The Llanganates-Sangay ecological corridor is one of Ecuador’s greatest natural riches, along with the Galápagos Islands and Yasuní National Park. And, like these two more well-known protected areas, it is both a place of astounding biodiversity and deeply threatened. Here you find a beautiful, crystalline river, source of life for its inhabitants, paradise for a million creatures and a playground for kayakkers from around the world: the Piatúa, an Amazonian treasure to visit… and protect.
An imposing view of the Sumaco volcano welcomes me to the Oso Perezoso (The Sloth). This hostel, located on the Archidona-Tena road, is managed by Gabriel and Nadia. They offer a simple stay plus rafting and kayaking adventures. Together with Roberto Rueda, a colleague, they make an A-team for tourism kayakking and rafting in nearby rivers, including the Jondachi, Napo or Misahuallí.
A few meters from the hostel lies Roberto’s storehouse. Here, we pick up the equipment and secure it atop the car. On the way to the river, they tell me we’re heading to Santa Clara, a small town from where we will set out to navigate the Piatúa River, a tributary of the Anzú, known internationally for its amenable conditions and the diversity of rapids ideal for both experienced and amateur river athletes.
We arrive at the Piatúa cabins, located about 40 minutes from Puyo. Here, you can rest and meet the Kichwa community that welcomes visitors and offers activities on the banks of the river such as hiking, birding and nature walks. The kayakkers check the river’s status: its flows are on our side but the water level is low, which means that descents will be difficult. We leave the cabins behind and head upstream.
Along the trail, we’re accompanied by the massive rock formations guard the Piatúa. Roberto calls them ‘wise’ because of their age. We walk by them and meet families washing (themselves and mounds of clothing) on the riverbanks. They recognize Roberto and are quick to make us feel welcome. “This is the true wealth of living here: sharing time with your family, preparing food together and being in contact with nature. But many people no longer understand this life, much less live it day-to-day,” says Roberto.
A bridge hangs over the fragile ecosystem of the river that separates the Pastaza and Napo rivers. This is where we’ll begin our descent. Once again the team prepares and checks all the equipment, and we launch into the watery adventure. Despite doing this almost every day, the kayakers behave as if it were their first time. Following one run, they decide to go back upriver on foot, to run it again. This is their playground. The scene repeats itself several times. There is not a soul around to be seen. Nature seems practically untouched and we are enveloped in its calm embrace. Roberto is right to claim that this life is rich indeed. Sitting on a huge boulder, I watch the kayakkers bob and bounce, my feet dangling in the transparent waters of the elegant Piatúa.
On the way back, we stop at the Arosemena Tola parish, where the locals produce delicious chocolate and Amazonian coffee. The Tsatsayaku brand supports their local entrepreneurship and agriculture. We had picked up a local young man on his way to Tena. He tells us his name is Carlos and that he is actively working for the conservation of the Piatúa. The nearby community of Veinte de Julio are the main defenders of these lands, he says.
A couple of days ago, Carlos tells us, there were clashes. “We won’t let the machinery pass,” he says. “We’ll stand strong and fight.” Carlos and the community are opposed to the hydroelectric project that is well underway on the river. The project’s lack of environmental studies and safeguards bodes badly for the whole watershed. By diverting the river current, and altering the ecosytem, many species will no doubt disappear and water contamination will increase, seriously affecting the inhabitants of these and other nearby communities.
After passing Veinte de Julio, the unbroken green of the forest is replaced by pale dirt roads. An immense sadness runs through me when I spot a signpost, so typical of industrial sites, which warns without a hint of irony: ‘Don’t litter. Respect nature’.