Festivals are central to the backbone of paddling. We use them to rally around causes, to raise awareness, or just to celebrate our mutual love for the sport. An organization called Ecuador River Institute (ERI), essentially the American Whitewater of Ecuador, carries on the tradition of using festivals to raise awareness of river conservation. Organizers of the annual Jondachi Fest, ERI recently turned its attention to helping two local boys from Baeza organize a new festival and race on the Quijos River near Borja last Saturday.
I had to opportunity to sit down the night before the festival with Matt Terry, who runs the ERI out of his apartment, and ask a few questions about the festival and the role tourism plays in rural Ecuador. He also helped me understand why kayaking should be on every kayaker’s list of dream destinations.
Terry told me there is a dam that’s under construction on the Quijos, which was part of the impetus the festival as it would de-water a section of both the Quijos and the Papallacta if built, including the section the race was on. According to Terry, the government didn't do any geologic studies before they began, so during early stages of construction they were constantly drilling into underground streams and flooding tunnels, or destabilizing the mountain. However, as of today, the dam project has actually been halted. “They ran out of money to finish it,” Terry said.
The first community-organized race on the Quijos was in 1998, and since then there've been many unorganized, unofficial races. This was the first year of the official Quijos Festival, and there was a big effort to get the local community involved. Terry explained that the initiative, led by two locals from Baeza, was designed to bring attention to the importance of river tourism for the local economy. Kayaking and rafting make up the most stable tourism activity in the area. This year, the local municipalities of the Quijos Valley recognized that fact and are supporting the event to involve the local culture. They even donated a rather generous prize purse.
As our conversation was drawing to a close, I asked Terry for his most basic pitch to paddlers thinking about traveling to Ecuador. Why should kayakers come to Ecuador?
"For an incredible experience,” he answered, “for the diversity of rivers, for the amount of rivers. Everything you can do here is great. It’s easy to get around, there’s so much to do, and many of the rivers here have classic, quality paddling. Economically, the best way to help paddling out is to come here to paddle; it's that tangible support, being here, that directly, visibly supports the community."
The next day I went to the festival for a few hours to watch the race. Local women sold the traditional street food of beans with roasted corn and pico, and families stood on the banks of the river to watch the racers finish. At the end of the race, there was a special category for Ecuadorian natives. Watching the proud native paddlers cross the finish line with big smiles to loud applause gave a tangible reason to help preserve and protect this resource.
Traveling to Ecuador to kayak bolsters tourism in places like the Quijos Valley, helping the government see the value in their natural resources and giving officials incentive to protect them. The diversity and quality of whitewater rivers make it an easy choice for a kayaking vacation.
If you go…
There are plenty of hostels that cater to kayakers and different guide services to choose from if you so desire. A local one example is BoofEcuador, and a great American service is Endless River Adventures.
–Check out more TRAVEL destinations, tips and news at CanoeKayak.com