RIVER BETA: THE BASICS ABOUT RAFTING & KAYAKING IN ECUADOR
few words about Safety
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Getting Around Travelling with kayaks in Ecuador