Return to the Rio Guayas

   Whitewater
Rio Guayas, Colombia - Dec 2019
In 2017 Lane Jacobs, Jules Domine and Ben Stookesberry attempted the first descent of Colombia's Rio Guayas. Three days into the attempt they decided to hike out due to concerns of high water and legitimate reports of a risky security situation in the remote jungle canyons ahead. After two years dreaming about returning to the Guayas, Lane returns with Ben Stookesberry and Rafa Ortiz to once again explore this remote river in Colombia's Southern Cordillera mountain range. Words by Lane Jacobs

   Whitewater

Rio Guayas, Colombia - Dec 2019

In 2017 Lane Jacobs, Jules Domine and Ben Stookesberry attempted the first descent of Colombia's Rio Guayas. Three days into the attempt they decided to hike out due to concerns of high water and legitimate reports of a risky security situation in the remote jungle canyons ahead. After two years dreaming about returning to the Guayas, Lane returns with Ben Stookesberry and Rafa Ortiz to once again explore this remote river in Colombia's Southern Cordillera mountain range. Words by Lane Jacobs

The team

"I awake at first light to see a Guayas that is not the same river; It’s raging brown and 6 vertical feet up the bank towards camp. We are now deep in an extremely remote jungle on a first descent, perched above the vast majority of the gradient and rapids with the Guayas near flood stage.""


December 9th, 2019

I look up to see five guys rushing into camp from upstream. My mind races with possibilities and I immediately know what’s wrong. Coca fields surrounded us as we were frustratingly slow through this cultivated corridor and we were spotted. Maybe they’re just coming to say hello? I drop my firewood and try to diffuse the meeting with my friendliest “ola” and offer my hand. I catch a glimpse of Rafa doing the same and Ben coming from the other side followed by yet another group. More than a dozen baton wielding individuals completely surround us and I can’t help but wish we would have just paddled a few more kilometers downstream. We were so close to finally finishing the Rio Guayas and now we are marching up and out of the canyon into the abrupt equatorial darkness and the unknown.

Prologue

Two years ago Jules Domine, Ben Stookesberry and I took a chance on the Rio Guayas, one of the largest and most remote watersheds in Colombia’s Southern Cordillera Oriental mountain range. It’s unique for its size, access, roadless beauty, and remarkable string of rapids visible in satellite imagery. In other zones or other countries such a river would likely not exist because sadly these exact attributes match those found on the wishlist of big-hydro development. But In Colombia, the land of world famous narco-political conflict, the Guayas is still wild; maybe too wild. Three days into our attempt in October of 2017, with serious concerns of high water and legitimate reports of a “zona roja” or risky security situation in the remote jungle canyons still to come, we decided to hike out. For the next two years I dreamt every day of the next chance to return to the Guayas and the 50km of rapids on this big river still yet to explore. When I read a report about the Guayas on the top of a hit-list for large scale dams, I knew the chance to paddle a wild free flowing Guayas may be now or never. This past fall I found my chance in the requisite time off from family and work. But the mission wasn’t a go until my next door neighbor and kayak legend Rafa Ortiz said “in”. Then, at the last minute, Ben said he was available for round 2 and with that our team of three was set to meet up on December 3rd in Bogota, Colombia.

December 3rd, 2019 - A Rough Start

Good news: I find Ben bivouacked on the airport floor and Rafa cruising around looking for coffee. The team and boats are on the ground!

Bad news: Flaco, my fixer and driver, is late and soon messages that he has been robbed while renting a vehicle. An hour later he shows up with a black eye and a sketchy story. It’s a frustrating and expensive bump in the road with no small amount of head scratching to figure out what happened and how to proceed. Last time around Ben and I had simply traveled by bus. And despite our desire for more expedient and comfortable transportation, this shitty snafu leaves us with one option - el omnibus. It’s an “easy” 9 hours out of the overcrowded, traffic jammed city and up the Magdalena Valley into Huila Department on the completely full bus. Spirits are high.

