RIVER BETA: THE BASICS ABOUT RAFTING & KAYAKING IN ECUADOR

A few words about Safety
The information contained in this overview is not comprehensive or intended to serve as a "river guide". Rivers change constantly and these changes may affect their level of difficulty and/or navigability. Consult or hire a professional outfitter or guide service if you are inexperienced or unfamiliar with the area, or any of the conditions described below.

Water levels can rise rapidly and without warning in Ecuador. Usually, high water is accompanied by lots of sediment which turns the rivers muddy brown. Accidents and swims can happen at any water level, but recovery and rescue are much more difficult at higher flows. Respect rising water levels and don't hesitate to stop, WAIT, and hike out, if necessary. Always carry extra food, money, warm layers, a headlamp, and emergency supplies in case a trip runs longer than expected. A common rule of thumb is that "CLEAR IS GOOD".

Use sound judgement and make good decisions to prevent accidents from happening. Ecuador is "remote" by nature. Evacuation from rivers may be arduous and far from health care facilities. Boat within your ability and with people you know. Always let someone know where you are going and be knowledgeable about the river and area you are paddling.

QUITO
While paddling options are limited in and around the Capital city, there are still a few rafting outfitters who offer trips to Santo Domingo, the Quijos Valley, and Tena who base from here. For most kayakers, this is likely where your trip to Ecuador begins. Quito is a great place to eat sushi, enjoy good music and dancing, visit museums and cultural sites, and to rest and gear-up for expedition trips, but it is not likely where you will meet other paddlers. Be sure to take care of any special needs like ATM withdrawals, cash advances, equipment purchases, packaged foods and/or special medicines here, before setting out into more remote areas which may lack access to these conveniences. If you are traveling with your own boat, many paddlers are now completely avoiding the hassle of getting in/out of Quito and are catching a bus or hiring a double-cab pick-up truck to go directly from the Quito airport to Baeza or Tena.

Upper Amazon Basin
BAEZA / BORJA / EL CHACO
The Quijos River Valley offers world-class whitewater just 2.5 hours from Quito. After driving over the Papallacta Pass, the road to Lago Agrio follows the Papallacta River corridor and offers a few striking glimpses down into the class V Papallacta Gorge, which starts at the town of Cuyuja where the development of the Quijos hydroelectric project threatens the future of paddling the Papallacta Gorge.

The Quijos River joins the Papallacta just below the gorge and has more than 60 km of road-accessible whitewater all the way down to the magnificent 480-foot San Rafael Falls - don't miss the take-out! Intermediate to Expert kayakers will enjoy a wealth of paddling opportunities based from either Baeza, Borja or El Chaco, where tourist information and services can be found. Note that the only ATM machine in the Quijos Valley is located in El Chaco.

This is a cloud forest zone, and the rivers drain from snow-capped volcano peaks. Dress appropriately for cold water and rapidly changing conditions with a dry top, wetsuit or paddling jacket and splash pants with insulating layers.

Commercial raft rips are offered year-round on the Quijos River. Rafting is generally limited to two different day trip sections. The most popular run is from the town of Borja to the confluence with the Oyacachi River, which includes the spectacular Linares Gorge. The other rafting section from Bombón to the Salado River confluence, has a more secluded feel and finishes just a short drive from San Rafael Falls.

Although there are several different sections of the Cosanga River, the Cosanga Gorge is one of the highlights for kayakers in this area. There are impressive, pool-drop rapids in the canyon, stunning scenery and waterfalls along the sides. Torrent ducks are often seen frolicking in the whitewater rapids. Put-in for this class IV section at the footbridge at Oritoyacu. The first good take-out option for this daytrip is past the confluence with the Quijos River at the town of Borja. For good paddlers looking for more excitement, a new road has been opened all the way to the San Isidro Lodge and has given access to the Upper-Upper Cosanga which rivels the quality of the Cosanga Gorge run.

The Oyacachi River is another kayaking classic. It has excellent water quality and very continuous current with powerful boulder-ledge-drop rapids. There are two main put-in options off the "Via San Juan" that heads upstream from the town of El Chaco. The lower put-in is the easier section of the two, but still has several class IV drops. The runs can be combined for a full day of paddling. The best take-out is just below the confluence with the Quijos River.

TENA
Tena is a boater's paradise and offers year-round paddling options. With over a dozen rivers within an hour from Tena catering to all skill levels from beginner-level flat-water runs...to easy, big water play waves...to lush, jungle canyons....to expert-level steep creeks, there is something here for everyone. Water temperatures are warmer and a simple paddle jacket with light layers is usually appropriate. Make sure to bring insect repellent or cover up with socks and long pants to keep the sand flies off. Kayaking equipment can be rented locally from several outfitters in town.

