Updated June 17th, 2019.
The city of Tena is a place which tends to lure backpackers for one reason and one reason only: whitewater sports! The spectacular jungle rivers offer not only amazing views but also the chance to spot rare and colourful wildlife – if you can spare the time to look for them! As well as whitewater rafting, perhaps the most popular of the Ecuadorian water sports is kayaking and in Tena, everyone is into it. Well, you know what they say, when in Ecuador…
Kayaking trips – How do I choose?
There is certainly no shortage of tour operators in Tena and they will be falling over each other to sell you a kayaking trip. Variety is great but it makes it a whole lot harder to decide which company to choose. Trips vary hugely in budget, which is obviously a consideration, especially for backpackers.
One thing you should do is resist the urge to pick the cheapest option. All things considered, any sport on whitewater can be dangerous and you are putting your life in the hands of your chosen tour company.
Saving a few bucks always feels good at the time but you’d probably wished you paid a little more if you come back with a broken arm. With that in mind, here are my recommendations for choosing a good kayaking company.
- Check whether the instructors are certified
- Make sure you know whether the gear hire cost is included
- Look for operators who cater to all abilities
- Always check whether they include food (you’re doing a sport and you will get hungry)!
Whilst I was searching for a kayaking trip with my boyfriend Tim, we stumbled on the company Kayak Ecuador who ticked all of my ‘must-have’ boxes and came complete with amazing reviews. The company was founded by Ecuadorian and traveller, Santiago, who has guided kayak tours all over South America and only employs certified guides.
With Kayak Ecuador’s emphasis on safety and experience, I was keen to see what they could teach a beginner like me! We arranged the whitewater kayak full day trip.
From the outset, Kayak Ecuador were great communicators who did everything to keep both me and Tim informed about the structure of the day and what to expect. They let us know in advance what time they would pick us up from our accommodation and sent us literature regarding the tour and its itinerary. Any questions that I had regarding the logistics of the pick up were dealt with quickly and efficiently via email.
What to bring on your whitewater kayak trip?
- Bathing suit
- Change of clothes
- Bottle of water
- Closed-toe shoes – these must not come off easily and will get wet!
- Insect repellent
- A dry bag
- Phone/camera for photographs
What gear is provided?
- Life jacket
Our experience whitewater kayaking in Tena, Ecuador
Gear selection and safety
We were picked up promptly by our driver and guide for the day, Philip. He was friendly and welcoming, not to mention hugely experienced so I immediately felt reassured about our choice of company.
From our accommodation, we travelled to the Kayak Ecuador warehouse, where we were assigned our equipment. Kayaks, helmets and life jackets were all sized up and given to us by Philip. We were also provided with a kayak skirt which goes around you and over the hole in the boat to prevent excess water from getting in. I had no idea these even existed!
After we had been allocated our equipment, Philip sat and went through the purpose of each piece of equipment and covered the safety information. Having had a hair-raising experience with kayaking as a child, I was dubious about getting back on the water. This is why I had been so focused on choosing a company who promoted a safe environment from which to learn. Having listened to the safety talk by Philip and knowing that all of the kayaking guides are members of the American Canoe Association (ACA), I was feeling confident about the day and eager to get on the water.
We had explained to Philip that whilst we had some experience kayaking on lakes (and going round in circles mainly) that neither of us had ever kayaked on whitewater before. With this in mind, he selected a Class II river for us to learn on.
Class II – This is the best river type for beginners. It is easy to avoid formations but there is also some movement within the river from which to learn.
Class III – These rivers are well suited to those at an intermediate level who have experience in whitewater kayaking. Formations in these rivers can easily turn a kayak and therefore, Kayak Ecuador stipulate that the skimo roll is necessary to run these.
Class IV – Suitable for advanced level kayakers, you will need a lot of experience to run this river class safely. As these rivers can be dangerous, Kayak Ecuador require a skills demonstration to ensure that kayakers have complete control over their boat.
A swim in the river
To start with, Philip insisted that both Tim and I have a go at swimming in the lake. This wasn’t just to cool us down though, it is imperative to establish that kayakers can swim in the heavy gear that they are wearing.
Feeling fresh and back on the shore, we pulled our boats in and got started. Building on the safety talk from earlier, we practised getting in and out of the kayak in case we capsized. This helped to build our confidence under the water and made sure that we had practice escaping just in case. Once our kayak escape had been perfected, we moved onto the basic movements.
Trying to balance the kayak was a challenge but with some patient and good-humoured instruction from Philip, Tim and I were soon paddling around the river in an only slightly wonky line. After we had mastered going forward, we tackled the paddle movement to send us backwards, before learning how to turn on the spot.
Before we knew it, hours had passed and it was time for lunch. We walked over to the shaded part of the beach and sat down with Philip. We enjoyed a couple of warm empanadas and some only slightly melted chocolate for dessert. As we sat filling our faces, we talked to Philip about his history learning to kayak.
As Philip spoke about learning to navigate Ecuador’s rivers and his passion for sports more generally, it was very apparent that this is a man who is at his happiest on the water. When I asked him about why he was working for Kayak Ecuador instead of another tour company, he reiterated their emphasis on river safety and explained that sadly, there are lots of tour operators around Ecuador that don’t take this seriously.
Practice is over
Feeling very content from our delicious lunch, we headed back over to our canoes for a jaunt on the river. After a quick refresh session on the morning’s teachings, Philip informed us that it was time to run the river. As a class II, none of the rapids would be particularly powerful and we could easily choose to paddle around them if we didn’t have the confidence to cross. We approached slightly spaced out but still in a group and headed towards the first inklings of a wave.
After a morning of practising and with a full belly, I was raring to go and sailed over the first rapid, shortly after Tim. This turned out to be the first of many and before long, we were laughing and whooping as we paddled down the river. My kayaking wasn’t quite up to scratch with Tim’s and I ended up crashing into Philip on numerous occasions but despite my embarrassment, he just laughed it off and before long it had become a running joke.
Whitewater kayaking – The verdict!
Despite all of my reservations about kayaking, both Tim and I had enormous amounts of fun on the river with Philip. Without a doubt, a massive plus about learning to kayak in Tena is the beautiful rainforest landscape.
As this river was suitable for beginners, we had lots of time to marvel at the environment around us. Philip was great at pointing out interesting wildlife and making the experience all-encompassing which was an added bonus we hadn’t expected!
Even though I was a beginner, I felt completely relaxed the whole time I was on and in the water. The emphasis on safety and the fact that our guide was certified, was a huge weight off my mind and made me enjoy the experience much more than I would’ve if safety wasn’t prioritised. Having completed the course without capsizing, I definitely felt accomplished in my achievements from the day!
From the inception of our tour right through to leaving the river, I cannot recommend Kayak Ecuador highly enough. Philip was charismatic, patient and knowledgeable about the sport. Despite both mine and Tim’s skill shortcomings, he managed to make us both feel confident in our ability and succeeded in making the entire experience not just safe but fun.
This was one of two experiences that Tim and I did with Kayak Ecuador during our time in Tena and both experiences were delivered professionally by hugely enthusiastic guides. Whilst Kayak Ecuador is not the cheapest option for whitewater kayak lessons in Tena, it is surely the best!