Sunday, November 28, 2010

A little history behind Cabanas Tres Rios and the begginings of Borja as one of Ecuador's "kayaking meccas"

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."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

fiestas of borja

Kayak Ecuador during the Virgin of Quinche Feistas!

November 21st is always an interesting time to be in Borja--our local community and home base of Small World Adventure's riverside lodge for the past 13 years. This day marks the celebration of the Virgin of Quinche--an interesting figure in both Indigenous and Catholic Ecuadorian faith. The Virgin of Quinche was carved from wood in the 16th century by famed artist Don Diego Robles. While the original virgin does not live in Borja, her likeness has been recreated here and is the centerpiece for one of the bigger parties of the year in our little town.

Steve, while not checking out the Virgin, was ripping it up on Ecuador's Rivers.

While the Virgin is a Catholic figure, she is rumored to have appeared to the "Oyacachi" Indigenous people of Ecuador in a cave they were hiding out in and had promised to save them from a dangerous bear who had eaten many of their children. These Indigenous people took care of Don Diego's statue of the Virgin for 15 years until the presiding Bishop ordered it moved to the village of Quinche in 1604 during which time it acquired it's current name.

Katherine enjoying some of Ecuador's excellent Geology

Because of the darker color of the Virgin of Quinche's face, many people believe she herself is Mestizo--blending of the Inca and Spanish heritage. For this reason she is one of few common bonds between today's Ecuadorian and Indigenous people.

Dave digging in on the Rio Quijos

The Virgin must go through a long walking procession each November (in our valley it's about a 20 -mile walk). But with lots of walking comes lots of celebrating too! On November 21st the sleepy little town of Borja comes alive with music, dancing, fireworks, and lots of carnival-esque games. Our favorite game was one involving Ecuador's favorite food--The Cuy (see previous blog).
Check out the video below where Steve wins big money playing the "where will the Guinea Pig run game"

Steve's big win!

The Gang after a successful run through El Torro. Left to right (Chris, Katherine, Steve, Dave, Larry).

So, bringing us up to date with the Virgin of Quinche...the statue was officially crowned in 1943, and this is when the national holiday was created. And, in 1985 the shrine was a National Sanctuary of Ecuador.

Kim styling the line at "Corner Pocket"

Thanks for a great week Steve, Steve, Katherine, Kim, Dave and Chris!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Aspen Whitewater+Ecuador+Reggaeton=1 rad vacation!

Reaping the rewards of a jungle portage. The 'gang' dropping into Land of the Giants

A crew from Aspen Whitewater Rafting was in Ecuador last week to test their mettle against the mighty rivers of the Amazon Basin. What did they find? Huge rapids, exciting jungle downpours, monkeys, flaming shots in the bar, and a thorough immersion in the realm of Reggaeton!

We had 2 kayakers and 7 rafters, and stuck with a very strict "rafting/kayaking boot camp schedule." No rest for the weary on this trip--they told us they wanted to see as many of the rivers as possible and as much of the culture as possible so we worked around the clock to show them a good time.

There was so much listening to and talking about Raggaeton this week that I thought it would be a fitting blog topic. So, enjoy a little history of Reggaeton interspersed with some nice Ecua-photos.

And, because this group took SOOO many photos (over 3,000 altogether I believe it was), and because some of the photos are really great, I will do a more thorough trip report in a few days.

We had 2 DJ's in the group and there was much debate about the origins of Reggaeton and how it's more like "house music" and less like Raggae, so what's up with the name?

Jenny making new friends

Well boys and girls, here's what I found out:

Raggaeton is defined as a form of dance music popularized by Latin American youth during the early 1990s. It is a blend of the Jamaican influences of Raggae and "dancehall" with Latin influences of "bomba" and "plena" with a little bit of North American "hip hop" thrown in. This is where the beat comes from and then there is typically rap lyrics to accompany this beat (most commonly they are rapping in Spanish).

Just a little background on some of the words that I didn't know prior to this research...
Bomba was created on Puerto Rico's sugar plantations by African slaves--it is the most purely African music genre in Puerto Rico and dates back to the 1680s. Drums are the feature instrument of the Bomba beat. Plena is an important type of folk music in Puerto Rico. It is traditionally a narrative type of song commenting on the lives of the Puerto Ricans. Like Bomba, it has it's roots in African music and dance and was popularized by slaves working on sugar plantations.
The girls stoked to NOT be camping out on the Lower Mis, and even more Stoked to find that there was a rum store right at the take out!

