What sane elderly couple (she, aged 64, and he, aged 75) chooses to participate in a 400 mile, 28-day, descent of a whitewater river in Peru – a river that includes Class 5 rapids, Class 5 biting flies and Class 5 foot fungus? To be honest, though, we didn’t know about the flies and the fungus beforehand. They came as a cruel surprise. Yes, myself and wife Kathy is that elderly couple, and we only thought ourselves up to the task because of our profession – river outfitting – and our experience on long and difficult river trips, such as the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
Two or so years ago, I saw a FB post on a river in Peru, called the Rio Marañon. The point of the post, put up by a company called Sierrarios (Sierrarios.org), was to bring attention to the strong possibility that this river might soon be dammed, and dammed multiple times. Over 12 dams were being proposed. The owner of Sierrarios, an American by the name of Rocky Contos, considers the Marañon to be the “primary” source of the Amazon. This is from the Sierrarios website – “Río Marañon is the parent stream or ‘mainstem’ source of the Amazon, meeting no stronger rival at any junction on its route to the Atlantic. It therefore is the Upper Amazon and the only stream meriting this title”. Sierrarios offers very reasonably-priced trips on the Rio Marañon for American outfitters, river-runners and others, in the hope of raising awareness of the threat to the river. From our point of view, we would, afterward, be able to help in that effort, while seeing a new river that would, should one or more dams go in, not be runnable in its entirety (or at all) in the future.
The river rises in the Cordillera Huayhuash, a glaciated range second-only to the Cordillera Blanca, located a short distance to the north. The latter is the second highest mountain range in the world, and the former became known through the book and movie (“Touching the Void”) about a near-disastrous mountaineering adventure on a peak in the Huayhuash called Siula Grande (20,814 ft). The Marañon was first descended from high in its headwaters in 1977 by a team led by an American kayaker, John Wasson, who I had the pleasure of kayaking with earlier in the 70s. The Sierrarios trip starts with what Rocky has designated the Upper Grand Canyon, with the put-in at an altitude of 6900′. Here, the river is modest in size, but large enough for rafts to manage. After 79 miles, the Upper Grand Canyon yields to a section called the Inner Gorge. This 49 mile stretch contains the Class 5 section called Wasson’s Landslide. After that comes the 93 mile Middle or Central Grand Canyon, located between the towns of Chagual and Balsas. The Lower Grand Canyon stretch runs 89 miles from Balsas to the town of Puerto Malleta, where the canyon ends. Next is the 50 mile long Cumba stretch, an open and populated valley where we encountered fierce upstream winds. Finally, at an elevation of 1263′, the river runs back into a canyon … and the jungle. Two major tributaries enter here, and the river becomes greatly enlarged. Henceforth, the rapids are known as “pongos”. We ran 35 miles downstream to the village of Montenegro, where we ended our trip one day short. This was due to uncertainty about the welcome we might (or might not) receive from Indian communities further downstream, and deprived us of the best pongos.
The meeting place for the Rio Marañon trip was Huaraz, a small city located at the very foot of the Cordillera Blanca, at an altitude of 10,013′. This fortunate fact allowed us the opportunity to get into the mountains before the river trip. Who is “us” by the way? Our close friends, Britt Runyon Huggins and CJ Robison, accompanied us on our 49 day trip to Peru. Britt is the Operations Manager for our company – New Wave Rafting Co, located outside of Taos, NM. Britt’s significant other is CJ, who is a massage therapist and former guide for New Wave. We gave ourselves a week in Huaraz before leaving for the river, which included a two-night pack trip to Laguna 69 (15,111′), one of the star hiking attractions in the Cordillera Blanca. Being, as it turned out, altitude-challenged, I made it as far as the base camp (14,550′), but the others got to the lake. We enjoyed spectacular views of Huascaran (22,205′), the highest peak in Peru, along with Chopicalqui and Chacraraju, from base camp and the lake.
The Northern Highlands
We had also given ourselves an additional week after the completion of the river trip, to see more of the area. I guessed that we would want a deluxe accommodation, after 28 days of camping (and two more days doing clean up), so we had booked three nights at the Gocta Andes Lodge. This lodge looks out at a spectacular waterfall, 2,530′ in height, and is described by the Lonely Planet guide as “sitting on a severely idyllic setting”. But that wasn’t all! The lodge offered a full-day tour to the Kuelap ruins and Chachapoyas. The Lonely Planet guide describes Kuelap as “matched in grandeur only by the ruins of Machu Picchu”. It is a walled city that sits atop a narrow limestone ridge, at an elevation of 10,170 feet. Chacapoyas is a beautiful “laid-back” small colonial city, along the route to Kuelap.
To birdwatchers, the so-called Northern Peru Birding Route is a kind of Mecca. The Peru Tres Nortes website has this to say about it: “The Northern Peru Birding Route offers an astonishingly rewarding and diverse experience for the serious birder. It is becoming the most desirable birding destination in the world due the presence of endemics such as the White-winged Guan and Marvelous Spatuletail and its unrivalled range of mega-diverse eco-systems and endemic areas”. This route includes Gocta, Kuelap and other areas we visited, as we crossed eastward over the Highlands to Tarapoto, and, indeed, we got to see and photograph the Marvelous Spatuletail hummingbird, the Rufous-crested Coquette hummingbird and many other interesting and unusual birds.
Our last stop before our return to Lima was the PumaRinri Amazon Lodge, located beside the Huallaga River, outside of Tarapoto. This lodge is operated by Tres Nortes Peru, which also operates the Gocta Andes Lodge. We spent three nights there, enjoying bird-watching from our elevated verandas, hummingbirds at the feeders and a river cruise that provided more bird sightings. A lodge guide also found for us a few species of poison dart frog.
We had sped through Lima on our arrival in Peru, and we ended our trip by spending some more time there. Generally, I’m not a lover of cities, but we enjoyed our stay in the Miraflores district, with it’s very nice accommodations, restaurants, artisanal markets and parks.
The above is just an introduction to our trip to Peru. Many additional posts will document the adventures we had, the birds and other wildlife we saw and the places we visited. Here is the link to the next episode: