Team Bad Idea Taste South American Canyoning

… And it is bittersweet. As per the general case in South America, I’d spent many hours trying to research these canyons, but the only information is on the tour agencies’ webpages. Now I don’t blame them – they are looking to excitingly attract customers and it is not in their interest to provide all the technical information. From my perspective, it is difficult as they only have these tiny little blurbs that just tell me the canyon exists, but not any of the beta I need such as access, entry point, length of rappels, presence of anchors, exit strategy, etc… Sadly, way more effort goes into researching, accessing, and finding the canyons, then is actually spent in them, but hopefully this report will pave the way for future travelling canyoneers.

 

Baños, Ecuador

Baños is an awesome town! With a wide array of outdoor activities, it is the perfect place for the intrepid adventurer. Such activities include illegally climbing an active 4000 meter volcano, up to class IV river rafting, downhill mountain biking, bridge swinging, slippery basalt rock climbing, and of course canyoning. There are 3 equipped canyons near the town: Chamana, Rio Blanco, and Cashaurco.

First I did Chamana, as the closest easiest one. Going east from Baños (50 cent local bus), at the start of a village called Ulba, you will see a signed right turn saying “Chamana 2 km” with a tiled road leading steeply uphill. Eventually you come across a bit of a landing, and a bridge crossing a creek with ads for a hotel/restaurant. This is Chamana creek. At the end of the landing starts a trail into the bush. Follow it very briefly until you come to the creek and are able to cross it to the other side and pick up a different trail, which I believe started on the other side of the bridge, but is gated and locked. A few minutes up the trail and a short handline up the rocks and you are there. Now the creek comes from high above and you can see many more waterfalls, and rumour has it that it all has been descended and might even be bolted, but I did not find that out until later and had only confirmed this section of the creek.

DSC_0096Disclaimer: being the most accessible and introductory canyon in the area, it sees many groups a day, coming in two sets. To avoid the groups, I went quite late in the day, yet still encountered a bottle neck and waited on dry land. Once I made it into the water, there was only about 1.5 hours of daylight left and was in a rush. The following info comes from memory.

To start, all of the rappels are exceptionally well bolted with nice large rap rings. The first rappel is about 5-8 meters linking directly into a second one of a similar length. This is followed by a brief wade until you pass under the aforementioned bridge and encounter another rappel of near 10 meters. This can be slid on a rope with only minor damage to your tail-bone. Another brief wade takes you to the main rappel and the highlight of the venture. It is often advertised as a 40 m rappel, but the truth is it is just under 30 m, and thus a 60 m rope will suffice. The anchor is right above the abrupt edge with a potentially intimidating downscramble move to get to it seeing the flow and large drop. Now there is an extra anchor slightly higher to help you access the main one, but I found it not worth the rope faff.

This main fall was quite impressive. You could stand at bottom for a nice pounding massage. Now I was stoked to have completed my first solo canyon, but calling it a canyon would be quite a stretch. It was always open, with a trail exit at every point, and really just a short series of waterfalls, 2B I at most. A decent warm-up, but hopefully not the main event. An only trail leads through the bush and then a garden back to the tiled road.

My second canyon would be Rio Blanco. To get to it, once again take the 50 cent bus heading east out of Baños. There is a tunnel followed immediately by a bridge over the River and small village by the same name. Between the two is a road heading left and uphill. Follow it for a while until it cross the river itself. Shortly after is a nondescript parking area and a trail cutting across the field and into the bush. Now this place hard to find. I came in the morning and spent multiple hours busting it up and down the network of roads. The problem being that the main river is called Rio Blanco and that’s where I figured the canyon would be, just always higher up. As it is, the canyon is just a small tributary to Rio Blanco and that is how it derives its name. After much futile trundling, I returned back tot the hostel. Luckily I had a friend who had done the canyon with a tour group and had a photo of the parking lot in question. I then returned in the afternoon and found the correct location.

Follow the trail zigzagging uphill and left of the now apparent drainage for perhaps 15 minutes. You will come to a junction with the left fork going further uphill (which I of course thoroughly explored for another 30 minutes). Take the right one. After another 5 minutes, and now in the trees you will come across a creek. That is your entry point so suit up. On both occasions I’d used a 3/2 mm wetsuit, but found it mostly unnecessary.

Now I apologise as I have very little recollection of the canyon itself. This time it was a little more closed in with palm branches and vines hanging into the canyon. Certainly more impressive than Chamana, but as it appears still not overly memorable. This makes me as bad as all the others that have descended it without providing any accurate information thereafter. As I recall the first rappel is 6-7 m. This is soon followed by a 10 m one. Then a 20 m one – here as well I had to wait for a tour to finish up their business. Then possibly one more over a couple of short steps, but I may have just downclimbed it. Again, apologies for the lacklustre beta. But the important points are that every rappel is well bolted, has an easy comfortable start, and none requires more than a 60 m rope. I also observed that had the canyon not been bolted, natural anchors would be very hard to come by, as the rock was compact and featureless, and the vegetation just bush and trees no thicker than your average broom handle. I would probably classify it as 3B I. To exit, just follow the stream and then an obvious trail back to the parking in under 5 minutes.

