Amazon Basin, Ecuador – January 1 – January 7, 2012
Paddlers – Alex Stoeffl, Scott Trummer, and new friends
A smile grew on my face as I saw the altimeter on my watch pass 13,000ft, and we were still climbing up the two-lane highway through the mist. The van’s V8-engine was clearly beginning to gasp in the thinner air as it steadily hauled the eight of us and our gear higher into the Andes. A few minutes later, the van relaxed as we crested the longest mountain chain in the world. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t see anything through the mist, all anyone could think about was that we were now heading down into the Amazon basin about to kick off the new year with some awesome paddling in Ecuador!
A few months after coming back from sea kayaking in Chile, I started to feel the need to plan another trip for the winter of 2011/2012. As whitewater kayaking was becoming more and more my focus, I wanted to find a great whitewater adventure. I had met Darcy Gaechter at the American River Festival in 2010 while she was promoting Small World Adventures with free Kayak Sessions magazines and a SWA DVD. I popped the DVD into the computer and was pretty much sold right away. After a few days of looking at course schedules and the cost of flights into Quito, I approached Scott with my idea. Scott was immediately on-board with the idea, but had to think about the timing and costs involved due to college. After a few weeks of deliberation and numerous emails back and forth with Darcy, Scott and I were signed up for a Class IV- Intro to Creeking trip and had plane tickets to Ecuador.
We arrived in Quito a week early to do some tourist activities like checking out the equator monuments, walking around old town, and hiking up to 16,000ft on Cotopaxi. New Year’s Eve in Quito is pretty exciting with street fairs, zany masks, and three-foot-tall dolls filled with firecrackers literally burning in the streets. The morning of January 1st, we piled into a van and headed east over the Andes. A few hours later we arrived at SWA’s riverside lodge in the Quijos Valley. The lodge was fantastic; super clean rooms with comfortable beds, functioning Wi-Fi, beautiful lawn and landscaping, and a fun rapid on the river. Once we had settled into our rooms, we gathered for lunch and a brief discussion of what people wanted from the trip (everyone wanted to get their boof on) and what to expect for the week. Then we geared up for our first day on the river and outfitted our boats before we loaded them on the van’s trailer.
The first run of the week was the Rio Oyacachi. It started off with an optional Class IV- that three of us decided to run. It was of course great for me to start my trip by running the main drop backwards and getting surfed for 15-seconds. However, today was the day to blunder and work out the kinks. Although the river had some solid rapids, it was mostly easily navigable boulder gardens. There was only one Class IV that we scouted and everyone ran confidently, except for me doing a pointless flip immediately after the rapid. Lower on the run, the Oyacachi joined the Quijos. The confluence of the rivers created a nice big water rapid which we were told to run left of center due to two large holes center. Of course, apparently what I took for left of center was actually center and I crested a wave to see a meaty hole below me about a second before I plowed right into the middle of it. After missing my first roll attempt, my second got me up just in time to get set up for the next hole I was going into. Fortunately, the second hole just pushed me off to the side and was no big deal. We paddled down to the take out where the van picked us up and we headed back to the lodge for showers and dinner.
Day two took us to the Upper Rio Cosanga. It had a much more gradual increase in difficulty and consisted mostly of technical boulder gardens going down a lush canyon with the occasional waterfall cascading down a steep wall as you rounded a bend. We all got out to scout the crux rapid, Chibolo, which had a great opportunity for everyone to practice their boof. It consisted of paddling a sneak on river left, paddling most of the way right in a pool, then taking a blind entrance off a small drop, immediately getting to river right, then charging down the main portion of the rapid while trying to stay off the wall. It was good fun. After some more boulder gardens and one more larger rapid we finally arrived at the take out. The van was waiting there for us, with cervezas in the cooler, and we took off back to the lodge.
Unfortunately, a bug had apparently caught up with me from Quito and I began to feel ill in the afternoon. After dinner, which I was unable to keep down, everyone was offered the option of going down the Lower Cosanga (IV) or staying with a IV- option. Most of the group chose the Lower Cosanga. However, since I wasn’t feeling well, I decided to take an easy day and do the IV- option with one other guest. I really wished to go down the Lower Cosanga as the guidebook described it with, “shortly below the put-in you will be boofing your way through some of the most fun Class IV action in Ecuador.”
