Ríos Libres: Ecuador’s new tradition of celebrating free-flowing rivers

At Jondachi fest, paddlers celebrate Ecuador's growing environmentalism

When you talk to someone who's paddling in Ecuador for the first time, his or her joy is palpable as the damp jungle air. Conversations between kayakers as they debrief their day over Pilsners—unofficially the official national beer—illuminate the reasons for their smiles. Pull up a late-afternoon barstool in any of Ecuador's well-established paddling communities and you'll feel the love in the stories you hear. That love is for the boofs, the boulder gardens, the waterfalls, and the perfect tropical climate. It's also for the people: the taxi drivers' patience with broken Spanish, the strength of the porters, the graciousness of local kayakers as they share their favorite runs with foreign visitors. It's love for the fact that you can base yourself at a comfy hostel for a week in Tena or Baeza or Baños and paddle something different every day. It's for your favorite empanada stand or understated merienda spot. It's for the monkeys, the birdsong, and the butterflies. It's for the emerald water that cascades over ancient granite boulders and between pools shaded by giant ferns and epiphytes.

A paddling celebration. (Photo by Dave Gardner)

Ecuador is a paradise for river lovers, and the strength and solidarity of people fighting to preserve its superlative water resources appears to be increasing.

Three years ago, the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute (ERI)—a nonprofit founded in 2002 and based out of Tena – hosted the first Jondachi Fest, a whitewater race and festival intended to help dissuade ill-conceived dam development on the Jondachi River. Since its inception in 2015, Jondachi Fest has grown significantly, and local enthusiasm for protection of the Jondachi is markedly increased.

Classic Ecuadorian creeking. (Photo by Dave Gardner)

Jondachi Fest has been coupled with legal action and an innovative proposal to officially designate the Jondachi corridor as a protected area. By aiming to preserve the Jondachi as an intact free-flowing river, the ERI's initiative simultaneously advocates for the ecological health of the river and its future as a world-class kayaking destination. By encouraging local communities, municipal officials, and lawmakers to acknowledge and appreciate the economic, cultural, and ecological value of the free-flowing river, Jondachi Fest might be the impetus for reimagining the role of the river in modern Ecuador.

Festivals can serve communities and their rivers on a number of different levels. They have the potential to strengthen or repair bonds between community leadership, businesses, special interest groups, river outfitters, guides, and recreational users. Festivals can energize regional economies and catalyze conversation about resource management. They can also serve to reignite international and local interest in the sport of kayaking, which, as an industry, has the capacity to promote and celebrate strategic preservation of rivers.

Rivers matter to international boaters and local communities. (Photo by Dave Gardner)

Suddenly in 2016, the stunning and remote Piatua River (which boasts miles on end of Class III and IV boulder gardens) was slated to be dammed. While the ERI does not oppose all hydro-development, it does advocate for consideration of tourism and recreation in planning for hydroelectric projects. So, a week after the 2017 Jondachi Fest, the ERI hosted the first-ever Piatua Libre event. The Piatua Libre follows the same model as its counterpart on the Jondachi: a downstream race and a community celebration of the free-flowing Piatua River. (Libre, in Spanish, means "free.")

Jungle canyons.(Photo by Dave Gardner)

While Jondachi Fest and the Piatua Libre have yet to prove their effectiveness as long-term strategies in Ecuador's river conservation efforts, the seeds have been planted for acknowledgement of the value of healthy rivers. At this point, the Jondachi still flows unimpeded by dams. And if nothing else, river communities in Ecuador are perhaps inspired to action by the beauty and energy of international celebration.

More on C&K:

—2017 Jondachi River Festival

—Río Marañon: Threatened Paddling Classics