Upper Rio Jondachi and Urcusiqui Tributary
With a deafening roar, thunder claps directly overhead and rain begins to pour down on us. Although welcome at this low water level, Chris is well aware of the consequences of being caught deep in the canyon and urges us to pick up the pace. I am now following guides Chris and Martillo into a maze of giant boulders, frothing whitewater, and spectacular jungle scenery as we try to recall the lines in this labyrinth of huge boulder-garden rapids on this my third day in Ecuador. I take a deep breath and follow Chris’s line over the boof. Welcome to the Upper Jondachi.
Our day started in typical Endless Adventures style, early wake up and yoga with a breakfast of guia sanduches followed by getting ready and loading our gear into Tio Wilo’s truck. With a beautiful scenic one hour drive up a twisting mountain road through high altitude cloud forest, the stoke level was rising as we began to drop over the pass to Tena. Opting for the alternate put in of a small tributary called the Urcusuiqi, we left the main highway at Kilometre 29 and headed down a new road to a bridge a few hundred meters below the road.
The river level was low and this is beginning to be the norm for the Tena region, but we need to assess this run as it gives us the option letting people hike out at the confluence if they feel like they are not up to the steeper and more demanding Upper Jondachi. At this level, it was a challenge to find lines with water that didn’t land on rocks, but with creative boat scouting we enjoyed some great clean boofs in a mini canyon featuring a technical pool drop style of whitewater.
Within 2 kilometres we arrived at the confluence just upstream of the footbridge that marks the traditional put in for the Upper. If you do use this put in, we encourage hiring locals to help carry your boats 45 minutes down the muddy trail, for 5 or 6 bucks its well worth it. Welcoming more than double the flow of the tributary, we arrived at our first portage just below the bridge. A sketchy rapid that looks like it would go with more water. We were forced to make a short hop out of our boats on river left to an “Ecuadorian toboggan ride” (seal launch) into a small pool as the vine covered canyon wall began to rise up over our heads. We were in it now.
This river is some of the most spectacular jungle scenery in Ecuador, and that’s saying something, with many coloured birds and butterflies vying for your attention with the challenging rapids. Cascading mini waterfalls pour down into the river and flowers of dozens of types line the cliffs in a frenzy of fauna that seems to be a fantasy kayak paradise. However, the relentless character of the river offers quite a challenge as each rapid is obscured by giant boulders that block your downstream view of nearly every rapid. At higher flows I believe the Class IV – V rating would be well deserved as there would be less time to line up the endless boofs and ledges that have us zig-zaging across the river. No matter what levels are, its going to fell like a class V day because of numerous blind rapids.
Guiding this section with clients would be nerve wracking at best with each section offering no real defining features that give clues as to the correct lines until the first boater had probed out the drop. Our Trip Leader, Chris could somehow decipher the maze and set Martillo and I up perfectly for each section. Lacking his photographic memory, I would suggest at least 4-8 hours for this 10 kilometre adventure as there were definitely features containing sieves and pin hazard on nearly every major rapid that would require extensive and creative scouting. Hiking out of this canyon in spots would be super hard if not impossible even without a boat although there are a few footbridges that lead up gruelling trails to the road on river left. A second portage had us boat toting on river right for one more unrunable drop that led to a river right undercut. Another drop that stuck out in my memory which we scouted for potential wood. A narrow tongue lead into a twisting maze that offered a micro eddy above a 5-6 foot boof into a wall on river right. If you could stick the eddy and fade boof left and avoid the wall no worries, if not you would plug a deep hole that most of the river was flowing into. I love stuff like that but it’s not for everyone.
At these low flows the rapids were all very manageable but as the rain began to fall, our thoughts definitely turned towards how much further we needed to go before the take out bridge at Kilometre 18. We know that even if there is only a light rain on the river, there could be a major downpour further upstream that would only be detectable by the muddy tainting of the usually crystal clear water as it surged downstream. Its best to keep moving and reduce the time spent taking pictures to a minimum. Go-pros and waterproof cameras are the tools to use if you want to bring images back to make all your friends jealous that you conquered this classic.
Unfortunately, the Jondachi along with every other river that has gradient and flow, is slated for Hydro development in the near future. Thanks to pressure by groups like the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute and to paddlers like you supporting the local economy, we still can enjoy a journey cradled in the timeless arms of the jungle.