Destination Chile!

Lessons learned from a photographer's pilgrimage to whitewater's hallowed Southern Hemisphere winter hotbed

Photos and words by John Webster

Chile is a well-known epicenter of whitewater paddling. It has been documented time and time again, but sometimes practical DIY advice is overshadowed by stunning photos. Based on my experience in this beautiful area, I’ve come up with some simple guidelines to help prospective travelers. The first obvious fact is that Chile's summer is North America's winter. So if you got the means to make the long haul south now, as temperatures cool in the Northern Hemisphere, you can paddle year-round. Beyond that, a baseline understanding of the country and its paddling potential can shape the logistics, planning, and travel contingencies for kayaking in Chile, a country with endless possibilities and adventure at every turn. Here’s a few tips to keep in mind:

Plan Your Route: Chile is a geographically long and diverse country with many rivers; it's best to write down a list or get a general idea of what rivers that you want to hit. Plane tickets may already be purchased before knowing where the water is flowing, but in general you can work the country from north to south and follow the flows that way. General plans are better than specific ones; let loose and don't fixate on a certain section. Rather, consider a list of Plan B alternate rivers so you are not skunked. But always plan to hit the legendary Rio Futaleufu.

Packing: Pack light! That means a couple shirts, one pair of pants and shorts, and a whole lot of layers. The weather in Chile can be amazing—sunny and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, some days it just pours and pours. With regards to layers, pack clothing that’s water resistant, quick-drying, and effective in demanding conditions, especially if you plan on camping. With whitewater gear specifically it's a matter of personal preference. Should you pack a drysuit? For me, the answer is always "warmer is better.” The temps differ from river to river, some colder than others. Keep in mind, depending on how long you stay there, you can often sell items to locals.

Chilean Spanish: It seems obvious but for those like me who are young in the ways of speaking Spanish, you should learn the basics of the language before heading down to Chile. Having said that, Chilean Spanish is one of the most difficult dialects to pick up. Some words have different meanings; for example, don't use the word caliente when you're describing how hot you are. There are other words used in place of what you learned in high school Spanish; chela, for instance, is beer. If you are fortunate to have bilingual friends around, consider yourself lucky. The more pisco that you consume, the better your Spanish gets.

Planes, Boats, & Automobiles: The typical route to Chile is through Santiago International airport. Depending on the airline you may be able to get a boat down. It’s all about what you say, ever so sweetly, to the person behind the airline desk. If you're without a boat, traveling becomes that much easier: land in SCL, grab a bus and head off to your next destination for a reasonable price. If have a kayak, there's a chance that you may have to separate from it to get where you're going. Don't worry, there are ways to send boat to your destination. Some buses have delivery services. Renting a vehicle is significantly cheaper in Santiago than in the whitewater hub of Pucon. That’s the preferred route if you don't have local friends or fixers in place. It cannot be stressed enough how much easier having your own vehicle makes a kayaking trip in Chile. Sky Airline provides cheap in-country flights if you want to speed up your travel and skip riding in a bus for hours.

Cheap Eats: Traveling for some consists of trying all of the different high-class meals. If you're on a budget, like most of us, Chile provides healthy and cheap alternatives to daily restaurant meals. Chile is full of fresh fruit, veggies, and meat. The local stores in larger towns provide you with an assortment of items that can fill you up for the day. Everyone sells empanadas, which are cheap and filling; I recommend the napolitana. Most coffee is instant and adequate for a wake-up call. Peanut butter is seldom seen and is twice to triple the U.S. price, so pack your own supply from home. Bread is everywhere as well, and sandwiches can be made in all sorts of combinations with the ever popular and always delicious avocado. A great way to make a meal for a crew is by disco, which is a large, wok-like pan. Cooking over a fire and adding ingredients of your choice makes for a good meal and social event. Don't forget to have an asado—Chilean-style barbecue. If you get invited to an asado make sure bring some pisco or fernet (liquors) and prepare to wait a while before you get to try out some delicious meat.

Group Dynamics: If you are planning on traveling with a group of buddies or going solo and looking to connect with new friends, think about the group before committing to the travel. Good group dynamics can make a trip much more memorable and provide a sort of confidence on whatever river you descend. Having diverse personalities on a crew is recommended and nothing short of entertaining both on and off the river. Think about what people bring to the table and if they make good decisions. A couple of times I experienced breakups between groups and it made for negative actions. Know that you may be inhaling someone's weeklong without-a-shower stench for the 10-hour shuttle to the Rio Baker. The larger the group, the more problems is a good rule of thumb. Opinions of what river to run, where to party, what to eat, all get mixed with more people. Patience, sympathy, and having time alone all benefit a group, so don't be afraid to go for a hike or have a solo coffee for some space. Also bring some headphones, get lost and remember why you're in such an amazing country.

Prepare For The Worst: Chile throws more curveballs than it does lobs. The phrase "kayaking is the easiest part of Chile" is undoubtedly true. Cars are notorious for breaking down, someone might get the whole group sick, a bad swim may occur and you may have to search for your hard-luck friend in Spanish-speaking hospital. Never think something will go as planned and always have backup. Acquiring a SIM card for your phone is one of the best decisions you can make so you are able to contact friends and authorities (if you're in service) down there. Depending on where you are, a satellite tracking and emergency device like a SPOT may be a good thing to have in your back pocket. Chile is expansive and things like a flat tire may happen in the worst of areas, with no one around. The roads in Chile are rough, so a good pair of tires and a reliable vehicle is a good start to eliminating problems when you're out there chasing agua blanca. Having said all of that, the good people of Chile are genuine and will usually help out in whatever way possible. Hitchhiking is common so if all else fails, stick a thumb out.