December 4th, 2019 - Algeciras

After the nine hour bus and small truck ride into Algeciras, the next step to access the headwaters of the Guayas is an adventure in and of itself. There is one mode of transport to the Guayas basin which is the uniquely Colombian “Chiva”. It departs at 5am daily from Algeciras and crosses the Cordillera Oriental that divides the continent between the Magdalena flowing north to the Caribbean and the Rio Guayas flowing into the mighty Caqueta and beyond to the Amazon. It’s final destination is a dead end at the small pueblo of Santana Ramos, on the other side of the Sierra in the notorious Department of Caqueta. Notorious for Narco/ FARC’o conflict that had us hesitating to even board the Chiva back in 2017. This time around all that chatter is old news to us, although I was hoping not to hear so much “zona roja” talk coming from the crowd of “meet the gringos” that gathers around us. Rafa deftly assuages concerns in his native Mexican tongue. “In English or Spanish or whatever other language is spoken, he makes friends,” Ben remarks of our long time amigo. The best of these friends is an artist we meet on the truck ride into town. Roberto Chavez has this incredibly slobbery bulldog named “Rocky” and finds the owner of the Chiva that will be running tomorrow’s route to “Santana”, and then invites us for dinner with friends. This is the Colombia I know and love.

December 5th - Viva la Chiva

The Chiva roars, bucks and barks with its tractor diesel and airbrakes as we switchback more than a vertical mile up into the mountains that are colder and thicker with jungle vegetation at every turn. The 4x4 road is full of washouts, landslides and a river forging. A little red flag marks a landmine for extrication, but at least there are less flags than two years ago. Ben and a few locals are the only ones brave or stupid enough to stay on the Chiva for this makeshift stick and rock road repair.

Four hours in we stop for breakfast on the misty summit at a ranch I remember deliciously. I am not disappointed. We eat good food at a table of fellow passengers that laugh a lot but assure us there are no guerillas or other armed roadblocks ahead. “There were some gringos that came here once with those boats,” says one passenger. Oh yeah, that was us in 2017. Before that there was a Bogota University group looking at flora and fauna. Before that, no outsiders, too dangerous.

We spend seven rough hours approaching the Guayas on top of our gear and bags of rice.
We spend seven rough hours approaching the Guayas on top of our gear and bags of rice.

Our first glimpse of the upper most Guayas is thanks to a massive landslide. Santana is so isolated by such landslides in the rainy season that sometimes humanitarian aid is flown in to the locals during extended road closures.

After six hours on the Chiva we pass through Tres Esquinas which is the only community on the road. It consists of a few houses. The majority of the population in the Guayas basin lives far from the road, in isolated fincas. All of the sudden the sky clears and the sun cooks us on the roof of the Chiva. Below deliveries are made and people make small talk about the goings on. Just as I have enough time to start to wonder if we’ll take a siesta here, the Chiva roars back to life and we lurch on downhill. Having descended a steep tributary last time, we are setting our sites on the lower gorge and a new access point via the Rio Yarumal, which we used to abandon the river two years ago.

The Chiva crossing the Rio Yarumal
The Chiva crossing the Rio Yarumal

Arriving at the Rio Yarumal we were relieved to see it had, seemingly, a perfect flow. At this point the Chiva would continue another one hour to the tiny community of Santana Ramos.

At the Yarumal the Chiva stopped presumably to unload the gringos, but stuck around to change out a broken leaf spring. The drivers are incredibly skilled and almost always have to perform ‘en route’ repairs on the decades old beasts. Gearing up we are surrounded by fired up passengers that described a 30 meter falls in the Guayas 10k below Santana Ramos that was surrounded by “puro piedra y unos peñascos” (pure rocks and walls) and assured us it was not survivable. “We will have to go high into the jungle,” they say, adding thorns, snakes, and tigers to the list of things that will probably go wrong. On the previous trip, we heard this same rumor so it seemed possible. But after enough trips to Colombia, you learn that local “river knowledge” needs to be taken with “un grano de sal”. The driver of the Chiva laughs when I tell him I will send photos of the Chiva in a few days when we reached Puerto Rico. I’m guessing he thinks it will take much longer. We say our goodbyes with our new friends, that have both invited us to dinner at their farms and told us they don’t believe we will survive our descent. Ben says the driver told him something along the lines of “Mata los por no memata,” or kill them so they don’t kill me. “If the tone wasn’t so damn jovial that would have really freaked me out!” Ben says.

The 10k on the Rio Yarumal was continuous class 3 to 4+ that exceeded our expectations and took about three hours to reach the Guayas confluence, the exact point where we hiked out to Santana Ramos over two years ago. But this time the Guayas is placid and not at all bank full. This is exactly why I had planned to be here in December, the beginning of the dry season. We paddled a few kilometers downstream to find a nice sandy campsite and the glory of our first night camp on the Guayas.

December 6th - Into the Guayas

Day 2 starts with great pool drop whitewater. The flow seems perfect and much lower than our previous October 2017 attempt. Still there is nearly 2000 cfs charging through steep somewhat walled in rapids. We made the right decision hiking out of the Guayas on our first attempt.

Rafa on Day 2
Rafa on Day 2

The river carved through bands of bedrock in its descent which made for countless amazing pool drop rapids.
The river carved through bands of bedrock in its descent which made for countless amazing pool drop rapids.

"double swizzle"
“double swizzle”

Our second campsite is even better with a rocky beach for bathing, perfectly spaced tree’s high above the river for our hammocks, and nice fire for cooking and storytelling. We are awestruck by this river; that at this relatively low flow is a non-stop progression of beautifully runnable class V. As the fire dies down, soundless strobes of light silhouette the jungle canopy. As we crawl into our hammocks we hear the first rumble of thunder. Sleep is fraught and fitful when rumbles turn to cracks of thunder, and rain drops turn into an all-out downpour.

I have come to expect this on Colombian multi-days and still it’s unnerving. I swear I hear the river changing, getting louder. I keep shining my light toward the river just to make sure. Thoughts of my friend Mark Hentz are with me on most nights on the river in Colombia. In 2011 he was swept away in the night from a flash flood that reportedly came without much rain where he slept. The good news is that the Guayas is not being so secretive about its intentions.

Ben and Rafa looking distraught after waking up to see the river now raging.
Ben and Rafa looking distraught after waking up to see the river now raging.

December 7th - How Much food do we have?

I am up at the boundary of the last downpour and first light to see a Guayas that is not the same river. It’s raging brown and 6 vertical feet up the bank towards camp. We are now deep in an extremely remote jungle on a first descent, perched above the vast majority of the gradient and rapids with the Guayas near flood stage. Ben looks displeased and concerned, and even Rafa’s eternal optimism has faded. Ben is dead set against putting on the river at this flow; It is hard to imagine the section of river upstream being survivable. And so we set markers, make breakfast, and figure out how long we will have to wait for the river level to drop.

Rafa and Ben calculating our food rations.
Rafa and Ben calculating our food rations.

The question is this: how long can we wait? Between Ben ‘the mathematician’ and Rafa ‘the engineer’ we get x grams = y calories = 4 or 5 days not hungry. I think it will take at least three more days to complete the river at the low flow we had yesterday. But from satellite imagery I can see many “fincas” (farmhouses) along the last 10km of river, faithful that if we run out of food a Colombian campesino would exchange some pesos for some rations. In my research of the river I heard that this lower 10km was not a “zona roja” with threatening guerrilla groups such as the FARC, ELN or Narcos.

Like magic, or as Ben put it “perfect logarithmic decay,” the river dropped before our eyes. By 1pm we estimate 4 feet down, leaving it still 2 feet higher than the day before. We agree to get in and try to make some downstream progress. To be sure, there is no guarantee against another storm.

The river had turned from semi-transparent to a chocolatey brown and full of sediment on day 3. Lots of big holes and horizon lines. No longer at complete flood stage, day 3 provided some amazing big water paddling.

scouting
scouting

After a few hours of paddling, we reach a large horizon line. I take the sharp end into a very small eddy while the boys wait. These are some of the sketchiest moments in exploratory kayaking because you are literally teetering on the brink of the unknown: maybe it’s good to go or maybe it’s terribly not so. That’s why I am careful exiting and placing my boat up on the bank. I motion Rafa into the eddy and turn to scout something much closer to savage than sweet in the class V scheme of things. There is frantic yelling upstream just as I see my kayak with camera bag mounted on top shoot into the maw of brown recirculation. My livelihood in camera gear is going bye-bye along with my ride back to civilization. The horror of it sends me running down the river bank and desperately jumping into the massive drop. At least that’s what Rafa saw.

For me this is fight or flight and luckily I fight. While running I scout and see a wall ahead and know I have to swim. There is a boulder sieve about 25 meters below me and a large pour-over just downstream of that in the middle of the river. This situation is dicey. But you should know that no helicopter is coming to get me in this “zona roja” if my boat disappears. You should know that this is the exact point furthest from anywhere good and closest to anything bad on this river. I calculate that my odds of surviving this swim are better than surviving a hike out through unknown jungle and coca fields, and so I jump.

I jump hard and swim hard into the semi-flooded river, away from the sieve and onto my boat just in time to hold on through the center of this big ledge hole. After what seemed like too long underwater, I resurface clinging to my kayak. All good except for the next horizon line 100 meters downstream coming quick. I leash my swamped kayak and swim like I never have before. I make it somehow, but am devastated to realize my camera bag missing.

On shore wet and exhausted, I see Ben and Rafa portaging the rapid I just swam. Rafa is the first to reach me but hasn’t seen the bag. All of my valuables, including my passport and money, gone. “Aaah just kidding, here’s your bag,’’ as he produces the precious red bag from under his skirt. Such a sh*tty joke. Such a perfect joke.

We regroup to paddle a few more rapids to a camp that is not perfect. I spend an hour with the machete to clear out hammock spots while Rafa hikes for fresh water and Ben for firewood.

December 8th - The Ants came marching in.

We wake up on day 4 to a full day of incredible paddling with river levels continuing to drop with regard to the storm event but not actual water in the river. Big tributaries make today something we affectionately call ‘big water, sick paddling’.

Rafa day 4
Rafa day 4
Classic whitewater - Ben day 4
Classic whitewater - Ben day 4
Ben in one of the typical Guayas read and run rapids - big water pool drop class 4-5.
Ben in one of the typical Guayas read and run rapids - big water pool drop class 4-5.
Ben in a rapid we dubbed “scissors”, which gave us some good down time.
Ben in a rapid we dubbed “scissors”, which gave us some good down time.
Ben heading for some serious downtime in a unique rapid.
Ben heading for some serious downtime in a unique rapid.
Always surrounded by lush Colombian jungle.
Always surrounded by lush Colombian jungle.

The lower we descended in the Guayas the more quality the whitewater became.

Lane abouve ‘The hole that ate Puerto Rico’
Lane above ‘The hole that ate Puerto Rico’

‘The hole that ate Puerto Rico’ is the crux move of the Guayas. The only must-run class V+ rapid so far. The river enters a vertical walled gorge with no portage options, reminiscent of and named after the ‘Hole that ate Chicago’ on the Stikine. With most of the river pouring into a massive hole recirculating from 30 feet downstream, we all punched through a seam on the river right with a mixture of results.

Lane in ‘The hole that ate Puerto Rico’.
Lane in ‘The hole that ate Puerto Rico’.
Ben punching through the seam in ‘The hole that ate Puerto Rico’.
Ben punching through the seam in ‘The hole that ate Puerto Rico’.

Just downstream we find an incredible beach camp, but still climb up into the jungle to hang our hammocks.

Camp 4
Camp 4

This time we find leaf cutters. Lots and lots of leaf cutters. Ben tells us a story of angering a pack of these “hungry bastards’’ on a previous trip. “They ate my only long sleeve shirt after I sprayed their path with repellent. Don’t mess with them!”, which only served to inspire Rafa to try to feed them a shirt. By morning he had moved his hammock twice with ants swarming and cutting his bug net. Plus his “F*** Dams” shirt got f***‘d. Mission accomplished… I guess.