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Having spent so much time looking for the last canyon, I needed to step up the sourcing of my information. I thus went into a tour agency and told them I was a canyoning guide. Suddenly, they spoke to me like a competent person. Usually the offices just have a worker who can’t tell you all that much pertinent info, so they called up on of their guides who I made good friends with, and even joined for a family dinner. We agreed to do Cashaurco, the third and most interesting of the canyons, together, but unfortunately every day we made plans for, he suddenly got called in for work. Being more serious than the other two, I didn’t really want to do it by myself, but as my partner kept falling through I thought I’d attempt anyway. Fortunately or not, I never managed to get a ride out of town, as the regular buses didn’t run that far, hitch hiking wasn’t working, and all buses further afield were full. As such, I decided my time in Baños was done, but I will fondly remember it!

 

Huaraz, Peru

Huaraz is an absolute mountaineering Mecca. Being right on the doorstep of the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash, the climbing opportunities are endless. Bar-none my favourite place in Peru. But let’s focus on the canyoning. There is one known canyon in the area and goes by the name Arzobispo. As always I’d spent some time researching it only to find a few useless blurbs and a couple of amateur videos. But luckily, heading out for a climb one day, I spotted from the corner of my eye a tour group rappelling then falls and thus knew where to go. I’d even managed to generate some interest for someone to join me, but our schedules never panned out, and it got put off and off. So much so, that I only did it the day before I left Huaraz.

To get to the canyon, take a collectivo (shared van) heading south to Recuay or Catac and ask to be dropped off at the Puente Arzobispo. This is also your exit point. Go about 100m along the road back towards Huaraz and you will see a trail heading uphill on the east side of the road. Follow the trail for roughly 15 minutes until it merges with a water canal. This is the official start of the descent, but of course I had to make sure that there was nothing further up. In terms of canyoning, there wasn’t. But this is a rare occasion where exploration pays off, as I found a number of abandoned mineshafts leaving right from the creek bed. One was flooded, one collapsed, one protected by a swarm of bats, and one leading nowhere. But there were more. With a jump suit and a partner there is definite potential for more exploration! To find these, just follow the water canal until it merges with the creek and begin your descent from there. Nothing was found further upstream except dense prickly bush.

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If you started with the mines, you will face a couple of moderate downscrambles, a pass under a massive chockstone, and one short nuissance rappel that I chose to bypass via the water canal. The first actual rappel is not in the main flow, but rather down the side on river-right off a tree, right where the trail joined the water canal. It is about 12 m and dry. Not wanting to waste rap-tat, I tried to go straight off the tree and of course got the rope stuck. This was easily solved by hiking back up and grabbing the rope. This when I noticed that there is a channel leaving the water canal blocked by a sandbag, that provides a bit of splashing for the rappel. I guess that’s what commercial canyoning is like.

DSC_1682Back into the canyon, you quickly come across the second rappel. Guided means equipped and so I expected, but only found two bolts with no hangers that were hammered bent up against the wall. I found this odd, but proceeded to sling a bunch off routes and made the abseil anyway. Again it was around 10-12 m. Checking for the anchor, again, there was only two bent bolts and a broken metal bar. I am not sure how they rig the rappel when they take clients down this. Searching around lead to no secure natural anchors. But at the lack of secure ones, inordinately sketchy ones can be used. In this case, that consisted of a bush in clump of dirt barely clinging on to the sidewall, and two rocks just laying next each other creating a pinch. Neither of them more than bodyweight, and one certainly lose. Be warned that there is no way out of this spot – you either rap down or jug back the rope you hopefully hadn’t pulled yet. Adding some rocks to the start to prevent a pinch, I made the third and last rappel a bit shorter than 20 m.

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DSC_1697From here you can just take a few steps back to the bridge and the road, or downscramble to the main river. I chose the latter but found but would not recommend it as it is filled with trash, which is sadly way to common a sight in South America. Then back up to the road and a collectivo to Huaraz. The canyon is 3A I as it is very short, mostly dry, yet has that one spot that you can’t escape. My wetsuit and shoes remained in the pack as I hardly got wet and didn’t have time to dry anything before my bus the next day. A nice half-day activity for a rest day between climbing.

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Coroico, Bolivia

This one pulled quite a number on me. Unfortunately information here is even more scarce. I knew the place was somewhere near Coroico, where the famous Death Road ended, so I thought I would make a trip of it. Just think about it – what an approach! The road itself is about 33 km along the side of a deep valley. Disappointingly, it is no longer that dangerous or deadly. It is well graded,  wide, and closed to traffic. I have been on many scarier roads. What made it the world’s deadliest is just the shear amount of traffic as it was the only road between La Paz and the jungle. With a brand spanking new road, the old Yungas road only sees mountain bikers. That said, the ride is incredibly pleasant, with stunning scenery, cliffs, waterfalls, and is 100% downhill.

