I’ve learned a new word in Spanish: “Nudillos.” It means “knuckles,” and that’s exactly what the sloth is extending us, or at least three of them, as we hike out a jungle-lined trail from the Ecuador’s Middle Jondachi River.
Most people come to Ecuador to see the Galapagos. For good reason. It’s one of the most pristine marine eco-systems on the planet. But from climbing and skiing volcanos to bird watching in the Amazon Basin, there’s plenty more to do as well. Our trip just so happened to focus on paddling. A lot of it. Seven rivers in seven days, in fact, thanks to the team at Small World Adventures, whose founders have been exploring the region’s rivers for nearly 30 years.
After arriving in Quito and overnighting at the Hotel San Juan De Pembo, we’re picked up in the morning by company co-owner Darcy Gaechter. You might know her from her book, Amazon Woman, detailing her 148-day journey in 2013 to become the first woman to kayak the entire Amazon River.
On the drive, they outline what’s in store. They’ll decided what to paddle each morning, based on how much it rained. Having been here so long, they have friends in all the right places, who send them photos every morning of what the different rivers look like. If one’s too high, they’ll go elsewhere.
We climb up to the top of 11,394-foot-high Papallacta Pass, the same crossed by conquistadores Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana in 1541 in an ill-fated expedition to find the Land of Cinnamon to the east (Orellana went on to complete the first known navigation of the entire length of the Amazon, initially named “Rio de Orellana”). From there we descend into the Amazon Basin, known as El Oriente, passing the town of Papallacta at 10,827 feet, the highest town in the country and one of the highest towns accessible by car on Earth. From there, it’s down to the town of Borja, situated at 5,200 feet along the Rio Quijos.
We pull up to the Hotel Luxor, our home for htenext few days, and unload our gear before walking over to the boat shed, or bodega, to pick out our craft from a well-appointed quiver. We’ll come back here each night in a vain attempt to dry our gear, and pack it all up again, likely still wet, each morning.
We also meet our Ecuadorian guides, Vladimir (“Blaster”), Andreas, Brian and Byron. With Don paddling here since 1993 and Darcy since 2005, they’ve both done wonders in fostering growing the local paddling community. They, along with company co-founder Larry Vermereen, are the defacto Godfathers of kayaking in Ecuador, even writing the guidebook on the region, “The Kayaker’s Guide to Ecuador,” now in its third edition detailing 77 different runs they’ve paddled in five distinct regions.
The Rivers Begin
Day one we put on the Oyacachi, launching off a seven-foot high drop just three strokes into the run. Welcome to kayaking in Ecuador, I muse, after we regroup in the eddy below. With one guide in front showing us the line, one in the middle doing the same (so our runs don’t turn into a game of “Telephone,” with each paddler running slightly off course), and a third running sweep behind, we make our way down the section’s countless horizon lines. Don outlines every drop like a mother duckling ushering us through. It’s good he does. From the low vantage of a kayak, every rapid is a distinct horizon line, which would have taken us days to run on our own had we gotten out to scout every one.
Shortly later we dump into the Rio Quijos, confronting such Class IV rapids as Chuchqui (which means “Hangover”) and Curvas Peligrosas, which promptly knocks me over for my first combat roll. But at least I fared better than Jim, who rolled and then got pushed into the wrong channel, requiring a boat hike. Scour marks 40 feet up its basalt gorges show how high and powerful the water can get come rainy season. Soon we hit the take-out after the Bombon section, hiking our kayaks up to Lobo and a cooler of Pilsner beers at the bus. Back at the Hotel Luxor, we luxuriate in a hot tub, enjoy a great homecooked dinner of braised chicken, mark notches on a sheet for the honor system bar (20-ounce Pilsners, $2), and share stories with Rylan and Jeff, from California, and Theo from France, comparing notes on our day.
One thing is clear from our first day: They have the logistics dialed. Wake up, get served breakfast, pack your lunch, hop in the bus, get whisked away to another run, paddle, drink beer/refuel, crash and repeat. This year they’ll lead about 120 kayakers on this leave-no-stone-unturned pace; on a big year, maybe 200.
On day two, our plans for running the Cosanga, what Don describes as “a creeky river,” change when they find it’s too low. Instead, we hit the El Chaco Canyon section of the Quijos, battling such rapids as Slap in the Face, pulsating El Toro and Gringos Revueltos (“Scrambled”), which leaves two of our group swimming. We continue paddling through yesterday’s Bombon section, faring better this time in Curvas Peligrosas, and continue down in the Lower Quijos.