The drier season with typically lower and more stable flows is from November to March. The wetter season is May - August with a greater probability of higher flows and more variable water levels observed.

Tena is 5 hours SE from Quito by bus and has a full range of food and lodging options, and two reliable 24-hour ATM machines at the Banco Pichincha and the Banco del Austro.

Novice runs are found on the Anzu, Napo, Pano and Tena Rivers, and are good places to start off if you are a beginner.

The Jatunyacu or "Upper Napo" is the most raft trip in Tena and is the last free-flowing, major tributary of the Amazon in Ecuador with no development in its headwaters. "Jatunyacu" means "big river" in the native Kichwa language and also means "big fun" for paddlers. There are lots of surf waves, great scenery and several Kichwa communities along the river. The Jatunyacu River drains from the Volcano Cotopaxi and the rugged and pristine Llanganates Natl. Park in the Andean Cordillera. Since the river drains from glacial sources, be advised that water temperatures are cooler here than most rivers around Tena. The most popular section is a 23 km stretch from Cando to Puerto Napo, and can be broken down into shorter sections. At normal levels, the river is class III with a few mild class IV rapids, and is fun for the whole family.

The Río Piatua is one of the favored rivers to kayak from Tena. The river drains out of the Llanganates Natl. Park and has excellent water quality and 12 km of nearly continuous class III rapids sprinkled with numerous class IV drops and a few class V lines to keep you alert while paddling through the lush tropical scenery. The Piatua leaves a wide-eyed, day-glow grin on every paddler's face.

The Río Jondachi is the whitewater Gem of the Andes. The river has 3 main sections which start at the top with classic Class V expert steep creeking, and tapers down from there to intermediate level cruising. The road bridge that crosses the Jondachi River at Km 18 on the main road from Archidona to Baeza, divides the Upper section of the river from the Middle and Lower sections. The standard put-in for the Upper Jondachi starts at Km 28, also known as "La Merced de la Jondachi". There is a 20 minute walk on a wide, muddy trail down to the river. This is the most famous section of the river which attracts expert kayakers from around the world to challenge its continuous rapids through sculpted, granite boulders. The road roughly follows the river through this section, but is far from the river. There is an alternate put-in access starting from the Urcusiqui tributary at Km 30, which is road-accessible and eliminates the hike to river. The Urcusiqui is low-volume, technical paddling, but has some really nice drops, and is a great warm-up to the Upper Jondachi. The Middle Jondachi is a step down from the Upper, and takes you away from the road corridor and into a more remote area with exceptional scenery and mostly class IV rapids with a few harder rapids to scout. Since access is limited, the Middle Jondachi is usually paired with the Lower Jondachi and the Hollin Canyon for an 35 km run out which can be run comfortable in 6-7 hours. The Lower Jondachi - Hollin Canyon is another outstanding river trip, and is the only section of the Jondachi River which is offered as a rafting trip. The put-in is reached by hiking a rugged, 1 km trail from the kichwa community of Mondayacu at Km 10. This is beautiful 23 km wilderness run suitable for intermediate paddlers through a remote river corridor. The take-out is on the Hollin River at the road bridge near the community of "Nuevo Santo Domingo".

The Upper Misahualli River has various sections of class III-IV paddling between the towns of San Francisco, Cotundo and Archidona. As a general rule, the whitewater gets better the further upstream you go from Archidona. The Lower Misahualli Canyon between Tena and Puerto Misahualli has a difficult portage best-suited to advanced paddlers with local knowledge.

The Hollin, Huataracu, and Pucuno Rivers drain off of the Volcano Sumaco and are overnight and multi-day trips for expert boaters.

The Pusuno River is another local favorite that is a paradise for expert paddlers. Make sure you go with someone who knows the river well, as having the right water level is critical, as are knowing the lines and where to stop and scout and portage. A new section of the river was opened up in 2014 by a new road which pushed further up the river. Unfortunately, the road access was created to build a hydroelectric project which is currently under construction and will leave the upper section of the river dewatered under normal conditions. The lower section of the Pusuno is also threatened by another hydro project.

BAÑOS / PUYO
With a full array of food & lodging options, ATM machines, live bands and street musicians, daily markets, hot springs, waterfalls, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and any number of activities and attractions to choose from, Baños is a natural tourist destination about 4 hours from Quito. Despite the marginal water quality in the Pastaza and Patate Rivers, Baños continues to be one of the more popular rafting destinations in Ecuador. Between the many rafting operators in town, there is sure to be a trip that is right for you.

