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August 13, 2005

Rio Chiguaza, Ecuador

The Rio Chiguaza (also known as Tuna Chiguaza) flows into the Rio Pastaza at Mama Ibelia's place; the bridge over the Rio Pastaza on the Tena - Macas road. It looked pretty attractive to paddle, and since we had such a wonderful base camp here, we tried to find out more about it.

Ibelia and Orlando, amongst others, told us that it disappears into a cave - quite intriguing, and tempting to explore. A Shuar named Paulito seemed to be quite knowledgeable about it and confirmed the stories about the cave.

The maps showed the river going through a narrow, but not very high gorge, with a moderate gradient. Flow was about 1200cfs, and the water quite clear. The road followed the river at a distance of about 2 miles. There seemed to be at least one trail crossing the river. Interestingly, this was one of the rivers were locals did not tell us that we would die if we tried to paddle it.

They also told us that nobody had ever paddled it, and that they have never seen kayaks here. Given that they live at the only possible take out for the river, this seemed to be reliable information. However, it turned out to be incorrect, though just barely --  it had been run exactly once, as I would find out much later.

This sounded like the type of adventure I love - a trip into an unknown, but most likely interesting and beautiful place. A chance to explore, with the excitement of not knowing what lies ahead, what we will see around the next bend.

We decided to give it a shot. Orlando, a very nice local who was doing some work for the government exploring development and tourism potential for the area, was eager to help us with the shuttle and dropped us off at the put it. Paulito came along to shows us how to get to the river. He was a very nice, soft spoken individual. Interestingly, he was taking care of a baby; quite unusual in this part of the world.

We put in at the Bridge to Huamboya, in early November. Information about water levels throughout the year was too contradictary to be useful.

The river started out as a beautiful class II, with lots of waterfalls coming in from both sides.   After about two hours of paddling, mostly class II but some class III, we approached a very narrow gorge, much narrower than a map could show. The water was not moving very fast, so it must have been very deep.

From here on, we proceeded extremely carefully and slowly -- noting possible exit points that allowed climbing the canyon walls to get out, in case we could not continue. Fortunately, there was never a point when we could not have backtracked to a climb-out possibility.  If we'd had to climb out, we probably would have had to leave the boats behind.

The next half mile probably took another hour or so; we started to get nervous as it was getting late and we did not have overnight gear.  

This is also the reason why we did not take more pictures of this incredibly beautiful canyon. There were some caves I would have loved to explore - plenty of reasons to go back some day. Towards the end of the gorge, there was one spot where all the water disappeared into a cave. We found out later that you can actually paddle through the cave -- but not knowing this at the time, we decided to portage on the right.

Finally, the gorge opened up, and just as we were about to decide to camp without any gear, we saw a cable crossing the river. This meant that there was a trail, and a way to get out. We left the boats behind, and hiked out. We made it to the road just as it got dark, and took a bus back to our base camp. It was quite surreal to be back in civilization only a couple of hours after being in such an inaccessible place.

The next day, we continued early, since the map indicated another gorge lying ahead of us. The second gorge was not as intense, and the final section to the confluence was uneventful, though still beautiful.

Just the facts

The Chiguaza is very seldomly paddled; first descent probably by Dan Dixon in 1999 or so.

Class II with one III at 1200cfs. Somewhat technical, some easy but important moves required.

Take out: Road from Tena to Macas - bridge over Pastaza and Chiguaza, at the confluence
Put in: Drive south from the put in, towards Macas. Turn right towards Huamboya. about 1h drive??
Base camp: At take out. Ask at the little restaurant on the peninsula between the rivers (run by Sra Ibelia).

Length: 3 hours?

Times in table below based on very slow exploratory run.

Minute Description
0 In, II, lots of falls
60 Pulley X, Falls
90 Rio Nahimibi joins from left, nice, steep, maybe runnable with more water, V
120 Enter gorge, marked by HUGE boulder in middle (run on right, fun to climb) Various potential portages, Cave, Seal launch necessary (10ft), watch for trees.
270 Exit gorge. River goes underground, little spill on right runnable, or portage on right
300 Cable crossing, trail to bus stop on right, 200m up 20 min walk. Bus stop 47km, little shelter/bus stop on other side.
310 Significant rapid, III on right, V on left
320 Gorge gets narrow again HUGE boulders, beautiful, cave to paddle in
360 Rio Chamuquima enters from right with a IV-V rapid Trail, pulley crossing.
400 Narrow again, 4 feet, huge boulders, but not difficult TREES
420 Takeout at confluence with Pastaza

Please email if you run this -- would love to hear about it. And send warm greetings to Sra Ibelia.

Posted by rick at August 13, 2005 09:00 PM