Paddling the headwaters of the Amazon.

My mate Pete is very much a ‘let’s see what happens’ person, some of you know him, you know what I mean. Traditionally, I am not, I like organised, it’s the way I had to work, to keep on top of things.

This trip, I aimed to be more like Pete and I have to say I succeeded.  Someone at some point asked, ‘who fancies a couple of weeks boating in Ecuador with, ‘  ‘I do’ I said out loud, I think the mouth just said it before the brain could say hang on a minute, what, where, when, how….

My aim for the trip was to go boating with as little preparation as possible. I prepared for the boating aspects, but the rest I left to marginally more than chance.  I don’t know how Pete does is so casually, but I’m learning.

I did close to zero research on the rivers, no pre reading at all, ten minutes on you tube a couple of nights before we left, it looked ok, hard a times and it was, but, ok.

To be fair I did not just rock up and go boating in Ecuador, I had the excellent services of Andy Holt, ( and local guide in the form of Alex Dent of  and these guys delivered world class white water in spades.

I had a vague idea where Ecuador was, it’s equatorial, there’s a clue in the name I guess, it’s gona be hot, long sleeve rash vest essential.  I did read about wearing something on the lower legs, should have paid more attention to that, dam you Pete!!  There are bitty things and they do bite, as I find out to my cost on day 2, I get savaged, swollen feet and ankles for the next few days, thanks to Shaun, or perhaps more importantly Shaun’s wife for anti hystimeen cream and tablets, a godsend.

We have elected to hire boats rather than take our own, our team is me, Brian, Shaun, Pete (not Pete referred to above) and a late addition Matt.  Andy has left a Scorch out there from a previous trip, so he’s sorted. I had selected a Raptor off the list, but when Andy collected the boats the Raptor had already been heavily welded, he threw a Cross on the truck, I’m glad he did.  The Cross was an excellent boat, so much so I ordered a new one for when I got back from George at

We fly into Quito and have a four hour transfer to Tena, our base.  Tena is deep into the jungle, surrounded by rivers lying on the eastern side of the Andes drainage, which, had I done any research I might have realised fed the Amazon, we’re paddling on the headwaters of the worlds longest river, flowing through the heart of the planet, the Amazon rain forest, without this region, we, as the human race would be in big trouble. Now that, is special.

We are staying in a small guest house up the hillside from the main city with great views of the urban sprawl and jungle.

Alex Dent, an ex pat Irishman has been living in these parts since childhood running since 2002 and he is our local on the ground, abely assisted by his secret weapon, Pancho, Pancho will be our probe, checking ahead to see if the way is clear.  River levels in these parts rise and fall quickly and don’t forget we’re in a rainforest so wood gets into the rivers real quick and real easily.  The Pancho line turns out to consistently be the hero line, given an option it seems Pancho likes the challenge himself.

Travelling to the river Ecuadorian style

The rivers are outstanding, I have been lucky enough to paddle in a few places, this has to be one of the best areas for the sheer number of good rivers. The Misahualli flows past Alex’s house, so a glance out of the window early morning with a brew lets him know the level, at least in that drainage.  Despite the close proximity of the rivers their sources lie far away and unseen rainstorms far upstream can alter levels significantly.

Shaun lining up for the boof on the Misahualli

We warm up on the Jatunyacu, a mere 27K’s, some big volume water and a good opportunity to get used to our boats and make any adjustments. 

Lunch stop on the Jatunyacu

This is just one style of gold mining operation in place on the Jatunyacu. Locals pan for gold on the river bank, these mini dredgers can be found all along the section we paddled, scouring up the river bed in search of the valuable metal that lies below. On the river bank there are JCBs, lots of them, they dig down and deposit their bucket loads onto the griddles to sift the material. The devestation is pretty much total, from a river bank of jungle and rainforest to lunar landscape. These operations are ilegal, overlooked by officials, who can imagine why?!!

locals panning for gold on one of the many beaches, sustainable.
from lush green rain forest to this, post nuclear holocaust, the destruction is near total.
Rows of impounded JCBs, impounded in a crackdown on mining, thos responsible just went out and bought more machines and were operating again days later

Day 2 we put onto the Lower Jondachi.  Alex tells us the we are about to experience the best wilderness run in the area, steep sheer sided gorges covered in vegetation vying for precious sunlight.  The jungle is utterly impenetrable, if you have issues on the water it’s still going to need a paddle out, to a footpath up and out and there are precious few of them.

