By Jesse Coombs

Copyright © 2006, Oregon Kayaking and Jesse Coombs. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking webmaster and Jesse Coombs.
Many of the photos on the Brazil section of this page were shot by Ben Zupo. Check out more of Ben's paddling photos at:

This and all of our other South American kayaking adventures will be featured in the upcoming film: Hotel Charley: No Big Names 4, which debuts in the U.S. in April 2006 ( you can view the trailer for Hotel Charlie here ).

After the Rio Buey, Ben and I hooked back up with Mauricio in Medellin and had some good times on his local favorites. I must admit that running the warm water rivers of Colombia is a great experience for someone from the Pacific Northwest. I am usually wearing a drysuit when I paddle at home!

Jesse enjoying some warm-water paddling on the Upper San Juan
Photo by Mauricio Arredondo

On Sunday we ran the upper San Juan with Mauricio. One of the bigger rapids was a class four stomper with a huge hole across the entire river named 'El Feo'. Mauricio said that no one had ever run El Feo at the current level, but it looked good to Ben and I so we gave it go. El Feo is a classic big-water rapid, very fun stuff!

We spent that night at Kiki's farm and I unfortunately got very sick on some water in the juice. I spent the evening sweating and doing laps in the bathroom..

The next morning Ben and I decided to attempt the first no-portage descent of the class V San Juan Canyon at 2' on the gauge. I was still feeling quite sick from drinking bad water, but I figured I would be good to go once I got on the river.

Ben and I get ready at the put in for San Juan Canyon
Photo by Mauricio Arredondo

After entering the main canyon we arrived at a large rapid that had never been run, and I decided to run it ( this is the brownwater rapid where I get a big stern squirt in the Hotel Charley trailer ). I had a clean line and we continued downstream, but every time I finished a rapid or scouted a drop I would have to sit down for a minute or so and catch my breath because the food poisoning was tearing me up.

I underestimated how weak I had become during my illness, and I ultimately paid the price. Several rapids into the second section I made the mental mistake of trying to catch a surging micro eddy above the lip of a class five boulder garden which had also never been run.

I managed to grab the rock but I was feeling very dizzy from my illness and I lost my balance as I crawled out of the boat. When I slipped the boat tilted and started filling with water as the river pulled it downstream. I immediately jumped in the water and tried to brace on some rocks to pull the boat back, but the boat was now full of water and there was no way I could save it.

Unfortunately by the time I realized the boat was gone I was in deep water and I was swept downstream, into the rapid that no one had ever run!

So, over the horizon line I went, making my second first descent of the day of a large class V drop, except I was six feet underwater most of the time so I don't remember the rapid that much. Luckily the San Juan is a large volume river so I got lots of down time but no real hits on rocks. By the time I surfaced in the pool below I was wishing I would've just stayed in my boat and run the rapid from the beginning!

Ben catches an eddy in one of the long rapids in San Juan Canyon

Ben portaged the rapid I swam ( so, it has STILL never been run, unless you count me swimming it.. ) and then paid me the compliment of saying I swam the rapid well, being an active participant in negotiating the current as much as possible. With that, Ben headed off down the river in search of my boat, which had disappeared around the corner.

I now had the responsibility or crossing the river to recover my paddle and hike up and out of the river. My options for crossing the river were VERY limited and my low energy level made this task especially unnerving. The river was about a hundred feet across and I considered swimming across above the rapid I just swam, but considering the current and my condition and the thought of swimming the same class five boulder garden AGAIN and ending up back on river right to do it all over again was more than I could stand.

So, in spite of my exhaustion I hiked up river in search of better options, and I soon arrived at what seemed to be a better spot. It was much wider but it looked like I would have the opportunity to catch a large eddy about one third of the way across and use that to swim back upstream a bit until I headed back into the main current for the final crossing.

I turned my skirt around so that it would be in the back and not catch water between my legs. I also tucked my pants and shirts in a little tighter and then did my best to size up the best way to get to safety. After giving myself plenty of time to catch my breath I dove as hard as I could and swam strongly for the big eddy in the middle. It was tough going, but I was able to catch the eddy about two thirds down and ride it back up a little bit.