The ants ate Rafa's shirt
The ants ate Rafa’s shirt

Rafa enjoying our camp after a stout day of paddling.
Rafa enjoying our camp after a stout day of paddling.

December 9th - An incredible day and the night that followed.

I sound like a broken record, but day 5 is full on incredible right out of camp through what is the steepest section of river so far.

Rafa and Ben on day 5.
Rafa and Ben on day 5.

At this point, the river had gained a number of large tributaries and was flowing at around 4,500cfs we estimated. We paddle class V past a massive tributary falls called ‘La Madre de Agua’ that cascades many hundreds of feet down in a scene at once serene and savage.

‘La Madre de Agua’
‘La Madre de Agua’

Rafa
Rafa
Rafa running what we would soon find out is called ‘La Bocana’. We didn’t realize this would be the last large rapid we would run on the Guayas.
Rafa running what we would soon find out is called ‘La Bocana’. We didn’t realize this would be the last large rapid we would run on the Guayas.
Lane in La Bocana.
Lane in La Bocana.

The afternoon of day 5 reveals the first signs of humanity in days: clear cuts, a dilapidated swinging bridge, and then those conspicuous leafy green fields spilling from small fincas. Coca is an indigenous and native crop, but for wayward gringos it’s not a good thing to see because it spells conflict. Conflict between those growing it and those that want to eradicate it. And we American’s are non-neutral parties ostensibly representing the worst of the eradicators with our governments haphazard “war on drugs.”

Still our merry band of river explorers is complacent, just 5 km short of Puerto Rico and first descent glory. We had spent all day picking our way through the biggest rapids so far, and so we simply camp where the day’s light and our energies fade. Thirty minutes later we are surrounded by over a dozen baton wielding extremely suspicious men. All clad in yellow and green with Guardia Indigena emblazoned on their matching vests, only the oldest two among them will speak to us. Initially we are reassured by what they say and how they say it. They want to make sure we are who we say we are: not with government, not with a multinational, just wayward gringos caught unaware. Rafa suggests we should follow Ben’s lead, having been detained before in Colombia. He stays calm, we stay calm. There is no getting out of this, no chance or reason to escape. A few hours later we are hiking up through pitch jungle darkness when Ben eats shit climbing a slippery log and starts to cuss. This is far from ideal. And the night is far from over.

The indigenous guard is a well known political organization throughout Colombia. They exist in isolated areas that have historically been zona rojas and have no state or federal security, infrastructure or support. They take fierce pride in culture, land, and as “defenders of the peace”. The indigenous groups that make up the guard throughout Colombia have been, and continue to be, targeted and murdered as a result of their attempt to govern their territory. For decades they led a nonviolent effort to protect their lands through the sheer force of numbers. This effective nonviolent strategy has led them to having constitutionally protected territories and autonomous rights. They carry only green and gold batons. These colors of earth and of the metal are the ancestral symbols of a strength deeper than what they consider crude modern weapons. The Guardia Indigena have suffered the collateral damage from the decades long civil conflict between the government, paramilitaries, FARC, ELN, Narcos and other militarized groups. To imagine what they have experienced is impossible for those of us blessed by peace in our homes.

To be clear, women had greeted us with delicious cane sweetened water after the long hike out. No one had threatened us or insinuated harm. But when they separate us to interrogate, search, and confiscate, all sorts of alarm bells are going off in my head. I was escorted to a barn full of manure with four guards. I lay down next to horse manure. This day is now 18 hours long on little food from our dwindling rations. For an hour, I simply lay there and accept this fate.

