A short history of Cabañas Tres Rios

Small World Adventures is celebrating the 10th anniversary of our lodge–Cabanas Tres Rios–and want to pay tribute to Larry and his great idea!

It’s often very difficult to get Larry Vermeeren to talk about himself and his accomplishments. He’s way too modest, and likes to just sit back and listen to other people’s stories. But, I twisted his arm enough that he at least told me a little bit about his beginnings here in Ecuador and how the lodge and Small World Adventures came to be. Borja, and the land where the lodge now sits, weren’t always the utopic paddling playground that we think of them as today. A lot of sweat and blood went into recreating Borja as the “paddling epicenter” that many young kayakers know it as today. Back when Larry arrived, it was a dusty little dairy farming town. Other than the occasional oil worker, hardly any “outsiders” came through town. I often wonder how Larry had the foresight to see the potential in Borja. So, here I wanted Larry to tell the story of his kayaking life in Ecuador and how the lodge came to be. All the rest of the words are Larry’s, so enjoy!


(The beginning. When Larry bought his land, it was a cow pasture that showed very little potential. After months of drainage work, it began to look like something that would actually support a structure. And then, the building commenced).

You need a vision to make things happen in life I think, you don’t end up building a kayaking lodge in the tropics by accident. Over thirty years ago I started traveling to different countries to paddle and during my travels, the idea to work as a international kayak guide started to grow. Really, I didn’t just want to guide, I wanted to create the whole package, a great place to stay surrounded by a bunch of amazing rivers. My search took me around the world; Nepal, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Honduras, I checked them all out, running rivers and working as a guide and safety boater. Then I stumbled upon Ecuador off a tip from an Ecuadorian I met in Chile in 1991. He was not a kayaker, but told me his country had lots of rivers, and surely, some of them should be good for boating.

(The old sketchy bridge that once served “river right.” Back then, there were only a handful of families ranching on this side of the river, none of which had cars, so the need for a good bridge was minimal. The bridge in this photo was actually the 2nd, and “better” bridge put in here. Locals say that 2 days after this bridge’s inaguaration, the old one fell into the river–perfect timing! Gradually more and more people moved in and bought cars. In 2005 Ecuador built the new, fancy bridge across the Quijos River.)
After a few years exploring the rivers of Ecuador, the search for land to build on was on, Ecuador was ‘my place’. I decided to locate in the Quijos valley even though there was more comercial whitewater potential development (more infrastructure) in the Tena area with rafting being a better focus there. I liked the tranquil atmosphere in the Quijos Valley and loved the rivers even more. I pretty much looked at every piece of land possible in this valley, getting out of my kayak and walking around on potential sites, talking to farmers and land owners, looking for possible access points from the roads. This was before there was any real thought of tourism in this valley, before our guidebook made this a popular kayaking destination and before local local buses and taxis served this valley, it was the wild west here back then.
(Even in the initial building stages, it seemed improbable that the cabins would ever become what they are today. But Larry knew in his mind what he wanted and made it happen)

The land I ended up buying only became a possibility when they improved the bridge giving us access to the less developed river right side of the Quijos. My good Ecuadorian friend Gina who runs “Gina’s Restaurant” in a neighboring town knows everyone around here, and so was an invaluable contact. She also knew of my search and she told me about a dairy farmer who wanted to sell off some of his less productive riverside land that was separated from the rest of his farm by a road. The land was too steep to be good pasture but just happened to be along the river in the exact middle of the of my favorite valley with the Papallacta, Cosanga and Borja rivers upstream, the Sardinas, Oyacachi and Salado downstream, and the Quijos right out front. It only took one quick walk around the property to see the potential and we had a handshake deal to purchase the property within the hour.


(Cabanas Tres Rios guest’s cabins in the making)

Then came the real challenge, building something in a developing nation where my grasp of the language was basic at best. Adding to the challenge was the fact that there was no electricity on this side of the river. Skip ahead after three years of work by six local craftsmen and we opened the doors to a beautiful lodge and cabins. No power tools were used on site, no excavating equipment used and all the cement was mixed by hand and moved by wheel barrows.

Today, we collect spring and rain water for a gravity fed water system, we likely had the first septic system in the valley, have planted hundreds of trees and our staff are Ecuadorians and my best friends down here. After ten years of operation I have to say we have never had a major complaint. Our guests are constantly blow away by how nice the gardens, rooms, lodge, service and food are, maybe they expect kind of a kayaking bunk house and instead find a beautiful private lodge built for kayakers by kayakers surrounded by gardens and rainforest.

(The finished product. Inside our main lodge where we eat our gourmet meals prepared by Lily, and then hang out afterwards telling stories of the great days of paddling we’ve all had in Ecuador)

Now the lodge truly is a beautiful place. All of our guests comment on how special it is. We have eight cabins with private baths, a massage room, yoga deck made from bamboo and thatch, the main building houses our dining room, bar and living room, and we have housing for our Ecuadorian hotel staff as well as river guides. Everyone really appreciates the quiet nights, the clean and comfortable rooms, the hot showers and home-cooked meals and great river access. Not to mention relaxing evenings on the porch watching hummingbirds, Mot Mots, Andean Cock of the Rock, and many other bird species zooming by.

Cabanas Tres Rios is also home to our 60 kayaks, the largest outfitting foam collection in South America, and tons of other paddling gear. That Larry thought of everything when he was designing this place! Thanks Larry for your vision and all your hard work. I feel lucky to call the lodge my home.

As Larry says, “You have to dream and chase your vision at least once in your life.”

2 Responses to A short history of Cabañas Tres Rios

  1. David Leach September 24, 2014 at 12:25 am #

    As one of SWA’s very first clients I can tell you that In those very early days, dining at Gina’s, Larry shared his enthusiasm and vision for the future. To build a place to call home along the banks of the Quijos. A 1st class refuge that sought to fit within, and give back to, the welcoming community of Borja. A place that celebrates the splendor that is the Quijos valley. I am thankful to have spent some very memorable times in the area since those early days, and consider Tres Rios the culmination of the dreams of many.

    • swaadmin September 24, 2014 at 12:37 am #

      David, what a great tribute to Larry and to his dream! Thanks, Guy

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