Rafting, La Ruta de las Cascadas, and Micro-Hydro

Here’s a quick post summing up our final 4 days in Ecuador.¬†We closed out a fantastic 15 days in Ecuador’s Oriente with a highwater rafting trip on the mighty Rio Jatunyacu, a visit to the Runa Foundation, a couple of fun-filled days in Banos, and a site visit to a proposed micro-hydro project in Salasacas.

The Jatunyacu is one of South America’s best rivers for whitewater rafting. We happened to catch the river at a bank-full water level, a few inches below the cutoff for commercial raft trips. This added some extra excitement to the normally Class III section of whitewater. We covered nearly 30km of thundering rapids punctuated by calm recovery pools in about 5 hours, including a stop for lunch at riverside beachfront. Good fun was had by all and, despite ample safety preparation for any unexpected raft flips or swims, all participants managed to keep themselves in the raft – except of course for the many optional opportunities to go for a swim. Here is a pic from the day:

Rafting on the Jatunyacu Image
A Big Hit on the Mighty Jatunyacu (photo: Rios Ecuador)

After a post-rafting night on the town in Tena, the next day we headed up the road to check out the Runa Foundation‘s operations in Archidona. Runa is working with local farmers to develop guayusa tea leaf collectives for export to the US. Runa’s Brooklyn-based arm manufactures and distributes bottled and dry-leaf teas. Guayusa is naturally caffeinated and rich in antioxidants, which has market appeal in the US, but it is also traditionally grown in Napo Province on small farms, chakras, as part of a polyculture, which means that there is a lot of potential for the region to develop a sustainable agricultural commodity, contrary to the African palm plantations and other monocultures that dominate the Amazon’s agricultural sector. The Runa Foundation has three core value: ecosystems, fair markets, and building knowledge. The efforts of the foundation and it’s US for-profit counterpart – Runa LLC – are intended to stimulate sustainable economic growth in the region by paying farmer’s a fair market value for their guayusa, and ultimately to use education as part of a longterm vision to transition ownership of the company that buys the guayusa for export over to the farmers. This is an outstanding example of sustainable development and a few of our students are already plotting ways to return to the area as a long-term volunteer or intern with Runa.

Visit to Runa Foundation Image
Program Manager Caro Engel explaining the research the foundation is doing on guayusa, testing various strains for yield, taste, health, etc.
Doctors Kelson and Walsh Image
We all donned surgical attire to protect the harvested guayusa (organic, of course) from contamination from us

After Runa, we hit the road for Banos, with a quick stop at Kallari’s office in Tena to stock up on chocolate and then lunch in Puyo. We arrived in Banos, checked into our hotel, and enjoyed a low-key evening in one of Ecuador’s most popular mountain towns. Cobblestone streets were strolled in the cool mountain air; alpaca textile products were purchased in abundance; and western cuisine was consumed for dinner. Yet, we managed to inject an activity on micro-finance into the evening agenda in preparation for our upcoming visit to a micro-hydro project that could benefit from this type of program. First, however, we would need to participate in a classic Banos outdoor activity: the Ruta de las Cascadas.

As luck would have it, the next morning dawned wet and rainy, foiling our original plan to bike the (mostly) downhill path along the Pastaza river canyon that is studded with cascading waterfalls. Fortunately, in classic Ecuadorian fashion, a chiva (open aired party bus) was presented as alternate transportation. The gloomy morning melted away after just a few measure of “Vamos a la Playa” and pretty soon the entire crew was dancing along to Latin hip hop and reggaeton. The chiva descended through the canyon, stopping along the way at various waterfalls until we reached the denouement at the entrance to the thundering Pailon del Diablo. We disembarked the party bus to hike down to the access point for the falls, with many in the group opting to crawl through a narrow pinch to enter a little cavern behind the falls. Due to the overnight rain, the normally impressive waterfall was truly dazzling, sending a dousing spray several stories high.

After the short hike back out of the canyon, we started the drive back to Banos but we soon delayed by some road construction. The party promptly spilled off the bus and into the street until traffic resumed about 15 minutes later.

Agoyan Waterfall Image
The normally dewatered Agoyan waterfall flush with water on a rainy day. The falls is normally just a trickle due to an upstream dam on the Pastaza river.
Cable Car Crossing on the Ruta de Las Cascadas Image
Cable Car Crossing on the Ruta de Las Cascadas


Pailon del Diablo Image
Jamie at Pailon del Diablo


Chiva on Ruta de las Cascadas Image
Riding the chiva (party bus) on the Ruta de las Cascadas


Roadside Dance Party Image
Roadside Dance Party on the Ruta de las Cascadas


Roadside Dance Party on the Ruta de las Cascadas Image
Making the most of a traffic delay with a roadside dance party on the Ruta de las Cascadas

On our final day in Ecuador, we headed up the road from Banos about 30 minutes to the village of Salasacas. Salasacas is well-known for it’s textiles and many of the alpaca sweaters, blankets, and other woven goods that are purchased in other parts of the country are actually sewn in Salasacas. So, of course, we had to stop and bargain for some final deals at the local market.

However, our main reason for visiting Salasacas was to learn about a micro-hydro project planned for the Pachlinica river. The project is being developed by Galo Aguirre, a hydroengineer with decades of experience working for international construction firms and the Ecuadorian power utility. But Galo’s passion is small-scale hydro, which has huge potential to provide energy without the environmental and financial costs of large-scale hydro. Galo has been working to bring a micro-hydro project to Salasacas that will dramatically impact the local people. Consider just the economics: Currently, the people of Salasacas, who have little financial capital, are paying about $1300 per month to pump clean water to the village for drinking and other household needs. This is a sizable percent of the community’s monthly income. Galo has designed a micro hydro project on the polluted Pachlinica that will power the water pump AND generate an excess 175KW of installed capacity. The total price tag: $16K. Of course, the challenge is access to capital. Development banks won’t fund these types of projects because they’re too small. The local utility and politicians aren’t interested for similar reasons (the complexities of which warrant multiple separate blog posts). And the local people are struggling to save enough to make the capital investment.

Galo gave a short presentation on the project, we looked at the turbine in storage waiting to be installed, and then we hiked into the Pachlinica to look at the spots where the turbines, diversion, and other project features would be built. After the site visit, the community cooked lunch for the group and then we hopped back in our bus for the 3 hour drive to Tumbaco.

Shopping for Alpaca in Salasacas  Image
Shopping for Alpaca in Salasacas


Galo Aguire Speaking in Salasacas
Galo Speaking in Salasacas


Rio Pachlinica Valley Image
The Pachlinica Valley, site of a proposed microhydro project

With our final hours in Ecuador, we reflected on the conundrums of sustainable development. In particular, two questions were of active consideration: What role can small, local solutions play in making the world a more sustainable place? What role can we as individuals play in making our communities more sustainable? After a final banquet, we gathered to share our Sustainability Action Plans – self-identified steps to bring a sustainability initiative into our lives, families, schools, and communities – and our most memorable moments from the summer.

Sustainable Summer in Banos Ecuador Image
The group in Banos Ecuador