Oh The Places You'll Go, Oh The People You'll See!
In February of 2019, I found myself boarding an airplane with my friend Tony to flee the freezing temps of the Colorado Rockies. We were en route to the Amazon Rainforest and Andes Mountains of Ecuador lugging around massive bags loaded down with 2 rafts, 9 paddles, a barrel pump, our personal rafting gear, camping gear, a bunch of camera equipment, a couple T-shirts/pants, and some vague idea of what we were doing. The morning we left the mountains it was -30 degrees outside, further reaffirming our journey to the southern hemisphere. After 20 hours of flights and layovers, we were picked up at the Quito airport at 12:30am by Rodrigo, a native Ecuadorian with his wife and kid in his little diesel Toyota truck. Rodrigo was sent to bring us to our hostel near Archidona, a mere 4.5 hours away over an 18,000ft mountain pass over the Sumaco volcano and through a drug checkpoint with armed soldiers. I could never sleep in moving vehicles, so I tried to make conversation in butchered spanglish.
The road never stopped winding as I looked out into the darkness of the Andes Mountains, until eventually I began to feel the humidity of the Amazon Rainforest. Around 5:00am, we arrived at the Oso Perizoso Kayak Hostel. Situated on the Rio Misahualli, The Oso Perizoso is owned and operated by Gabriel, a true whitewater enthusiast, a great host, and a joyful man with a kind spirit. By the end of our trip, we would share many paddling adventures with Gabriel when he could come, acquire crucial river beta from him when we went alone, and spend more than a few late nights talking whitewater with our new friend.
Our first day, after approximately 3 hours of sleep, we wake up ready to get on the river. Since we are still waiting for the other two members of our crew, we ask Gabriel what river would be a good "warm-up" for us since we have been snowboarding for the last 4 months. Gabriel says "aha! the Upper Misahualli is flowing!" and calls us a taxi. Our taxi driver, Jean, arrives and receives directions from Gabriel, which we quickly butchered with our over-excitement and language barrier, leading us to get dropped off at a much higher put-in on the Misahualli than Gabo intended. As we arrive a monsoon rain starts, one of the hardest rains I've ever seen. Jean suggests we pump up our boats in an abandoned house, while some local children watch the silly Gringos with a nervous excitement. We put-in on a stretch of river that was by no means a warm-up, instead it was full-on, continuous, steep, Class-IV+ whitewater, and although we did quite well reading-and-running this stout stretch, we realized that the language barrier was dangerous and we shouldn't have gone on that stretch solo with no backup. The brown, muddy rain-water begins to rise, and after 3-4 miles of non-stop action, the rapids eventually mellow a little and we encounter some kayakers. Two kayakers look like they had gotten more than they bargained for, and one kayaker named Dan gave us a little beta. As Dan left us, he turned around and said "watch out for the wall of water when it's raining like this, don't forget to look behind you!" We realized all at once how much we were out of our element. We made it back to the hostel without any drama, when Gabriel informs us that we accidentally coerced Jean to take us to the wrong put-in.
"Just Get In The Cab, Dude.."
We spend a couple days exploring the local rivers and getting acquainted to the jungle-style whitewater before meeting up with our friend Casey, who just arrived from Aspen. Gabriel tells us about the Piatua Libre festival, a river festival aimed at stopping a hydro-dam project from damming up the river for corrupt interests. He says they need as many paddlers as possible to come run the Piatua and show that the river has more valuable uses. We drive to the takeout to meet up with other paddlers, and quickly realize that we are, yet again, the only gringos and the only rafters. We drive to the remote put-in, not knowing what to expect. It is Casey's first day in the jungle, and feeling a little overwhelmed by what's going on, he continues to ask me questions like "what are we getting into", "what is this river like", and "what the hell are we doing out here!" My responses lacked knowledge being that I had only been here a few days, and I also suffered from the language barrier. This is when I first stated what would become a motto of the trip and said "I don't know, man. Between the language barrier and running an unknown river everyday, I just get in the cab and don't ask many questions... Just get in the cab, dude."
The Piatua river was an absolute blast! Steep, rocky rapids required many maneuvers, made more exciting by the fact that we had to read-and-run everything! The continuous Class-IV rapids were occasionally accented with larger Class IV+ rapids requiring must-make moves to avoid plenty of places where you wouldn't want to end up. We had an awesome lap with no carnage, and when we arrived at the take-out, our rafts were swarmed by dozens of local kids who were amazed to see the rafts out there. They commandeered our boats for a while, spinning and playing in the swimming hole. We strolled around to check out the festival, which was unlike any river festival we had ever been to. People of all ages from all around the area were there, not just paddlers, and everybody was dancing and singing to prove their love for their river. They depend on this river for everything, not just recreation, and the hydro-dam project would threaten their very way of life. Piatua Libre was a chance to show the "powers that be" that the people would not just sit back and watch as a corrupt corporation profited at their loss. It was truly a special occasion to partake in.
Fear and Loathing on the Quijos
The next day, we gathered up all of our stuff and headed North to Baeza, a small town nestled among the high Andes mountains. We were warned that the rains had made the rivers too high in the area, but we had to meet Jeff, the last member of our team. Just as we arrived at Gina's hostel, a group of kayakers returned from the Quijos river at high water looking as though they had been through war. One guy had his swollen eye covered with gauze after receiving 7 stitches, a wound caused by his own paddle. Another gentlemen had lost his kayak and paddle to the raging Class-V whitewater, while many others just looked pale and beaten. The next day we had to decide what river to run, and for some reason we decided to run the Bridge-to-Bridge section of the Quijos, the very same stretch as those kayakers the day before. The water level looked manageable when we checked in the morning, but it had been pouring down rain all night and into the afternoon. As we got to the put-in, we were told the level as 16.5 and rising, which is quite high for any craft, especially our small rafts. As the taxis left and we hiked down to the river, the size of the water features seemed much more intense. We had gained a raft since Casey brought his, and we put-in with three R-2 rafts, our new friends Kevin and Eric making up the third, and one kayaker, Val. The first 2 kilometers were absolutely full-on! Our mini-rafts were having a very hard time in the massive waves and holes, each R-2 team having multiple surfs and close calls until eventually Casey and I flipped huge in a massive hole. It took all the strength I had to swim the boat to shore with my paddle in hand through the violent current, but I knew that if I let go of anything it would be gone for good. We cleaned up our mess and continued downstream to a scouting point for a Class-V rapid. We all pulled our boats well onto shore and tried to scout the rapid, but the river was swollen into the trees which made a good scout nearly impossible. In the ten minutes since we stopped, the river turned darker and muddier as it swiftly began to swell. Our rafts which were once on dry land began to float away, and a rock I had been standing on ten minutes earlier was now fully underwater. After the chaos of the top section and the additional rise in water level, a few members of our group were not feeling confident in our mini-rafts as the very high flow got even higher. We made a very hard group decision to walk the rafts to the road before somebody got hurt or we lost a bunch of gear. There is no amount of ego that can save a life when the conditions are wrong, and we all feel that we made a smart decision to takeout early that day,
Middle and Lower Jondachi into the Lower Hollin
The next day we decided to head south again and catch one of the Ecuadorian classics, the Jondachi River! With a few kayakers joining us, we drove to the bridge that separates the Upper Jondachi from the Middle. The water level was too high for the upper section, but the middle section looked like a blast! The Middle Jondachi, which continues into the beautiful lower section with waterfalls coming off every canyon wall. The Jondachi eventually joins with the Hollin river, which was flooding from high altitude rains upstream. This made for a very exciting end to what seemed like 3 different river trips from the creek-like Middle Jondachi, to the friendly and beautiful Lower Jondachi, then ending with the swollen big-water of the Hollin. I finally had a chance to get in a boat alone and R-1 the entire stretch as well, one of my favorite things to do. it was an amazing day covering about 19 miles of river.
