#3: Peru’s Río Marañón
The Grand Canyon of the Amazon
Words and photos by Rocky Contos
“In the 1980s, I paddled the Bio-Bio as a participant on one of the first commercial kayak trips in Chile. While [the Bio Bio’s] destruction was abominable both environmentally and culturally, it was but a small warning shot compared to the potential disaster planned for the Marañón/Amazon.” — Kelly Kellstadt, whitewater kayaker and former guide/instructor in New Mexico who paddled 412 miles of Río Marañón Sep-Oct 2013. [See Full Comment]
Kelly Kellstadt’s comment echoes the opinion of a quickly growing group of boaters who’ve experienced the Río Marañón in Peru. Remoteness has long kept the magnificent character of this run under the radar of the average paddler, but the Marañón offers number of trips that are truly world class. The “Grand Canyon” and “Jungle Pongos” sections in the Andes have over 400 miles of continuously raftable Class III and IV whitewater river, boast clean, giant beaches along their length, and offer boatable year-round flows. In addition, the Marañón has unique and varied ecological habitats, and it provides the bulk of the nutrient-rich silt to the Upper Amazon River. So why would anyone would want to plug it up in every conceivable location with up to 20 huge dams?
The reasons are mainly a lack of understanding and public knowledge about plans to dam the river. First, although Río Marañón is the uppermost mainstem extensión of the Amazon River, attention has been diverted away from the Marañón to the longer-extending Amazon tributaries up the Ucayali River (Ríos Urubamba, Apurímac and Mantaro).* Second, the Peruvian public is only now starting to realize the unique ecological aspects of the Marañón canyon, such as the endemic "NO DAM!" lizards recently identified by scientists, its ecotourism potential, and the fact that the planned dams are not intended to generate power for Peruvians but for Brazil and Chile. Third, boaters have only recently started to appreciate the Marañón's qualities as a top paddling destination, primarily for its 343-mile Class IV Grand Canyon and 69-mile Class III Upper Jungle Pongos sections.
Consider some of the ideal attributes of a Río Marañón trip from a paddler's perspective:
Big year-round flow: Río Marañón averages around 6,000 cfs at the start of the Grand Canyon section just after the confluence with Río Puchka, 17,000 cfs at Balsas midway through the Grand Canyon section, 40,000 cfs at the start of the Jungle Pongos. The lowest flows of the year in the dry season are still raftable, with about one third of the average flows.
Raftable whitewater: In the Grand Canyon of the Amazon and Upper Jungle Pongos sections, there are approximately 90 Class III rapids, 20 Class IV rapids and 2 Class V rapids (over two times as many as the Colorado's Grand Canyon). The rapids are generally on par with big Colorado River Grand Canyon rapids. While a full 412-mile expedition trip will generally take 25-30 days, several access points along the way allow one to paddle for a shorter length of time. For example, a Central and Lower Grand Canyon trip is 188 miles of class III and IV and comfortably done in 14 days while avoiding a notorious Class V rapid in the Inner Gorge upstream.
Ideal year-round weather: Being close to the equator, Río Marañón has ideal temperatures of 80s-90s in the daytime and 60s-70s at night. There is only a minor dip in temperatures in the austral winter (Jun-Sep). Water temperatures average around 72 degrees near Balsas, so it is always enjoyable swimming, and the arid Grand Canyon section generally receives 10-15 inches of rain a year making fine usually dry camping conditions on the innumerable huge beaches found along the entire river.
Varied ecological environments: The main arid Grand Canyon section is replete with cacti, palos verdes, and ocotillo-type plants similar to those found in the Southwestern USA. Continuing into the Pongos allows one to experience the change from dry Bagua valley to lush Amazon jungle. Parrots, giant centipedes, Andean condors, and even two recently identified "No-Dam" Lizards are some of the wildlife often spotted.
Scenic beauty: The Grand Canyon Amazon section flows through a canyon that is between 6,000-10,000 feet deep along its entire length, and reaches a depth of over 10,000 feet on both sides in three separate areas. Though quite different from the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the geology is still fascinating with limestone, granite, and other rock types in different parts of the canyon, and especially the thick deposited layers of dirt and small rocks in parts of the upper canyon evidently from landslides that have blocked the river in the past (and continue to change some rapids from year-to-year).
Interesting side excursions: Just like on a Colorado Grand Canyon trip, the side excursions on a Río Marañón trip are partly what make it so special. There are hot springs to soak in, numerous slot canyon narrows to hike into, waterfalls to admire, hillocks to climb with grand vistas, Incan and pre-Incan ruins to explore, and quaint villages to visit. Actually, most folks who have done the trip downstream of Chagual think the village visits were a highlight of the trip (something not normally experienced on trips in the USA).
DAM THREATS: Although Río Marañón is currently completely free-flowing, there are plans to construct 15-22 dams on the entire river, basically making it a series of reservoirs. While preliminary studies of potential dam sites were completed by a German firm in the 1970s, it wasn't until 2010 when the president of Peru (Alan Garcia) signed an accord with the president of Brazil to allow Brazil to construct hydroelectric dams on most of the large rivers in Peru. This policy also applied to other energy-hungry neighbors such as Chile. Most of the energy from the large mega-hydro projects will be exported, basically meaning a desecration of Peruvian natural resources for the benefit of cities and industries abroad. At least two of the dam projects (Chadin 2 and Veracruz) have already been approved. These dams would be 500-580 ft high and flood upriver approximately 40 miles each, leaving none of the 90-mile Lower Grand Canyon section free flowing. Odebrecht (Brazil) has already set up a dam-promotion office in Balsas for the Chadin 2 project, but fierce opposition from the villages that will be flooded has been causing some problems (see the Cuarto Poder report). PRW, a subsidiary of Endesa (Chile), has spearheaded the effort to construct the Veracruz dam and is finding little opposition since this project will not displace many people. Other projects above the Grand Canyon Amazon section are currently under study, with several of the Maras projects on the headwaters section of the river possibly already approved.
HELP!: If you are interested in helping save the Upper Amazon, consider the following:
(1) Write a letter to the president of Peru and the heads of the ministries (see Save the Upper Amazon),
(2) Provide a donation to SierraRios on behalf of Remando Juntos and other projects designed to save the river,
(3) Explore the river yourself. If the idea of arranging your own expedition is too daunting, SierraRios offers Grand Canyon Amazon trips suitable for those who wish to kayak, row, or just be a raft paddler/passenger, as well as outfitting services for groups of experienced paddlers.
–Check out Rocky Contos’ photo essay on the Río Marañón and a video below:
This story is part of a C&K series covering the world’s ten most threatened paddling runs. Read about the other rivers, and stay tuned as the final runs are released:
* Author’s Note: Calling Río Marañón the "Upper Amazon" is based on the Marañón contributing the highest average discharge to the river at every junction with a tributary. This more traditional way to determine the "mainstem" river and its "principal source" point sometimes differs from the "most distant source" point, arrived at by following the longest tributary (regardless of flow) to the most distant point in the entire river's watershed. The best analogy is the Mississippi-Missouri River system, with a "principal source" point in Minnesota (uppermost Mississippi River) and a "most distant source" point in Wyoming (uppermost Missouri River).
–Read our digital feature – True Source: Discovery and Rivalry on the World’s Greatest River