Many thanks again to the fine folks at Small World Adventures for making our trip to Ecuador another awesome trip. The following blog update was prepared and written by Mary Langford from her notes that she kept along the way in Ecuador. We would also like to thank everyone on the trip who shared their photos and videos with us.
Below is a short video of what it was like paddling in Ecuador for the week. It’s best viewed if you change the YouTube setting to 1080p HD quality.
“What’s wrong with just fun?” This is the bumper sticker slogan of Small World Adventures. Our answer to that question always includes some kind of adventure. Our South American trip began in the late afternoon at the Atlanta airport where we boarded a Delta non-stop flight to Quito, Ecuador arriving there about 12:30 a.m. After waiting in a long line to clear customs, we were greeted warmly by the EB Hotel representatives and transported to our hotel in less than 10 minutes. Our king room was upgraded to a suite which was extremely nice with a great view of the surrounding hills.
The next morning we took advantage of the included breakfast in the hotel dining room. The breakfast bar included all kinds of breads, cheese, meats, fruits, coffee, teas, juices, yogurts & cereals. There were also eggs, bacon, waffles, pancakes, and a chef preparing eggs or omelets to order. Not only was the food delicious, but also the staff was very friendly and courteous.
After breakfast, we met up with Giovanni, the driver the hotel located for us and we headed to the equator which crosses through the northern part of Ecuador. The Spanish word “ecuador ” means “equator”. The four lane highway we took was just a few years old and in excellent condition, not at all like the gravel and muddy roads that David remembered from his visit in 1996. We first stopped at Inti Nan Museum, the GPS located site of 0 degrees latitude and longitude. Here we enjoyed a tour which featured several scientific experiments showing how the sun’s shadows, water drainage, spinning of a globe, and balance are affected at the equator line. Our young tour guide was very enthusiastic and entertaining. We also saw models of homes made of volcanic rock, mud, and thatched roofs modeled after those of the indigenous people who originally lived in that part of Ecuador. One home included a pen of guinea pigs, called “cuy” in Ecuador due to the sounds they make. Guinea pigs are also a food staple for many tribes in Ecuador. The idea of eating a guinea pig was definitely not a consideration for me since my first pet was a guinea pig! Next, we went around the corner about 250 yards away and photographed the historical sight, La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World), which is where original equator line was marked by a French expedition in 1736.
From the equator, we caught a ride on the Teleferi’ Qo, a cable car that travels from a platform on the outskirts of Quito at about 10,000 feet to Mt. Pichincha at around 12,950 feet. The views were beautiful and we could definitely feel the altitude change not only in the cool wind blowing but also in our breathing as we walked up the hill on top. It is advertised as “toca el cielo” (touch the sky) and is a beautiful spot to view the city and countryside surrounding Quito. It is said that you can see the Cotopaxi Volcano on a clear day. However, I have to say there aren’t too many cloudless days in Ecuador! 🙂
After that, Giovanni took us to Old Quito where we walked down ancient cobblestone streets past museums, apartments, hotels, and small stores and arrived at the Plaza de Grande. This large park is located at the center of Old Quito and showcases the statue celebrating Ecuador’s independence from Spain in 1809. Nearby, we sampled some unique liquor filled candies and enjoyed lunch in a open air café. Giovanni pointed out a frozen juice mix of strawberry and guanabana fruit. Yum! It was the first taste of many delicious fruits that grow in Ecuador. After eating, we continued on down the street and toured the Compania de Jesus Cathedral. This beautiful church took 160 years to build using only three materials- wood, rock, and gold. Our lovely young tour guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and told us at the end of the tour that we were the first tour that she had given speaking only English. She was terrific! We strolled back through the cobblestone streets, stopping for some homemade ice cream and a package of tequila filled candies and then headed back to our hotel. It was a fun first day!
On this cloudy morning, our driver for the day, Gabriel, picked us up at the EB and we headed north through the town of Tabacundo. This tiny town and surrounding fields and hillsides are covered with dozens of greenhouses full of roses. We had noticed earlier that our hotel lobby had vases of gorgeous roses on almost every surface and we learned that Ecuador is one of the largest producers and exporters of roses in the world. Our first stop was Puerto Logo, a beautiful hacienda on Lake San Pablo. Here we walked around and photographed the immaculately landscaped grounds, enjoyed views of the lake, and drank cappuccino in their dining room lounge. We even got to see a few llamas up close and personal.
By the time we arrived in the city of Otavalo, the sun was out and the streets were crowded with booths full of people selling all kinds of foods, wooden handicrafts, musical instruments, paintings, woven tapestries and bags, and alpaca sweaters, hats, scarves, and gloves. I was surprised to see lots of western clothing too. At first it seemed that we were seeing unique artwork, but as we weaved up and down the streets, we noticed many duplicates of linens, artwork, and clothing. Our favorite part of the market was the display of hundreds of fresh vegetables, fruits, and spices and also the tents where people were cooking and selling prepared food. Many families were eating fresh pork cut right off the back of roasted pigs, grilled plantains and corn, chicken, fish, soups, rice, and vegetable dishes. As we passed a small bakery, David caught of whiff of freshly baked bread and couldn’t resist purchasing several hot delicious rolls.
From Otavalo, we traveled on to visit the Cascada de Peguche (Peguche Waterfall). Here we walked through a gate and up small street bordered by vendors selling local goods and dogs sniffing around everywhere. At the entrance, we followed an old rock path, passed by a pretty swimming area fed by the river and then continued to the waterfall. A little further around the path, a young man was encouraging tourists to pose with a couple of brightly dressed llamas. After stopping for a drink, we continued around the loop trail across a suspension bridge and back to the gate. The whole area was beautiful and we enjoyed getting to know our driver Gabriel, who had spent several years living in Connecticut and spoke English very well. After another fun day of sightseeing, we headed back south to Quito and our hotel.
The Small World Adventures bus pulled up at the hotel entrance promptly at 9:30 a.m.. Don Beveridge, one of the owners, greeted us and introduced us to our driver, Lobo, who helped load our luggage onto the bus. We met our group for the week which included Jared, an young intern river guide originally from Montana, Mark from Oregon, Rick from New Mexico, and Tiffany and Tony from nearby Cleveland, Tennessee. Soon, we began the two hour journey over the 13,000 foot Andes Mountain pass and southeast to Quijos Valley to the town of Borja. Due to heavy rain, we weren’t able to see much on the way besides lots of green hills and clouds.
We arrived at the El Luxor Hotel, Small World’s home base and the nicest lodging in Borja. We checked into our rooms, met Darcy Gaechter, the other owner of Small World, and reunited with our old friend Liam Kirkham who had recently arrived from the UK to guide for a few weeks. We were introduced to the Small World local cooks, ate lunch in the open air dining area above the hotel pool and then headed a few blocks over to the “bodega” (kayak and gear storage warehouse). After David got past being amazed by the number and selection of boats, the kayakers all outfitted and loaded their boats and we took off to check out the upper section of the Cosanga River. Being warned by Don and Darcy that due to the recent rains, the Cosanga might possibly be too high to paddle, we weren’t surprised to see the gray, murky water lapping right up against the river banks. The decision was made to take about an hour drive up to the Cabanas San Isidro, a bird watching lodge on the eastern slope of the Andes in the Quijos Valley. The rain had dissipated a bit when we arrived, so I decided to take advantage of the rubber boots available and walk along the trail surrounding the cabanas. About halfway through my walk, the bottom dropped out and I discovered what being in a rainforest really meant! It was incredibly beautiful with every green tree hosting moss, ferns, and vines of all kinds. The only birds we saw there were hummingbirds at the feeders, but they were unusual and different from the ones we have here in Georgia. The lodge is a prime destination for serious bird watchers as Ecuador is home to over 1600 species of birds and over 130 different species of hummingbirds.
The group enjoyed drinks at the San Isidro and then headed back to the El Luxor. The cooks had prepared an excellent dinner of hot corn chowder, homemade rolls, giant chicken burritos, and bananas dipped in chocolate for dessert. Don told the group that we would be heading south to the town of Tena the next morning and paddle in the surrounding Napo Valley for the next few days. We chatted with the group and headed up to our room to pack for the morning trip. It wasn’t the day we had originally expected, but it was still fun.
We loaded up the bus and headed over an 8000 foot mountain pass down toward the Napo Valley to city of Tena which sits a little less than 2000 feet above sea level and is located on the Oriente (east) side of Ecuador. Our first stop was at a bridge over the middle section of the Misahualli River. The kayakers unloaded here to run this section of river. After the run, they took their boats out, reloaded, drove back north and ran the upper El Reten section and the middle section again in the afternoon.
Darcy and I hopped in a taxi and traveled to a dirt road that tunneled through some giant bamboo grasses. We stopped and took a wet, muddy walk to a small cascada (waterfall). After that, we headed to an outdoor cafe in the town of Archidona where I sampled my first and only bite of grilled chontacuro (large beetle larva!). Chontacuro is a common source of protein in Ecuador and said to be helpful in curing asthma. I am certain that after that one chewy and crunchy bite, I won’t have any issues with asthma for the rest of my life! At least, mine was grilled. Some Ecuadorians like to eat the larvae alive and still wriggling!
We drove out near Archidona and visited another waterfall and climbed up on the rocks behind it. Later, we stopped at a large outdoor market with booths selling everything from fruits and vegetables to clothing, shoes, and toys. A friendly older couple shared some giant seeded grapes with us. On the way back to Tena to meet up with the kayakers, we stopped by a roadside tent and bought fresh coconut water. The storekeeper chopped off the top of the coconut with a machete, used the tip to carve out a tiny hole, and poked a straw in the top. It was delicious!