Love at First Site on the Upper Jondachi
After many failed attempts at the Upper Jondachi, with some days being too high and some too low, we drove to the bridge one day to find it at the perfect level! A short 15 minute ride to the put-in gets you dropped off at a muddy trail, a little over a mile from the river. A grueling 30 minute hike through knee-deep jungle mud carrying our boats and gear overhead eventually leads to a small foot-bridge over the pounding rapids of the narrow Upper Jondachi. We pump the boats and wash the mud off of ourselves in a small eddy at the edge of a nasty Class-V rapid, then slide the boats down a crack in between two boulders and leap down a sketchy 10ft to finally get on the river. I'm happy to be R-1ing again, even though there's nobody to lean-on and nobody to blame when you're running Class-V rapids alone in a raft, theres a certain amount of peace in knowing that it's all up to you. I navigate the first few rapids before hitting a massive hole that snags my light R-1 into a violent surf. After 2-3 minutes of high-siding and trying to draw my way out to no avail, somebody hollers from the eddy below "do you want a rope?" I respond "YEAH, like 2 minutes ago!" They throw me a rope and pull me out of the surf. No more than another kilometer downstream I get snagged by another massive hole and I'm surfing again! This time I'm trying to high-side and draw my way out when the boat starts violently spinning and heaving under the force of the massive hole. I think "surely someone has the rope out already" but when I look they actually pulled out the big camera from the dry box and started filming instead! I remember thinking, "oh, well at least that's going to be good footage " as I got whipped around in circles like a bucking bull, somehow avoiding flipping or swimming long enough for someone to toss me a rope. The joys of R-1ing, I suppose...
The rest of the river went extremely well, with amazing clear-water rapids stacked on top of each other through beautiful jungle scenery, the Upper Jondachi firmly affixed itself near the top of my "favorite rivers" list. At the takeout, the steep, muddy trail seemed to be quite energy intensive after paddling the stretch alone. The road bridge above with its massive steel beams seemed like an obvious tool to me. "Let's setup a pulley system and yank the boats out of here!" I said, which was met by mockery from the rest of the crew. I ran up and threw my flip line around a steel beam, clipped a pulley from my pfd pocket onto my throw-bag line, and sent down a carabiner to clip the boats onto. With two guys holding the end of the rope and walking backwards while one guy stood at the rail to pull the boat over and onto the bridge, the system worked like a charm and saved us a ton of pulling rafts up the slippery slope. A convenient end to a legendary day!
Jungle Overnight on the Hollin
When we told Gabriel how much we all loved the Upper Jondachi, he was ecstatic. He quickly followed with "Justin, if you loved the Jondachi, you have to do the Upper Hollin, it is my favorite river!" A long time ago, I decided that anytime somebody tells you something like that with such enthusiasm, you have to check out whatever they're talking about! After a much needed rest day, and a fun time exploring the town of Tena during Carnival, We only had two days left to raft. With all the other rivers in the area looking low, and the Upper Hollin being a 30-some mile, 2-day jungle overnight adventure, we decided to heed Gabo's advice and check out his favorite river. The journey begins with a 1.5 hour taxi ride into the middle of nowhere in the Sumaco Forest reserve, we are dropped off at a bridge crossing a river with massive waterfalls everywhere you look. We blow up our rafts and rig our overnight gear in the ever-present, warm jungle rain and put-in on the Hollin.
Spelunking... In a Raft?
The Hollin starts with a few boogie rapids that quickly put you deep into the jungle. Going only off of the beta provided by Gabriel, we quickly come to the most unique rapid I have ever seen. The entire width of the Hollin river slams into a wall on river-right and carves it's way through a cave with a Class-IV rapid inside! We were told to eddy-out above the cave and hike below the cave to check for dangerous wood/strainers inside. Casey and I plan our line around the mess of obstacles and hike up to give 'er a go. Our line goes perfectly, avoiding the massive boat-flipping hole at the bottom and thankfully not needing Jeff's rope from the left shore. Next, Tony and Jeff run the rapid perfectly as well. We had 3 kayakers on the trip, who were still scouting after both rafts made clean passage. Being that kayakers give us rafters undue grief all the time, it felt pretty good to holler "whether you guys are running it or walking it, it's time to do it! It's still raining and we have 15 miles to get to camp!" One of the kayakers decided to run the rapid, and did so well, while the other two decided not to risk it and portaged down the left shore.
After the Cave Rapid lies a series of very exciting rapids with creek-like moves through boulder fields and lots of water to juice it up. The crux of the run is a Class-V waterfall with nasty holes, undercut rocks, and major consequences. Typically most boaters portage this rapid, but it looked like it went! If we weren't in the middle of the jungle with no hope for rescue, and laden by all of our overnight gear in mini-rafts, I think it would have been a blast to run. Instead, we took Gabriel's advice and portaged on the left.
