Kayaking in Ecuador
By John Kobak

We always look for a warm place to paddle in the winter. This year we decided to go back to Ecuador where we had paddled three years ago. On that trip we encountered lots of rain, which washed out some rivers and caused us to head to Western Ecuador to finish the trip. We found that we liked those rivers and the lodging so we decided to add them to this years trip.

Bob Nicholson was the only one who was on our last trip. This year we have 7 paddlers and two more who were just along for the touring, hiking and shopping. Ecuador is a very inexpensive place to travel. Hotel rooms are about $20 - $40, including breakfast, Lunches are around $3 and dinners about $6. Steve Nomchong from Yacu Amu rafting in Quito supplied the kayaks, guides, transportation, and all our meals and lodging. Steve is very flexible and can custom design a trip for a group for 25% less than the US outfitters, Small World or Endless Rivers. The 15-day trip with 11 days of paddling was only $1450. Brent Laubaugh brought his own kayak and saved another $150.

The paddlers were: Elliott Drysdale, Rob Hammond, John Kobak, Paul Lang, Brent Laubaugh, Bill Miller and Bob Nicholson. Peggy Kobak and Cathy Needham did not paddle.

Most of us arrived a day early to acclimate ourselves to the high altitude. The altitude has a bigger effect on the temperature than the fact that the country is on the Equator. Quito, the capital, is over 8000ft and is called the city of eternal spring. High's are in the 60's and lows in the 40's F. Most of the paddlers head to the Oriente region, which are the headwaters of the Amazon River. Most of the paddling is centered around Tena or Baeza. Tena, is about 7hrs by bus from Quito, is at a lower altitude so much warmer. It is the place to go if you have your own kayak and want to hook up with other paddlers. The runs here are well known by the cab drivers and the shuttles are fairly easy to set up. The rivers near Tena are the Jatunyacu(23), big volume, rain forest views; Upper Misahualli (30), clear warm water, technical; Lower Misahualli (32) big rapids, rain forest, waterfalls; Upper & Lower Jondachi (34). This year we skipped the Lower Misahualli because a flood had caused the portage around the falls to be too difficult for a large group to attempt.

We stayed at a very nice hotel "Los Yutzos" on the Tena River. Everyone paddled the first three days. Rob was concerned that his collarbone, that he had broken at Thanksgiving, would keep him from paddling but it had healed nicely and he got stronger each day. This was an old man's trip with the average age being about 50. We had three guides, Steve, the owner, from Australia, Claude from Quebec and Alex, an Irishman, from Ecuador. Alex's father owns Rios Ecuador, a good outfitter in Tena. The warm-up runs on the Jatunyacu and the Upper Mish. were uneventful other than a few of us being eaten by sand flies. Remembering all the problems we had on the Lower Jondachi the last time, we decided to get an early start. It is a 22 mi. technical run. The scenery is spectacular as the river runs through a total wilderness area, if anyone would have any big problems there is virtually no way out except to continue downriver. The water on all three runs was very low, so we knew we were in for a long day. The put-in gauge only read 28cm. The level on our last trip was about 50cm. The run was slow and very rocky but no one was having any problems until we got to a large blind drop. Steve scouted and had Claude run down the tight S-turn. Steve then waved for us to follow. Everyone hesitated, but I bravely said that I would go first. I guess I made the S a little wide and got stood up on my tail. I was paddling a Whiplash that I was still trying to get used to. As I spun around my foot brace let go causing me to flip and after 4 roll attempts, without benefit of a foot brace, I bailed out. Luckily, I ended up in an eddy. There were cheers from upstream when Steve signaled that I had swum. The Albatross that Brent had shared since October finally came to rest on my head. Everyone got really quiet when they realized that they still had to run the rapid. To my chagrin, everyone did fine, I couldn't do a quick Albatross handoff.

The run was long but uneventful. On our last trip almost everyone swam on this river. The rapid that Bob & I had swum the last time was an easy drop with a small hole. The only problem with the low level is that it was a very long day. We were on the river for 9 hours, but got off an hour before dark.

We were hoping for some rain to bring the rivers up a little. Our prayers were answered when it started to rain hard on our drive to Baeza. Our hotel in this area was "Hosteria Los Yumbos". It was by far the worst hotel on our trip but the friendly owner and good food made up for it. It was under construction the last time we were here and not much progress has been made.