We stopped by The Yutzos, our Tena at our hotel on the river, and then walked across the bridge to the small Amazonia Island looking for monkeys. We walked around the boardwalk, climbed to the top of a tower to view the countryside, saw and later petted a tapir (a dark gray pig looking animal with an anteater type mouth) and spent a long time watching a group of marmosets (tiny black monkeys with long tails) playing and jumping around in the trees. Later, we reunited with the kayakers, explored the town and enjoyed a dinner of typical Ecuadorian food (chicken, fish, rice, avocados, vegetables and beans) in a local restaurant. The kayakers has a great first paddling day on the Misahualli and I loved having the chance to explore and see some unique animals!
After breakfast in the riverside dining room at the Yutzos, we boarded the bus and headed to the put in for the lower Jondachi River. On the road to the put in, we picked up local young women and men whose families are willing to let kayakers use their road if they hire them as porters to carry the boats down the trail to the river. As we slipped and slid down the muddy trail to the put in, no one regretted paying $6 to the local entrepreneurs.
I was happy to get to help paddle the Shredder (a small inflatable craft with two attached pontoons) with Don guiding, steering, and basically directing my every move. The Jondachi River was everything one would imagine an Amazonian river to be: whitewater rushing through boulders of all sizes, lush green riverbanks covered with tropical plants and trees, and waterfalls cascading down the hills and into the river. We paddled through many boulder gardens, drop offs, and on down river to where the Jondachi merged with the Hollin River. Not far past the merge, we encountered a HUGE, muddy waterfall spilling from the hillside over into the river. Don informed us that just the week before it had been much smaller and they had enjoyed kayaking under and behind it. The whole run was full of rapids, technical maneuvers around boulders and lots of fun. It was another terrific day in Ecuador!
David and the other kayakers headed out to the Middle Napo Valley to paddle the Piatua River, a creeky, river full of boulder gardens and many challenging drops. Liam, Byron (one of Small World’s local guides) and I took off for the Jatunyacu River in the Upper Napo Valley. At the beginning of the run, the Jatunyacu was surrounded by tall canyon walls, but soon widened and opened up to rolling green hills and flatlands on either side. As we portaged the first rapid, we stopped and watched an indigenous woman panning for gold. The legend is that the local residents hid a large stash of gold high up in the hills to keep it from the Spaniards and because it was never found, it is still washing down the river. She showed us her flat wooden panning bowl and several tiny flecks of gold she had already discovered.
Further down the river after rolling through many big water wave trains, we stopped at an island village called Shandia where the indigenous Kichwa people still live. Here the local women were selling handicrafts, jewelry, carvings, and chocolate. We met an older gentleman who took us on a tour of the island. He first told us that the people still lived nearby, but this island was used to educate the children and visitors about the traditions and customs of the Kichwa tribe. He pointed out the palms that are separated and woven to make Panama hats. We continued our tour by pulling the outside covering off of a termite nest, crunching it up in our hands and rubbing it on our arms to use as insect repellant. We also tasted guava fruit, a sweet white fruit sometimes called “monkey’s tail” because it is enclosed in a long, hard, brownish crusty pod. Our Kichwa guide demonstrated armadillo and bird traps, and told us how the skin of poisonous frogs cannot be touched, but they can be cooked and their insides consumed. He pointed out the yuca trees growing on the beach and explained how the yuca (yoo-ka) roots grow underground producing about 4 yucas per plant. They are similar to a potato, but larger with a purplish skin that must be peeled off. We also tasted the red sap of the dragon blood tree, Sangre de Drago. It is used to heal insect bites and wounds and a drop taken orally is said to cure an upset stomach. We also saw a cacao tree and fruit with the cacao beans used to make chocolate. Near the beach were buildings made in the traditional Kichwa fashion with thatched roofs smoked with soot to help make them water and bug proof. I loved the whole island tour and learned so much!
As we traveled on down the Jatunyacu, we passed by many rock walls covered with green mosses, and many varieties of plants and vines. Byron pointed out the wild orchids growing on the rock walls and picked a tiny beautiful “baby shoe” orchid right off the wall as we floated by. Over 4000 species of orchids grown in Ecuador due to its tropical climate. Several miles downriver, the warmer Anzu River, converged with the Jatunyacu and together they form the Napo River, which leads to the Misahualli, on to the Amazon and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. All of the rivers in Ecuador are tributaries to the mighty Amazon.
