpho butterflies danced above our heads and sounds of the jungle accompanied us downstream. It is a wonderland.
After about 5.5 miles the Jondachi pours meets the Hollin River and the volume at least doubles. We stopped at a nice bank of rocky slabs just below the confluence for lunch and Darcy looked to the sky and said, “I think it’s going to dump.” I was just finishing up my delicious Bolivian-style empanada when the sound of encroaching rain and darkening sky came from river left. Then, it dumped. But it was still warm and we were already wet, so we just kicked back to enjoy the show.
I would have loved to stay longer in Tena and explore more of the rivers there or even repeat the Piatua, but Darcy and Don whisked us back to Borja for our last two days of the trip.
Day 6- Quijos River- again. We put on just above where the Cosanga enters and about 6 miles below. This reach was more big water fun wave trains. After the warm and technical fun of the rivers near Tena I felt less excited about getting on the Quijos again, but rains had hit hard and everything else was too high and sadly we never got to do a full run on the Oyacachi. We had the option to continue down through El Chaco on this day, but I was a little tired anyway and decided to take the late afternoon as a rest. Lisa continued down and said Toro rapid was entertaining at the higher flow, but she walked it and enjoyed the rest.
Day 7- Cosanga – Again! This time we put in at the town of Cosanga to paddle the upper part and as we reached an optional take out point we saw that we had enough water to continue through a typically low cobble bar into the reach we had done before. The water was higher this time, giving it a medium flow at put in. It was amazing to think that at medium flow we could see a scour line about 15 feet over our heads on the vertical canyon walls!
As we came upon Chibolo rapid it was clear that the boof line was a no-go, but a clean left line opened up. By the time we all ran the rapid the water had risen and was pushing high flows. At first this felt pushy and took a second to get into the groove. Then it was big water river running fun – dodging big holes and rocks and riding massive wave trains.
This run put me on possibly the biggest high I’d had all week. I love big water and I love technical and it unexpectedly became a mix of both. It was an exhilarating way to finish the week.
Would I do it again? Yes. I loved paddling with my friends and having all the logistics taken care of. Darcy, Don, Andres and Liam all know the rivers so well they can give a play by play at any flow volume. The places we stayed were quiet and comfortable, the food was reliably safe (won’t make you sick) and plentiful. Darcy is a vegan, so they can definitely accommodate food restrictions. The shuttle stuck with us all day so we had options to get out at egress points along the way. I seriously thought each day was the best and couldn’t get more fun. It re-stoked my love for kayaking and made my travel bug itch again!
- It’s a short time and you are at the mercy of rain for flows. Be open minded and flexible.
- Bring a second set of paddle clothes! It’s nice to trade it out alternate days because it rarely dries in the humid and rainy weather.
- Come fit and ready to be full on for 7 days of action! You don’t want to miss a single day on a trip like this. It pays to prepare and get in shape and have a bomber roll.
- Make a donation to Ecuadorian Rivers Institute to help keep these rivers clean, wild and free flowing!