The next morning we were going to run a short section of the Upper Quijos (29). Bill, Rob and I were still tired from the long Jondachi run and decided to sit this one out. The river was at 110cm and rising fast. The trip barely started when Bob missed his roll and swam, letting go of his kayak and paddle. It was similar to the white mile on the Poudre and at this level rates a solid (32), although it is normally only a Class III run. Bob lost his paddle but his kayak was rescued. However it ended up on the opposite side of the river, and no one thought they could ferry the kayak or Bob to get them together. Bob walked back to the put-in and would retrieve the boat tomorrow if the water level drops. Alex had been sick with a fever and managed to infect Elliott. Elliott was feeling tired and decided to takeout at the first bridge. The other three paddlers made it to the Borja Bridge OK. Alex decided he better go back home and try to recover before paddling anymore.

When the paddlers got back they had agreed to hide the fact that Bob had swum. I guess they felt I should carry the Albatross a few more days.

The next day the water had dropped to 95cm, everyone except Elliott, who was now running a fever, started out. Bob walked down to retrieve his kayak. The fast water was still a little intimidating so Bob, Bill and Rob took out at the first bridge. The rest of us paddled down to Borja Bridge, this is as high as I would care to run this section.

On Saturday we started at Borja Bridge on the Middle Quijos (29) and paddled down to our lodge. Elliott, Bill and Paul took a rest day. One big rapid, El Toro, was worthy of scouting. There were several routes; Steve recommended the left side, then he made the center route look very easy. Claude said go left, and then ran down the right side. Rob and I decided to give the center route a try. Well, I hit every hole and ended up perched on the big rock that splits the bottom channel, luckily I finished upright. Rob, hit a few holes flipped but had a good roll. Brent and Bob followed Steve's advice and ran the left side with no problem. At some other non-descript place Rob accepted the Albatross when he missed his roll and swam near a wall.

Bob was Elliott's roommate and had managed to pickup the fever. Elliott was now feeling OK. I needed another day of rest, so everyone except Bob & I paddled the Lower Quijos (29). It was raining again and the rivers were starting to get really big. After the long paddle the group took a hike to San Raphael Falls, the highest waterfall in Ecuador. The entire Quijos River drops over 450' to start its long journey down the Amazon, where it drops only another 1500' in the next 2500 miles.

Our next day was scheduled to be a rest day. Brent was the next person to get the passing fever and Bob was still recovering, the rest of us decided to run the Oyacachi (32). After a long ride on a muddy road we got to the put-in. From 200' above the river it looked too hard, so we decided to run the Upper Quijos again. When we got there it was also too high. It looks like a repeat of our last trip. We drove by the Cosanga and it didn't look as high, perhaps it would be a good run for tomorrow, I guess today would be a rest day after all.

The Cosanga (33) was to be our last run in the Baeza area. The weather was clearing but the river was running near its high limit. Steve figured that we should run the easier lower section and takeout on the Quijos River. Brent & Bob, still not feeling up to par, decided to take pictures at the put-in rapid.

Steve explained that we would need to run one by one since the eddies were small. The put-in at a pipeline crossing was a big rapid. The eddies were small and when we all got into the river Rob got flushed down into the center of the river. He hit some big holes, endered and disappeared down the river. Steve went down after him running the left side. When Paul saw Rob go he decided that he needed to assist in case Rob was swimming, which he wasn't. However Paul went right into the large hole in the center. His skirt blew but he made it to shore before totally submerging. This was his second swim with a blown spray skirt. Grumbles were heard that maybe he deserves the Albatross. Elliott asked me what to do, I said Steve told us to wait until he signaled us to go and had run left. Elliott started right down the middle into the large hole, however he did not come out. Claude paddled up and asked me where did Elliott go. I indicated that I never saw him come out of the hole. Claude decided to scout the rapid and Bill crawled back up the riverbank to scout also. Claude indicated that the left side looked good and waved me down. I ran hard left with no problem. But when I eddied in, I found Elliott's water bottle and air bag along with Elliott sans boat and paddle. I saw Paul & Rob were OK but the river had the best of them. I had thought Bill had taken out upstream and said, "let's take out" just as Bill came swimming into the eddy. Bill couldn't see what was going on so he put back in and tried the left run. The big hole got him also. He saved his paddle but the boat headed downriver after Elliott's. Steve had been chasing Elliott's kayak and didn't know that Bill's boat was heading downriver. Claude tried to get Bill's kayak but when he saw Steve walking out, he walked out with Elliott, Paul & Bill.

