Ecuador’s most iconic waterfall is gone forever, geologists say.
The 150-meter high Cascada San Rafael in the Cayambe Coca National Park went from a torrent to a trickle Sunday after a massive sinkhole swallowed its source, the Coca River. The collapse formed three smaller waterfalls that are not visible from the viewing stations around the original falls.
Ecuador’s Emergency Operations office and Environmental Ministry are forbidding entry into the area around San Rafael, saying that further collapses of rock formations are possible. “We don’t yet understand the process that is occurring at San Rafael except that there has been a deformation that has diverted the flow of the river,” a spokesman for the environmental ministry said Wednesday. “A research team will be in the area on Friday and we will know more then.”
In addition to the collapse of the riverbed behind San Rafael, large rock formations fell into the basin below the original falls on Sunday.
Most of what is known about the collapse so far comes from drone overflights, which show the river falling into a large crevasse behind San Rafael. According to video observations, it is believed that the river flows underground before returning to its original channel downstream.
The Tourism Ministry has told tour guides that all visits to the falls must be cancelled until further notice. In response to suggestions by several tour companies that the government reconstruct the riverbed to restore San Rafael, a spokeswoman said that that is not possible. “Unfortunately, Cascada San Rafael is now part of history and will not return. We will inform agencies and guides if new arrangements can be made to view the new cascades but this will take some time.”
An estimated 30,000 tourists visited San Rafael in 2019.
The San Rafael waterfall is located in the transition zone between the Andes mountains and the Amazon basin, on the border of Napo and Sucumbíos provinces. The area is part of the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve that includes some of Ecuador’s greatest flora and fauna diversity. Biologists will be on the team that visit the area Friday.