DSC_2492Arriving in Coroico, I did some snooping around and found out that I needed to go to Santa Rosa del Vagante. What I didn’t find out is that refers to two different places. The next morning I set off on foot and walked 8 km of dirt track to El Vagante. This a popular swimming hole on a decent sized river at the bottom of a valley. They even tried to build a resort there that has since been abandoned. This seemed like a very logical end to a guided canyon. There appeared to be some neat looking drainages. Commence futile bushwacking.

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I thrashed it up one trail and came across a set of cascades that had no sign of human visit so decided that wasn’t it. Eventually I gave up on this trail as it hit another dirt road. Back down and up a different trail. Even bushier. Did I mention this was the pre-jungle? That means it is stupidly hot, humid, infested with human loving insects, and no vegetation comes without prickles and thorns. I kept going until it just made sense no more. And back down. There was an incredible looking canyon with a deep, but there was just no established way in, and I was not prepared to explore an undescended canyon by myself with no bolting kit. To come back one day…

All this whacking lasted about 4 hours. I was beaten, cut up, and demoralized. I didn’t find the canyon and all the misery was for nothing. So I made the walk back to town, now uphill, with the mid-day sun, and now no water. Once there, and after some more snooping, I found out that El Vagante also refers to a little community further up the road and is where the canyon starts. Armed with information, but no desire to repeat the dreadful experience all by myself, I returned to La Paz. After all misery likes company. With that, I thought the story had ended.

But my stubbornness knows no bounds. A couple of weeks later, with a climbing trip fallen through and no replacement lined up, I decided to return to Coroico and finish the job. I even managed to recruit an eager Israeli by the name of Mike Cohen. Nice guy, nice and unsuspecting. We made the journey out to Coroico, this time by public transport, and then to El Vagante, the first, by taxi. A 35 minute walk took us to the community El Vagante, the second. To find the canyon take the trail leaving from the main door of the church and immediately take a right. 10 minutes down the trail, take the left fork trending downhill and through some farms. Another 10 minutes later and you will come to a broken sign that says “Canyoning” and “Community”. Once upon a time it did in fact have arrows. Now not. Go left. and in 5 more minutes you come to a little gazebo and another “Canyoning” sign in a tree. A few more minutes down the trail and you are in the creek. Sounds easy right? Well that took about two hours to find out with us taking the wrong fork every time and following it to the end. You may have observed that you lost a lot of elevation, well, spoiler, the descent is very short. You would have seen advertisements for 8 waterfalls. Well later I found the topo in a flyer. Three of these falls are 2 m. I didn’t even consider them a downscramble.

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The truth is there are only three required rappels, all in sequence, right at the start. They are well bolted and have a metal safety line. The biners used a little large, so it is a bit tricky to set up a biner block, so we just wrapped on two strands. The first rap is 4-5 m, immediately followed by a 10 m one, which in turn is immediately followed by one last 8 m one. Again this should’ve all been easy, except that I’d lent, Mike my wetsuit, harness, and belay device. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, sporting an impromptu harness, and rappeling on a munter hitch. Pro tip: do NOT use a munter hitch for canyoning. Especially on two strands. Don’t rappel in canyons on two strands for that matter. The problem with the munter is that it severely twists the rope. And the water spins the strands together. That’s twisted^2. The only way to untwist this mess is to flake the rope on nice stationary ground. Stationary. Well after the second rappel we were in swift water in a deep slot with nothing stationary to be found. And the twist happened after I rigged the last rap. Luckily I had the sense to pull the rope up and check to find that it had literally collapsed on itself. Many flakes and rat nests later, with a point of 5 different coils hanging on Mike’s various body parts, we’d untangled the rope and made the abseil.

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DSC_2734The rest of the canyon was simple downscrambling, with one moderate section down a large lag, and another down a bunch of loose branches and debris. This spat us out, sooner than expected, to the Santa Rosa, or El Vagante river, or whatever its true name is. Admittedly a scenic place to end a canyoning descent with gorgeous waters and jungle-type plants. I give the canyon 3B I. We followed the river downstream and with some difficulty found the faint trail leading back up the opposite side of the valley to a hairpin turn on the road we’d driven in the morning. There are sadly no distinguishing characteristics to this trail. It is at the end of a patch of walk-able river bank on river-left and about 150 m before the another popular swimming hole at the confluence with Rio Negro, which by the way is exceptional.

DSC_2738The walk back was uneventful, but punctuated by good conversation and fireflies. The town greeted us with Coroico’s 203 anniversary and an upbeat fiesta. On a Sunday mind you and it last all night and all of the next day. Highlighted by a distant lightning storm. What a way to cap off an excellent adventure!

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One thought on “Team Bad Idea Taste South American Canyoning

  1. Pingback: Bolivia for Adrenaline Junkies: 12 Thrilling Adventures to Conquer

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