The shortest run ever for the "KIST" (Keelhauler International Swim Team)

Steve stayed in Baeza with the intention of looking for the kayaks on the Quijos, while the group drove up to Papallacta Hot Springs. When Steve was driving to Borja Bridge he saw some other paddlers who had just run the Cosanga. They had rescued the two kayaks and liberated the spare paddle, throw rope and misc. equipment. When Steve said they were his, they returned the gear and told him where to find the boats. Steve and a friend walked in the next day and paddled the boats out.

Meanwhile, we enjoyed the hot springs, which was a great way to end a bad day. There were hot spring swimming pools outside the beautiful lodge rooms. The place was really special in a high mountain setting. We all wanted to stay but the trip must go on.

The next morning we headed for Quito on our way to the Eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains. We picked up Alex & Claude our guides since Steve needed to get back to work running Yacu Amu Rafting. Another long day on the bus, but at least it was new bus with soft reclining seats. Jorge our driver managed to fight his way through the truck traffic on the drive over the mountain which we coined "Camino del Muerte" (The Highway of Death).

After a late lunch we ran the Lower Toachi River, which joins the Rio Blanco a few miles before the takeout. Our hotel was only a mile from the takeout and was an architectural wonder. La Cascada which has about 6 unique rooms is named after the 30' natural waterfall which drops into a small stream next to the swimming pool. The hotel is one of the most expensive resorts in Ecuador and we had it all to ourselves. The weather here was warm and humid and it rained all night. Now these rivers were coming up as well. We were concerned that the Rio Blanco would be too high. But we were pleasantly surprised that the level was only 90cm. We ran the 24 mi section down to the confluence with the Toachi in a little over 4 hours. There were a couple of tough wall rapids and large holes everywhere. The group did well and no Albatross were seen.

Our final day of paddling sort of fell apart. The old fellows were too tired to paddle another day and the youngsters couldn't find a nearby river that they could run in the time allotted. So the paddling trip ended with everyone except Brent having one swim. Bill Miller is now the current holder since his was the last swim.

So it was off to Otavalo via Quito again where we got rid of the kayaks and our guides. Otavalo is a native town 30 mi north. We stayed overnight on Friday since market day is Saturday. There were hundred of Native Indians selling everything from Alpacha sweaters and coats to hats, rugs, bags, crafts, jewelry and the standard open air meat markets.

We then headed up to Cotacachi to shop for leather. This town has wall-to-wall leather stores. If it's made of leather, you can find it here for a good price. Ecuador now uses the US dollar as their currency so there was no problem realizing the good buys we were getting.

The trip was a lot of fun and the rivers were very challenging. I would highly recommend our outfitter Yacu Amu for setting up a custom trip. Like last time, Steve bent over backward to ensure that we all got to do what we wanted, and that Peggy & Cathy had opportunities to hike and tour. For winter paddling Ecuador is tough to beat.

Side bar on the San Raphael Falls - by Paul Lang
The well maintained trail to the overlook of two tiered San Raphael Falls is about one mile, traversing small streams, and passing through vegetation so dense that one wonders if one is hiking through some sort of living green cave. Eventually we are afforded partial views of the upper falls. We estimate the smaller first drop - a sort of riverwide pourover - to be in the range of 100 ft high. The churning backwash at its base forms a hole at least 15 feet deep, but as devoted river junkies we speculate as to how one might run such a monster. Of course we have yet to behold of San Raphael in its entirety. When we arrive at the trail's end we are amazed at the vast quantity water which never reaches the bottom of the second, near 400 foot drop - it simply vaporizes on the way down. The impact of that water which actually survives the descent in liquid form is nothing short of stupendous; we are to a person mesmerized by the exploding jets and streamers of water and vapor rebounding from the falls' base - sometimes obliterating views of half of the lower drop. Transfixed by the sight, a sort of hallucinogenic quality creeps over us - after watching that bottom drop for a time the very walls of the canyon seem, in surges and pulses, to be moving upstream, to rebuild that rock which the racing torrent is relentlessly tearing away.

That we had just paddled some of this very same water within the hour at a rather pushy level is sobering enough. That the flows we are witnessing are but a small fraction of those of the rainy season fires our imaginations with a sense of awe that Niagara itself could never hope to match. If forced to compare San Raphael with anything in my prior experience I would say the falls remind me of nuclear explosion, with the mushroom cloud upside down. And in some respects that analogy is apt. We all speculate that any solid thing unfortunate enough to make the descent over this cascade would be dashed to atoms, including the paddle Bob had lost upstream earlier in the week.

Yacu Amu - Kayak Outfitter

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