Kayakers generally opt to paddle the crystalline side-creeks and tributaries of the Pastaza River such as the Río Verde Chico, Ulba, Verde, Topo, Zuñac, and the Encanto, rather than the Pastaza itself, which has very poor water quality. The side creeks drain out of the the Llanganates Natl. Park and other protected areas, and are all expert-level runs. Puyo is an alternate town to base from, and is situated at the bottom of the Pastaza Canyon about 1.5 hours from Baños and 2 hours south of Tena by bus. It is a working-class town with local tastes, and lacks the nightlife and tourist attractions of Baños. However, it is easy to find double-cab pickup trucks to get to the river, and is a bit closer to the Topo, Zuñac and the Encanto, and a good place to stage from for running the Palora River.

The Río Topo is one of the best big-water steep creeks in Ecuador. It drains from Cerro Hermoso in the Llanganates Natl. Park, and has exceptional scenery and water quality in a remote river corridor. Unfortunately, after more than 10 years fighting a hydro project on this river, our legal opposition was defeated and the hydro project was allowed to move forward by the Ecuadorian government. The development of the hydro project has seriously impacted the river corridor and will effectively dewater a 6 km section of the entire 15 km run when the project begins to operate by the end of 2015. Make sure you go with someone who knows the run, otherwise be prepared for a full day of scouting. The take-out is at the main road bridge near the town of "Río Negro". A road just east of the bridge leads upstream to the put-in, just past the forestry control sign and a small building, where a short trail leads down to a footbridge over the river. This is a class V run and should only be attempted by strong groups of expert paddlers at moderate water levels. When the Topo is running high, the nearby Río Zuñac offers a good option. A trail runs alongside the river and is worth the hike up for the great scenery and paddling. Andean "Cock-of-the-Rocks" and Torrent Ducks are often seen on this run.

MACAS / SUCUA
Macas and Sucua are the preferred destinations to paddle rivers in the Upano Watershed, which offers superb whitewater for all skill levels in an area that is off the beaten track for most tours and is more culturally intact than other areas of the country. The airport in Macas services direct flights to and from Quito, which makes reaching this distant area more convenient. Otherwise, it is about 3 hours from Puyo, 5 hours from Tena, or 9 hours from Quito by bus. On clear days, the Sangay Volcano (5230m) can be seen from Macas towering over the jungle landscape with a thin whisper of smoke trailing from its picturesque, snow-capped cone. "Sangay" means "Peaceful One" in the native Shuar language - an appropriate name for the passive eruptions of one of the most continuously active volcanoes in the world. ATM services are limited here, so be sure to bring cash reserves and everything you need.

Due to paved roads and new access points, the Upano River can now be easily broken-down into a variety of one-day rafting or kayaking trips based from Macas or Sucua, that range in difficulty from Class III-IV+. The Upano River is divided into a series of braided, alluvial channels as it flows around Macas, but then becomes more defined and channelized as it nears Sucua, and then passes through a series of canyons with exceptional geology as the river flows past Huambinimi, Huambi and Logroño towards the last take-out option before entering the Namangoza Gorge at the Patuca-Yuquianza road bridge.

Skilled kayakers with appropriate provisions will want to experience the Upper Upano, which is an exceptional class IV-V overnight trip. The put-in is about an hour from Macas near the town of Alshi, where the road comes close to the river. From there it is about 60 km down to Macas. For those looking for a bigger adventure, the section above Alshi can be run started from the tunnel on the Macas-Guamote-Riobamba road where a trail leads down to the river from the downstream side of the tunnel. Be prepared for a long day of beautiful, solid Class V with some portages.

The Tutanangosa River is a tributary of the Upano located near Sucua. It has an upper section above the town of Sucua with challenging class IV-V rapids, followed by a lengthy section of flatwater with numerous access points, followed by a surprising mini-gorge with Class IV drops which finishes just as the river reaches a road bridge and access at Sucua. From there, the river has a nice Class III (IV) section which finishes at a bridge that crosses over a beautiful gorge with a steep trail on RL leading up to the road. Below there, the river picks up and builds character with some harder rapids and several spots that are prone to collect trees and strainers. The last take-out is on the upstream / RR-side of the main Macas - Gualaquiza road bridge before the Tutanangosa River flows into the Upano River.

Well below the confluence of the Tutanangosa River, the combined flows of the Negro and the Paute Rivers join the Upano River to form the Class IV+ Namangoza Gorge. This beautiful, waterfall-lined canyon has "big-water" waves and features and is now preferably run as a full-day-trip started from the balneario on the Negro River, just upstream of the confluence with the Paute and the main road bridge at Bella Union. Most groups take-out in the Shuar community of Yuquianza, just downstream of the Yuquianza River confluence, and well upsream of an impressive hanging foot bridge, which is the first foot bridge across the river below the Namangosa Gorge. Hire a shuttle in advance, as bus traffic can be minimal at the take-out.

