Our team just got back to La Paz after our first paddling mission of the trip—a first descent of the Zongo River. A team of UK kayakers completed the first descent of two sections of the Zongo during their trip to Bolivia a few years ago and absolutely raved about the quality of whitewater they found. The lush Zongo valley carves a path from the 22,000 ft Huayna Potosi mountain to the Amazon Jungle, and is directly across the Andes from the cities of La Paz and El Alto. We drove up and over the pass and dropped down into the valley, driving along the river and waiting for the gradient to ease and the flow to build to the point where we felt like it was time to put on and start paddling.
Driving downhill from the top of the pass was a gorgeous experience in itself. As we made the 10,000 ft descent into the valley, we gradually transitioned from cold, rugged alpine terrain to lush jungle. During the 15 km drive towards our eventual putin, we passed 10 different hydropower dams that diverted small amounts of flow to generate power for La Paz and El Alto. The projects utilized reservoirs only minimally, and we all agreed that this was probably the most responsible hydropower sequence that we had seen in our travels.
Our driver hadn’t been along on the previous mission to the Zongo, so we had no idea where the last crew had begun paddling. The river was way too steep and low volume for the first 10,000 ft of elevation drop from the top of the pass, but we finally found a section clean enough that we felt comfortable paddling. The crew suited up, scouted the first series of drops and began the trip downstream.
This section of the Zongo is fun, mostly read and run technical class V boulder gardens. It is continuous, clean and would certainly be considered ultra classic by anyone’s standards. An amazing find, for sure!
After a couple hours of picking our way down, we approached a section where the river began to gorge up. Having gotten on the river later than early, we decided to hike up and out to the road instead of committing to the gorge. That turned into an adventure of its own, as a road crew surprised us by dumping loads of debris down the very steep scree drainage we were climbing up. Fortunately, I was able to get their attention before they dropped too many bucket of large rocks down on us.
The next day, we gave it another go with more daylight and successfully completed the section down to the next dam. It was only another hour or two of paddling from the point where we hiked out the day before, but it contained several solid class V drops, so we were glad we had made the decision to hike out the day before and attack the last bit with the confidence plenty of daylight brings.
Now, we’re back in La Paz gearing up for the next phase of the project—the first descent of the Challana River, one drainage basin north of the Zongo. The Challana is roadless, very remote and should take us about 7 days to complete. More on that later though.