Futaleufu River Trip Report
by Zachary Collier (and improved on by Janda Siebert)
The Futaleufu River is known for its turquoise water, big rapids, and jaw dropping scenery. Located in Southern Chile in the region of Patagonia in the Andes Mountains, this part of Chile is strikingly beautiful, and for the most part undeveloped.
To get to the river, we flew from Portland, Oregon to Santiago, Chile and then flew to the very small town Balmaceda, Chile, which is the regional gateway for travelers visiting Patagonia. From Balmaceda, we drove 6 beautiful hours to a resort called El Pangue, where we met one of the river guides, had a delicious dinner of fresh fish and stayed in a beautiful room. The next morning, we drove the final 3 hours to the river.
At our riverside destination, we lumbered out of the cars and were ready for action. We changed into our river clothes as the guides pumped up the inflatable kayaks and were quickly floating the turquoise blue water of the Futaleufu. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the surrounding peaks of the Andes. Luckily there weren’t any rapids...yet.
Puente a Puente
After the morning’s kayaking session, we headed upriver for lunch and then piled into the rafts for our first taste of Futaleufu’s rapids. We began with a section of the river known as Puente a Puente, or Bridge to Bridge. This is the most commonly rafted section of the Futaleufu and has classic big water rapids similar to those found on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. However, the big difference is that the Futaleufu’s rapids are akin to doing all of the Grand Canyon’s rapids back-to-back, in one afternoon. We had a great time to say the least.
At the end of this heart-pumping day, we headed to Camp Mapu Leufu, which means Earth River in the local indigenous Mapuche language. Futa means big, so Futaleufu means Big River. My fellow guests and I were blown away by how awesome the camp was, which was a popular sentiment for each new camp we stayed at. Mapu Leufu had sweeping views of the river below and the mountains above, a hot tub, plumbing and cozy cabanas to sleep in. We were served drinks and appetizers and then a fabulous dinner, before calling it a night.
The next morning we were unable to run the upper section of the river, because of incredibly high water. It’s a series of five Class V rapids known as Inferno Canyon, which are only runnable at moderate or lower flows. Our guides made a good decision, and we went to run the Puente a Puente section again with an additional Class V rapid called Mas o Menos (More or Less) just past the second bridge. We then drove to the bottom of Inferno Canyon and continued on through some Class III rapids.
Cave Camp and Zeta Rapid
The day ended above a Class VI rapid called Zeta at Cave Camp. This camp was well-described by our guide, Abner, as an adult playground. With two hot tubs, a crystal clear lake, a maze of trails, and a cave where we would later have dinner, the location reigned supreme with the sight and sound of Zeta - one of the most powerful rapids you’ll ever see. Even our skilled and experienced guides pushed the boats through this rapid, which they never run.
The next day’s objective was to head across the river and hike up to the Tree House Camp for a night. After a couple days of rafting, we were ready for a lower body workout, so everyone was excited. So how do we get across that huge Zeta rapid? We started the day with a Tyrolean Traverse, which is a series of ropes suspended across the water. So without looking down too much, we pulled ourselves across the river directly above the heart of Zeta. With everyone safely across and heart rates returned to normal, we headed up the river bank for the hike to Treehouse Camp.
Wow! Treehouse Camp was the most amazing camp I’ve ever seen. Picture the Ewok Village, and add a serene lake and lakeside hot tub. I wanted to stay for at least a week and possibly forever. Camping in our treehouse was my favorite part of the trip. Being a part of the forest and traveling from tree to tree via suspension bridges, evoked memories of building forts with my 10-yr. old buddies.
It was hard to leave, but the next morning we hiked back down to the river. Instead of the traverse, we crossed the river this time via a zip line that we released and plunged 15 ft. into the river - not into Zeta, thankfully! After a lunch of cheeses, salamis and lots of fresh fruit, the guides took us for an easy rock climb-scramble up a 300 ft. tower and at the top we were able to venture out along what’s known as the Knife’s Edge, which definitely lives up to its name. Then we braved a rappel back down the face of the rock tower and headed back to camp.
Back on the River
The next day, we floated from the Cave Camp back to Camp Mapu Leufu through some fun Class III rapids and amazing scenery. One of the rapids, Throne Room was too big to run, so the guides pushed the boats through as we walked around. We arrived back at the first night’s camp and went on a canyoneering adventure. Here, we walked up a spectacular side stream wading through deep pools and jumping from rock to rock. Most of the group said this was the best part of the trip thanks to a few exciting challenges of swimming and balance.
After a wonderful feast, we stayed up telling stories about the trip so far. I watched the sun set, then the moon set, and then the stars come out. It’s always strange to look at the Southern sky and not recognize the stars. It reminds you that you’re in a different hemisphere at the other end of the world.
The last day was our longest on the river. We began with some easy rapids and then came to Terminator, which we didn’t run due to the high water. We walked around as the guides ran parts of the rapid and used ropes to get the boats through the dangerous sections. We ran a few more rapids before coming to the Puente a Puente section of the river again. Having braved these rapids a few times now, we were feeling more comfortable and took the more exciting routes through them. We passed the second bridge and ran the Class V rapids Mas o Menos and Casa de Piedra. From there it was easy water to the end of our trip.
The Journey Home
At take-out we took a group photo, said goodbye to the guides, and piled back on the bus. We drove three hours back to El Pangue, where we stayed the first night and had another lovely dinner and comfortable room.
I have to say this was unlike any river trip I’ve been on. The entire group loved all the activities and camps beyond just the days of rafting. I was also especially impressed by the guides’ attention to detail and safety. I’ve boated around the world and noticed that in foreign countries, safety standards are often more relaxed. Our guides were always paying attention to safety and made the right decisions.
This was a special trip and I can’t wait to go back!