Camping: In Chile camping is pretty easy, so long as you use common knowledge of where it would be acceptable to squat for a night and do not interfere with private property. Regulations seem to be loose; during my trip, I did not have a problem at any point setting up camp off of a road. If you can find a rafting company like the Futa’s Cara Del Indo, they’ll usually set you up with a place to stay and even some type of toilet facility for a cheap fee. It rains a lot around the rivers of southern Chile so a reliable tent is recommended. Wind is a huge factor in Patagonia so prepare to find a bunch of rocks to keep your nylon house secure. Many of the classic rivers can be done in a day or have a road near them. Except in Chile’s deep south, overnighters are rare. Regardless, make room for a take-apart spare paddle and pack a mini stove with the option to take different types of fuel. Bring a roll or two of Gorilla Tape: It’s a standalone repair kit that’s not available in Chilean stores.

Villarrica volcano as seen from a main Pucón street. Photo by Claire Provost | Wiki Commons

The ins and outs of Pucon: The town of Pucon is well known throughout the whitewater community for its highly accessible rivers and late-night parties. The best time to paddle the classics around the Pucon area is middle November, when rain and runoff is in your favor. If you're looking for a bit of fun and meeting a bunch of new friends, go later in the dog days of summer (January/February). Pucon is a great town for socializing, so your wallet may take a hit if you plan on going out each night or eating out regularly. If cheap street empanadas are not your thing and you want a taste of home, Latitude 39 is the place to go. They serve up great American meals and have an English speaking crew and decent Wi-Fi. If you forgot some piece of kayaking gear, the friendly and legendary owner of Rivers, Lakes, and Oceans, Ian Garcia, will be more than happy to help you. Expect to pay more than what you would in the States for practically any piece of gear. Don't blame the shop; it's just Chile.

The Logistics: Chile in general has some things that you need to think about before getting there. Exchange your currency into Chilean Pesos before you actually land in Chile and you’ll avoid getting overcharged at the airport. The exchange rate with USD fluctuates, but around 650 Chilean pesos is 1 USD. Your dollar doesn't very much from what you would pay for usual items in the States. Some food is cheaper, (cheap) beer is cheaper, but as stated earlier, river gear is not. Power adapters are simple enough to purchase through Amazon (Chile runs off of Type C or Type L plugs). Power is sometimes hard to get if you're not around a hostel or house. You can charge devices in coffee shops but opportunities dwindle quickly in Patagonia. It’s a good idea to get more batteries for your camera and pick up a charging block for your phone if you know you're headed into the middle of nowhere. If you need a lift around town or to go to the nearest river, sticking your thumb out is one option. There are people you can pay to drive shuttle but once again, it just depends on your location. The farther south, the less likely you'll be able to find service. If you're are lost at any point or want to go down a river that you don't know but are confident in doing, ask the local boaters. There are guide services in more populated areas like Pucon, including Cascade Kayak School and the Pucon Kayak Hostel. Chile is how you make it: You can live real comfortably for a decent price, or you can experience vulnerability and a more local seasoning for cheap. Whatever decision and whatever budget, with the right mindset you are guaranteed a great experience.

Buena Lineas (Good Lines):After all of the travel time, logistics, and rounding up kayak friends it’s time to kayak…but where? What is on your rio menu? Chile has it all: big volume, creeks, waterfalls, slides. You name it, the country has it. Here are some of my favorite rivers of Chile:

Fuy: In my opinion it's the end-all be-all river of Chile. The Fuy is dynamic with great scenery, multiple waterfalls and a great lower section for those not feeling fired up for the famous Upper Fuy section. It has everything and ranges from Class III-V.

Futaleufu: An extremely close second is the Futaleufu. With big, warm, incredibly clear water, this Patagonia classic reigns supreme. It’s also far away from the tourist towns. The Futa provides solitude and great kayaking in an insanely landscape of long summer nights and a warm community of fellow paddlers.

Upper Palguin: One of the best runs around Pucon and easily lap-able, this short waterfall run provides a great training ground to those new to the art of flight. The laps are well earned if you plan on walking it. It takes around 30 minutes from the start of the trail, onto the river, and back to the top again. This run is secluded and downright fun; but be careful, this section has seen injuries and getting up back to the road through the bush is not fun.

Liucura: It seems that the Liucura is in the shadow of its bigger brother the Trancura, but personally I feel the smaller local Pucon run has a cooler vibe. It’s a mellow Class III with crystal-clear water. You’re secluded most of the time and surrounded by jungle-like scenery, including awesome mountain peaks on river right.

What are you waiting for? Chile has endless adventures, amazing kayaking, and great people. One thing to remember is that the kayaking community in South America is full of characters who come from all over the world. Traveling down to Chile is worth your time; if you're experienced with only one style of river this place will further push you with new ones. It’s an expansive country with limitless options. Time is slower in Chile. People let go of worry and take place in the present. It can test you, teach you, and most of all make an unforgettable experience with good people. It’s just another amazing place kayaking can take us.


John Webster is an Idaho-based contributor to C&K, having provided consistent quality work for our Photo of the Day program. Also check out his photo essay on the Jarbidge and Bruneau Rivers.

Check out photographer Tait Trautman’s Chilean road-trip photo essay The Gypsy Wagon’s Wild Ride

More at CanoeKayak.com:

It’s always sunny in Chile (video)

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