If I told you it’s possible to go boating in paradise for as little as $46 dollars a day would you believe me? It seems crazy, yes, but in Ecuador, it’s completely attainable. That $46 a day included traveling to Ecuador with my personal cataraft, frame and oars, round-trip taxi rides to the Quito airport, and round-trip bus rides to Tena, one of the boating centers. It also included all of my meals—think yummy local cuisine, not instant noodles—a comfortable room in a hostel, as well as shuttles to the fun class III and IV rivers. Kayakers have been traveling around Ecuador for years, but I discovered that it can be done by catarafters, too. I brought my complete whitewater cataraft package—(two) cat tubes, break-down aluminum frame, three oars and all the necessary personal safety gear (PFD, helmet, rescue rope, etc.)—from the USA to Ecuador and spent less than $50 a day. If I can do it, so can you. So pack up your cataraft and let’s go boating! Here’s how.
What to Bring & How to Bring It:
First things first: Do your research. Find out which airlines will allow three checked bags weighing up to 50 pounds each. I’ve had good luck with several of the Latin airlines; unlike our American carriers, they often allow two checked bags, a carry-on bag, and a personal item for free. The third checked bag will be charged, but sometimes you can pay in advance when you book your tickets. Keep in mind though, if you’re flying during peak times (holidays) all this goes out the window. The airline may not allow as much luggage and there may even be an embargo on more than one checked bag. It pays to look around and pick the best dates and airlines for your boating vacation. A neat little bonus for first-class ticket holders: many airlines will allow all three checked bags to be 70 pounds. Sometimes being a member of their frequent flyer program also provides a better baggage allowance. If you can get away with three checked bags, here’s the ideal gear-to-bag break-down.
First Checked Bag: The Boat
Having the right equipment is vital when traveling internationally with a boat. Traveling with inflatables requires a paradigm shift toward lightweight, high-performance whitewater craft. My personal choice is a cataraft. Cats are typically lighter than rafts and can be dismantled into a small manageable package. My personal cataraft for international travel is 12 feet long with 19-inch diameter tubes; this is a great size for tight, technical, medium-volume rivers in the hands of a skilled boater. You want a boat you’ll feel comfortable rowing in the style of water you like, and that will meet the weight requirements for airline travel. Do your homework; pay attention to the specs of the boat. This will be one of your checked bags, so choose a set of tubes that weigh less than 50 pounds. The complete set of tubes referred to in this article only weigh about 32 pounds. I was able to fit two cataraft tubes, three oar blades, and an NRS low-back seat inside an NRS medium boat bag with a total weight of under 50 pounds. About the size of a medium suitcase, which is an easy bag for the airlines to deal with.
Second Checked Bag: Frame and Oars
The frame parts and oars are the most difficult items to pack and carry. In the past, I’ve divided these items with the oars (shafts and blades) fitting perfectly into the NRS large paddle bag, but this leaves the frame as an additional package. However, when I traveled to Ecuador this year I was able to fit my break-down aluminum frame and a set of three oar shafts together in one bag. All of that plus a few cam straps weighed in at a perfect 50 pounds. My bag was long and skinny, but it was still acceptable as one piece of baggage.
Third Checked Bag: Personal Gear
I use a large NRS Bill’s Bag to hold all of my personal gear. It has been on all my international trips for the last five years. The shoulder straps make it super easy to carry, toss or grab and the durable material can take the harsh abuse from international travel. Inside the Bill’s Bag I stuff a medium dry bag for on-the-water use, a couple throw bags, my helmet, PFD, a mesh drop bag, a K-Pump 200, a small repair kit, a basic wrap kit (minus rope), a small first aid kit, river clothes (including a few H2Core silkweight tops and lightweight pants for protection from the sun and those pesky tropical bugs, a dry top, dry pants, and extra clothes for travel days or days off the water), and all the cam straps for rigging the cataraft. Also in the Bill’s bag is a small backpacker style air mattress and a light sleeping bag for overnight’ers, toiletries and a pair of NRS Crush shoes. All this weighed in around 40 pounds. If I had wanted to carry a bit more weight I could have added a lightweight tent, but I planned on renting one in Ecuador. Alternatively, to reduce weight, you can always look into what kind of equipment is available for rent in the country you’re going to. If you can rent it there consider leaving yours at home; I rented my tent for the one overnight trip I did on the Rio Hollin.
Pro tip: For the last five years I’ve flown with my much larger catarafts to Peru, so I’ve used different techniques to get my equipment accepted by airline personnel. Some airline officials were very agreeable, while other officials spent hours “negotiating” whether to let the equipment pass (and how much to charge for it). The frame-and-oars bag tends to be the one most often questioned. Even if it meets the weight requirement, which it always does, the airline personnel don’t know what to make of it.
Don’t call your equipment “sporting equipment,” as you may be charged an oversized luggage fee of $125 (or more). Instead, check the airline websites, determine what type of sports equipment is allowed, and choose the one that your bag(s) most resemble. Skis? Collapsible bicycle? Surfboard? It only cost me $45 for my bag with the frame/oars (the “surfboard”) on my last trip. On the other hand, be prepared to pay for your luggage. Nothing starts off a paddling vacation worse than cutting your budget by a hundred dollars before you even leave the States. When planning your trip, assume you will be paying to check all of your bags, do your best to avoid those fees and enjoy having a more cushioned budget later.
Most airlines allow two carry-ons: one personal item that fits under the seat and a larger bag for the overhead compartment. My three checked bags contain everything I need for boating and living a few weeks in a tropical environment, but I utilize my carry-on luggage for fragile items or things I don’t want to lose. My daypack is my personal carry-on item. It contains my laptop, cell phone, notepad, passport, a bit of cash, an extra set of clothing (in case my checked bags get lost), and a puffy jacket. I had the opportunity to pack a small suitcase as well, but there’s no need to lug miscellaneous gear around.
CliffNotes: Boating in Ecuador
Kayakers have been traveling with their kayaks to Ecuador since the early 90’s, carving out a comfortable niche for the current generation of boaters visiting its rivers, and for that, us cat-boaters thank you. Tena and Baeza are two very boater-friendly cities. Transportation is easy, even with all your equipment. The taxis aren’t your normal NYC cabs, rather they’re largely four-door utility trucks. The long-distance buses are also accommodating allowing boaters to stash their gear in the cargo hold for transport to or from rivers and boating towns. I’d recommend getting your hands on, The Kayaker’s Guide to Ecuador, which is an excellent trip-planning resource.
If you have limited time, I recommend going directly to Tena because there’s an abundance of exciting class III and IV runs close by. You can boat almost every day without leaving the Tena area! On my most recent trip, I only had two weeks of vacation, so I went straight to the welcoming folks at the Hostal Zumag Sisa in Tena, where my husband was staying. They stored our cats when not in use and even took us on a walking and sightseeing tour one day when all the rivers were too high and we couldn’t boat.
I recommend the Rio Jatanyacu, Rio Hollin, lower Rio Jondachi, Rio Piatua, upper and lower sections of the Rio Anzu, and several sections of the Rio Misahualli. My favorite was the overnight trip on the astoundingly beautiful, deep, tropical canyon of the Rio Hollin, with waterfalls galore. Timothy Dent from River People is an extremely resourceful contact. He helped transport our gear and showed us how to hire porters to haul our catarafts down the long, slippery trail to the put-in.
The beauty of boating in Ecuador lies within the people and the river community that’s been established over the many decades of accommodating foreign kayakers. The biggest hurdle is getting you and your boat there. But once you’ve arrived, you don’t have to know all of the answers. Don’t be afraid to ask a local for help or suggestions, they’re more than happy to assist.