Bolivia’s Rio Altamachi by Makeshift Raft

Adventure in Amazonia and a first descent

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(Ed’s note: This article was originally written in Polish; it was translated by Bozena Zurkowska.)

By Maciej Tarasin
Published: March 29, 2011

In Autumn 2009, Natasza Szalajska and I descended Bolivia’s Rio Tuichi on a self-made raft. We had gathered lots of information about the river from the Internet, like how it makes its way right through the middle of the Madidi National Park; how the canyon is unusually beautiful; how you can see tapirs and jaguars on its banks; and how also it might pose technical problems. All of the above proved to be true. However, running a river that gets paddled by a few expeditions a year, like Rio Tuichi, and a totally virgin river are two different stories.

Well aware of the fact that the Bolivian part of Amazonia is comparatively less threatened by deforestation and the wildest, it was there that I sought the river of my dreams and found the Rio Altamachi. On one side it is flanked by the Cordillera de Cocapata, and on the other by the Cordillera de Mosetenes. There are no towns or villages; just mountains and the jungle.

I came across the blog of the Mosetenes—a group of Bolivian enthusiasts and treasure hunters who explore on foot the valleys of the Tres Tetillas, the Altamachi and the Moleto. There, you can read the mind-boggling stories of the treasures hidden by the Jesuits. The site also features a few rather poor-quality photographs of the Altamachi.

After 30 hours of travel from Poland, we reached the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. The Aranjuez Hotel, where we spent the night, is a charming place. We indulge ourselves because, for the coming weeks, we are going to be deprived of luxury; the waiter serves us beer in cold glasses and classical music fills the old colonial interiors.

Early in the morning on May 13, 2010, we do the necessary shopping: truck wheel inner tubes, which will become the foundation of our raft, and patches and glue in case we have a puncture, and a few other little things. We also get to meet the man who is going to assist us in the descent and share our ups and downs—Waldo Urdininea, a quiet and smiling veteran of many Bolivian rivers.

In the afternoon we go shopping again. In the antique shop the shop assistant shows us a unique rock in the shape of the sun. “The Incas used to crack the Conquistador’s heads open with it,” he says, lowering his voice. We can come into possession of this silent witness of the bloody and dark history of the region for only 600 bolivianos. I ask if they also have the old Jesuit maps showing the place where the filled-in gold mines on the Tres Tetillas River are; disappointingly, they don’t.

At dawn the next day we set off in a jeep. We want to reach the pass where the peasants from Khori Mayu, with the logistical back-up in the form of a few horses, are to await us. The horses are going to help us transport the gear to the Rio Altamachi. Our aim is San Agustin ranch, where, hopefully, the river is runnable.

We get to the pass before dusk. The horses are not there. Yet, we are determined. We decide to stay at 4,000 meters above sea level, next to the sheep pens, and keep all our gear. But we are not going to carry everything down one time around. We will have to make a two trips.

It is cold and windy. The shepherds enjoy a nice fire in their hut. A dirty little girl from the hut gets a bar of chocolate from us and runs away home, frightened. It is probably the first time she has seen people with blue eyes and fair hair. Quite unexpectedly, just before the dusk falls, a shepherd appears with a horse. Following short negotiations, a deal is struck. He is going to help us transport the gear to the Khori Mayu village, which will bring us much closer to our goal.

The horse, Lobo, seems to be a strong and wise animal. It would be much harder without him. We feel like fortune’s darlings. In the morning we blindfold the horse so that he does not get frightened, and then we load the heavy inner tubes and ropes on his back. On the other side of the pass there are the yungas—forest-covered slopes of the eastern part of the Andes, and the gates to the green hell of the Amazon Jungle.

 

My left ankle, strained by many soccer games played in the grounds and yards of the world, hurts. The fact that we are carrying 30 kg each, does not help. Natasza overtakes the horse and walks fast while I lag behind bringing up the rear. A short rest after the mountainous lag and we are coming into the jungle. It gets hotter and hotter and our rucksacks seem to be weighted with stones.

