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Stage 2 - Paddling in Amazonia

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Let me reiterate that the Pastaza is not a way into Peru from Ecuador for anyone except a few native merchants who use their 20-meter long, motored canoes to transport goods. These lads deliver chickens, fruit and other questionable packages from village to village, their territories being no more than 200 km at most. Historically, the few locals that have travelled to Peru from this part of Ecuador used the Bobanaza River, which is far calmer and begins near Canelos, around 40km East of Puyo. It then joins the Pastaza within 1 kilometre of the Peruvian border. Due to our route, following the flow of water from Chimborazo, we had to use the Pastaza.

Ivan and Jake arrived in Shell as planned around lunch time on the 29th of May. They had made the journey down from Quito in Ivan’s pickup truck with the canoes attached to a trailer behind. Jake had been travelling from Boston and had had about 4 hours sleep in 48. We loaded up the bags into the back of the pickup and all headed down to Copataza. It's about two hours’ drive to the E45 Bridge, where we had to abandon the rafting the day before. Ivan parked the pickup on the bridge, and we all had a good look at the canoes and the river. He had painted the canoes red, imitating a Tiso canoe that he’d seen us using on a practice expedition in an Instagram post.

They looked strong and stable; we were ecstatic to finally have them with us. We were also pleased to see the river level had dropped. Ivan himself seemed like a contemplative man with a good old-fashioned sense of humour and a genuine concern for us to complete the expedition safely. You could tell he was an experienced adventurer and a man who does what he says, and he backed that up delivering the beautifully constructed, fiberglass canoes on time at our chosen location. He and his workers at Salango Kayaks in Quito had sawn two sea kayaks in half from end to end, added width and made special moulds for the bow and stern. It was an extraordinary effort considering we’d given him only 1 month for notice.

It was then another 2-hour drive to Copataza on dirt and rock roads through the forested river valley. The Pastaza wove its way through the trees to our south and we crossed multiple bridges, spanning tributaries with children playing in the clear waters. Ivan didn’t hold back and we held our breath as the trailer slid about all over the road behind us, somehow in a controlled manner. We arrived in Copataza safely with the canoes and were met with a warm welcome.

The Achuar people provided us with a big blue derelict community building to sling our hammocks in and assigned a family without asking us, to make our meals. We made it our home and were happy to have the local bats for company. That evening we all shared beers and as we spoke with Ivan, it was clear that part of him longed to go with us. Jake was interested in everything, trying to take in an overload of information. Ben was simply reflective, but also mentally preparing himself for two days of airport queues.

At 06:00 the following morning, we said goodbye to Ben and Ivan. Just before Ben left, he told me to "Come back!" highlighting that both of us recognising the dangers ahead and then he and Ivan left in the pickup in a cloud of dust. Ben carted home another extra bag full of the last of our mountain equipment on an

uneventful homeward flight. I knew I was going to miss him, but there was no time to think about that, we had to get to work on the canoes.

We spent a further 3 nights in Copataza and during the days we kitted out the canoes with bungee cord, Tiso sponsorship signs and safety equipment.

It was strange to us, this was an indigenous community, they clearly respected the environment and they certainly don't contribute to much deforestation, but they seemed blind to litter. They tossed everything into the rivers and there were heaps of trash scattered between the beautiful thatched roof buildings. We expected a much cleaner environment away from the masses, but this was not the case. Our guess is that up until recently, all of their litter had been biodegradable vegetation and food waste so why not throw it and let nature clean it up? They haven't had the same education about plastic and other man made materials that we have and therefor don't fully understand the many damaging properties that can come with them.

Consequently, their rubbish is treated the same way that one might treat a banana skin. There also seems to be a lack of waste disposal systems in place which is not surprising considering the difficult terrain and lack of roads. This factor contributes to the growing litter problem in Amazonia as access to foreign goods is increased.

Their traditions and sense of community were wonderful though and we were invited to a Mother’s Day festival where the alcoholic drink chicha was first given to us. The festival was for everyone to thank the mothers of the village in different ways. It was good to see the women being warmly appreciated because other than this night, it seemed like they did the lion’s share of the work around town, between pregnancies. The women brought Chicha round in abundance all through the day and night. It is made by the older women who chew yucca plant, spit it into a bowl, add water and let it ferment.