After an hour or so, the security leader finally comes into the barn and hammers me with questions, all jovial tone gone. Their concern is that we are working for the multinational corporation that threatens to dam this river. I pledge my love for free flowing rivers worldwide and explain that we are simply “deportistas” and on their side. “I am back here on this river knowing it’s dangerous because I want to help show the outside world the value and beauty of this free flowing river,” I translate as best I can. I am told and I produce every single item out of my dry bags, including cash for the whole trip, credit cards, passports, electronics, first aid, everything. It’s a startling amount of stuff when it’s all out in front of me; feeling their eyes trained on all that cash, about 4 million pesos or $1200 USD between us all. They make a list and take a mugshot with all exposed cash and belongings. The interview ends when they hand me back my cash and wallet without a passport, cameras, or means of communication.

The night ends reunited with Ben, Rafa, soup, rice, and plantains. Sleep on the gloriously flat concrete floor of the finca comes instantly. In the predawn I awake to guards within a few feet of us, this situation is not a joke.

The finca of our detainment.
The finca of our detainment.

December 10th - La Finca del Don Jose

The day is passed in this same farmhouse always with guards close by. They feed us well, home grown finca food all from the land except for the rice which is too cheap to grow. Honestly it’s not a bad recovery from five stout days of paddling. For a snack and mid-day heat coconuts come down and then a siesta. We are never alone, the guards stay close and awake.

The second night we had a tense meeting with what seemed like everyone in the valley including the kids. The comunidad, led by the security chief, explains that they are incurring significant expenses and we would be responsible for those costs. They demand 3 million pesos ($900usd). Of course they know to the penny how much cash we have. We have little leverage. Still Rafa negotiates like a pro explaining our side and that we truly needed that cash to finish our mission, and counters with half the amount. I can’t imagine this encounter without Rafa. He had already made friends with just about every person in that room so I thought we might catch a break. Ben’s elementary school Spanish teacher would’ve surely been proud of him, offering a long if not somewhat convincing argument to meet us in the middle. But this 3 million pesos is non-negotiable with our freedom in play. We capitulate and agree.

When he, the security chief, wants to know how much more we can pay for photos and video, Ben loses his cool and laughs out loud incredulous at the sneaky demand. At this point we reel back, chat, and Rafa lets them know that we will pay nothing and to delete the videos if they think it fair. If they got it all their way on the 3 million somehow we get a promise from them not to delete. Maybe in the end there was some kind of negotiation but it sure feels like extortion.

The finca in the background and coca in the foreground.
The finca in the background and coca in the foreground.

December 11th - A long portage to Puerto Rico.

We want to finish the river. A bunch of the guys have told us some of the biggest rapids are still downstream in the remaining 5km to Puerto Rico. There might also be some of the “bad guys”. But this time we are going to portage it all. I am calling it a portage and not a hike out because we were going to the takeout. Not how we planned but this type of river exploration almost never goes to plan, and if it did we would probably feel cheated. And there is a perfectly good explanation for this portage although it is not about unsurvivable rapids.

The community who detained us, are coca growers. It provides their livelihood. They process the leaves into “bazuko”, a coca paste, which is a crude extract of the coca leaf. In this form it is sold to traffickers, who do the rest of the conversion to cocaine hydrochloride. Our hike out the next day leads us through thousands of coca plants. There are certainly traditional and medicinal uses for these plants. They are native here and don’t require much in the way of the pesticides and fertilizers necessary for coffee, let alone fruit. We see a family stripping leaves off the branches and I am reminded that this hard work is done to feed families, where only the “jefe’s” in faraway places are getting rich. Maybe the main difference between this coca and “legal crops” is simply semantics: one is led by a Narco and the other by a CEO.

Part of the Colombian Peace Deal, signed in 2016, was financial support for substitution of coca crops. During our detainment we were told how two years prior (around the time of our first attempt at the Guayas) a company of 140 soldiers showed up to rip out their coca crops. But only a fraction of the promised “eradication payments” had been made, so the community members locked arms and made a human shield, in non-violent protest. Don Jose the elder, pleaded with the military commander that this was unjust and invalid based on the 2016 Peace Deal. The indigenous guard was successful and the soldiers left, leaving the crops intact.

Ben paying 3 million pesos the day after our tense negotiation.
Ben paying 3 million pesos the day after our tense negotiation.

We immediately started filming with our GoPros which they allowed us to do as long as we didn’t film faces.

