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Welcome to the Jungle: Whitewater Kayaking in Ecuador
Sal Montgomery writes about her expedition, kayaking rivers in Ecuadorian jungle. (+Banff Press Pass Opportunity)
Being a typical whitewater kayaker, I thought that I’d done my research. Turns out that living and kayaking in the jungle is a very different way of life to anything I had experienced anywhere else. Every day was a school day and my appreciation for this challenging, demanding and extremely special environment was constantly expanding. So join this whitewater kayaker as we step in to the jungle…
Whitewater kayaking in Ecuador
Travelling all over the world with my kayak has taught me (sometimes the hard way!) that good preparation and research can make all the difference to the success of the trip. And this one was no exception. The months leading up to my adventure were spent training, highlighting sections of guidebooks, practising my Spanish and learning random facts about Ecuador (including that it’s name means Equator, making it the only country in the world named after a geological feature!).
Ecuador is known worldwide for its incredibly diverse landscapes of volcanoes, highlands, jungle and beaches - and has been nicknamed by whitewater kayakers as a Grade 4 Paradise. Rumours of low volume steep creeks offering endless sweet boofs and boulder garden style rapids made this playground sound too good to be true!
Having studied every detail of all the classic river sections, I felt in pretty good stead to get out there and start ticking them off. However, I quickly realised that this approach doesn’t always work out in Ecuador... The jungle demands respect and it’s in your best interest to give it!
Lesson 1: When it rains, it really rains
My first Ecuadorian river was the Río Quijos. In contrast to the sunny, low volume steep creek I had pictured, the river banks were overspilling with raging, brown water. Every boulder was covered and massive crashing waves littered the river. The relentless rain pelted down while I stood at the put-in bridge, starring wide-eyed at the mass of powerful water charging its way through the Quijos valley. Although not the ‘warm-up’ or style of whitewater I had been expecting, we adapted our plan, picked our sections carefully and had a great, challenging start to the trip!
Lesson 2: Have a flexible plan
Back at base in the sleepy town of Baeza that evening, we met several paddlers who had been sitting out the rain for almost four days. The storm showed no signs of heading out of town anytime soon, so we did instead. Throwing everything back in the truck and driving for about four hours over the winding mountain pass, we arrived in the town of Tena, Ecuador’s other main paddling hub.
Ecuador has many micro-climates, with some parts having three or four different climates in a relatively small proximity. I quickly discovered that regularly travelling between the two hubs was quite the norm. Generally when one area was in flood, the other would be primo.
It was like entering another country! As soon as we travelled over the mountain pass the rain and dark sky were instantly replaced by bright sunshine and hot temperatures. The rivers were running at good flows and it was finally time to test out those boofs!
Lesson 3: Do your checks
After a few days of glorious creeking, we checked local flows and forecasts and decided to head to the Río Hollín, for an overnight paddling expedition. As I’d already discovered, there are dramatic variations in weather. Flash floods are a big problem, making it really important that we checked the forecasts for the catchment areas as well. Especially as the Hollín river has a lot of tributaries joining it along its length. There may be blue skies at the put-in, but there could be downpours lasting several days upstream, in which case things would get serious quickly.
I perhaps hadn’t appreciated the importance of this until a few days before, when we’d reluctantly driven away from the Río Misahualli. We’d been told that one of the major tributaries upstream was big and brown, suggesting that the Misahualli was about to dramatically rise. Everyone at camp had said how awesome the Misahualli was and we were crazy excited to run it. The levels looked primo and it was difficult to imagine this small creek posing a threat, but ultimately the call was made to divert to the Río Jatunyaku instead.
This big, wide open river can easily take more water and provided an entire day of super big-volume fun! On the way back to base, everyone was buzzing with stories of perfect surf waves and playholes, secret caves and amazing wildlife. But the truck suddenly became very quiet when we reached the bridge passing over the Río Misahualli, on the way back though. The clear, innocent-looking water had transformed in to a huge, dark, raging torrent. Luckily that humbling lesson was learnt without anyone getting hurt.
Lesson 4: Ask the experts (aka locals)
Early on in my trip I was fortunate enough to meet local Ecuadorian paddlers, Abby and Abe, who kindly integrated me in to their communities. I was welcomed like family and learnt a tremendous amount.
Sometimes us kayakers forget who the real experts of the rivers and surrounding terrains are. Local communities, who have lifetimes of experience and knowledge, will be able to give you the best information when it comes to recent landslides (a big problem in Ecuador), plants and animals to look out for, good camp spots and potential river evacuation points, as well as understanding how the jungle works.
Lesson 5: Use your senses
As we pulled out of that first eddy and into the main flow, the adrenaline ran through my veins. The real jungle adventure had begun. It was just me, my team and miles of remote, dense jungle. Walking out the river would require days of bush-whacking and suffering.
The rapids were fun, fast and plenty! Everyone wore big grins, as they boofed and flared their way down the river. The occasional scout or portage took our focus off the whitewater immediately in-front of our boats and reminded us to pay attention to our new environment.