Within an hour, the world around us changes beyond recognition; it gets semi-dark, verdant, and filled with unfamiliar sounds. The natural corridors we follow down on murky grounds are overgrown with moss. Above our heads the sky is obscured by the canopy of the forest; it is dark and damp but at least we are protected from the sun. We run out of water in the eighth hour of our march. Lobo’s owner takes me to a cow trough and demonstrates a perfect way to scoop out some clean water. Somehow, and even though having drunk a few gulps he is still alive, I am unconvinced. At last, just before the sunset, we reach the bank of the Khori Mayu River, and later the village of the same name.

After breakfast, consisting of some excellent Polish sausages and borscht soup, we walk a few kilometers down to the Altamachi River in a quite good mood. We hope to see if the river is runnable from Khori Mayu; if not, we will have to make our way through the jungle to San Agustin. Unfortunately, the Altamachi in Khori Mayu—elevation: 1,780 meters—is so strewn with rocks that we won’t be able to squeeze the raft in between.

Local campesino we meet in Khori Mayu claim that the road to San Agustin has not been used for over ten years, and that a few campesinos with machetes and hatchets would have to be sent first to cut a passage for us. We strike a quick deal: four pack mules and passage through the jungle is going to cost us 2,000 bolivianos.

We set our camp on the river and roast a chicken we got from a peasant. We go to sleep full and our bodies regenerate after the hike across the mountains. Then it pours rain all night long. The Khori Mayu, which looked like a little rivulet before, turns into a rushing river and rises up to our tent, and we’re forced to move it up hill. After the rain, it is not possible to get to San Agustin. The wild river blocks our path, the jungle gets boggy and the loaded mules are not going to be able to move safely in such conditions.

We decide to put things off a day. On May 18, we slowly make our way along a narrow path through the rain forest assisted by a family from Khori Mayu: the mother carries our folded paddles in a traditional kerchief on her back, and the father and the son work ahead with machetes. The mules carry the rest of our gear, and we are left free-handed to admire the views of the jungle.

For a moment we leave the forest and discover a vast opening of lush green vegetation, which offers a view onto the Altamachi River Valley. The river seems to be runnable. It is still rocky but, it’s wider than in Khori Mayu.

We reach an orange grove near San Agustin. The moment of truth is coming. A narrow path leading through bamboo trees takes us to the river. There we are! There is the Altamachi! And, what a relief—rafting is possible! We pick some wild oranges and prepare the provisions for the trip.

Our adventure has begun. We build our raft on the Rio Altamachi bank. Waldo is the master of ceremonies. He has been logging trees for years and we follow his instructions as to which trees are best for the wooden frame of the raft. The GPS shows an altitude of 1,500 meters. According to the map, Covendo, the Indian village we are hoping to float down to, is situated at about 500 meters—the drop, about 1,000 meters over 150 km in a straight line, seems impressive.

The three of us get onto our raft ready to embrace the unknown. At the first rapid, we break one of the transverse beams. We continue down.

The canyon is narrow and the boulders not wide apart so every now and again we are forced to push the raft—standing waist-deep in the rushing water in order to do so. We get to practice lowering the raft with ropes twice on the first day. The river by turns flows into the canyons full of gray boulders and covered in verdant greenery on the sides and flows out onto the quiet shoulders. One of such boulders in the middle looks like a dwarf’s boot.

Suddenly I spot a jaguar on the left bank. I rejoice like a child; after all, my dream has been fulfilled already on the second day on the river. It is a young animal; about two or three years old. Uneasy, because of us, it circles twice on the sandy bank and disappears into the wilderness of the canyon. Wild animals are our daily companions on the pristine banks of the Altamachi: there are colorful birds, monkeys to be spotted in the tree tops, an otter shows her head above the water only to dive back in with a splash.