This was more tiring than I hoped and I knew I needed to get across before I ran out of energy. I turned and swam into the main current and worked as hard as I could with my body at a slight angle to the water so it would help ferry me across to the far bank. The good news about the section I picked for crossing was that if I did not make my intended eddy on the far side I still had a section of class three water I could negotiate before dropping into the class five boulder garden I had already swam.

I was swimming as hard as I could and trying to keep good form, but I could see the eddy I wanted slipping away. I dug deep and pulled harder and was able to catch the very end of the eddy on the far side right above the class three drop. I drug myself up on the shore and rolled onto my back panting for what felt like ten minutes..

I left my paddle and hiked up to the road and down the river looking for my boat. Luckily Mauricio (who was waiting downstream ) had become concerned and started driving upstream. As he drove he saw a guy on a bicycle carrying my boat. Turns out the boat went for a long ride and this guy recovered it in some slack water down river. Everything that wasn't securely tied into the boat and a few things that were got ripped out of the boat during its violent journey down river full of water and without a pilot. He recovered the boat and headed upstream and ran into me hiking downstream..

The stern was badly dented in and the bow had a huge six-inch gash. Luckily the Pelican case kept my video camera dry and in the boat, but in the missing category were two carabiners, a prussik, two pulleys and a nice four piece break down paddle.

Ben finished the run and he took out at the Colombian police checkpoint. We got a nice picture of us with the military and one of the soldiers asked Ben for some Duct tape ( Duct tape is a hot commodity in South America and would be a great item to bring as a gift in exchange for help ).

Mauricio, Jesse, and Ben pose with some members of the Colombian army, who are always out in force because of the FARC Guerillas.

On Tuesday we took Camillo's Gradient to a local Medellin plastic factory where Mauricio knows the owner and they fixed the boat. It is very difficult to get kayaks in Colombia, so the next time I fly down to paddle I plan on leaving my boat with Camillo when I depart.

I spent the next couple of days traveling to Brazil while Ben traveled to Bogota to try and get his visa to enter Brazil. Ben had tried repeatedly to get his visa, but had run into problems every time..

After finally obtaining his visa, Ben hopped a bus headed back to Medellin, but his travel woes were far from over..

Halfway to Medellin Ben's bus ended up getting stopped by a roadblock because it was too late to travel safely through some of the areas where the Guerillas were causing problems. To make matters worse, the girl behind Ben threw up all over the back of his seat, and Ben was forced to suffer through a long sermon by a woman who was inspired after she saw a trinket he bought earlier in the trip..

Meanwhile, I had arrived in Brazil after minor difficulties and hooked up with the paddlers who were waiting to join us for the second leg of the trip. So I was having a great time wandering around looking for rivers to run, blissfully unaware of Ben's plight.

I had hooked up with Mac, Californian Ryan MacPherson, his girlfriend Sabrina, and Ben Zupo, who was a local kayaker/photographer. We hired a jeep and a local climber named Filipe to drive it and we headed off into the jungle looking for water. The first thing I noticed was that Filipe was a great guy but he seemed to smoke an awful lot of weed, which was not necessarily an optimal state for a someone to be in while trying to navigate narrow mountain roads, as we would learn later..

We get the jeep fully loaded, and one of the tires immediately went flat..
Not a very auspicious start to our first scouting trip in Brazil!

We had seen a waterfall on the internet and spoken with locals and hoped that the lower Rio Preto and its tourist escohega (Portuguese for waterfall) would be runnable. We arrived in a tourist town about 10 p.m. and decided to drive up a nearby mountain road in search of a suitable and cost effective Posada (cabin).

As Sabrina, Ben and I dozed in the back seat, Mac was guiding us to a Posada he had heard about and Felipe was supposed to be driving. I say supposed to be, because what he ended up doing was not exactly 'driving'. The dirt road had narrowed at this point and had a layer of mud on top due to recent rain. On the left was the side of the mountain, and on the right was a fifty-foot cliff.

Suddenly a motorcycle rounded the corner, and Felipe in his weed-induced stupor cranked the wheel to the right, and both wheels of the jeep went over the edge of the cliff!

The heavily top-loaded jeep lurched alarmingly towards the abyss, and we were all jolted awake as chaos erupted inside the jeep. Ben Zupo must have a fair amount of raft experience because he immediately high-sided across the back, scrambling over Sabrina and half into my lap.

Then the jeep shifted again and we all froze..

