How did Ecuador’s whitewater landscape come to be accessible? (part 1)

January 29th Torrents aka “don’s group”
Darcy leading Caitlin, Paulina and Mauricio through “just a typical rapid” on the Rio Oyacachi 
People on our trips often ask questions about the areas we boat in such as, what do the people do for a living here?  Who built the roads?  Are these Indigenous or Ecuadorians?  What’s that brown pipeline running alongside the road?  And many other questions pertaining to the regions that we boat in.  So, having spent 2 years of my life researching and writing on just these topics, I figured I share a little info here.
 Caitlin entering “Sabado Gigante” on the Rio Piatua.  Caitlin, like all good college students should, ditched a week of class to come paddle in Ecuador with us.  But don’t worry, besides working on her boof, she also got to practice her Spanish.

 I suppose we should start with a little oil history since oil is essentially what has made kayaking possible in Ecuador’s Oriente.  Plus I’ll throw in a little bit about what the Oriente was like before oil, roads,and kayakers.   I know that may sound a bit strange; and, kayakers as a group, are often at odds with oil development, but the plain and simple truth is that we wouldn’t be kayaking in Ecuador if it weren’t for the access roads that Texaco built back in the 1970s.  But, Ecuador’s oil history started long before 1970, and so I’ll dedicate this blog (part 1) to a little precursor before we talk about Texaco.

Paulina counting truchas in “Go Deep” on the Oyacachi.  Paulina and Mauricio are warming up with the Torrents trip for next week’s Rios Escondidos trip.  So far Paulina is stoked on Ecuador, and, coming from Chile, she is learning lots of new Spanish words from Ecuador’s lexicon–Esfero, que es esto?  In turn, I am learning lots of new Spanish from her!
Ecuador first became home to a petroleum industry in 1878 when the National Assembly gave M.G. Mier and Company exclusive rights to extract petroleum, tar, and kerosene from the Santa Elena Peninsula on the west coast of Ecuador.  In 1911, the first active well came online on the peninsula, and in 1917, Anglo-Ecuadorian Oilfields Ltd, which would later become British Petroleum, began operations there as well.  Small operations continue on the peninsula today, but are trivial compared to those in the Oriente.  Modern oil processes truly began in Ecuador in 1921 with Shell and Standard Oil.  The first large scale oil expedition to the Oriente was in 1921 when Ecuadorian president Jose Luis Tamayo granted Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil a joint concession to search for petroleum deposits in Ecuador’s Southern Oriente. 
 Karl driving his Villain through some big Amazonian holes!  Karl from Colorado is on his 3rd trip with us and still can’t get enough.  He loves Ecuador’s awesome and continuous whitewater and also enjoys arguing with Don about politics:)

Standard and Shell, began mapping the Southern Oriente in the 1920s, and in 1928, the Ecuadorian government signed a contract with the two companies to begin construction of a road that would link the town of Ambato in the highlands, with the town of Mera in the Oriente.  Completed in 1947, this was the first motorcar road into the region, and many of the early settlers used it when they came into the Oriente.  Halfway through road construction, Standard Oil fell out of favor with the government and lost their concession, but Shell stayed on.  In 1948, Shell pulled out of the Oriente claiming that their twenty-seven years of exploration had produced only unviable results.  As the North American Congress on Latin America explains, “the circumstances of oil production on a world-scale were such that the incorporation of any new reserves could only drive down the price of oil.”  This crushed the hopes of the severely indebted Ecuadorian government who believed oil would spur the country into its much-needed modernization and be its economic savior.  Shell’s declaration prompted Ecuadorian President Galo Plazo Lasso to declare that the “Oriente es un mito” (the Oriente is a myth).  Nearly thirty years of Ecuador’s hopes for salvation from economic despair hinged on the Oriente’s oil potential, and this news came as a huge national blow.

 Dave and Paulina enjoying lunch on the Rio Quijos.  It sure is nice to be able to wear shorts in February!

After Shell pulled out of the Southern Oriente, things quieted down considerably, and all national projects in the region came to an abrupt halt.  Twenty years passed before the Oriente saw any more oil action, and both the government and multi-national corporations were almost wholly absent from the region.  Many Ecuadorians who moved to the region to work on the exploration teams or on road construction crews stayed behind and opened shops, kept farms or ranches, harvested lumber, and traded what goods they could. The few settlers who did stay in the Oriente pressed on with road and trail construction hoping to link the Southern Oriente more directly to Quito—the most lucrative market—but progress was slow without government or international funding. 

 Mauricio on the Rio Piatua.  Mauricio, a native Chilean paddlers, acustomed to hucking waterfalls, is getting aquinted with the continuous boulder gardens of Ecuador’s rivers.
There were no roads east of the Andes until 1947, and no road connecting this region to Quito until 1972.  The 1947 road connecting Ambato with Mera was quite useful as a link with the highlands, but still was not enough to integrate the Oriente. While Ambato was a sizeable town, it did not compare to Quito (farther to the north) in terms of lucrative markets.  Consequently, most trade was done via a network of waterways in the lower elevations, and then on horse and foot trails to go up and over Papallacta Pass in the Andes to the markets in the capital city of Quito (this is the same route we take today with our kayakers when we come from Quito, over the Andean Continental Divide and down to our lodge to start kayaking). 

 Michael of Ohio (yes, they do have kayakers in Ohio!) styling a line on the Rio Quijos
While most people maintained a subsistence-based economy, many depended, to a certain degree, on the small market exchanges their surpluses allowed, and they all had an interest in maintaining the trails.  In 1950, it was a seven-day journey from Archidona in the Oriente to Quito in the highlands (just over 80 kilometers). Jamie Dalgo, an Ecuadorian colonist who utilized the trails, explains poor conditions on the return trip from Quito.  He begins his description on the descent down thirteen thousand foot Papallacta Pass through the village of Papallacta to the small missionary settlement of Baeza (established in 1559) on the eastern slope of the Andes: “slippery rocks make up the path towards Lake Papallacta, legendary and fearsome because of the natives, freezing weather in Papallacta, violent streams, mud without end, until Baeza, a group of houses poorly balanced on a hill.”

 Dave enojoying raising water on the Oyacachi.  We started with a nice medium low level, and the water slowly came up all day long leaving us with a stout medium by the take out.  Everyone paddled well and we had a super fun and splashy day!
Despite these hardships, people made the journey on a regular basis. While this shows a population engaging with its western counterpart via small amounts of trade, it also shows how thoroughly disconnected (at least in terms of twentieth century prevailing technologies) the region was from the commercial centers west of the Andes.   

 Re-Stocking the beer supply before the next wave of Pilsiner-guzzling paddlers show up!

Larry’s group, look for your blog coming next!  And more super exciting Ecuadorian history!

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