There is fierce debate among Latin Raggaeton affecionados about whether the music originated in Panama or Puerto Rico. It seems at this time that Panama is winning the argument as the Jamaican influence has been strong in Panama since the early 20th Century because Jamaican laborers were used during construction of the Panama Canal. In addition to this, the first "official" Latin American Raggae recordings were made in Panama in the early 1970s. After these recording in the 1970's the Jamaican-influenced Panamanian raggae got diluted with more dance/hip hop music and eventually morphed into what we think of as Raggaeton today. So, although Raggaeton doesn't sound much at all like Raggae today, there apparently was a strong Jamaican/Raggae influence in it's beginnings.

Darcy, Katherine, and Shannan rocking El Torro Rapid on the Rio Quijos

Raggaeton expert, Hip Hop Republican says that, "Artists such as El General, Chicho Man, Nando Boom, Renato, and Black Apache are considered the first raggamuffin deejays from Panama." I'm not sure what a "raggamuffin deejay" is, but maybe this will make sense to someone out there...?

Then, in the early 1990s, the Jamaican artist Shabba Ranks developed the beat "Dem Bow," which became the background beat for the Raggaeton we know and love today.

While Panama and Jamaica are mostly credited for developing the sound of modern Raggaeton, the actual term "Raggaeton" was reportedly coined in Puerto Rico to name the mixing of the various genres into the dance beat it had become (this, plus the fact that both the Plena and Bomba roots come from Puerto Rico make me think the scale should be tipped a little bit more in P.R.'s favor and the proud creator of Raggaeton, but what do I know).

Some Raggaeton lovers boozing on Small World's porch

Well, that's probably more than you ever wanted to know about Raggaeton, so why don't you kick back and enjoy some of this sweet music now (parental advisory warning--as in all "true" raggaeton videos, there are scantily clad women in this video):

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Cuy--AKA Guinea Pigs.

(Atsuko in Lower El Chaco Canyon)

Atsuko from Japan helped us get our season started last week. This was Atsuko’s 4th visit to Ecuador with SWA! Atsuko is somewhat of a food connoisseur and enjoys exploring different traditional foods in the places she travels. So, this go around, she decided to dive in and sample one of Ecuador’s most famous (or notorious) foods—the Cuy (known to us gringos as Guinea pig). Now, now, before you get all “oohh, gross, they eat Guinea Pig!” just stop and think for a moment that raising guinea pigs for food is no different than raising chickens, pigs, fish and all the other animals that we like to eat. The guinea pigs feed on grass and leftover household food—no antibiotics and all the other crap that we pump into our food animals in North America. So, eat a guinea pig, it’s good for your health!

(Larry and Atsuko below "Pleasure or Pain" on the Rio Quijos)

So, we'll have a little history of the Guinea Pig here.

It all started long, long ago around 5,000 BC when archeologists believe Guinea Pigs were first domesticated in S. America (they’ve found evidence of guinea pig keeping in present-day Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador but many scholars believe the first domestication happened in the Ecuadorian Andes). They were domesticated from the wild Cavy, and were transformed into the animal we know today.

Even today Guinea pigs play an important role in South America. Besides being a source of food (and somewhat of a delicacy at that—a plate of guinea pig ain’t cheap), guinea pigs have a long historical significance in the Andes. The Incas used them in religious ceremonies, and to diagnose illnesses. They did this by rubbing the Guinea pig over the affected person and “reading” the results. This technique is still practiced in some parts of South America. Guinea pigs are also traded as prestigious gifts.

South America helped put Guinea pigs on the map as coveted pets in Europe and North America. Spanish, Dutch, and English travelers who reached S. America brought the animals home with them were they were prized “exotic pets.” The first European writings about Guinea pigs happened in the mid 1500’s. 500 years later, us North Americans still love to have Fluffy, Puffy, and Spotty running around in our houses as cute little pets.

(Guinea Pig on a stick anyone? Local market near Cuenca, Ecuador)