The Amazon River is the second largest river in the world: 3,900 miles of river, 2,720,000 square miles that discharges more cfs into the Atlantic Ocean that the next six largest rivers combined. The majority of rivers we paddle here in Ecuador are all part of the headwaters of the three main Ecuadorian tributaries that feed into the Amazon. The fact that we paddle on the headwaters to the Amazon River is interesting in itself. Even more interesting is that while the diverse group of rivers we paddle all share the fact that they eventually feed into the Amazon—such as some of the classics that we run: the Quijos, the Mishaulli, Cosanga, Piatua, Oyacachi, Jatunyacu….what is even more interesting is where these “headwaters” originate themselves.
The easterly flow of the Amazon has not always been the case. Once upon a time (in geologic terms) the Amazon flowed off an eastern ridge of the south American continent to the west, discharging into the Pacific Ocean. Underneath the river were two of the three plates that underlie the southern continent: the Pacific plate and the Atlanta plate, that butted up against each other. As the formation of the Andes began in the southern hemisphere, the western drainage was trapped between the newly forming Andes and the eastern ridge. Eventually a giant inland ocean was created (this is why to this day fossils of seashells can be found in the Andes). Between the buckling of the tectonic plates and volcanic build-up, the Andes eventually grew to a height greater than the eastern ridge and the river broke through and began flowing in an easterly direction; thereby channeling all the rivers that form the headwaters of the Amazon into an easterly flow. In 1541, Francisco de Orellana first explored the headwaters of the Amazon here in Ecuador (successfully navigating all the way to the Atlantic Ocean). In recent years it has been kayakers that have continued this tradition–heading downstream through world-class whitewater here in Ecuador.
To travel to the “oriente” of Ecuador from Quito, it is necessary to drive over a nearly-14,000 foot pass. On a sunny day, Antisana Volcano looms majestically over the pass. The glaciers of Antisana are where two of our favorite rivers—the Quijos and the Cosanga, originate.
The Quijos is the cornerstone of boating here in Ecuador. Over 60 miles of whitewater that range from steep Class V at the top of the run to Class III-IV. For a Class IV+ group this run is a smorgasbord of paddling. And a bonus is that while both the Quijos and the Cosanga might be considered “glacial” rivers because of their origin, neither comes anywhere close to glacier melt temperatures.
The Upper Quijos changes character at the confluence with the Cosanga River. At this point the Quijos begins to increase in volume (sometimes nearly doubling the cfs with every new tributary that joins in the river’s downstream journey.
The Cosanga itself provides another day’s entertainment for a Class IV trip. Originating off the backside of Antisana, the Cosanga often has an entirely different water flow than the Quijos. So for example, when some Class IV options are running a bit on the too-high side, the Cosanga Gorge run might have just the right flow to provide some Class IV push, Class IV holes, and some Class IV action!
When water levels rise quite a bit higher (often influenced by rainfall upstream in the mountains), the lower Quijos becomes a big water Class IV option. Four main tributaries and three additional small tributaries add significant volume to the river. It is hard to beat a section of river that includes such rapids as “gringos revueltos.”
When once-upon-a-time the Andes began rising due to volcanic activity, valleys were formed lined by rock bed; valleys that played host to very little vegetation. This formation created a basin effect–filling with water. In a place like the Andes there is always plenty of water because of the rain shield created when hot air from the Amazon rises and cools and creates rain…. over and over again. With no place for the water to go, it mixes with what little vegetation that does exist and turns swampy. This is called “paramo.” The tundra of Alaska is a very similar phenomenon. The Oyacachi River is a product of the paramo. Coming out of the paramo at the town of Oyacachi itself, this river is a real treat for Class IV boaters. Creeky, pristine, scenic—the perfect for a good day of Class IV boating.
Another unique spot here in Ecuador is the Llangantes Mountain range. The Llanganates are a unique section of mountains in the Andes: remote, highly seismic, hosting a vast diversity of geology and generating huge amounts of rainfall. Out of the Llangantes flows two rivers—the Verdeyacu and the Mulatos. When those two rivers come together, they form the Jatunyacu (which in quichua translates to “big river” ). At times the Jatunyacu is a slate color from the ash that spews from Tunguragua—a highly active volcano on the outskirts of the Llanganates. In addition of the Jatunyacu, three other classic runs we use flow out of the llanganates: the Mishaulli, the Jondachi and the Piatua.
The Mishaulli—particularly the upper Mishaulli, is a favorite of almost every paddler that visits Ecuador. If you could have just one run in your backyard, this is likely to be your river of choice. Boofs. More boofs. And then some.
The Piatua is a new gem here in Ecuador. Until a road was put in for a small village, paddlers could only look upstream at the river when paddling the Anzu River and appreciate what appeared to be Class IV paradise. And that was the case. The Piatua is not only amazing Class IV whitewater, it also has the temperament of the mountain range that it flows from. Just as the weather in the Llangantes can be capricious—so can the water levels on the Piatua. For this reason we are very careful about not only what the river level is at the put-in, but what the weather looks like upstream. Towards the end of an amazing day on the river, we decided to pull over for lunch. By the time we had pulled our boats up on the beach, the beach disappeared underwater. It was beautiful sunshine above us. We headed down the rest of the run, keeping ahead of the water. But just before the takeout we pulled over to take a break and in ten minutes time the river went up over a meter on us. Best to have that happen right before the takeout and not in the midst of Class IV creeking action!!
Paddling the Class IV rivers that create the headwaters to the Amazon here in Ecuador helps explain why de Orellana was so fired up to head downstream!