The best river you have never heard of…

Hands up who’s heard of the Piatua, not many I would surmise. Joe Public will have heard of rivers such as the Zambezi and the Nile.  Boaters will have heard of the Futalafeu and the Marsyandi, but I wager there’s not many people who have heard of the Piatua, unless you are Ecuadorian or have actually paddled it.

It’s a classic, well it was on Thursday, the 8th of February 2024, in its current form. Alex Dent, he of informs us the river just keep changing, a massive flood a couple of years ago scoured the river bed and pushed many of the large boulders to the river’s edge.

This is Ecuador, O level geography, the heat of the day rises, cools, condenses and forms rain clouds and it rains, and boy, does it rain in these parts, well it is the tropical Amazonian rainforest after all.

We’ve driven about 40 minutes out of Tena and are stood on a bridge over the Anzu river, there’s a section on here that will go Alex informs us, or the Piatua section we did previously although the levels will be lower, or the upper Piatua should be good to go.  The debate goes back and forth, it’s our call we are told, we’re unsure, then we hear mild mannered Brian’s voice, “I’ve done the Anzu, I like new rivers, like the upper”.

Shall we go look at the Upper Piatua then? Yes, lets!  Into the trucks once more and the we turn off tarmac onto gravel roads, pretty soon we pull up, the road did go further but currently it doesn’t, floodwaters broke the bridge, in style, this will be todays put in.

Alex advises this section keeps changing and they don’t paddle it as often as other more local sections of river.  Pancho will be our probe, scouting ahead and signaling to Alex who will be leading us down.  Pancho has already demonstrated his approach to rapids, if there’s a choice of line, he will take the harder, and style it, he is smooth, moving around the river effortlessly.

We are advised there’s going to be about a 100m warm up before we are into the action.  We eddy hop down then break out river right, Pancho probes, then signals, Alex is off taking two with him, we lose line of sight, Andy is out, stood on top of a rock.  He signals Brian and I down, the river twists and turns, no indication of our route, so we assume we are good to go, we are, we drop down to river left, dam that was steep, technical and fun.

We re-group, Pancho disappears out of sight and one by one we drop down, moving as the boat in front leaves their eddy.  As I head downriver I see Pancho eddied out river right, he’s holding his position to advise on the line.

I drop into Pancho’s eddy, its swirling and we cruise round in circles, watching over our shoulder as Brian leaves taking a left line and disappearing out of sight.  Pancho asks me if I want to boof, to be honest Pancho, I am happy surviving I think to myself, but shrug my shoulders and say “ yea why not”.  “Follow me then” another lap of the eddy and Pancho goes right, after telling everyone else to go left, he smears a rock and an 8 foot long boat disappears, fast. Gulp. Another lap of the eddy a glance downstream, a raised set of blades indicates it’s good to go, I break out, smear the rock and gravity takes over, the right line is actually the smoother route, if you nail it, I drop into the eddy all smiles.

Pancho speak great English, I speakio noio spanishio, however, this language is different to what non boaters would understand, this is the language of the river, different backgrounds and cultures but no words needed, big grins all round, a shake of hands, man that was cool. 

There’s a mandatory portage ahead, a tree in the river, on the obvious line.  We carry our boats under a blue, sun filled sky, its hot.  I can feel my energy levels are low and the situation is not going to improve, until it does when both Alex and Pancho supply me with bottles of Guayusa, containing more caffeine than coffee. Drugs, in liquid form, in reality, it’s a local tea, with a punch.

This is day nine of boating, the war of attrition, paddling back to back days is beginning to show, added to the bug issue that usually happens in foreign climes, the fuel tank is approaching empty.  I am making my lines though, the moves are happening, but I walk a rapid I should have, could have paddled.  We stop for lunch the Guayusa begins to have an effect, the caffeine I usually avoid rushes round through my veins.

The river becomes the culmination of just over twenty years of paddling.  From a wobbly start at Plas Menai to a long list of classic whitewater rivers in different countries, Chile, Nepal, India, across Europe.  I have not boated much in recent years, life factors, the usual guff that gets in the way. But, today, all those years, all the practicing, training, the Treweryn, days on the Tees, ferry glides, eddy hopping, it all forms, focuses, the planets align and we are cruising.

Alex takes the lead, Pancho sits mid group and we go, barely stopping unless a key piece of information needs to be imparted, otherwise we are off, downriver in a flurry of strokes, must make lines, eddies, signals. Pancho tells me to boof right, a hand gesture indicates where, I follow the suggested line, land on a low brace, carving into an eddy behind a rock and hold my position until Brian clears his eddy below.

We are running late, Alex increases the pace, he is back on his regular run of the river, I watch five boats in front of me criss crossing the river, indicating where I need to be but each feature is run on sight all be it with an idea of where I need to be.  For whatever reason like paddling at the back, last man, it gives me the opportunity of seeing the lines, perhaps watching someone getting hammered and electing to go a different route, but there’s no back up, that’s ok.  We have to accept we are alone, even when in a group, and this group, this group is good, everyone is paddling well, making their lines.  Eyes like bin lids greet me as I drop into an eddy but I can see the joy in faces, smiles, nods of heads, a few words exchanged, we’re off again.

The river calms, I recognise this from last week, nooooooooo, I realise we are approaching the get out.  I have never wanted to stay on a river more.  I tear up in the last eddy, I really do not want to get out of my boat, I sit for a few minutes, hands in water trying to understand what just happened.

Think of your favourite day, the most fun you have had, whatever it may be, your best day, living your life, to what ever end.  This was such a day.

Days like these should be shared, I was lucky enough to share it with friends, old and new. Gentlemen, life does not get any better, from me, thank you.

I didn’t know I could do it again, but I can, and that brings me so much joy.

If you want to know more about boating in Ecuador get in touch with Andy Holt, he knows stuff.  Alex Dent is the man on the ground in Ecuador, he knows even more.  Don’t leave home without either!!

Thanks to Alex Dent, Pancho Echeverria, Andy Holt, Shaun Bottomley and Brian Clough. and