With the Huallaga done, the team (Matt Wilson, Ryan Casey, Evan Ross, Ben Luck and Nate and Matthew Klema) headed to Cuzco the famous jumping-off point for visiting Machu Picchu. Besides being the capitol of the last Incan dynasty and the subsequent Spanish regimes, Cuzco is situated in a region that is, essentially, in the middle of the headwaters of two of the longest tributaries in the Amazon basin: The Rio Urabamba and the Rio Apurimac.
We set our sites first on the Rio Paucartambo, a tributary of the Urabamba. John Armstrong, Lars Holbek and Jerry Kauffman first ran this stretch of whitewater in 1983. It has seen around half a dozen runs since. Starting at an elevation of 9,842ft in the town of Paucartambo and in 143 miles dropping to an elevation of 1,476ft at its confluence with the Urabamba.
After getting settled in Cuzco we got a ride arranged to the town of Puacartambo, which ended up being one of the coolest towns we visited in Peru. Early the next morning, after getting assaulted by Peruvian children multiple times, we paddled under the historic town bridge and toward the jungle.
The first day was mostly class III-IV boulder shoals winding through farmers potato and quinoa fields on the slopes of the canyon. In the late afternoon the canyon started to narrow and the fields started to disappear. We were at the entrance to Orange Canyon, the first difficult part of the river. We pulled over at the entrance for the night.
After a rainy night we got on the river and started into the canyon. It was a whole day of steep boulder gardens with sieves periodically spaced to keep you on toes. The whole canyon was orange due to very high concentrations of iron in the rock. Throughout the day we gathered more water and by the afternoon the canyon was opening up.
The next day the river had come up from more rain, the sieves became less common, the boulders got rounder. Kurt Casey’s description (Peru Whitewater) was true. The sheer number of read and run class IV and V boulder gardens is truly astonishing.
At some point on day three a new type of rapid started to show up occasionally. The Andes are a very young mountain range and eroding quickly at present. Periodically there would be a point where a whole part of the mountainside had slid into the river, or where a large tributary would enter and bring in such a large amount of debris that the river would proceed over the top of a large collection of boulders, mud and stick and into mass chaos. A few of the rapids were close to a mile long and were incredibly fast. Upon reaching a large pool you would look downstream and see the whole canyon wall had fallen into the river and fear the worst. These however, turned out to be one of the highlights of the run.
On the morning of day four, we quickly reached the second notorious, and most difficult, section of the Paucartambo. The Crossing of the God’s. The legend goes that this is where the Incan God’s crossed the Paucartambo on the huge house sized boulders. The river’s gradient increase substantially as it falls into massive holes in-between collections of these boulders. It cumulates in a right dogleg into a gorge that is not really scout-able or portage-able. Fortunately the gradient eases somewhat.
We worked our way downstream into this section running only a few short sections until we reached the final gorge. Unable to see the landing of the entrance drop we worked down a small side channel, ran the second part of the rapid to get to the other side of the river, from where we could see the rest of the gorge.
The canyon opened up. We continued to paddle all afternoon, into increasingly lush surroundings, more and bigger water and more landslide rapids. Fields, trails and then roads started to appear by evening.
Our wettest night, complete with an indescribable firefly show came to an end on the morning of day five. We were definitely, if not in, close to the jungle. Paddling the first half of the morning brought us the to the town of Estrella and stopped for a second, real, breakfast. Nate taught English to the 10-12 year-olds at the local school for an hour. The town physician came and told us that gringos should not be here because of the jungle diseases. We researched a vehicle that might take us back to Cuzco from there, but found there was little interest in this colony of seventh day Adventists for this. We loaded down with extra rations (liters of beer anyone?) for the remaining 26 miles (as the crow flies) to the confluence with the Urabamba. It turned out to be a beautiful class III-IV jungle canyon and we paddled the rest of the day and into the night putting as many miles behind us as we could.
Night 5 turned out to be our last night. We got up before sunrise to continue paddling and reached the confluence with the Urabamba at eight in the morning. Within fifteen minutes of the last one of us reaching the confluence we were blessed by an empty launcha, a.k.a. 37ft motorized canoe, coming upstream. It was good luck because we had just decided to take our chances on this end. Aurturo, the launcha captain, was happy to take us up to the end of the line for the bus, 15 miles up the Urabamba, and even called a friend to hold the bus for us.
We caught the bus and spent the next fourteen hours on two separate legs, riding bumpy roads complete with questionable cheap Peruvian cusine, few stops, drug searches, 16,000 ft passes with very cold temperatures, arriving back in Cuzco at 2 the next morning. The Paucartambo is an amazing river. It was very unique to be able to start at such a high elevation on little water and five day’s later be so close to sea level having seen the river transformed from mountain stream to a massive force of water helping to create the Amazon.