Mucho Agua in Ecuador (1999)
This winter's adventure trip was a great experience for twelve Keel Haulers who traveled from across the USA. This was an advanced whitewater trip along with a nature lover's tour of the Galapagos with some touring of the mountain towns to shop for arts and crafts thrown in. The trip varied from one week to 2 months, with everybody on their own schedule.
Peggy and I were having a tough time deciding where to go this year. I asked our travel buddy, Chuck Singer, what he was doing. He said he was going to Ecuador and Peru for two months. I thought, why not South America, we pretty much toured most of Central America on our previous trips.
As usual, I hit the internet to try to find a good plan which would include kayaking, diving and exploration. I found that most of the US based kayak outfitters wanted "mucho dinero" for an 8 day trip. I figured with a little work I could probably do it for half as much and add the flexibility that makes these trips work for everyone. Beside I hate organized tours and if we had a lot of options more people could come on the trip.
I found an outfitter in Ecuador, Yacu Amu Rafting who was willing to provide kayaks, guide, transportation, food, drink and lodging for $100/day. Steve Nomchong, the Australian owner, was very flexible and took care of all the arrangements along with airport transfers and booking a yacht for our 8 day tour of the Galapagos Islands. He hired Dave a Canadian whitewater guide who also accompanied the trip. The trip was sort of a exploratory trip for all of us since they had never attempted to lead a large kayak group. They usually just rent out their kayaks to the US outfitters.
Speaking of renting out boats, none of us brought our own except Carl Homberg, a C-1 paddler. Although Steve assured him he could locate a Cascade C-1, like Carl paddles, he struck out. Carl would have to bring his own boat. When Carl checked the airline regulations, he was told no boats, they need to go air freight which would cost $500. I checked with Continental Airlines and found they would take wind surfers for $75 as long as they were under 115" and less than 75lb. The weight was no problem but Carl's boat is 132" long. Chuck agreed to try to get it on his flight with my assistance since he was leaving a few weeks before Carl. I bagged the boat and marked it WIND SURFER. Who knew the ticket clerk would try to measure it. Luckily she used a yard stick with my help. I assured her that I just measured it at home and it was only 113" long, she said OK and wrote 113". It was going to make it, Carl was one happy person.
We ended up with a strong group of paddlers and a few that would just go on the non paddling portion. Chuck, our Spanish interpreter, Pete Cornelison, an old member who now lives on the East coast, Carl and Donna Homberg and myself would do the full trip, Bob Nicholson would do only a one week kayak portion. Judi Cleary and Casey Kaskey and Thury O'Connor came for three days of paddling on some of the easier rivers. My wife, Peggy, came for the Galapagos trip with Marty and Shirley Kopp.
Ecuador is extremely beautiful. I felt the capital Quito was more modern and cleaner that San Jose, Costa Rica, and the country seemed fairly prosperous compared to Honduras and Guatemala. Quito is at 9400', and even though it is nearly on the equator it is quite cool. High's were in the 70's, low's in the 50's with frequent showers. The most scenic part of the country is on the Eastern slopes of the Andes mountains called the Orient region. We paddled on rivers that eventually flow into the Amazon river. We paddled from 6000' altitude down to as low as 1500', so the rivers were cool in the high elevations and jungle like in the low elevations.
On our first day we headed for Tena. The elevation is about 3000' and has a much warmer climate. The town has several nice hotels and restaurants and is the hub of whitewater boating . Air and water temperature are also much more pleasant here. 80's & 60's. If you bring your own boat to Ecuador this is the place to go. Rios Ecuador is a gathering place for kayakers. They help work out shuttles with the local taxi drivers who know all the put-ins and takeouts. You can easily find someone to paddle with. However, if you don't have your own kayak you may have trouble renting one here.
We ran three rivers in the area. The Upper Misahualli (30)*, Lower Misahualli (32)and the lower Jondachi (35). Luckily Donna decided to take a rest day when we paddled the Jondachi. It was the most beautiful yet most difficult river I have run, when you take into account its remoteness and length (26 mi.). We got off the river at twilight. I believe everybody except Peter swam at one time or another. I lost my pelican box containing my prescription sun glasses.
* Keel Haulers River Ratings
The Upper Mis. was like the Tygart's Middle Fork and the Lower was like the Gauley. The Jondachi was like the Upper Yough but long and remote. I wish we would have spent a few more days in this area. However, the trip must go on so we headed back up the mountain to El Chaco lodge which was near Baeza. It was at 6000' so a little cooler. The lodge had the best food on the trip but the accommodations were a little Spartan. They had a swimming pool with no water, rustic rooms and hard beds. Better than camping. They had just oiled the floors, using diesel fuel, which had a dreadful odor.
On our way to the lodge we ran the Papallacta and Upper Quijos (27), a short stretch with easily read rapids. After the three tough long days we really enjoyed the easier run. The next day we ran the Cosonga (33) which runs into the Quijos. At this point the rain had started and the river was starting to get fairly pushy. We had several more swims. I recommend that you plan rest days into your schedule. Unless you are young and strong you will be mighty tired after a few days of these rivers.
