Five New Peruvian River Runs

Though not the source of the Amazon, these runs are more than worth a look

By Eugene Buchanan
Photos by Rocky Contos

While expedition paddler Rocky Contos is in the headlines for his discovery of the new source of the Amazon, and guiding trips on Peru’s Grand Canyon-like Rio Marañón for the likes of blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, he’s uncovered another reason to put Peru on kayakers’ radar: a newly discovered wealth of classic whitewater runs—all tributaries to the Marañón in the northern part of the country. The trove puts Peru on par with Chile and Ecuador as a classic kayaking destination.

After Contos’s latest Marañón run–a high-water descent in January and February, he headed farther north to notch a series of first descents on more than seven rivers that might not be as high-profile as the new Amazon source, but are awesome alternatives for whitewater boaters. “We did about two weeks of exploratories after the Marañon trip, and most were first descents,” says the hemisphere-trotting adventurer. “And they’re all classics.”

Joining Contos on some or all of the descents were Kurt Casey, whose website www.peruwhitewater.com already lists three of the runs. Josh Fischer, Scott McBride, Lorenzo Bergamin, Jesse Mogler, Greg Schwendinger, Ira Estin and local guide Luciano Troyes from the nearby Gotas de Agua nature reserve rounded out the exploration crew. All agree on the runs’ high caliber. “That part of the Andes offers much more than just the Marañón,” says Schwendinger, who joined Contos on all of the runs. “A new playground is opening up in northern Peru. It’s got big clean water, multi-days, and lots of creeks.”

Schwendinger, who wrote a guidebook for kayaking Guatemala, where he lives, and helped Contos produce one for the Chiapas and Oaxaca region of Southern Mexcio, credits Contos for putting the region on the map.

“Rocky’s done more in the past couple years to open up Peruto paddlers than anyone since perhaps the Canoandes expedition of 1979,” he says, adding that nine of them, at Rocky’s invitation, met in the town of Bagua to begin the explorations.

Below, CanoeKayak.com offers an exclusive sneak-peak at a sampling of five of Peru’s recently discovered, newest whitewater runs:

Peruvian rivers
Río Numbala-Mayo-Chinchipe
This Class IV jungle section of the Numbala-Mayo, and Class III (with one V) of the Chinchipe, courses nearly 100 miles with an average drop of 16 feet per mile, involving putting in in Ecuador and taking out in Peru. In all, the team took four days for the descent, after being waylaid by a landslide blocking the road. “It turned out to be all read-and-run and despite some flips in the holes there was nothing much to slow us down,” says Schwendinger, whose team met its raft shortly below the confluence. “The last three days the rapids were more spaced out but still offered plenty of excitement.” The big feature on day two was Class IV+ Naranja rapid, a stairsteping drop near the road. “By the fourth day,” he says, “things had calmed down and we made to the Marañon and the last big wave train rapid.” In general, writes Contos, “the Chinchipe was a big fun clean river with easy access, nice camps, and made for an excellent raft-support trip. There are numerous other jungle Class IV-V day runs out of Palanda, so it’s a great destination for several days of typical Ecuador-type boating, which can be topped off with a good multi-day back into Peru.”

Peruvian rivers
Río Huancabamba-Chamaya
This Class III-IV run (with one portage) is another four-day classic, whisking kayakers down 110 miles of river. It starts small and trashy in the town ofHuancabamba, says Contos, but after portaging a Class V+ section it turns into a dry desert-type Class III-IV canyon with nice camps. It also features some interesting dry mud flows, which turn the river chocolate brown when agitated by rain. It also features roadside paddling in places and negoriating through and around the Presa Limón reservoir. “Some engineerss gave us a ride down to the outflow and even a lunch,” he says. “It was pleasant, warm Class III downstream of dam, but in the future it will be dewatered most of the time due to the diversions.” On the lower section, they discovered a “super fun” 25-mile section of Class III-IV bigger water downstream of the Chotano confluence and continuing downstream of the Chunchuca confluence into the Río Chamaya. It ended with a Class II section in desert canyon, ending at the Baños Almendral hot springs.

Peruvian rivers
Río Chunchuca (AKA Huallabamba)
This 18-mile run ups the ante with plenty of Class V, as well as a Class V+ section portaged in three parts by the team. Flowing an estimated 2,500 cfs when the team ran it, it starts at Chunchuquillo and heads straight into wall-to-wall waves and holes. Schwendinger estimates they portaged a kilometer altogether. With its continuous, big water rapids, Contos and Fischer christened it “the North Fork Payette of Peru.” “Although it started easy for the first few kilometers after our put-in,” says Contos, “when the rapids started they didn’t let up until the end. This rio is super fun and highly recommended.” He adds that the section they portaged would be likely be safer and more runnable at lower flows. And it offers more upstream as well. “There is another 30 kilometers that can be paddled above where we put in, but the gradient is lower and likely only Class III with some IV,” he says.

Peruvian rivers
Río Chirinos
Paddling it at an estimated 4,500 cfs, Schwendinger, who paddled it with Contos, calls this Class IV-V, 18-mile run (with four to five portages)”the toughest river of the trip.” “Just as we congratulated ourselves at passing one rapid, another steeper and longer one would appear,” he says. “So we started running the chicken lines along the shore.” Toward the end they encountered a few solid Class V sequences (which they named Sandstone Narrows), as well as a fresh rockslide, requiring portages and eventually darkness took over forcing them to bivouac in a small cave before hitting the confluence of the Chinchipe just a half mile later in the morning. “It’s an awesome, clean Class IV-V big water run in a scenic canyon with pool-drop character,” says Contos, adding that a long shuttle led to their late start. “However, the some of the rapids were very long and required scouts to know where big holes were located.” His advice: “Get an earlier start or make it a two-day trip.”

Peruvian rivers
Río Tabaconas
Contos and Schwendinger say this 15-mile classic, which they paddled at about 3,000 cfs, is “a fairly continuous, fun Class III-IV section with clean water, pleasant scenery and easy access.” Farther upstream of where they put in lies some additional Class IV and V sections, and downstream of Tamborapa where they took out it mellows into Class II. “Overall the rio seemed raftable,” says Contos, adding that the road upstream from Tamborapa is mostly paved.

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