We take out about 10 miles above one of the biggest geologic anomalies on the planet: the recent disappearance of 500-foot San Rafael Falls, Ecuador’s most visited and powerful waterfall. Yep, it completely disappeared in 2020. It’d be like someone making off with Niagara Falls in the US in the middle of the night. Puff, gone. Theories point to the $2.6 billion Coca-Codo-Sinclair hydro dam built 10 miles upstream in 2015 as the culprit. Capable of producing 1,500MW of electricity a year, theories suggest that it’s taken sediment out of the river, causing it to take out more downstream. Combined with the appearance of a new sinkhole near the falls’ lip, this caused the river’s water to scour away a new sieve, completely de-watering the country’s most visited waterfall. Where the oil road from the country’s northeast region used to be level with the river, now the river is 400 feet below, absorbing the gradient that used to be provided by the falls.
The road is closed now also due to the pipeline breaking, from the river eroding the banks.
Day 3: The Middle Joncachi
On day three it’s raining cats and dogs. Wait, that is a dog, barking at dawn at the roosters crowing. We’re up early and in the bus, massaging sore shoulders and backs. We get the day’s plan from Don, who just talked to his friend, and drive up and over 8,000-foot-high Guacamayo Pass, splitting two national parks, and down to 1,800 feet in the Amazon Basin town of Tena. Today’s run is right on the way: The Middle Jondachi, a jungle-lined, pool-drop, or drop-drop, fun fest that instantly rises to the top of everyone’s list for the entire week. “It’s at the perfect level,” Don says, advising us to wear soccer socks, if we have them, for potential bugs at the takeout.
Today, the horizon lines are nonstop, and we follow the guides “blue angel” style, pulling into an eddy, looking over your shoulder to watch where the person ahead of goes, then peeling out yourself and following his line as the next person replaces you in the eddy. Everyone has some trouble somewhere, with two more swims talled for the group in such rapids as Gringo Tostadas (I’m sensing a theme) and Guinea Pig Roulette. A the river tapers off toward the—after 60 Class IV rapids in 12 miles— waterfalls cascade in through the lush foliage form high above. In one eddy Mike spies a spider as big as a baseball mitt, which Don says actually eats fish. It disappears somewhere into the water below us.
After a short hike up from the takeout, a four-wheel-drive truck meets us, as the road is too steep for the Lobo and the bus. We take two trips driving up the bumpy road, seeing the Dr. Seuss-like bird nests of the “oro pendula” drooping from a tree. We also spy a three-toed sloth in the bushes on the side, which slooowly raises his hand to give us his three-knuckle fist pump, or “nudillos,” congratulating us on our run.
Up top, we load the kayaks onto the bus and crank the tunes as Lobo drives us to the Hotel Yutzos in the town of Tena, right at the confluence of the Pano and Tena Rivers. Tonight’s “debriefing” comes at an outdoors bar, in between shouts for the Ecuador/Peru soccer game, which ends in a 1-1 tie. The plan: Hit the magical Rio Piatua an hour south, if water levels hold.
Having survived 148 days paddling the Amazon together, Don and Darcy could give lessons on couple therapy as well as kayaking. But they seem to have both river guiding and their relationship dialed, divvying up clients each day perhaps as a more sedentary, run-of-the-mill couple might do chores at home.
Day four has us sharing coffee with treetop monkeys next to the hotel’s porch. We also see a report on the TV sharing news that a landslide in Quito killed 25 people. The rainfall is dynamic here. We go with Darcy instead of Don today, and without word from their friend who lives by the bridge, we head to the Piatua anyway, fingers crossed on the flows. Andreas tells us of the local fight to prevent a hydro dam on the river, a trend sweeping the country.
A swinging bridge to no where, put there by dam builders before the project stalled, marks our put in on the Upper Piatua. Blindly following her line off drop after drop, we monkey-see-monkey-do Darcy down to the junction with the Piatua Blanca, beneath rich green banks lined with the red flowers of Yutzos trees. There are way too many rapids to distinguish any of them. Eventually, we reach a hidden takeout on the right—there would be no way to find it on our own—and carry our kayaks up a steep hill to Lobo and the bus. On the way back to Tena we stop at a roadside store and buy fresh cacao and wayusa, Ecuador’s tea version of Redbull. We pay with an assortment of small bills, mainly ones. Ecuador replaced its sucre currency with the U.S. dollar in 2000 after using it since 1884. Back on the bus Darcy says their former partner Larry once going into a bank to exchange $1,000 US dollars and coming out with two huge duffel bags of sucres
Back on the road, Lobo passes a single-bed truck with a giant cow standing in it. Dinner is at the outside deck of a restaurant downtown. Halfway through, Don glances up at the tree above him to see five bats wriggling around just a few feet above his head.
On day five we head to a 9-mile section of the Rio Anzu, another classic similar in rock-drop character to the Piatua, only with more water. It’s our longest hike yet shouldering our boats to get to the put-in, but we’re rewarded with yet another idyllic waterway: emerald green water, coursing its way through a maze of rounded boulders. A wall of orchids clings to the cliff on the right. It’s a step up from the Class III-IV Piatua, and a step down from the Jondachi. In other words, right in our wheelhouse yet again. The crux in Anzu Falls, a maelstrom of boulders channeling water through multip[le spouts. We take a line down the far right, per Darcy, sliding over a series of rocks into a “lagoon” to scout. Eric misses the move and paddles over the next brink blind, causing Darcy to yell and Jair to give chase. He makes it to pool far below OK, but not without redlining his adrenal glands. Another paddler in our group swims, and another nails a combat roll to avoid it.
Farther down we see a rodent, a guatusa, swimming across the river using its snout for a snorkel, popping up, surprised, in the middle of our kayaks. A whirlpool sucks him back under and he disappears. Just when we think he might drown, he pops up again, barely making it into an eddy before the current careened off another ledge. We’re not the only ones struggling in the river. “I was going to help him, but they bite pretty hard,” says Andre as we paddle on toward the next drop.
Soon the takeout appears on river left, where Lobo is waiting with the bus. No hike out this time, thank god. Just a cooler of cold beers. That night we rehash stories of our past three days in the Tena region, a general consensus ranking them in order: the Jondachi, Anzu and then Piatua. But that’s not fair to the Piatua, because it’s one of the best rivers we’ve ever paddled as well.
After a breakfast of rice, beans, eggs and plenty of hot sauce, day six sees us hike from a house along the road down to the Cosanga. The level is low, but good, for its continual Class IV. “It’s a creeky river,” Don explains, as if that sums it all up. Their guidebook calls it one of the prettiest Class IV rivers in all of Ecuador, but we find that hard to believe after what we’ve paddled already.
Rapids such as Starts with a Bang, Go Left or Portage, Menage a Rodeo and Chibola (“Bump on the Head”) come as quickly as our braces. The rain comes as well, falling down in sheets. It’s easy to see how quickly rivers here can rise. Our bump in the head comes at a rapid called Random Acts when Jim tips over and hits a rock. When he rolls up, blood pours down his cheek. He’s lucky; there’s a swinging bridge just downstream. Darcy patches him up and calls Lobo to meet him and Jair after they hike out a steep trail up to the road. They leave their kayaks stashed high on the bank; Don and another guide will hike back down and paddle them out later this afternoon. The result at the hospital: five stitches.
The rest of us paddle on, passing tall, Kauai-esque waterfalls freefalling from 1,000 feet above, the ribbons of white contrasting the primordial green. Soon we spill into the Quijos River, halfway down its Baeza-to-Borja section. The water is bigger and more powerful, with a couple rapids requiring moves to miss holes. Soon we see Lobo and the bus on river left, with a freshly stitched-up Jim. Ben wins the number of stitches contest.
Back at the Hotel Luxor, we drink beers, hot tub and enjoy $30 massages to coax our upper bodies into one more day of paddling after six straight. Ben says the Cosanga nudges the Anzu out of the way for number two billing of the week.
Our last day, we hit the Oyacachi and Quijos again, this time Curvas Peligrosas getting the upper hand. Four of us get knocked over in its main hole, which is difficult to miss, while both Ben and Jason swim out of it. Darcy counts six seconds of downtime for Ben. Even Andreas gets knocked over. It’s as if it’s saying “Hasta Luego, gringos,” before we leave. Something to remember it by.
Then we head back to the hotel to feebly try to dry out our gear while we eat lunch and pack up. It doesn’t work and goes into our luggage wet. Lobo then shuttles us back to Quito for our late-night flight home. Don, whose record here is 123 straight days of paddling (and 148 on the Amazon) tags along to shop and pick up the next group in the morning and head right back out. After all, they have two weeks left in the season—before returning stateside to ski and then lead trips on the Illinois, Cal Salmon, Middle Fork and Grand Canyon. I’ll give them “nudillos” for that as well.
Info: Small World Adventures