We were took the next day off as a rest day, so this was the end of Bob's week of paddling. Bob headed back with our guides. A footnote to this, Bob had two days in Quito before flying home. He must have eaten some bad chicken as he became extremely sick when he returned home to Bowling Green. He was hospitalized with dehydration
It had been raining for 30 straight hours as Judi and Casey arrived for their paddling trip. The rivers of the Oriente region were all in flood. This was fine for our rest day. We were driven to the highest falls in Ecuador (San Rafael) on the Quijos river which was now running about 50,000cfs. They were spectacular to say the least.
When our guides returned that evening they informed us that paddling the next 3 days in this region was not an option and it was still raining. (Mucho Aqua) I guess the rainy season has come early. Seems like the only difference between the rainy and dry season is that it rains every day during rainy season and it rains every night in dry season.
We headed back to Quito. Got delayed on the mountain pass for 3 hours by a landslide but arrived in time to say goodbye to Bob and pickup Peggy, Thury, Marty and Shirley. We than headed west of Quito to the Rio Blanco area, since those rivers were high but not in flood. We stayed at a new resort hotel (La Cascada) which was an architectural masterpiece integrated into a natural waterfall. It had a beautiful swimming pool, sauna and a good restaurant.
We ran three different river sections (24) which Yacu Amu typically runs for their raft groups. They were wide open rivers with good waves and holes that traverse through an agricultural region. They were not as clean or jungle like as the rivers in the Oriente region. Judi, paddling a Shredder raft, found them to be very enjoyable.
We headed back over the Western mountains to get back to Quito where we fly from to go to the Galapagos. Everything in Ecuador was quite inexpensive. A nice hotel with full facilities in Quito cost from $20 -$35/night. Chuck stayed in a small hostel for only $10/night in a convenient section of New Town. I'm not sure what is happening to US prices since the economic crisis in March. The Sucre (Ecuadorian currency) went from 7000 to a dollar to 11,000/$.
The islands are 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. These islands explored by Darwin in the 1800's are a nature lover's paradise. You cannot set foot in the Nat'l Park islands without being accompanied by a trained naturalist. We chartered a 75' yacht (Seaman) which carried 16 passengers and a crew of 8 for our 8 day cruise. It had a very good itinerary that covered a wide range of islands. We rented a 2 person sea kayak to bring along with us and the yacht was set up to do scuba diving as well as snorkeling. Each evening we would motor to a new island and each day we did 2 island walks and 2 snorkel trips.
Only 5 of us decided to scuba dive and we went for 3 dives each. They had warned us that the dives were difficult. The dives were all drift dives, since there was some current. We saw big sharks, sea lions, sea turtles and giant manta rays as well as the usual fish , eel and marine life. The water temperatures vary considerably during the year. In February it was 74 o F, fine for a shorty wet suit.
The island wildlife was unique and quite tame. We walked among sea lions, iguanas, and nesting frigate birds and all kinds of boobies. Mocking birds sipped water from our hands. Flightless cormorants and small penguins were a big surprise. The National Park controls the numerous tours, not allowing more than 18 persons to go ashore with a naturalist guide. Our guide spoke excellent English and really made the trip enjoyable for all.
The Galapagos trip is a little expensive. The air fare to the islands, yacht charter and guide was $1250/person. We all felt it was well worth it. The air fare to Ecuador from Cleveland using a consolidator was only $650/person.
When we arrived back in Quito the weather had finally cleared up and the end of our trip was sunny and warm. We were scheduled to head off to the mountain towns that create great crafts and leather goods, but we were informed that there could be a transportation strike and they couldn't provide a driver. Things calmed the next day so off we went. The Otavalo Saturday market, the largest in the country, was fantastic. Bargains galore, alpaca sweaters, woven goods and lots of crafts. We traveled to Cotacachi, the leather town, and I bought myself two beautiful leather jackets for only $60 each.
For most of us the trip was ending. Peter stayed on for 5 more days to take a Spanish language class and Chuck was off to Peru for his next adventure. Peggy and I spent Sunday touring Quito. It has a modern new city and a old colonial portion (Old Town)with beautiful Spanish cathedrals and government buildings. The parks had large art show as well as many native craft artisans.
As I reflect back, the thing that really made the trip great, beside the fine Keel Hauler friends, was Steve Nomchong the owner of Yacu Amu rafting. This was his first large private kayak trip and he catered to our every need.. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend his company to anyone. If you have a group of at least 4 paddlers., he can supply everything you need and do it for half the rate of the US companies. I'm sure most of us will eventually go back for more river paddling. Compared to any of the other tropical countries that I traveled Ecuador has more variety, beauty with the added attraction of the Galapagos islands.
Useful links for trip planning to Ecuador
Yacu Amu Rafting
The South American Explorers Club
The Galapagos Islands
Yukon kayak club's trip report
Endless River Adventure
Small World Adventures
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