THE RIVERS


The majority of Ecuador's whitewater rivers share a number of characteristics. Plunging off the Andes the upper sections are very steep creeks offering, if they're runnable at all, serious technical grade V, suitable for expert kayakers only. As the creeks join on the lower slopes they form rivers navigable by both raft and kayak (ie less steep, more volume). Some of these rivers offer up to 100 km of continuous grade III-IV whitewater, before flattening out to rush towards the Pacific Ocean on one side of the ranges or deep into the Amazon Basin on the other.

BLANCO VALLEY

Owing to their proximity to Quito, the Blanco river and its tributaries are the most frequently run in Ecuador. There is almost 200 km of raftable whitewater in the Blanco valley, with the Toachi/Blanco combination and the Upper Blanco being the most popular day trips. The former starts as a technical grade III-IV run, including the infamous rapids of the El Sapo canyon, before joining the Blanco where big waves abound (year round). The latter is most probably the world's longest day trip - 47 km of non-stop grade III-IV rapids in a little over four hours on the river (February-June only). Family trips are also offered on the Caoni (II-III) and Mulate (III) rivers.

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In addition to those already mentioned, kayakers have a number of other possibilities to choose from depending on the time of year and their skills and experience. The Mindo (III-IV), Saloya (IV-V), Pachejal (III-IV), Upper Caoni (IV), Pilaton (IV-V), Damas (IV-V) and Upper Toachi (IV-V) are options.

QUIJOS VALLEY

The waters of the Quijos river and its tributaries are a whitewater playground. Within a 30 km radius of the town of El Chaco you'll find everything from steep, technical grade V creek runs to big volume, roller coaster grade III and IV. The Quijos (IV-V) has quickly earned the reputation as a classic for rafting and kayaking boasting challenging whitewater and spectacular canyon scenery. Other popular kayaking runs can be found on the Papallacta (V), Cosanga (III-IV) and Oyacachi (IV) tributaries. At the end of the upper section the collected waters of the Quijos catchment plunge dramatically over San Rafael Falls, which at 145 m is the highest waterfall in Ecuador. Access to the Quijos valley is generally easy as it forms the main corridor from Quito down into the jungle. The most popular put ins and take outs are accessible by road.

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The best time to dip your paddle depends on how hard you want to push yourself. The rainy season generally runs from March to September so at this time you can expect high flows and truly continuous whitewater (for expert kayakers only). The rest of the year, the dry season, is when commercial rafting and kayaking trips are offered. During these months there's still plenty of action and water and air temperatures are more comfortable.

NAPO VALLEY

In the jungle surrounding Tena, the Napo river and its tributaries offer a tremendous amount of whitewater in a small area. It's very easy to spend a week based here and paddle a different river every day. The grade III Upper Napo or Jatunyacu, the most popular rafting trip, is runnable year round. While the gem of this region, the Misahuallí (IV), is only rafted during the drier months from October to March. This river passes through pristine jungle in a remote canyon, the highlight being the heart-stopping portage around Casanova Falls. Rafting trips are run on the Napo and Misahualli rivers by our alliance partner Ríos Ecuador.

Additional kayaking options include various sections of the Misahualli, Jondachi, Anzu and Hollín rivers. Difficulty is very much water level dependent but most are grade IV or V when they have sufficient water to paddle.

UPANO VALLEY

The vertical walls of the Namangosa Gorge are covered by a thick layer of primary rainforest broken only by the waters spilling spectacularly off the lip of the gorge.

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Best known for the Namangosa Gorge in which dozens of waterfalls plummet up to 100 m into the river, to date this spectacle has been witnessed by few river runners. While the gorge is undoubtedly the highlight, what makes a journey down the Upano special is witnessing the changing character of an Amazonian river. Trickling from a string of mountain lakes the Upano quickly gathers force, carving a path southward through the province of Morona Santiago. As it rushes past Macas it is shallow and braided. Picking a route from the myriad channels is a real challenge; make the wrong choice and an unscheduled portage will result.

The pace steadily increases until the river plunges into the magnificent Namangosa Gorge. Some falls cascade down staggered cliffs while others freefall into the jungle below. This 'Lost World' atmosphere is made even more daunting by the seething rapids below. The rapids are big class IV with lots of funny water including raft-flipping boils and kayak(er)-swallowing eddylines.

Once out of the gorge, the river broadens and deepens to become a calm but powerful giant on its way to meet the mighty Amazon.

The rafting trip starts south of Macas. From here to the end of the gorge is about 90 km and takes three to four days. Recommended months are October to February. During the rest of the year the river can flood unexpectedly.

 

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