In camp we are plagued by wild bees and bloodthirsty little flies. We set up our third night camp in “bear canyon” as I called it, as tracks in the sand suggest there are bears in the area. There are big tracks and some smaller ones. At night we make four big fires to keep the bears away.

Three days on the river gone, we are beginning to get anxious. We haven’t made more than 10 km a day. Technically the river is difficult and most of the canyons require scouting. It takes a lot of time and the plane will not wait for us. We bought cheap tickets (and since we cannot rebook, we are beginning to worry). We must get to the point at which the Malpaso River joins the Altamachi. From this point we are going to take the northwest course and we will be moving faster.

We get there at last! This is probably the most beautiful place on the Altamachi. An extensive canyon with gently sloping sides covered with low plants high up and the rain forest, shimmering of all colors, down toward the river bank. It feels as if we are passing Machu Picchu, only without its ruins.

We reach the canyon dominated by three hills; it’s reminiscent of the legendary Tres Tetillas of the story about the Jesuit gold. We have to line our raft down using the ropes as some of the rapids look dangerous. After a two-hour struggle with the elements, we get to the safer waters. Not for very long, though, as in the next canyon we need to grab the ropes again. Our chances to board our plane are dwindling.

The next day in the morning our raft capsizes for the first time. The lack of sleep and general fatigue is taking its toll. And when attempting to get closer to the rapids, we hesitate for a moment and the raft gets wedged between two big boulders. A few seconds later our rubber raft falls on top of Natasza and me. It might have ended badly for us, but luckily we were wearing our helmets and life jackets.

We swim out from underneath the raft. I make sure Natasza is OK, then go about retrieving the paddles; soon all the three of them are found in quiet waters below the rapids. But Waldo has hurt his knee; his cut needs dressing. He was trying hard to fight the current but did not manage to hold the raft.

Such difficult and dangerous moments are followed by moments of sheer pleasure when we take time to admire the yungas and enjoy watching wild animals. Yellow-tailed birds and multi-colored parrots fly low, barely above our heads, trying to chirp one another down. After the moments of tranquility, it is time to struggle. One of the struggles ends up in Natasza closely missing the raft. As a result, she is pulled between two boulders holding desperately to the wooden parts of the raft. Her thighs look pretty raw, tears and terror in her face, having experienced the power of the river. But she is fine. We pull her up onto the raft and continue our mission.

The day of revelation is May 24—my birthday. We are 30 km away from the point at which the Altamachi flows into the Santa Elena River. However, it is 30 km of whitewater in a powerful canyon with rocky walls that are seriously clogged by debris from the little tributaries pouring through the thick jungle. Wherever an even barely visible rivulet joins the mother river, there are huge boulders, rounded off rocks and shattered tree branches of immense sizes lying about in a mess.

Miraculously, we float through the most difficult places suffering no bodily injury or any other damage. The next day we are relaxed, which soon has its unpleasant consequences. First, I fly off the raft as if blown away by a powerful gust just as we are halfway through the passage between two boulders as huge as delivery trucks. I manage to cling on to the raft with one hand and haul myself back on. I hold tight to my paddle. A paddle is a sacred thing. Then a moment later, the raft is hoisted into a vertical position by the powerful waves and subsequently gets turned upside down. We swim to the bank quickly to set it right before the next rapids, which we can see a few dozen meters ahead. We restore the raft to its proper position and, to our surprise, we notice a sort of a makeshift camp 200 meters away on the right side of the river. On seeing the smoke from the camp fire we realize that, after seven days spent in the great wilderness, we are going to see human beings again. If they have a motorboat, we are sure to get to the airport on time.

A big-boned Bolivian woman offers us eggs, potatoes and hot tea. Our adventure nears the end on the next day at the point the Santa Elena flows into its bigger sister the Rio Cotacajes. A big motorboat takes us to Taqui. We reach Palos Blancos on the same day.

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