It was considered rude to decline so we accepted it from everyone, followed by the Achuar word for thankyou, "macate". Some women's chicha is much more agreeable than others, you get some that’s almost like cider, but others can be milky and full of bits. The women came round the hall, sometimes in long trains of up to 20 in a row offering the sour but mild drink in their beautifully hand crafted clay bowls. The bowls have round bottoms, meaning if you were handed a full one, you couldn't put it down. I had been fighting an illness for about 24 hours after a breakfast of vulture meat and yucca and the chicha was the final nail in the coffin.

That night I was violently sick. Fortunately, I managed to walk out of the hall in a controlled manner as the saliva welled up in my mouth. Then, just as I made it to the muddy football pitch, I projectile vomited over my bare feet. I didn't go back in, but I heard that the lads made quite a night of it. I had serious fear of missing out! Such a

unique party with native people and traditions was exactly the reason I planned this adventure. I didn't want to miss anything. I could not go back though; the chicha would just keep appearing in front of me and the gurgling in my stomach told me I couldn't face it. The safety of my hammock felt pretty nice anyway and I drifted off to the dull thud of the distant loud speaker.

The following day we were invited to drink again by a friendly man named Abel, so we went to listen to he and Arutan (who played the face drum) play music. It was a good laugh and their music was brilliant. After, Abel proposed to guide us to Andoas for 200 dollars, this was far too much for the three days it would take, but we had previously been quoted $250 so we agreed. The chicha on this occasion was much more drinkable and thankfully, my stomach had hardened to it.

We continued our journey down the Pastaza, with our next major checkpoint being Andoas, a Peruvian town on the other side of the border. The journey was pleasant, the first half day we hitched a ride in a fast boat navigating the last of the white water. We were told it was very dangerous but after seeing it we realised we would have been fine in our stable canoes. The locals often exaggerate the dangers in order to squeeze out more money and due to our inexperience, we believed them. Or maybe they just couldn't understand that we were comfortable in small boats on big rivers. Either way, their warnings that we would surely die were unjustified.

The fast boat left us at a community called Sharimentza where we intended to stay the night. Unfortunately, after introducing ourselves and listening to a lengthy discussion it became apparent that we weren't welcome and so we left and paddled down to another community called Suwa. This was our first experience of distrust towards us, and we were surprised, we hoped that we would be as interesting to the natives as they were to us. But often they seemed very suspicious and didn’t want us around. We understood though, unfortunately, too many times in the past, the presence of foreigners in these areas had spelled disaster for indigenous communities.

The unanticipated, virgin paddle down to Suwa that afternoon was quite disorganised because none of our equipment being properly prepared for this unexpected journey. But, I was glad of the attitude of Jake and Yan, they were unphased for canoeing through 3 hours of Amazonian rainfall having been refused a safe haven and we all took it in our stride.

After some medium sized rapids, the river was high and deceptively calm, but once we got going, we noticed giant bubbling boils everywhere and initially they shocked us. Some bubbled up beneath the canoes pulling the nose violently one way or another. Giant eddies grabbed at the canoes and tried to pull us into the banks. Branches and foliage reached out from the thick forest to ensnare us, and underwater dangers (fallen trees) were only recognisable by slight ripples in the mirky water. We were able to control the canoes well though, a vigilant watch from the front man and a couple of hard strokes was usually enough to pull us free and clear of any danger.

We learned Abel was afraid of most things, especially anacondas. He didn’t stop talking about them and had many stories of grown men having been eaten by them nearby and recently. We lost a little faith in him as he led us zigzagging across the 500meter wide river in search of the flow. We paddled through beautiful pristine forest and marvelled at the giant green walls of trees, flowers and ivy that encased the brown snaking river as it transported us onwards. By the end of the afternoon, approaching dusk, we made it to the lovely native community of Suwa and had the bags brought ashore just in time for sunset.