When the kayakers joined us again at our hotel, we discovered that Tiffany had taken a swim during their trip, injured her ankle on the rocks, and was at the local hospital getting an xray. It turned out that although she was able to complete the river run, her ankle was fractured and that was the end of kayaking for her. Later that evening, we enjoyed a fine dining experience complete with a white tablecloth, red wine, delicious steak and chicken, and the resident pet sloth sleeping on the ceiling rafters right above and behind our table. Just another day in paradise…
On this morning, David and the kayakers headed to the Jatunyacu River and were entertained by a pet monkey at the put in. Marco, the local taxi driver, picked up Darcy and me and took us to the town of Porto Misahualli. Here we hopped on a long skinny motorized wooden canoe, traveled a short distance upstream and headed uphill to another waterfall. From here, we began our search for a large ceiba (kapok) tree. After a checking out a few trails, we discovered one of the biggest trees we had ever seen complete with roots rising up out of the ground all around it. Along the way, we saw all kinds of vegetation, crazy sizes and shapes of mushrooms, and several huge termite nests. We reunited with Marco who drove us back to town where we watched tmonkeys play, ate lunch, and shopped for fruits. On the way back to Tena, all three of us took a wet, muddy adventure hike through the rain forest to view three more pretty waterfalls.
Later that afternoon, the whole group all boarded the bus and headed back to Borja and the El Luxor Hotel. We munched on an appetizer of chifles (really good sliced, fried, and salted plantain chips) and were served an excellent dinner of vegetable lasagna, homemade rolls, and strawberries with cream prepared by the Small World cooks.
Once again, we loaded onto the bus for about an hour drive to the town of Cosanga in the Quijos Valley. Here we stopped at the same spot by the bridge where we had viewed the river on Sunday afternoon and were happy to see that the level was much better for paddling. On this day, Darcy and I joined the kayakers and paddled the Shredder down the upper section of the Cosanga River. After portaging the Chibolo (lump on the head) Rapid with the Shredder, we watched a group of local kayak guides run it and our kayakers follow Don’s line and sneak it to river left. No one really wanted a lump on the head! The Consanga was a beautiful run once again with many shallow boulder fields, rapids, and challenging drops. I was so happy to get to come along and experience this fun river run!
On our final day with Small World, we took a short bus ride to the Quijos River to run the section from near Baeza to the Rio Sardinas Grande area near Borja. It was once again an exciting boulder filled run with quite a few drop pools and I was thrilled that Don was willing to bring the Shredder along one last time. After a terrific last river run, we returned to the El Luxor for lunch, packed up, said goodbye to Don, Darcy, and Jared and boarded the bus to return to Quito. We dropped Rick and Mark off at the Papallacta Hot Springs for the afternoon and continued on back to the EB Hotel where we said our goodbyes to Lobo and Liam. We checked in, dried out gear, and enjoyed talking with Angel, the barman, while we waited for Rick and Mark to join us for dinner. After eating, they headed to the airport to catch their flights home and we enjoyed one more night in a super nice EB suite.
A mix bag of kayaking photos from the week below:
For our last day in Ecuador, we hopped in the Hyundai van with Gabriel again for the drive to Old Quito and to see the El Panecillo, the famous statue of the Virgin Mary, at the top of the hill above the city. There were all kinds of tourists there watching the local dancers & musicians, having picnics, and just enjoying the beautiful, sunny day. From here we went on to the Basilica del Voto National (the national cathedral). We weren’t able to walk around on the ground floor because Sunday mass was in session so we climbed the stairs to view it from the balcony. Next, we took the elevator to the 3rd floor, walked across a narrow wooden plank above the cathedral ceiling, and climbed up a steep ladder to see the views from an outside tower. We learned that the cathedral was designed by a French architect in the late 1800’s and has taken many years to build. It is technically unfinished and the legend in Ecuador is that if the basilica is ever completed, that will signify the end of the world.
After that, we walked around the very crowded the Plaza Grande filled with choirs singing, gymnasts performing, families sightseeing and many people just sitting on the benches hanging out. Gabriel took us to a new chocolate shop and museum, Republic Del Cacao. We each enjoyed a delicious chocolate dessert, toured the museum, tasted many kinds of chocolate and of course, bought some to bring home. It was incredibly well done. We spent a little more time in Old Quito walking by President’s, the Vice President’s, and the Mayor’s offices and touring the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco (church and monastery of St. Francis). It was built by the Roman Catholics between 1534 and 1680 and has survived many earthquakes. The huge stone plaza in front of it used to be a market center for the indigenous people, but now is a gathering place for locals and tourists. We ended the day with dinner back at the EB and headed to the airport to catch our 12:30 a.m. flight. We arrived back in Atlanta very early the next morning. The ease of traveling on nonstop flights, the fine EB hotel with friendly staff, the beauty of the Andes, the lush tropical rain and cloud forests, the fun kayakers and guides with Small World, the grand architecture of Old Quito, the delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, and most of all the endless number of amazing whitewater rivers made our trip to Ecuador an terrific and unforgettable experience. After all, “what’s wrong with just fun?”