A new road has opened access to a good Class IV section of the Abanico River, upstream of the Abanico hydro project. Below the hydro project, the Abanico River crashes over 3-4 marginally runnable rapids and flattens out abruptly before joining the Upper Upano River about 50 km above Macas with no good access in between. For that reason the Lower Abanico has only been paddled a few times, as the section above the hydro project is the best section to paddle, as is the Upper Upano for the overnight trip.

For those looking for easier Class III (+) paddling, the Yukipa River and the Seipa River both offer good options. The Yukipa River was recently made accessible by a new road, and has excellent scenery. There are 2-3 sections which can be run. The final section which runs into the Upano is Class IV+ with portages. The Seipa River also runs into the Upano River, but has milder gradient compared to the Yukipa. A new road is opening up sections higher up on the Seipa.

The Tuna Chiguaza River is an excellent low-water run with remarkable geology. The put-in is at the bridge on the road to "Huamboya", about an hour north of Macas. Although the rapids are class III, they often have class VI consequences due to the severe undercut rocks, log jams, and sieves. Take-out at the hanging bridge just before the confluence with the Pastaza River or at the main Puyo-Macas road bridge over the Pastaza just below the confluence. There is no more road access below the main Puyo-Macas road bridge.

Western Slope
SANTO DOMINGO DE LOS TSÁCHILAS
Due to the wealthy agricultural base and strategic location between the coast and the sierra, Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas is a booming city which offers modern services and conveniences. The city was named after the native Tsáchila Indians known as the "Colorados", who traditionally paint their hair bright red with natural achiote dye.

The western side of the Andes drops more steeply than the Amazon side, and most of the runnable whitewater is found at lower elevations where temperatures are warmer all-around. This is the most agriculturally productive area in the country, and most of the usable land was cleared long ago for banana and African oil palm plantations. For this reason, some of the best views of native landscapes, birds and vegetation in this striking tropical habitat are from the rivers.

The rainy season tends to start some time in December and run through June. However, the weather patterns on the coast can be highly variable from year-to-year, and storms in the highlands can also bring levels up on the Toachi, Mulaute, and the Blanco Rivers even when the coastal region is dry.

The Toachi and Blanco Rivers have historically been the most popular rivers in the area for year-round rafting and kayaking based from Quito. At normal flows, the classic rafting daytrip runs from the Km 13 access on the Toachi River down to the confluence with the Blanco River and to the town of Valle Hermoso or La Concordia, and includes the infamous class IV "El Sapo" rapid. At higher levels, raft trips may switch completely to the Rio Blanco and run from as far upstream as San Miguel de los Bancos, and enjoy a roller-coaster ride through huge waves all the way to the take-out.

Although the Toachi and Blanco rivers drain from the protected watersheds of the Illinizas Ecological Reserve and Volcano Pichincha, respectively, intensive and indiscriminate gravel mining, along with growing population centers and intervention throughout these watersheds, including the construction of the Toachi-Pilaton Hydroelectric Project, have all left their impact and have drawn astute paddlers to explore the more pristine Mulaute River, which offers a very nice Class IV-V full day run from the headwaters in the Mar de Tranquilidad down to hamlet of Puerto Nuevo, where the river shifts character to a mild, pool-drop Class III and makes for a shorter day trip down past the Mulaute Lodge to the main road bridge access between Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas and San Miguel de los Bancos. A Complejo Turistico and Balneario just upstream of the main road bridge offers a nice access with parking and services. From the main road bridge another beautiful Class III day trip section that runs down to the last road access at Santa Rosa del Mulaute. From there, it is just a short float to the confluence with the Blanco River with the next take-out option a ways downstream with a long shuttle around to the confluence of the Blanco and Toachi Rivers or the town of Valle Hermoso.

During the rainy season, advanced kayakers revel in the creeking options on the Cristal and Otongo Rivers, while Intermediate paddlers will be more at home on the Río Baba. For solid paddlers that want to explore the area a bit further, the Río Bolo and the Río Damas are highly recommended.

If water levels are low, check out the incredible Upper Toachi Canyon from the dam site on the Toachi River down to the town of Union del Toachi. The section from Union del Toachi to the town of Alluriquin has amazing rapids, but now has very poor water quality from raw sewage discharges and agricultural runoff. The Pilaton River also offers several road-accessible sections with miles of challenging whitewater, but current construction of the Toachi-Pilaton Hydroelectric Project may restrict access to the river for some time. As of August 2015, the access to the Sarapullo River, is currently closed to paddlers due to construction of the Toachi-Pilaton hydro project.

OTHER AREAS
Ecuador has over 2000 rivers in a country the size of Colorado. If you have paddled all of the most popular rivers mentioned above, have good Spanish skills, and want to explore rivers in other parts of the country, don't hesitate to write to info@kayakecuador.com for more beta.

General Advice for Rafting

Getting Around Travelling with kayaks in Ecuador

Intl. Scale of River & Rapid Difficulty

 

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Contacto: Matt Terry
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