I have wanted to take an international kayaking trip over Christmas for years now, but various obligations kept me from doing so. We finally made it happen this year – I had saved up enough vacation days, and Toby is in his last year of school, so he had a long winter break. As far as I was concerned, it was now or never.
Four years ago, I did my first and only true international kayaking trip to Nepal. Overall, that trip was great, but being a relatively new kayaker and never having traveled while dragging an 8 foot, 50 pound hunk of plastic everywhere with me, the trip was slightly more challenging and stressful than I originally anticipated. This year, with many more years of kayaking experience under my belt, I was eager to see how this trip would go.
In short, our three weeks in Ecuador were great. I had been to Ecuador seven years earlier, before I kayaked. It was a great country then, but this time, the economic progress the country has made since 2007 was very evident. It was vacation kayaking in the truest sense. Ecuador has become quite popular for kayakers over the last few years. There are lots of great resources online and in print, so I’m not going to cover specific river details here – part of the adventure of traveling is figuring out things for yourself! Instead, I’m going to cover a few details to help you get the most out of your trip.
Make Sure You Have a Boat!
Whether you intend to bring your own boat, rent a boat, or borrow a boat from a friend, make sure you have a solid plan. Showing up with no boat and no solid plan for getting a boat can cause undue stress for your group. You can easily rent boats in Baeza, but it will cost you. Right now, rental fees are typically $20-$25 a day – prices are easy to check online.
Toby and I both brought our creek boats to Ecuador. This is probably your best option when traveling internationally. Almost everyone we met on this trip who tried to get a boat on their flight to Ecuador was successful. Here are some tips for getting your boat on the plane:
- put it in a sturdy bag with handles – the bag is to disguise its identity and the handles are for the baggage handlers
- book with an airline that specifically allows some sports equipment that is similar to a kayak (i.e. a waveski), then call it that thing, and only that thing – the check-in person needs to have whatever it is your are saying you have listed in their computer system
- book a ticket on planes that are large enough accommodate the length of your equipment – 737 or larger usually
- use the curbside baggage handlers and tip profusely – it’s worth it, they can make things happen
- in a worst case scenario, you can probably abandon your boat at the airport if it is denied. Lost and found will generally keep items for several months. We played it extra safe and paid a friend to drive us to the airport and wait to be sure we got the boats on the plane.
Toby and I both brought boats that were several years old, with a few minor cracks, and needed to be replaced. This way, you can sell your boat in a country where boats are not plentiful and regain at least the cost of getting the boat down there. If you don’t have your own broken boat to bring, they shouldn’t be too hard to find in the States before you travel. Ecuador can be a bit boat abusive, so it was nice to have boats that we didn’t have to worry about. You’re likely only going to be traveling for a short period, so you don’t want concerns about your boat to keep you off rivers that might be a bit low, but are still worth the visit. Additionally, you can sell your boat cheap to someone who really needs it. My trusty Jefe will be enjoying a not so quiet retirement with the Baños kayak club.
If you bring a broken boat, or even if your boat is not yet broken, knowing how to weld a kayak is a very useful skill. We brought our own heat gun and welding rod, but you can likely buy a heat gun at any hardware store in Ecuador and use plastic directly from a kayak.
Learn Some Spanish!
Spanish is one of the easiest language for native English speakers to learn, and a little bit can get you a long way. Even with a lot going on at work, I was able to put in some time with free online resources to improve my Spanish before the trip. Don’t expect many people to speak English. Even if you are going as part of a group where others already speak Spanish, learning some yourself will definitely improve your experience. Not only will you be able to better participate in planning and logistics, but you’ll have a lot more interactions with people as well. In my case, Toby is better at Spanish than I am, so he often took the lead in conversations. I realized, however, that this put an unfair burden on him and didn’t give me enough opportunities to practice speaking. I stepped up to share this responsibility and even made my first foreign language phone call!
On a similar note, consider having a cell phone in Ecuador. When I traveled there seven years ago, even having an old iPod felt a bit uncomfortable for me, as it was still very new technology in Ecuador. Now, however, smart phones are common and you will not feel out of place if you have one. We brought one from the US that accepts SIM cards, which most US phones do not. The easier option is probably to walk into one of the many cell phone stores in the larger towns and buy a phone and a “chip” all at once. This way, the shop owner will set up your account for you. We just bought a chip and minutes for our phone, but then found out we needed an Ecuadorian ID number to associate with the account. Luckily, one of our hosts in Baeza was willing to set it up for us. It was extremely convenient to be able to call a taxi to pick us up in the morning, then call the same driver to get us at whatever takeout we chose for the day.
Go with the Flow!
When planning the trip, I got the distinct impression that a lot of groups were on the “crack of noon” plan. Given that I so rarely get the chance to do an international kayaking trip, I wanted to make I was not on this “slacker” plan. Once I got there however, I quickly learned that the crack of noon plan is not necessarily a bad thing!
You have no idea how much you rely on online gauges and social media posts to figure out river levels, until you no longer have those options. Ecuador has plenty of options and plenty of water, but figuring out exactly where the good water levels are can be tricky. There are online forecasts, but we found them to be mostly useless. Given the location and terrain in Ecuador, the weather can change rapidly within any given day. Rivers could change rapidly from too low to too high, and vice versa, though generally, too much water was a more common problem than too little water.
Despite the tricky water levels, our trip was far from a skunk fest. In a three week trip, I think we spent three days not kayaking, and one of those was a planned travel day to a remote river. In contrast, during my trip to Nepal, because of the more challenging travel logistics, I think I kayaked one day out of every three on a seven week trip.
In many cases, the crack of noon plan allowed you to wait for a visual from another kayaker who was traveling by a river that day and could report back on the level. In other cases, waiting for a visual from a local saved an expensive taxi ride earlier in the day.
Other times, it did make sense to just go for it. After getting word from another group that a remote river, the Cofanes, was at a good level, we decided to try to run it. It took us a full day to get there, via bus (get the big buses, there is room for up to 4 kayaks under the bus) and taxi. The people in the small town of La Sofia, at the put in, told us we were only the second group of kayakers they had seen in two years. At the put in, the level was just below the high side of good. Then it started raining. By the next morning, the river had gone up substantially. Luckily, we hitched a ride back down the mountains on a truck that was delivering groceries, and were able to go straight to the put in of another overnighter, the Lower Chingual into the Agua Rico.
By the last week of the trip, we had the water levels figured out a little better and were able to get higher water runs of some rivers we had already done, and get our creeking fix on some rivers closer to Tena. Remember, the trip itself, not just the kayaking, is the adventure.
Overall, I’d highly suggest considering a kayaking trip to Ecuador. From big water class II and III, class IV creeking and high water class V, Ecuador has something to offer everyone. If you have specific questions to help plan your trip, feel free to send them my way!