Ecuador was first thrust onto the world scene in 1531 when Francisco Pizarro and his Conquistadors arrived on their search for gold and world domination. Ecuador again gained fame when naturalist Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in the 1830’s during his historic journey on the Beagle. But it wasn’t until the 1993 that this Andean country became known as a kayaking destination after Larry Vermeeren arrived in search for the rumored hidden whitewater. He started Small World Adventures and Ecuador’s golden age of kayaking began. The Conquistadors never found their “El Dorado” but come boat with us in Ecuador and you’ll know you’ve found the real hidden treasure.
Straddling the equator on the western tip of South America, Ecuador is a land of dramatic landscapes both geographically and historically. Throughout the country, the influences of Indigenous cultures and Spanish Conquistadors still linger and in the villages traditional hunting and fishing are still practiced. With an area about the size of Colorado, Ecuador supports ecosystems so diverse and close together that a traveler can go from a Pacific beach to a snow capped volcano rising over 20, 000 feet, and on to the Amazon basin the same day.
Ecuador’s location, unique geographic features, and microclimates have made it one of the most biodiverse regions on earth. In fact, it’s one of the 17 “mega diverse” countries in the world according to Conservation International. Twenty-four tropical life zones can be found here, as well as 1, 640 species of birds, 25, 000 species of trees, and over 4, 500 species of butterflies. In just the Andean region of Ecuador, 2, 725 species of orchids have been recorded, and in the lowlands, one hectare can contain more frog species than are found in all of North America. What is our favorite way to see this amazing country? On a river of course. Whitewater rivers are our pathways through lush jungles and cloud forests – they take us off the beaten path and enable us to experience things not available to the conventional traveler.
Locals divide mainland Ecuador into three regions: the Costa, Sierra, and Oriente. The Costa is the warm lowlands along the Pacific coast. The Sierra is the spine of the Andes that run from North to South through the middle of the country. The Oriente is the eastern half of Ecuador (Ecuador’s Amazonian basin). Most of Ecuador’s 14 million people live in the Sierra or Costa, leaving the Oriente sparsely inhabited (in the year 2000, only 4% of Ecuador’s population lived in the Oriente). The Oriente is also where most of Ecuador’s best whitewater can be found. There are steep creeks pouring off the Andes that feed into bigger volume runs that eventually flow into the Amazon River. Ecuador truly is a paddler’s paradise with much variety compacted into a very small area.
All of Small World’s trips start near the capital city of Quito. From there it’s less than a 3-hour drive to our riverside lodge on the Quijos River. Usually our guests arrive Saturday night, spend the night at the Hosteria San Jose near the airport, then we drive out Sunday morning in time for lunch and a boating session. If you arrive early or have some time at the end of your trip, you may want to check out this charming city. At 9, 350 feet (2, 850m) you’ll want to wear some sunscreen by day, and break out a jacket at night. Quito is the world’s 2nd highest capital (La Paz, Bolivia being #1), and was the northern capital of the Incan Empire. There are no intact Inca sites in Quito today because the Incas razed the city while fighting the Conquistadors in order to keep it from falling into Spanish hands. The Spanish also made the city their capital and rebuilt atop any remaining Incan ruins. The Spanish built many of their churches and town squares right over the top of important Inca sites to symbolically reinforce their conquest. This Spanish colonial architecture is some of the best preserved in Latin America and the historic center of Old Town Quito is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visiting Old Town Quito is especially pretty at night when many of the sites are lit up. Both Old Town and the Mariscal (popular downtown area in New Town) have benefited from recent renovations and tourist development. These areas are safe enough to visit in the evening, but use the same amount of caution you would in any big city.
If you have an extra day or two there are some other attractions in and around Quito. The equator monument (the Mitad del Mundo) is a short taxi ride or an adventuresome bus ride north of the city. (Make sure to check out the real equator a few hundred yards north of the monument – the original French geographic study got it wrong!) In Quito the Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador (on 12 de Octubre and Patria) is the city’s best museum. Parque el Ejido, directly in front of the museum, is a fun open-air arts and crafts market, especially on weekends. If you aren’t going to the craft town of Otavalo, this park is a fun experience. There are a plethora of bars, cafes, and restaurants to choose from throughout the Mariscal and Old Town. Finally, if the weather is clear, a ride up the flanks of Volcan Pichincha in the new Teleferiqo (cable car) gives a great view of the city. If you are free on a Sunday then the city closes down its streets and you can rent a bike to ride some 20 kilometers of city streets in the weekly Cicleo Paseo, there is a real cycling culture developing in Ecuador.
After breakfast Sunday morning, our trips head East over the Andes and into the Oriente. We follow the same path that the Conquistadors used when they discovered the Amazon. Driving along the “Avenue of the Volcanoes” on clear days we can see four snow capped peaks–Cotopaxi, Cayembe, Iliniza, and Antisana. The main road to the Oriente tops out at 13, 320 feet (4, 060m) on top of Papallacta pass. Here we drop into the Amazon basin and can get amazing views of the headwaters of the Quijos River. The area around the town of Papallacta is a geothermal hotspot, and there are some excellent hot springs, but maybe on the way back, we’ve got kayaking to do. This road was built in the 1970’s primarily to access the oil reserves in the Eastern lowlands. The trans Ecuadorian oil pipeline follows the road, and in places you can see it above ground. If we were to continue on, we would eventually reach Texaco’s oil boom town, Lago Agrio, and at the end of the road—Coca — where the pavement ends and transportation continues by dugout canoe. Our lodge is much closer though, just beyond the sleepy hub town of Baeza.