For a long moment, the jeep teetered as we held our breath. The only sound was a creaking of the undercarriage as the wind whistled overhead and the black jungle waited expectantly below us.

After a second or two I decided to crawl out of the tiny back window, and this galvanized Felipe and Mac, who scrambled madly out the drivers side door, followed by the others. After we exited we immediately hung on to the sides of the jeep to keep it from falling down the cliff. After a few moments it stopped rocking and we let go. Unbelievably it just teetered there, rocking back and forth in the wind, perfectly balanced!

Everyone was badly shaken. I had never been so scared kayaking and was literally shaking once clear of the jeep. We surveyed the situation and could not believe how close we had come to death.

We weighed our options and decided Ben and I should stay with the truck to ensure no one stole our gear while Mac, Sabrina and Felipe would go for help. Mac was able to find the local Posada owner, Manuel, and he could not believe his eyes when he saw the jeep. He had a friend, Juan, with a large truck and when he called him the conversation went something like this:

Manuel: "Hello Juan, this is Manuel. Some stupid gringos almost drove their truck off a cliff. I need your truck to pull it out."

Juan: "Ahhh, man, it's late. I'll come up tomorrow afternoon.."

Manuel: "No no no, it may not BE there in the morning."

Juan: "Ok, ok, I'll bring the truck."

Manuel: "Ummm… we are going to need the BIG truck?"

Juan: "The big truck? It must be bad.."

A very close call!
Our heavily loaded jeep teeters on the edge of a 50-foot cliff with both tires off the ground...

Sure enough, Juan shows up with a huge flat bed diesel truck that looked like it could carry about ten tons of produce and at the moment had half a load. All along I was thinking that a normal tow truck had as much chance of getting pulled over the cliff as it did of rescuing our jeep, but as soon as I saw Juan's BIG truck I knew we were in business!

Once he had pulled the jeep back from the brink we all breathed a big sigh of relief. Manuel showed us to the Pousada and we were quite relieved to be in a comfortable bed after such an eventful evening.

Our first stop the next morning was the Rio Preto, a popular tourist swimming hole with lots of bedrock. We were hoping something would be runnable above the park, so we hiked for about thirty minutes up the road and then cut toward the river. After about fifteen minutes we came to a tributary, then after about another fifteen minutes of following the tributary we came to the Rio Preto. To our dismay the water was just too low to consider, so we jumped in the river and swam down some of the slides, which was really fun!

The author slides down a drop on the Rio Preto, which was too low to kayak, but not too low for a little bodyaking..
photo by Ben Zupo

The next morning we noticed that the rack on the jeep had broken, so we headed off into a local mountain village in search of a mechanic to fix it.

The small mountain village near the Rio Preto where we went looking for someone to fix our roof-rack.
photo by Ben Zupo

Finally we found the local mechanic, which was clearly the home of a couple bachelors which had more grease on it than paint. One of the mechanics found some old bicycle parts to use for welding metal. He grabbed his ARC welder, clipped it into an exposed wire and started welding.

He held a piece of dark glass ( which looked like it had come from a welding mask ) with one hand while he welded with the other.. Truly a backyard shop. All of that aside, he took his time did quite an excellent job fixing the rack and it held up beautifully when he was finished.

While the mechanic was working on our rack, I wandered around the village and shot some photos.
The scenery was simply breathtaking..

Mac, Ben Zupo and I salvaged the rest of the day running about a mile of the Pocao Bo Pu Maromba. Not much in the way of monumental river running, but at least it was nice to be on the water.

The author takes a siesta. It was too hot to sleep inside the house, so we dragged our mattresses outside and racked out..
photo by Ben Zupo

The next day we picked up Ben Stookesberry in the town of Itatia. On the way back we stopped at the cascades of the lower Rio Campo Bello and went for a swim to relax from our travels.

We hoped to do the first and only descent on the Campo Bello in Itatia National Park, but access to the river is strictly regulated by park officials for safety reasons.

Luckily for us the park management knew our driver Felipe ( he works in the park as a rock climbing guide ) and with this contact Mac was able to come up with a plan for us to run the river that met their approval.

After some negotiation, the park management agreed that our group would kayak the river as a 'recreation study', and from this they would decide future use. It has never been kayaked before, and will likely never be kayaked again, as we found out after we completed our exhilarating descent of this short but incredibly steep river..

Coming next week: Our Campo Bello adventure!