The rapids continue for miles upon miles, gaining more water as tributaries pour over waterfalls everywhere you look. the Class-IV rapids eventually give way to big-water Class-III wave trains and river-wide holes as the rain begins to catch up to us. Gabriel told us that there is one more rapid that wasn't worth the risk, "a Class-II move, but you die if you don't make it." When we got there it was quite obvious. The entire river smashes into a hole, which is backed-up by an undercut rock, and to make it better a new log is blocking the acceptable route. The "Fun-to-Death Ratio" was too high, we portaged.
Jungle Camping at it's Finest
Looking for camp, we only had one piece of vital beta to go on: "Camp on the left at The Indiana Jones Bridge." If we missed it we would be sleeping in thick jungle. After about 15 miles of awesome whitewater in the rain, the sun broke through and shined upon what was quite obviously the Indiana Jones Bridge. We caught the eddy on the left and hiked up to a rugged, rarely used camp in the middle of the rainforest, surrounded by vine-covered trees with all the jungle music you could ever want. Tony and Joey ventured onto the dilapidated bridge while Jeff looked for snakes and critters, the rest of us setup our hammocks and tarps and enjoyed some warm cervesa, cold empenadas, and some kind of jungle-juice while the night fell upon the jungle. When darkness neared, massive bats swooped around the tree tops, eating up insects, except the large lightning-roach things which had glowing eyes on their wings, some yellow, some orange. Since fire was absolutely out of the question, we told stories around a headlamp/water-bottle lantern until the jungle-juice set in. It was a perfect night in the jungle, a hundred miles from anywhere.
The next day was a relaxing float through the jungle with a bunch of Class-II and III rapids surrounded by waterfalls. The secret to a good multi-day trip is the side-hikes... Especially if the side hikes don't require too much hiking and end in swimming holes at the bottom of awesome waterfalls! It's all the things you wanted to do as a kid, but didn't have the gear or skills. Cheers to never growing up!
Packing up all the wet gear, giving some away to our new friends, and catching a 4.5 hour ride back over the volcano was bitter-sweet. Leaving behind our new friends and all those awesome rivers was bitter, but heading back to the High-Rockies, where I could finally stop sweating and hiding from mosquitos was sweet. The 29 hours of travel on the way home wasn't that bad... Except for U.S. Customs is Miami... turns out they don't understand our lifestyle that well.
Ecuador is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. The people are some of the kindest, most honest, and most empathetic people on the planet. It was refreshing to see a culture built around "what we have" rather than the more common materialistic culture of "what we want". They were so honest and caring to a group of gringos like ourselves, even while butchering their language and doing silly things like rafting. One day Tony left the $3,000 camera in the taxi, and we didn't realize until we were halfway through our sketchily-delicious fried chicken meal with chicken-feet soup.. Tony called Gabriel, Gabriel called the taxi driver, and the guy dropped it off 10 minutes later. Everyday they would charge us fair taxi prices, hand us back money after the language barrier made us think we owed twice as much, and hold onto our dry clothes for the entire day while they waited to pick us up at some bizarre muddy two-track road somewhere. We liked Jean so much that we requested him as much as possible. He always charged us so little, so we'd tip huge. That made him start charging less, so we tipped more because he was always so honest and thankful. Out of everything that I encountered in Ecuador, I think the people made the most lasting impression.
We'd like to offer the most sincere THANK YOU to the people and rivers of Ecuador; Mr. Gabriel G, Nadia, and the lovely ladies at Oso Perizoso; Andres "Char" for the sick beta on the Upper J; Piatua Libre; Rodrigo, Jean, the many other fair taxi drivers; Eric B, Jacque, and Jan, our French-Canadian friends; Kevin and "Medium Spiecy Flow"; Gina for dank meals; Val, Joni, Joey, and Kelsey for kayaking along; The Kichwa people; the makers of La Fiesta De Todos Pilsner, and the everyday warriors of the T.S.A.
A wiser man than myself once said "If you do what you love for a living, you'll never work a day in your life!"
Hasta Luego Amigos!
Owner/G.M. - Adventures in Whitewater