Before beginning our adventure on the Río Hollín, Abby and Abe had taught me that even if you have checked all the necessary forecasts and water levels, it’s still super important to stay alert. Things change unexpectedly in the jungle and you can find yourself in trouble quickly.
The water turning mirky brown, with an increasing number of floating leaves and branches, as well as any change in tributaries entering the river, are all tell-tale signs that a flash flood is on its way. As is a purple sky, splashed with hints of yellow. One of the most apparent signs, however, is sound or lack of. You may hear the barrelling of water, or thunder storms upstream. But well before any of this, the usual jungle noises that you become accustomed to will stop. A silent jungle is very much a warning to get off the water and make for high ground immediately!
Lesson 6: Jungle camping (planned or unplanned!)
After a day of paddling mostly boulder garden style rapids (including one that went in to a cave!), we started looking for an ideal camp spot. We already knew that sleeping on islands in the river was a big no-no, with the risk of the river rising and sweeping you and your entire camp away. So, we kept paddling until we came across an inviting-looking beach and pulled up our boats.
On one side was a grassy cliff top, covered in beautifully coloured orchids (I later found out that Ecuador has over 4000 species of orchid!) and at the back was thick with tall, strong trees: perfect for hammocks. All the gear was hauled up to higher ground, to avoid the risk of waking up to no possessions - including kayaks!
The next priority was to get a fire going. Not only for warmth (as the jungle keeps you mostly in shade), but also to help keep the brutally savage mosquitos away, who soon punished me for not immediately changing out of my paddling shorts! It didn’t take long to learn that no matter how hot it is, leggings, long-sleeves and socks are your friends when in mosi-territory!
(I met quite a few locals in Tena that swore by using baby oil to keep away the hungry critters, but be mindful not to use this on the river as the fishes might not appreciate it!)
A few stories were shared around the campfire that evening. Tales of paddlers being forced off the river by rising levels, spending the night spooning each other for warmth and sharing one, soggy Clif bar for dinner. Because of the risk of flash flooding on Ecuadorian rivers, most paddlers will always keep the bare essentials for a night of camping in their boats.
It wasn’t long before we were all sitting contently, feeling the warm glow of the flames and a day of sunshine on our skin, whilst thinking about the great day we had just had. It’s always exciting to run a new river, but the jungle heightens this feeling immensely. It feels wild and remote, yet buzzing with life. We may have been far from the nearest village, but that day we had shared the river with otters, monkeys, exotic birds and hundreds of colourful butterflies. We even spotted a jaguar lounging in a tree!
We spent a couple more days in Tena, taking advantage of awesome local runs such as the Jondachi, Misahualli, Piatua and the Jatunyaku rivers, before our little group parted ways.
I decided to finish my trip back in Baeza, where I finally got my laps on the well-renowned Río Quijos. Far from the big, brown boiling mass that it had been at the beginning of my trip, the water now ran clear and at a level that provided continuous low volume, technical, steep creek fun. I must have run 20+ laps of that awesome river in those last few days!
Ecuador had been a different trip to the one I had expected, but if anything, that made it all the more amazing. Every river was so different to the last, varying in style, landscape and challenge. I’d learnt so much about this incredibly special place.
There’s a lot to think about when it comes to paddling here. Big change can happen unexpectedly, catching out even well-travelled and elite paddlers. This should by no means make you take Ecuador off your hit list though. With the necessary knowledge and information, this whitewater mecca is a must-visit for any river enthusiast.
With special thanks to Abe at Boof Sessions for sharing his knowledge, time and psych for Ecuadorian whitewater. Also, Abby at Abby’s Hideaways for Jungle Knowledge, trip planning advice, waterfall tours and welcoming us in to her beautiful river-side heaven.
Top tips for planning your kayaking trip to Ecuador
LOGISTICS: Fly in to Quito airport, if you don’t have a kayak with you then getting the bus to from Quito to Baeza is your simplest and most affordable option. If you’ve brought your boat, it’s worth asking around in advance to see if any fellow kayakers are landing the same day and are keen to split a taxi.
TIME OF YEAR: Many of the rivers in Ecuador run year round, however most Westerners tend to travel between November- March, therefore escaping the cold, winter months.
DURATION NEEDED: Depending on where you’re travelling from I would recommend a minimum of two weeks. With so many amazing rivers to paddle and places to see, it would be a shame to go for any less time!
Abe/ Boof Sessions (www.boofsessions.com)- General paddling info, organised trips and guiding
Abby’s Hideaway -travel advice, tour operator and beautiful riverside accommodation in Baños
Gina’s Hostel -Family run accommodation in Baeza, with great home cooked food and always a friendly welcome from Momma Gina!
Oso Perezoso Kayak Hostel -laid back and welcoming hostel and kayak school in Tena
Whitewater expedition kayaker, Sal Montgomery, has taken on serious rapids and big waterfalls, as well as leading teams down first-descents and unexplored canyons all over the world. Sal's love of adventure and personal challenge drive her passion for making positive environmental change. Keep up to date with Sal's adventures, talks and projects here:
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