The Magic of Ecuador’s Jondachi Fest

Dispatch and video from Ecuador's 2016 Jondachi Fest

Video by Mike McKay
Story by Chandra Brown
Photos by West Howland

A week prior to Ecuador’s recent second annual Jondachi Fest, Jan. 15-17, local paddlers organized a downstream kayak race on the Quijos River near the mountain town of Baeza. As the Quijos Valley witnesses the influx and exodus of dam workers and power-line builders from around the world, the Quijos River still rushes over spectacular San Rafael Falls, the country’s largest waterfall. San Rafael Falls will be dewatered if the turbines in the massive Coca-Codo Sinclair hydro project ever start to spin.

After the Quijos festival, some paddlers moved north toward Colombia’s grassroots Samana Fest, some stayed on in Baeza, and others headed farther east and south toward Tena, the jungle home of the iconic Jondachi River. The Jondachi is still threatened by two small-scale hydro projects, but thus far the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute’s innovative three-pronged conservation strategy appears to be working. Jondachi Fest represents the ‘community outreach’ facet of the strategy: Bring paddlers and community members together to demonstrate the undeniable economic, ecological, and cultural value of the pristine and popular free-flowing river.

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The second annual iteration of the volunteer-driven Jondachi Fest (Read about the first HERE) featured a week’s worth of educational presentations and in-town activities, the endorsement of several municipal and national government entities, and a more challenging course for last Friday’s Upper Jondachi Race.

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The awards dinner featured loud jungle reggae beats and the legend of the union of two local rivers, the Tena and the Pano, translated into dance. A sweaty fusion of local and international kayakers, travelers, drummers, and river lovers rallied late into the night, only to paddle the Middle and Lower Jondachi and the Jatunyacu rivers over the next two days.

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There were charlas – seminars or workshops – early on in the week to discuss the aquatic biology and ecology of the intact Jondachi corridor, as well as to promote the proposed plan to maintain the corridor in its natural, free-flowing state from the Andes Mountains to the Amazon Basin. The Upper Jondachi Race showcased the superlative skills and personalities of 26 expert and pro kayakers from Canada, France, the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. U.S. racers Nicole Mansfield (Washington) and Dave Gardner (New York) took first place in their respective races, also earning them gift package awards directly from Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism, while everyone who made the podium took home hand-painted wooden trophy-plaques from the local authority on bird-watching.

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This year’s Jondachi Fest was a celebration of all the magic that happens when people engage in a healthy riparian ecosystem: kayaking, rafting, bike touring, trekking, learning, and of course, cultivation of international friendships.

— Read more about the Rio Jondachi on C&K’s list of Most Threatened Paddling Classics.

— Watch McKay’s video on the Magic of New York’s Moosefest