On day three, our IV- option ended up being the Rio Quijos (Baeza to Borja). The river was arguably easier than anything else we had paddled, but it was still a lot of fun. We scouted one crux rapid and unfortunately I lost my breakfast on the short walk back to the kayaks. After rinsing my mouth and throat, I ran the rapid which was mostly about finding the right line and letting the water do most of the work. The take out for the short run was the SWA lodge and I decided to take out while the rest of our group continued down the next sections. I spent the rest of the afternoon nursing electrolytes and listening to my iPod while hanging in a hammock by the river. I was ok with the decision I had made as it allowed me recuperate for the remaining days and I later learned from the others that the Lower Cosanga was pretty stout.
After everyone returned from paddling, we all packed up our gear for the next few days and were taken over to Tena. While the SWA lodge in the Quijos Valley is around 5,300 ft in elevation, Tena is about 1,700 ft. The difference in climate was immense to say the least. The humidity went through the roof and the ambient temperature went up as well. SWA arranged lodging at a nice hotel and took us out to a nice restaurant for dinner. I was glad to be able to keep my dinner down again.
Significant rain had limited our choices for rivers on day four, but it was decided to do a big water run on the Rio Jatunyacu. I think most of us wish we could have brought playboats for this run as there were no technical rapids, just endlessly long wave trains that occasionally reached six feet tall. One of the unique experiences on the river was the confluence with the Anzu. You could see and feel the distinct differences in the water . If you paddled right where the two flows ran parallel before they could fully mix, the Jatunyacu’s water would be more greenish (although still brown) and cool while the Anzu’s would be very brown and warm. It was interesting to have one hand in each flow at the same time. At the take out in Puerto Napo, we stopped to get some beverages and watch the local monkeys before returning to Tena. That evening we ordered pizza and had dinner at an open-air bar on the banks of the Rio Tena. I feel obligated to note that the Hawaiian pizza was the best I had ever eaten in my life.
Day five brought us to the Rio Piatua. The Piatua was apparently only recently made easily accessible with new roads and it took a while to get there from Tena, but it was certainly worth it. The river had crystal clear water, numerous fantastic rapids, and an isolated jungle feel the entire way down. The main rapid we scouted involved a four foot drop into a nice pool. There were also rapids involving tight technical maneuvering, other small drops, little slides, and simply continuous fun. If you visit Ecuador for some whitewater paddling, be sure to put this river on your short list of musts.
Day six had us packing up our rooms as we were going back to the Quijos Valley after our run. The van took us to the Upper Rio Misahualli, which was another classic run with more technical boulder gardens. However, it lacked the wilderness feel of the Rio Piatua with civilization being noticeable during many parts of the run. It was still a great run full of good rapids and is highly recommended. After we all got dried off at the take out, we stopped briefly for drinks before continuing back to the Quijos Valley.
On our final day, we did another short run on the Rio Quijos (Baeza to Borja again). However, heavy rain had raised the water level quite a bit and it was a much more entertaining run. Everything got much bigger and pushier than the first time I had paddled it. Back at the lodge we cleaned the boats for the next group, packed up for the trip back to Quito, and said our goodbyes to the staff and guides.
The ride back to Quito was pretty quiet and a few people slept, but the weather was much clearer and the vistas were fabulous over the pass this time. I only wish I would have been able to see more than just the top of the Volcan Antisana. We arrived back at the hostel and took it easy for the rest of the evening. After breakfast the next day, we took a taxi to the airport and were on our way back home.
A few notes about paddling in Ecuador:
- Brings pants and socks to paddle in. There are a lot of bugs that like to bite bare skin while you’re carrying your boat through tall grass at put ins and take outs. I used some lightweight stretchy polyester pants from The North Face and NRS Wetsocks and didn’t have any issues.
- Don’t forget the sunscreen! The UV exposure is intense.
- If you want to mail home a postcard, do it while you’re in Quito or another major city. Do not assume postcards will be easy to find elsewhere.