October 2010 update The Upper Huallaga has finally conquered. See passage at end of post but first a bit of history
In early July 1999 Ethan Green, John Mattson, Mark Fair and myself bailed out of a first descent after 5 days. Our goal was to reach the town of Tingo Maria at 600 meters elevation. We gave it a hell of an effort but never reached our goal.
Access to the river is easy with paved roads the whole way from Lima. Our chosen put-in was at the headwaters along the road from Lima to Huanuco. One can hop off any bus traveling this route or easily hire a vehicle and driver in Lima for the 7 hour trip to the put in. The road leaves Lima and follows the Río Rimac to the high pass at 4500-5000 meters and then gradually drops down to the town of La Oroya on the banks of the Mantaro River. From here one follows the road to Cerro de Pasco which at 4400 meters in the highest city in the world. The turn off for Huanuco is just before Cerro de Pasco and here the one enters the Huallaga drainage. At 4000 meters the road crosses a bridge over the lower reaches of the Sharpa Gorge, which is the birth of the Huallaga River. When we crossed this point in July the flow was a mere trickle and was not runnable for the next 21 km (1000 meters vertical meters of elevation drop) as the river passed through a series of man made obstacles including tunnels and dams.
When we reached the town of Huariaca, the river, which now had around 150 CFS became navigable. From here it was 167 km to Tingo Maria with a total drop of 2300 meters. A casual put-in was not possible since the mayor and hundreds of the town’s residents insisted on escorting us to the stadium so the whole town could watch from a bridge as we descended. The elevation here was 2941 meters (9705 feet). The river was steep and a few kilometers below town we came to a radical micro gorge and the first portage (100 meters long). Soon the Río Tingo entered on the left and bumped the flow up to 300 CFS. We made camp at 2720 meters alongside a Quebrada (canyon mouth) 3 km above the town of San Rafael. The distance traveled in the first day was 9 km with a vertical drop of 221 meters or 24.5 m/km (122 FPM).
There is 3 km of flatwater to the town of San Rafael (elevation 2715 meters) with a few Quebradas bringing in additional flow of 50-75 CFS. Below the town of San Rafael the river becomes prettier and picks up steam. I would suggest this as a put-in as opposed to Huariaca. 8 km below San Rafael the action picks up to Class 5- at the town of Tecte where the river enters a limestone walled gorge we called Tecte Canyon. In this stretch the gradient is serious at 50-60 m/km and the vegetation takes on a noticeable change with the appearance of Cacti, Molle trees and Centenarios. After 2 KM a bridge becomes visible which signals the entrance of the Río Blanco which although small brings in clear water. The Río Blanco also brings in the first granite boulders seen on the river. 2 km downstream at the second Quebrada on river right we found a nice camp (2340 meters). The distance traveled was 14-1/2 km with a drop of 380 meters or 27-m/km average. Starting at Tecte this section would average over 50 m/km and with higher flows would be rated class 5+. There were no portages on this section.
From camp at 2340 meters to town of Ambo at 2064 meters is a good 10 km class 4 stretch filled with granite boulders that ends at the confluence with the Río Huertas which brings in clear, cool water and doubles the flow. From here it is 20 km of flatwater to Huanuco and an additional 15 km of flatwater to Puente Taruca. Our group was able to get a ride in a truck with our boats to avoid the 35 km flatwater stretch.
Starting at Puente Taruca (1800 meters) the road no longer follows the river. Here the river starts its plunge into a deep canyon. Here the river is also larger and warmer and the climate is much more arid. The hills are covered with cacti and a brown, scrub vegetation. The shores of the river contain concentrations of foliage, principally willows and bamboo. From Puente Taruca it is an easy stretch of paddling to where we camped at the mouth of the Quebrada Yanomayo which lies 100 meters upstream of the confluence of the Río Acomayo (1650 meters) Note: From this point onwards be very careful using the topo maps as they become completely inaccurate.
