The rivers of Southern Chile are unparalleled in their pristine water, accessibility, quantity, and quality of whitewater. We made a two month mission to visit and kayak as many as possible as we made our way South, and the places we saw on the journey were incredible. Once a few hours south of Santiago – Chile’s centrally located capital city – the freeway Ruta 5 becomes a North-South parallel of the Pacific Coast while drainage after drainage runs down from the Andes mountains to the East. As the crow flies, the rivers of this part of Chile are quite close together, but most require driving out to the Ruta 5 and back up the next drainage, as the rugged landscape has little to no routes cutting between. With November being the equivalent of May in the Southern Hemisphere, and the landscape ranging from drier in the North to wetter in the South, it made sense to slowly work our way down and catch as many rivers running with prime flows as we could.
To describe every river we visited would be an overly detailed blog post, but even the highlights were numerous. First and foremost, the Río Claro, which provided not only the famous waterfall runs to kayak but also beautiful hiking trails, clear swimming holes and our first epic free camp spot of the season. Being a group of four, we started cooking almost all of our dinners over the open fire on our disco, a cast iron disc perfect for throwing basically anything into and having it come out delicious. The Río Ñuble cemented our realization that Southern Chile has the best safe wild camping ever – we had an entire giant river bar to ourselves, with only an occasional wild goat herd visiting our beautiful camp. We also learned about the local struggle to resist the hydroelectric dam that will put most of the whitewater and the incredible rural homesteads and communities along the drainage underwater. A visit to the Río Laja even took us high up into the Andes where we camped along the natural lake at the headwaters, surrounded by dark volcanic sand and rock.
November in Southern Chile wouldn’t be complete without spending time in Pucón, the touristy but beautiful lakeside town under the Villarica Volcano. Multiple epic drainages run into Lago Villarica, making the area a famous kayaking destination. We went to the Trancura, Palguin, Maichin, Nevados and Liacura rivers, some of which only run from spring melt and rain. Hotsprings, epic camp spots and friendly kayakers in addition to the rivers had us staying in the area for a while. Another highlight was a few hour loop drive from Pucón where we kayaked the Truful-Truful river, drove through Parque Nacional Conguillo – home of the old growth monkey puzzle trees, – and watched the boys fall off the perfect 35 ft Blanco Sur waterfall in their kayaks.
We spent a cozy, rainy Thanksgiving with a feast cooked in the truck and on a friend’s wood stove, and eventually headed South to the Fuy, a beautiful river that was running pretty high when we were there, and then jumped South to the Petrohué, where our good friend lives. The Petrohué is a beautiful big volume blue river flowing under Volcán Osorno and into a scenic fjord. The cute lakeside town of Ensenada and the hospitality of the river community made for an awesome stay, but eventually we decided it was time to head South once again.
Our last stop before Futa – the ultimate goal for our Chilean summer – was Hornopirén. Technically the beginning of Patagonia, Hornopirén must be reached by a small ferry and beautiful drive from Puerto Montt, the port city marking the beginning of a scattered coastline and extreme terrain to the South. The kayaking in Hornopirén is unlike almost any other place, with the Ríos Blanco and Negro flowing only a few miles apart but with entirely different characteristics. The Blanco is defined by smooth granite boulders and blue glacier melt water and the Negro by steep basalt drops. Before enjoying the rivers and scenery, we spent over 24 hours with the truck stuck deep in some heavy clay mud that had been lying innocently under a grass patch at camp. New rescue techniques and preventative caution were learned. After making some new local friends who wanted to join us, we booked the ferry to take us on our way to the Futaleufú.