Chile's Futaleufu: The World's Best Whitewater?
In northern Patagonia, four hours' drive from the nearest paved road, a foaming blue ribbon slices through deep chasms, weirdly spiked granite peaks, and broad meadows sprinkled with neat farms that get by just fine without electricity or internal combustion engines. Call it a cross between Yosemite and Switzerland 100 years ago.
Virtually unknown until the early 1990s, the Rio Futaleufu has rapidly achieved legendary status among whitewater rafters and kayakers for its warm, frothy blue-green water and 40-mile gauntlet of Class IV and V rapids, including a train of 10 to 15-foot standing waves called the Himalayas that is among the highest in the world. The trout fishing is world class. And the hiking is superb on a network of oxcart and horse trails that run along both sides of the river and up numerous side valleys to even more remote hamlets and farms.
Rafting or kayaking the Fu on your own is difficult logistically and dangerous for all but the most accomplished experts. Most paddlers hook up with one of two outfitters who pioneered the river in the early 90s by purchasing land along the shore and setting up permanent base camps.
For kayakers, there's Spe's Expediciones Chile (firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-488-9082), run by former Olympic kayaker Chris Spelius. From a basecamp at the confluence of the Futaleufu and Rio Azul, Expediciones Chile offers a variety of kayak trips, from beginner to expert (mostly the latter) on the Fu and several nearby rivers at $150 to $200 per day. Earth River Expeditions (earthriver.com or 800-643-2784) runs 10-day raft trips (five days on the river) for $2300. Earth River has two idyllic base camps, one set in a cave next to the famed Zeta Class VI rapid, the other perched on a cliff 200 feet above the river. Both have hot tubs. Earth River also runs hiking trips in the Futaleufu valley. Independent hiking is quite doable. The small town of Futaleufu, a mile from the river near the Argentine border, has a number of hosterias at $10-$40 a night, and several others are scattered around the valley.
The season on the Futaleufu runs from December through March, summer in the southern hemisphere. Weather is generally benign, with clear warm days and cool nights, although rain is possible at any time.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication