Paddling Ecuador with Small World Adventures

Paddling Ecuador with Small World Adventures

Ty Skoe

Small World Adventures Trip Report

For many kayakers, especially those of us based in the Rockies, paddling prospects become bleak after September. Sure, you’ll have the occasional weekend on Westwater, the Black Canyon, or the M-Wave, but each of those require a bit of planning, a long drive, and a proper dam release. Unless you’ve got the time to rally to the Southeast for some laps on the Green, Russell Fork and other fall classics, it’s easy to call your season over by the time the leaves start to fall.

Enter Ecuador.

Unlike many other highly regarded South American kayaking destinations (ahem, Chile), Ecuador is incredibly affordable. While researching a potential trip, I was able to find a flight to Ecuador for less than ⅓ of the cost of a flight to Chile for the same timeframe. Due to my lack of funds and a very limited schedule, I didn’t have much time to paddle so a guided trip in Ecuador was a very appealing option. Financially, Ecuador made way more sense for me.

Having spoken with Don and Darcy from Small World Adventures at a number of kayaking festivals over the years, they were first on my list of people to contact. Darcy and I emailed back and forth and I decided to book myself on their Mucho Agua offering from November 16-23.

I wanted to bring a boat down with me, but it can be difficult to fly with a kayak, especially when flying out of Denver. Due to the extra costs associated with bringing a boat, I opted to fly without my boat via Delta (who has a strict no kayak policy). Many flights arrive in Ecuador late night, so plan to book a hotel in or near Quito on the first night of your stay. I stayed at the Hosteria Airport Garden, which came out to just over $50 including a cab ride and breakfast in the morning. Ecuador uses the US dollar, which is just another bonus offered by the country. Others on the trip booked at the El Viajero Hotel, which was significantly cheaper and not much of a downgrade.

Sunday morning, the team from Small World picked us up from our hotels. We loaded our gear and hopped on the bus for a couple hour trip up and over the mountains to the small town of Borja. We based out of the Luxor Hotel for the first few days of the trip with the plan to return later in the week.

Small World Buss
It’s much easier to load boats on a trailer than onto a bus.

For a hotel in a small dairy farm in the middle of Ecuador, the Luxor is incredibly nice. The rooms are small but cozy, the showers are hot, and there is a swimming pool complete with a hot tub and sauna to relax in at the end of the day.

Our trip nearly mirrored the itinerary laid out on the SWA site, but trips can vary drastically depending on water levels and how the group is paddling.

We spent the first few days of our trip exploring the rivers near Borja. Borja is quaint, but beautiful and surrounded by some of the country’s best whitewater. It is within a short bus ride of the Cosanga, Oyacachi, and Quijos Rivers.

With low to medium flows for our trip, we started off with El Chaco Canyon on the Rio Quijos. This fun class 3-4 section was a great warm up section, especially for those of us coming straight off of the couch. It was also a great, low stress way to get a feel for how the group would paddle together the rest of the week. We continued down the Rio Quijos, below the confluence with the Oyacachi and took out at the Bom Bon Bridge adding a few extra big water rapids to our day.

The next day, we set off to the Rio Oyacachi, one of the premier Ecuadorian runs. Steeper, more continuous, and lower volume than many other rivers in the region, the Oyacachi will feel very familiar to Colorado boaters. The Ovacachi is fairly chilly and shallow so we were thankful to have packed elbow pads and a dry top for this one.

Day three started off by packing up our hotel rooms, loading the bus, and driving up and over the pass towards Tena. The bus ride was broken up by a full day of paddling on the famed Upper Jondachi which features 80 plus rapids over the course of just a few kilometers. This run is legendary for a reason and was one of the trip highlights for me. After an ice cold Pilsener at the takeout (thanks for always planning ahead, Don!), we reloaded the bus and took off to Tena.

Cooler of Cervezas
Alcoholic sports drinks are a takeout staple

Tena is a much bigger city than Borja and offers more things to do outside of paddling. Since we had a fairly short day on the water, we had some time to explore Tena prior to joining the rest of the group for dinner. Eventually, we met up with the group at the Spider Bar, where we enjoyed pizza and margaritas before setting off on our own to check out the nightlife in Tena.

Tena Ecuador
Tena views

During our time in Tena, we were based out of the Hotel Los Yutsos, which sits along the Rio Pano. In addition to awesome scenery and access, the hotel offered a great breakfast and air conditioning, which made for very dry gear the next day.

We set off to the Rio Piatua the next morning. This class 4 gem is currently threatened by a hydroelectric dam project and may become dewatered in the near future. To learn more about this cause, check out the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute.

Rio Piatua
Just a casual day on the Piatua

The Piatua defines class fun and is full of awesome boofs, slot moves, cool rapids and top notch scenery. It is a must hit on any Ecuadorian vacation, level depending. Despite all of this, we opted to head over to the nearby Rio Anzu instead of lapping the Piatua. Even at lower flows, the Anzu provided plenty of good whitewater, including a challenging rapid that climaxed in a powerful, river wide hole.

To satisfy the appetites we had all built up after a long day of paddling, our group and the Torrents trip all convened at the El Jardin Restuarant in nearby Puerto Misahaulli, where we were treated to an amazing meal.If you take a trip with Small World Adventures, you order your food every morning so you have lots of great options to choose from. I recommend ordering a side of soup with your meal!

The next morning, we packed up our hotel rooms once again, with the plans to paddle something between Tena and Borja. For our trip, we opted to run the middle Jondachi. Much like the upper reaches of the river, the middle offered lots of fun boulder gardens, boofs and amazing scenery. “The Grand Canyon” makes for a nice side hike on this section!

Upon returning to Borja, we re-settled into our rooms at the Luxor and planned to head over to the Rio Cosanga the next day. Flows were low for our run and unfortunately, I cracked the Braaap that I had been paddling all week. Rocks are hard, who would’ve guessed?

One of the benefits of a guided trip with SWA is their offering of boats. They have a ton of options to choose from, ranging from playboats to creekboats, with a range of sizes to cover almost any paddler. Though some may be cracked, the team at SWA does an amazing job of repairing them and all of their boats are in great functioning condition.

Crack in Kayak

I don’t paddle a Braaap back home, so it took a few days to get used to it. If possible, I’d recommend trying to reserve something that you’re familiar with to make life easier.

For our last day, we ran the Cheesehouse section of the Quijos. Like the Oyacachi, the Cheesehouse felt like home (think Gilman Gorge) with its blast rock, continuous nature, and cold water. Though it was on the lower side, this run was definitely one of the more stout sections of our trip. After finishing, we headed back to the Luxor to dry gear and to pack for our trip back to the Quito Airport.

Rather than spending a few hours in Quito or waiting at the airport, a few of us chose to visit the Papallacta Hot Springs. SWA dropped us off, where we spent a few hours soaking. We grabbed dinner at the resort, then packed all five of us into a cab for the journey back to the airport.

As someone with minimal international traveling experience, I was drawn to a guided trip. I booked my flight, and then put the rest of my trip in the capable hands of Don, Darcy and the rest of the crew at SWA. Once I arrived in Ecuador, I didn’t have to worry about food or logistics, which allowed me to focus on enjoying the short amount of time that I had to paddle. For anyone looking for a full on, stress-free, kayaking vacation and not a loosely planned out South American sufferfest, I would highly recommend a guided trip with Small World Adventures.

SWA makes the trip of a lifetime very manageable, even with limited time or resources. If you want to go south and avoid the snow next winter, start saving, reach out to Darcy, and look forward to a trip that you’ll never forget.

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