It never fails that just as I’m coming to really know and appreciate a new place – to feel like it might be home – it’s time to leave. I hadn’t thought much about whitewater kayaking in Ecuador before I booked my first ticket here three years ago for what was an eye-opening first international whitewater kayaking trip. Somehow this fall, I was lucky enough to receive a second chance to see this wild country, this time as a guide for Small World Adventures, a Quijos valley-based whitewater outfit. And somehow, like always, I’m now looking back on 3 months of adventures and life lessons and wondering when I can do it all again.
Ecuador is an intimidating place for whitewater kayaking for a new guide. There are hundreds of rivers and creeks in a country the size of Colorado, each one with its own maze of continuous, boulder-packed rapids. Add to this the fact that water levels change rapidly and sometimes without warning, and you’re looking at a rowdy time!
While challenging to learn, Ecuador’s rivers are some of the most spectacular I’ve seen anywhere. Remote jungle canyons stream with waterfalls, and towering old growth trees trail vines in water that’s unbelievably clear. Sometimes, of course, that clear water turns red, black, or brown with silt drained from the Andes; a river in flood on the Ecuadorian scale is awe-inspiring and will make anyone feel small. Add to these rivers a rich Andean culture, locals that are always willing to lend a hand or a smile, and all the delicious, fresh fruit you can eat, and you have an idea of what it’s like to spend time paddling in Ecuador.
Comically, misadventure accompanies most Ecuadorian experiences at every turn. One week, coming back from the Piatua River near the holiday of Carnaval, our group stopped to watch a parade in the town of Santa Clara. Our van (which was poorly parked) became surrounded by the parade crowd, and our only escape route was to edge it into the parade lineup and follow it, doing our best to blend in as we danced our way, paddles flying, down Santa Clara’s main street to rowdy local applause.
Another week’s misadventures landed us in Lumbaqui amidst raging high water with nothing to paddle. In lieu of our plans to paddle the Quijos’ Coca Canyon, we hiked to the top of one of Lumbaqui’s big hills, only to be told that the spectacular viewpoint we’d come to see was off limits due to military activity. Not to be turned away, we made for the nearest radio tower and raced to the top to find our view, much to the frustration of the security guards we slipped by. Better to ask forgiveness than permission! The next day, we created a long list of falsified passport information (including names like Pierre Donatello and Miguel Escobar) when we found ourselves without documentation and facing stern gravel mine officials at the put in for the Rio Due.
Misadventures aside, the most surprising part about guiding at Small World was the wealth of local knowledge in the staff and guide team. It was great to be working alongside long time Wet Planet whitewater kayaking instructors Gynner Colonel and Andy Round, who have called Ecuador their home during the winter for many years. It was humbling to arrive and realize that my paddling experience in Ecuador was exceeded by more than 20 years by most everyone else. From them, I learned so much – about Ecuador, as well as how to guide in a new and challenging place.
If you would like to learn more about Ecuador and/or are interested in joining Wet Planet on a future whitewater adventure to this beautiful and engaging whitewater mecca abroad, track me down around Wet Planet this summer, or shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know!