The Lower Jondachi is a walk down to the river.  A local will carry your boat down for $6, and I would suggest, the best money you might spend on your trip, the path downwards is steep and sketchy.  As soon as our pickups loaded with boats turn onto the village gravel road off the tarmac the women are chasing after the vehicles.  They can feed the family for a week on the 6 bucks, the blokes will just get hammered.

The river disappears in a flurry of rapids, moves, small boofs and flares before gaining volume when the Hollin joins and adds to the flow, we navigate the biggest rapid, Belgium Waffle Maker, the biggest rapid of the day, no inspection needed we run it on Alex’s instructions, smooshy! Later in the week on another run down, with an added couple of feet of water the river dishes out a few surprises, Lines change, features grow and the Waffle Maker is significant, I take my ticket when I miss the last move and get a mild beating in a hole river left, after a couple of cartwheels it spits me out, backwards, upright, result!!

Pancho probing on the Piatua

The next day, the stakes are raised, the Piatua, the best river you have never heard of, stunning.

This river is so good it has it’s own write up, but this day after 3 hours we’re given a choice to bail or continue, its going to get harder. Two are off and the smaller group heads downstream, only a short distance before Alex eddies us out, advising, “this next bit is not hard, but it does get busy”. He leads off, river right, blimey this got steep all of a sudden. We re group river left, “everyone good” Alex questions, nods all round. Alex breaks into the flow, I watch as he disappears round the left bend, moments later I get to see what he referred to, busy! A staircase of white water ahead, relentless, as far as I can see, I watch as boats pick lines, some I follow, a couple I do not. There’s no inspection of this rapid, just going, moving, reacting, looking, my pea brain computer RAM is bordering overload, focus, body position, edges, connectivity in the boat, strokes pulled out of nowhere with no thought or planning, just get on with it. We head left, stay left, a last curler confuses us but we all pull through landing in calm water. “I’m glad that wasn’t hard” says Brian out loud, to no one in particular, definitely reflecting my own thoughts as I gulp in a few lungfuls of air, heart racing from exhilaration and effort. I’m glad I stayed on the river, that was one of the best rapids I have ever paddled.

Brian on the Middle Jondachi

The Middle Jondachi, a committing gorge run, alpine in style, but steeper than the classic French runs with added water, we drop in at a low medium level.  Pool drop in nature, the next four hours are spent in typical river running style, eddy hopping, one by one, breaking it down, tackling the features as needed, a couple of inspections but once again Alex demonstrates his local knowledge with clear directions as what’s ahead and where we need to putting ourselves.

There’s a sieve river right, but we dont go anywhere near it

Typically on the hardest water of the week and I paddle like a donkey, I blame tiredness from the previous days adventures, nice to see I can still bust a roll in anger when needed, and it’s needed today. Something like 15k of pool drop, set in a Hollywood film set scenery..

We arrive at the put in for the Lower Jondachi, more water than out first run and it’s a different river. This is when Alex’s river knowledge is really demonstrated to us. He knows the lines at whatever level, some open up, others close out. We run the section again later in the trip with significantly more water. All the lines we had run changed.

We have a rest day off the water and book a trip out into the jungle and the surrounding area.

The Misahaulli passes the back of Alex’s house and is a gem of a run, it goes at a variety of levels, our first of three runs is in lowish water, later in the trip we get another foot or so of flow and the river is a different beast, river running , slaloming between bolders, navigating twists, turns and drops.

Overnight rain brings the rivers up, and I do mean up, everything is running high and too high. We manage a couple of K’s on the Inchillaqui before it dumps us into the Lower Misahaulli in big water conditions but this section is a big n bouncy float, a damaged bridge prevented us from going higher on the Inchillaqui which was a real shame as it was a peach of a run from the little we experienced.

The following day we head up into the mountains and jump onto the Cosanga river for a couple of laps, higher, a shade under 2000m, colder water, much fun from the get go, dodging holes and rocks. Brian didn’t manage to dodge one particular hole and spent quite some time in there working his way out.

Pancho and Alex threading their way through the big last rapid

We were going to paddle some more rivers in this are but levels were high, we elected to head back to Tena and do repeat runs at different levels. This also allowed us to sample the wonderful Beergaritas in the Arana bar.

We head into the Lower Jondachi with considerably more water in it than our previous couple of runs, its lively for sure.

We finish up with a float down our first river the Jatunyacu, we’re knackered after the previous day’s excitment on the Piatua and the combined two weeks of river running. Ecuador has lots of white water to offer, we barely scratched the surface of what’s available, outstanding trip, thanks to all involved, especialy Andy, Alex and Pancho