Able introduced us to their president who was called Rodrigo and he agreed that we could stay. He had a warm smile that was infectious and we all relaxed. His wife cooked us a fantastic local dish of fish wrapped in leaves which was seasoned to perfection. At the community, Abel came into his own, advising us and introducing us

to a bare-chested man with silky black hair and a straight cut fringe high on his forehead. He showed us his curare, a beautiful 3-meter hunting pipe that shoots darts tipped in black poison when blown through. The power of the blowpipe amazed us as he demonstrated by shooting a dart 40 meters into the air.

As night closed in we slung our hammocks in the school hall and settled in to rest. Suwa is just on the Ecuadorian side of the border and as I lay in my hammock the calls of toads and insects rang in my ears. The unknown calls of something else, possibly monkeys came from further afield.

As tiredness descended, I reflected on the day, probably the most daunting day of the expedition so far. Daunting and yet we met it with pure excitement. The dangers of climbing Chimborazo were much greater that our actions that day. Abseiling the many waterfalls of the Pastaza and surrounding tributaries was far more thrilling. But on that we did something mad, we paddled down stream. We left the road behind and took a step forward into wilderness that we couldn’t take back. We could not paddle against the flow so our only option was forward, deeper into the Amazon Rainforest which offered untold challenges, mysteries, and hard lessons to be learned. Paddling down the first few kilometres in our broad hulled canoes, my mind turned to the stories of Francisco de Orellana, the first European to navigate the Amazon in 1542. He and his band of Spanish conquistadors were told to leave a much larger Pizarro expedition on the Coca River and head down stream in search of food. Like us, they soon realised that it would be impossible to return due to the power of the flow and made the decision to continue forward, into the unknown. The team of about 50 men made discoveries that shocked the whole of Europe when he eventually returned to Spain. He claimed to have fought with tribes of warrior women who he likened to the ancient Amazons of Greek mythology and this is how the Amazon River gained its modern name. As the banks slipped by, I realised it'd take a monumental effort to cut through the dense walls of vegetation. Vines, creepers, palms, trees and spiders webs all competed for the light at the rivers edge. Getting through that each evening to find a campsite would be serious task in itself. I looked down at my shorts and flip-flops and imagined the stringing plants and biting insects and made a mental note to crack out the Fjallraven trousers and jungle boots at the next opportunity. What excitement though, our only choice was to keep moving forward, like Orellana, and deal with whatever presented itself.

On the 3rd day we crossed into Peru and the military allowed us to pass without stamping any documents (big mistake). We stayed in a fishing hut that night with a bunch of flea-bitten chickens who wanted to roost on our hammocks. In frustration, Yan attempted a 360 roundhouse kick at one which didn't deter it and he was

forced to move his hammock outside. As we cooked a meal of freeze dry rations and limes, a man named Aldhair approached on his 'peke peke' (long, shallow, narrow Amazonian canoe with an engine, named so due to the sound of its engine). He was from Andoas, but had made the journey up river to fish and collect yucca from his plantation. We gave him one of our rations and chatted at length, he seemed very interested in our expedition. Just before dark Aldhair left, and we agreed we’d meet him on the river the following day. We got into our hammocks, behind the protection of the mosquito nets and let the wonderful noises of the Amazon Rainforest carry us into slumber.

Achuar pottery

The next day we left for Andoas and Abel jumped ship to a fast boat returning to Copataza. We reduced his pay to $160 (which he was happy with) as he hadn’t guided us the full way, thanked him for his time and continued alone. It was now up to us to follow the flow and we found ourselves crossing the river as often as when Abel had been guiding us. It would disappear from sight following subsurface channels then reappear on the far side dragging foliage with it. It behaved differently to most UK rivers due to the loose silty bottom and was a learning curve for us as we took turns leading legs.

We managed well enough making good progress and we arrived in Andoas, Aldhair caught up with us on his peke peke, just at the point that he ran out of fuel. We lashed the boats together and paddled him home and as a thankyou he allowed us to use his dock for the canoes and store excess bags in his house. Parked outside his house was his very own tuk-tuk and he loaded up our bags and took us straight to a run down old hotel where we we were able to pay for a room for the night. I gave him five dollars and invited him for some cervezas later but surprisingly he refused and said he'd see us tomorrow.


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