From camp we immediately paddled past the Río Acomayo, which entered small and brown. After a few kilometers of relatively calm water the river started to Big, pushy class 4 rapids with some easy class 5. We all portaged around one river wide hole and around the “Chorro de Panao”, a cataract formed at the confluence with the Río Panao. Here the river is deep in a canyon with bail out on the left impossible. A trail exits at one point on river right that follows the canyon formed by the Río Panao and eventually reaches a town with the same name. It was noon when we reached this point and we continued downriver passing a waterfall entering on river left after 1-1/2 km. Four km below this point we found a nice beach camp (1400 meters) just above a big class 5 rapid. In the distance we can see a mountain completely shrouded in green vegetation signaling the entrance to yet another climatical zone-THE JUNGLE
After ½ km on the river we came to another large waterfall entering on river left. Another km downstream we reached a vertical walled canyon which, after a quick river level scout, revealed unrunnable and unportagable class 6. We spent two hours fighting our way up to a pampa to scout the gorge and what we saw was a maelstrom, cascading into a vertical walled abyss. We were 103 km form where we started and 64 km from our goal of Tingo Maria. The maps indicated the heavy section of river we were looking at continued for another 30 km and dropped 550 meters (average 100 FPM) through a vertical walled canyon. After a group discussion we concluded the only way to safely run the river was with some sort of helicopter scout so the decision was made to bail. The question was how and to where. By some sort of miracle a fisherman named Hilario showed up. He was from the nearest village named Huanacuari located some 1000 vertical meters above us. He was returning to his village and we asked him to send some chasqui’s (porters) the next day to help carry our gear. He agreed and then we spent the rest of the day carrying our boats and gear up a heinous pitch only 100 meters above the river. The boats were abandoned at the pampa and we continued with gear only another 300 meters up a steep grass slope to where we found a trail. Following the trail upstream we came to the same stream we had passed as a waterfall earlier in the morning. After 7 hours of carrying gear this was the first water we found. At dusk a boy from the village named Abel, his uncle and his cousin arrived to help us at the request of Hilario the fisherman who had made it back to the village with our request for help. They immediately went for the boats and arrived in the rain at our bivouac at 9:30 in the evening. It continued to rain hard until 4:30 in the morning.
We climbed the remaining 600 vertical meters to the village with our porters and our gear. It took three hours on an intense trail. Abel’s hut had no electricity but his mother cooked us soup over a wood fire. We continued to hike up to the village proper, which lies at the END OF THE ROAD, and for this reason has very little traffic. We agreed to pay 100 soles to be driven in a dump truck to the town of Tranca, which is only 1 hour away. With fuel consumption at 7 soles gallon large trucks are expensive to operate. In Tranca we hired a pickup for 50 soles for the 1-1/2 hour ride to the paved road near Acomayo. From this point the four of us rode in a crowded collectivo to Huanuco with all our gear for 4 soles a head.
Huanuco has a small airport with flights to Lima. We were able to get seats for $ 65 and put the boats in the aisle of the small plane. The flight went down the Huallaga canyon following the path we had just kayaked. After only 15 minutes we touched down in Tingo Maria to pick up passengers and were surprised by how large and clear the river had become. In Tingo Maria the vegetation was steamy jungle with banana and palm plantations and hot sultry air. Someday someone will reach this point via river completing the last great-unknown canyon in Peru. Note )ctober 2010 the trip has just been completed by a group of North Americans-see end of post
In July 2007 a well organized trip put in at Puente El rancho (perhaps same as Puente Taruca? which is 15 km below Huanuco) and an attempt was made to reach and pass the Great Bend and arrive at Tingo Maria: Bryan smith, Pierro Vellutino, Todd Gillman, Andrew Oberhardt, Shane Robinosn DNF July 2007- Immersion Research’s 2006 TRIP FROM HELL
The group made another 1-1/2 days beyond the 1999 trip but was stymied by a vertical walled slot canyon which was difficult to scout. The group bailed on river right and began an multi-day excursion back to Huanuco. Two weeks later Piero Vellutino returned solo with animals to retrieve the kayaks which had been left at the bottom of the canyon.
In late September a group on 6 kayakers Ryan Casey,Ben Luck,Matthew & Nate Klema, Evan Ross, and Matt Wilson put planning for 11 days. They blazed the trip through the canyon in 3 days closing the chapter on the last, great, un-run, major tributary of the Amazon. Info including some video can be seen at link http://sanjuanrivers.com/blog/first-descent-great-bend-of-the-huallaga
December 2017 update is the the damm exists and is being filled. The Great Bend of the Huallaga is now a lake