Ben getting our passports back in exchange for $900usd in “detainment” fees.
Ben getting our passports back in exchange for $900usd in “detainment” fees.
Rafa and Ben stoked to have our passports and electronics back on the final day at the finca.
Rafa and Ben stoked to have our passports and electronics back on the final day at the finca.

At this point they sent mules to extract our kayaks and gear from the river. We would soon depart on a four hour hike to the nearest road, where they arranged transport to drive us one hour to Puerto Rico.

Rafa stoked to be en route to freedom.
Rafa stoked to be en route to freedom.
Happy days!
Happy days!

We hiked up over a large ridge and then slightly downstream to the end of a road where a Chiva would be waiting.

As we descend down from the ridge we caught a glimpse of the Guayas. We learned that only a few rapids remained before the river turned completely flat and entered the flat Amazon Basin.

Guayas runout
Guayas runout

We arrived at the Chiva with 15 of the Guard who will escort us to Puerto Rico and an official inquiry.

Arrival at the Chiva on day 7
Arrival at the Chiva on day 7
Crossing the Guayas bridge near Puerto Rico where we had hoped to finish paddling. This bridge was destroyed by a FARC bomb 15 years ago.
Crossing the Guayas bridge near Puerto Rico where we had hoped to finish paddling. This bridge was destroyed by a FARC bomb 15 years ago.

That afternoon we hang out for hours in their Guardia headquarters to await the official inquiry. Once again the food shows up hot and plentiful from our gracious captors. Soon representatives from the military, police, and hospital fill the room along with indigenous officials. Rafa, once again takes the lead and impressively presents our position and experience in the best light possible both for us and the guard. After the proceeding we are interviewed by the regional military Colonel and described to him the 3 million peso payout. He appears startled by the amount and asked who demanded the payment. Rafa looks at the security leader, and the Colonel approaches. Soon after we are presented with a document to sign, affirming that the 3 million pesos was agreed to by mutual consent. We refuse, completely frustrated to spend another minute on a payment that is obviously excessive and unjust. We gather our things and head towards unaccompanied freedom for the first time in three days. We don’t think we’ll get any of the money back but feel vindicated to know that others think what we paid was way too much.

Later that night, the guard spots us walking back from dinner and they approach us to ask again to sign the document. It is perhaps the most tense exchange of all three days as we are frustrated and over it, and they are obviously needing this final step. When Rafa talks to the guard he likes the best, things calm and we agree to meet in the morning to renegotiate “fair” financial terms in order to sign their document. When we meet them at 8am the following morning, for the first time we truly consider their side. Theirs is indeed a tenuous position where their autonomy is everything in keeping their community intact. There is no disputing that they mobilized up to 30 members of their community to stop all work and attend to this unanticipated situation. In the end they reduce the price to 2.5 million pesos and we sign their document with the stipulation that the 500,000 pesos they owe us is given back to the community as a gesture of good will. Our intention is to communicate with them as fairly as possible and recognize and respect their position. Our only hope is that this honest negotiation and process will inspire future relations with this group in order to facilitate future kayaking on this world class river. There is something special in walking shoulder to shoulder carrying our kayaks down main street Puerto Rico on the other side of an incredibly positive if not moderately expensive experience with a group of gentlemen that we can only pray will protect the Guayas for the generations to come.

Our final parting photo on Day 8 of the Guayas with our captors.
Our final parting photo on Day 8 of the Guayas with our captors.

A NOTICE TO FUTURE ATTEMPTS

Rafa, Ben and I with our cumulative 65 years of kayaking experience, consider this river to be one of the highest quality multi-day rivers in the world. We left on good terms with the Guardia Indigena, but if any groups want to descend the Guayas you’ll need to get permission first. Feel free to contact any of us for more information.

"I awake at first light to see a Guayas that is not the same river; It’s raging brown and 6 vertical feet up the bank towards camp. We are now deep in an extremely remote jungle on a first descent, perched above the vast majority of the gradient and rapids with the Guayas near flood stage.""


The Gear that Made This Possible