Kayakers Guide to Whitewater of Peru

Paucartambo

Flowing off the Northern flank of the sacred Nevado Auzangate 6372 meters (21,076 feet) is the Rio Paucartambo (also called Mapacho). After meandering through 80 + km of relative flatwater the river passes through the colonial town of Paucartambo at 3000 meters of elevation. From here begins one of Peru’s premier whitewater kayak trips and it is a 230 KM descent to the confluence with the Rio Urrubamba at 450 meters above sea level. Each and every day has outstanding stretches of whitewater and the number of class 3-5 rapids is intoxicating.

The obvious put in for the river is in the town of Paucartambo but a delay is worthwhile to see the sunrise 45 km away at Las Cruces. Las Cruces is the gateway to the jungle and the national park of Manu. During the months of June-July the spectacular sunrise is optically distorted presenting halos and multiple images as one looks onto the expanse of jungle 12,000 feet below.

Cobble stone streets, wide balconies, and an original stone bridge add to the character of the town of Paucartambo. Each year on and around July 16 the town comes alive with dancing and incredible costumes for the fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen. To get there it is best to begin in Cuzco and hire a driver for the five-hour journey. Our group of five people with boats and all gear cost $ 90 USD. The price included the driver, fuel, and the mini van, which came with good tires and a good roof rack. Public transportation is also available and is cheaper.

Few groups have actually run the Paucartambo River. I believe there have only been five complete trips including the first descent in 1983 as well as one additional trip that resulted in a bail out due to high water. In late October of 2000 Dunbar Hardy and a fellow kayaker ran the river in 5 days. This blistering pace is an incredible feat but for most a more relaxing pace would be 8 days minimum. On June 24, 2004 Gian Marco Velutino, Brent Heitzenroder, John Weld and Jess Hartmann joined me for what turned out to be 7 full days of kayaking with an additional few days to get back to Cuzco.

Local people told us that the river slowly drops from its high flows in Jan-Feb to reach an eventual low point in late October. The rainy season begins in early November and the river starts to rapidly rise. The time to boat the river is therefore late April to the end of October. July and August are the coldest months. On our trip we estimated the flow of the river to be 750 CFS at the put-in (May 24) and 3500 CFS just before reaching the Urubamba. We had two nights with rain so a tent is highly advisable. I would also suggest a stove since the firewood found along the upper parts of the river does not burn well. To follow progress along the river a GPS is helpful in addition to topo maps. Bugs were no problem. The days are relatively short with sunrise around 7:00 AM and sunset around 5:30 PM. It may take several additional hours for sunlight to reach campsites in the morning and, depending on the direction the river is traveling, the sun may set behind the canyon walls as early as 3:00 PM leaving the afternoon in shadows.

A day-by-day summary of the May 2004 trip is as follows:

May 24 put in

The river starts out at 3000 meters as a fast flowing small River with a glacial gray color and a comfortable temperature. After 30 KM of mostly class 3-4 rapids, we found our first camp below the swinging footbridge of Chacllamba at 2640 meters. Average gradient throughout this 30 KM stretch was 12m/km or 60 FPM. The valley at this point is populated with a dirt road paralleling the river. Fields of potatoes, Quinoa, corn and planted Eucalyptus stands are visible along the sides of the canyon.

May 25 Day 2

Right after camp the river enters a continuous class 4 stretch with the first class five rapid. Halfway through the day Puente Chimor is reached which is the last bail out point before entering the Orange Canyon. The river is relaxed as it passes through the vertical walls under Puente Chimor but it soon picks up steam. The distinct orange color of the large granite boulders is very unusual. In this stretch we had one short portage and another 20’ seal launch around a boulder choked rapid that is difficult to scout and unfeasible to portage. In this stretch we saw the full fury of the river. The skies opened with a blistering siege of rain that quickly turned to hail. Thunder echoed through the canyon and lightning illuminated the darkened skies. The river level rose quickly and turned a foreboding dark brown. Somewhere in the heart of the canyon I chose to run a 3 meter falls in the center of the river. My boof stroke with a 90 lb Freefall failed miserably and I got beat down and swam at the base of the falls. The others wisely ran an alternative line and rescued my boat and paddle. The swim, although not long, hammered me really good and totally soaked all the gear in my supposedly “drybags”. The soaked gear inside my boat now turned the weight to 150 lbs and it was almost impossible to paddle. I needed to find a camp quickly but we were unable to find a suitable place in the steep walled canyon. We had to push on and it was nearly dark when we found a meager camp on a steep hillside above the river. To make space for a tent one had to bash down the vegetation. Gian Marco wanted a light boat so he came on the trip without a tent. His hovel for this rainy night turned out to be under a large boulder. Day 2 summary was 29 KM with finish at 2225 meters or 14.5 m/km average (72.5 FPM).

