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Whitewater Rafting in the Ecuadorian Andes

By: Surtrek Tour Operator

Ecuador Joe Laumas

Credit: Joe Laumas

Boasting the world’s highest concentrations of rivers per square mile, Ecuador possesses scores of rivers thanks to its abundant rainfall and the massive Andean mountain range that crosses the middle of the country from north to south.

From its snow-capped volcanoes, water flows down to the coast or deep into the Amazon jungle, winding its way through the spectacular gorges, canyons, valleys and jungles below. Along this trail are left miles of breathtaking world-class whitewater that feeds into the mighty Amazon River or the Pacific.

Rio Quijos: Site of the 2005 World Rafting Championship

Rio Quijos: Site of the 2005 World Rafting Championship

For this reason, Ecuador was selected as the site of the 2005 World Rafting Championships, just as National Geographic magazine choose it as one of the world’s top 10 whitewater locations.

Ecuador’s nearly continuously flowing rivers — especially those in the east — have warm, tropical waters and excellent accessibility. Heading out from the capital city of Quito to the Andes’ eastern or western slopes, you’ll find a a variety of rivers with varying grades of difficulty from which to choose.

Yet regardless of which side of the Andes you might select, you can organize your trip through Surtrek Tour Operator in such a way as to combine your river rafting adventure with the fabulous landscapes and the sounds of the forest – which are guaranteed to provide you with an unforgettable journey.

Rafting the East-Andean Slope

Ecuador Rios 2Thanks to year-round rain, the jungle rivers on the Amazonian side of the Andes are typically larger and have more stable flows than their counterparts on the west side of the Andes. These are also the cleanest and most scenic rivers in all of the country by far. In addition to their exceptional whitewater, eastern Ecuadorian rivers also provide an opportunity to experience the incredible Amazon jungle, with its exotic varieties of plant and animal species, as well as the rhythm of life of its indigenous inhabitants.

Travelling south-east of Quito to the Amazon basin, in 2 to 4 hours you’ll find a handful of jungle settlements that have become known as rafting paradises: particularly towns such as Tena, Macas and Baeza (as well as the  nation’s overall extreme sports capital: Baños). Offering year-round paddling options, almost a dozen rivers close to these towns cater to all skill levels – from Class I flat-water runs for beginners, to hairy Class V rapids shooting down steep creeks. In short, there’s something here for everyone.

Ecuador YacuamuWater temperatures are warmer in the east and a simple paddle jacket with light layers is usually appropriate. The drier season is from November to March. The rainy season is from May to August, when  higher water levels are observed.

Class IV-V Eastern Rivers:

  • Río Upano, winning 4th place in National Geographic magazine’s top 10 whitewater rafting sites (behind Alaska, Canada and Idaho), this Amazon tributary is known as the “River of the Sacred Waterfalls.” It will treat you to Class II-IV whitewater, mammoth waterfalls and lush rainforest scenery. It will also afford you a rare glimpse into an isolated portion of Ecuador, since living here are the Shaur people, an indigenous tribe that was formerly known as the “Headhunters of the Amazon.” This river is best accessible through the town of Macas.
  • Río Quijos: Popular with experienced rafters and kayakers, on this difficult eastern Class IV-V river,  you can expect to run more whitewater in a day than you’d do anywhere else in a week. The site of the 2005 World Rafting Championship, the Quijos River is set to become Ecuador’s premier whitewater location with mile-after-mile of challenging rapids, spectacular jungle rainforest and basalt canyon scenery. Rafting trips can be arranged here by Surtrek during the dry season, (October to February), with access close to the town of Baeza.
  • Río Misahuallí, a strikingly beautiful Class IV route, this river offers one of the country’s most challenging white-water experiences. Some rafting training is required for this river, which can be navigated only during the low-water season (October to March).

Class III Rivers:

  • Ecuador AndesRío Jatunyacu is a long and lively Class III-III+ whitewater route that’s perfect for beginners and nature enthusiasts. The Jatunyacu, or “Upper Napo,” is the last free-flowing major tributary of the Amazon in Ecuador. “Jatunyacu” means “big river” in the native Kichwa language, which also means “big fun” for paddlers. Accessible near Tena, there are lots of surf waves, great scenery and several Kichwa communities along this river.
  • Río Napo is a Class III Amazon tributary that flows past amazing tropical forest. Its 25km (16-mile) white-water route is an exhilarating day trip that can be done year-round from Tena. For travellers who want to do a lot of rafting, Surtrek can arrange stays in Tena, located four hours from Quito.

Class II River:

  • Río Anzu: A more straightforward Class II/III route that’s ideal for families or beginners.

Rafting the West-Andean Slope

Ecuador's Upano River: Considered by National Geographic as the World's 4th best whitewater

Ecuador’s Upano River: Considered by National Geographic as the World’s 4th best whitewater

Feeding into the Pacific Ocean, the western slope of the Andes also has some popular rivers (such as the Toachi, Ecuador’s most rafted river). These are more accessible, but their water levels are only high enough for rafting from January to May.

The centre of this activity in the west is arguably the city of Santo Domingo (officially “Santo Domingo de los Colorados”). The city was named after the native Tsachila people, who were known as Los Colorados (“the colorful ones”) for traditionally painting their hair bright red with natural 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 year round. This is the most agriculturally productive area in the country, and most of the usable land was cleared long ago for farming purposes. For this reason, some of the best views of native landscapes, birds and vegetation in this striking tropical habitat are from the rivers.

Class III-V Western River:

  • Río Mulaute, this Class III-V river is located to the north of the Toachi River (see below), and can be run as a 1- or 2-day trip.  More astute paddlers have been drawn to the Mulaute River, as it is more pristine than the region’s Toachi and Blanco rivers, which have both suffered from intensive and indiscriminate gravel mining, along with growing nearby populations.

Class III-IV Rivers

  • Rio Toachi, accessible close to the city of Santo Domingo (just 3 hours from Quito by mini-van), this area has Class III and IV rapids, offering exciting rafting all year round in warm water and climate. It is best run from January to May.
  • Rio Blanco – Another three-hour drive from Quito on the way to Santo Domingo, the Rio Blanco makes for a good trip for beginners and experienced rafters alike. The upper Rio Blanco contains a 28-mile stretch that flows through a less-developed, forested valley, making for a very pleasant trip. The best months here are from February to June. The lower Río Blanco, after its confluence with the Toachi River, can be run year-round, but is less pristine than the Upper Blanco.
Other Than Rafting (Additional “Must Do’s” While in Ecuador)If you have more than one week to visit Ecuador, Surtrek can organize tours to other sights that this amazing country has to offer. Top on the list for many is a visit to the Galapagos Islands. The usual way to see the Galapagos is on a 3, 5, or 8 day cruise from island to island (we suggest at least 5 days). As an alternative to one of these traditional cruises, you can instead take a “land-based” trip in which you sleep onshore and take small island-hopping boats to visit nearby Galapagos tortoise reserves, bird nesting areas and snorkeling sites. Contact Surtre, we can work with you to plan your trip and make the arrangements.There’s also plenty more to do on the mainland of Ecuador, whether it’s the Otavalo indigenous market in the Andean highlands, a surfing resort on the Pacific Coast, or an eco-lodge/riverboat cruise deep in the Amazonian jungle. Let us know if you want any more details about how to add some more adventure to your trip.

Other companies: Barefoot Expeditions

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