May 26 day 3

After 2 hours of boating and three mini portages we were out of the orange canyon and had reached Puente Sahuay. At this point a seldom-used dirt road terminates above the bridge on river left and serves as a possible bailout or re-supply point. It is approximately 20 KM from this bridge via the road to cross over the several thousand-meter pass and to descend into the more heavily traveled Yanitile River Valley to the West. We camped early at 2:30 after boating through relatively open class 4+ boulder strewn rapids. We were camped on the first really nice beach of the trip. The vegetation was starting to change and at 1900 meters the canyon walls were turning much greener. Above our camp were fields of Coffee and Yucca. We met some of the local people who spoke Quechua and almost no Spanish. We traded power bars for some hot Yucca. The day’s drop was 350 meters in 19 KM or 18.4 m/km average. (92 FPM)

May 27 day 4

The granite boulder rapids tapered off to limestone-walled mini gorges and great class 4-5 whitewater. We only had one portage around a river wide hole. Lots of side streams entered the river some via cascading falls bumping the flow up to over 2000 CFS. The nighttime temperature was becoming much more agreeable. We found another great beach to camp on with unlimited firewood. A local woman brought us fresh coffee. Her Spanish was good and she told us a history of the valley and its people. Day summary 280 meter drop in 21 KM or 14 m/km.

May 28 day 5

An absolutely huge day of whitewater. We were on river early and right out of camp we came to some incredible exploding whitewater with a one unforgettable 2 km stretch dropping at 50 m/km or 250 FPM. The section started out as class five and although super continuous it started to back off to class 4 then to class 3. By lunch we had already dropped 355 meters in 21 KM. After lunch we came to a nasty class 6 landslide rapid which resulted in a 30 minute dangerous portage over loose, razor-sharp rocks. The whitewater continued on unabated and then we came to the climax-an unportagable canyon that we could not scout from the sides of the river. Gian Marco nervously paddled into the canyon and found a way to get out of his boat in the middle of the river and scout the first part of the rapid from the center of the river. His bold effort paid off and he was able to pick out a class 4-5 chicken route through the class six maelstrom in the first part of the canyon. Via shouting and hand signals he perfectly communicated instructions to everyone else who then one at a time worked themselves down the center left of the river and into an eddy half way down the canyon on river left. The balance of the canyon was run via a high-water line straight down the left center of the canyon. The day involved 7 long hours on the river and 420-meter drop throughout 26 km or a 16.5 m/km average. The long day took its toll. Jess was sick and puking in his tent. Brent’s feet were both cut up and wrapped in tape. I had flipped running a low volume line and had bruised my ribs. Gian Marco fell on the portage and smashed his foot bruised his ass. John (AKA superman) was the only one unfazed and wanted to keep boating until dark. Elevation is 1200 meter.

May 29 day 6

Out of camp was real nice class 4 boating with only one scout. Within an hour and a half we passed through the last vertical walled section of the trip. From this point on the river took on a jungle feel. Even though the whitewater backed off we still had fast current and some big pushy rapids. The highlight of the day was a huge 100 FPM rapid at 950 meters of elevation. River flow is now estimated to exceed 2500 CFS. 425 meters drop throughout day in 62 km or 7-m/km average. Elevation of camp: 775 meters.

May 30 Day 7

About 2 km out of camp we came to a 5-10 km long class 3-4 rapid that took 45 minutes to run. We stopped at the swinging bridge of Quillapampa and took a 2-1/2 hour break. Here the River is called Yavero and the vegetation is distinctly jungle. We met a 106-year-old man who told us about the river and the recent changes to the valley. We could occasionally see a road that has been recently cut above the river that allows trucks to carry out the valleys agricultural products and some of the 100-kilo fish that live in river. The local crops are pineapple, papaya, coca, bananas, coffee and cacao. Overall we boated about 60 KM before reaching the Urrubamba late in the day around 4:00 PM. The Urrubamba is very large at this point with swift moving current. We ferried across the river and climbed through a plantation on the opposite bank. Here we met a farmer who told us that we were lucky as a motorized boat would pass by at sunrise the next morning (Monday) and be able to carry us and our boats upriver to the road termination. The farmer let us sleep on his “Secadora”, stone patio used for drying coffee beans.

May 31 day 8

For ten soles each and 6 soles to carry boats we loaded our gear into the dugout boat that arrived at sunrise. The boat was full of Machichuenga Indians from downstream as well as coffee and bananas destined for the cities of Peru. The 2-1/2 boat ride passed quickly as the boat attained the high volume rapids before reaching the end of the road at Ivochote. This steamy jungle town is uneventful but from here we secured passage on a 10-hour bus to Quillabamba and arrived just after sundown. Quillabamba is a nice clean colonial town with a laid-back atmosphere. While in Quillabamba a national “Paro” or work stoppage was organized by the Cocaleros or Coca Growers. The road through the mountains to Cuzco was sealed off by angry mobs. Late in the evening of day nine we hired a pick up truck and driver to carry us over the mountains to the Sacred Valley. An hour outside of Quillabamba we were stopped by a mob of 300 people blocking the road. After hours of negotiations with the tribunal of elders we were given a safe conduct passage and allowed to proceed over the mountains and into the upper Urrubamba valley where we stopped and spent the night in Gian Marco’s parent’s hotel in Huaran called “Mirador Del Inca”

It had been a great trip, which I would highly recommend. For more information see John Armstrong’s film of the 1986 descent called “Paucartambo The Rest of the River”

Useful maps: Paucartambo 27-S, 26-S, 26-R, 25-R, 25-Q

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