Shooting Chile's Bio Bio

Its name may sound like the call of an obscure rainforest bird, but the Bio Bio happens to be one of the world's great whitewater rivers. Located at the northern edge of Chile's famous Lake District, it starts gently enough through soft rolling countryside in the Andean foothills, then drops into the first of three Yosemite-like canyons. Each is a gauntlet of big and technical Class IV and V rapids with glassy chutes and house-sized holes to challenge the most expert rafter or kayaker. Along the way are beaches, waterfalls, and hiking trails to nearby mountain lakes. Halfway down, the river flows by the flank of Volcan Callaqui, a 10,300-foot volcano that is worth a layover day for the grueling all-day climb to the top.

The Bio Bio has been the focus of a major environmental struggle in recent years as eco-activists and Pehuenche Indians who live along the river battle the planned construction of seven hydroelectric dams that will essentially destroy the river, flooding thousands of acres of Pehuenche homeland and halting all whitewater operations. One dam has already been completed, submerging about a quarter of the whitewater run, including a beloved rapid called One-Eyed Jack. But the second dam has been stalled by opponents, and the heart of the river remains runnable—for now.

Practically Speaking

To paddle the Bio Bio on your own is folly. In addition to the daunting logistics of getting your own equipment to the put-in, there is the daunting danger of the rapids to the paddler, however skilled, who does not know them well.

Fortunately, there are a number of commercial raft operators, and a handful of kayak outfitters as well. Trips range from one-day runs by Chilean companies in nearby Concepcion ($50-75) to two-week $3,000 all-inclusive trips by top-drawer U.S. outfitters. A five-day raft run with a Chilean company will cost around $1,000.

Bio Bio trips are run in both oar boats, in which you just hang on while the guide does all the work; and paddle boats, in which you are part of the crew. The latter, although a lot more fun, is not for beginners. Improper or tentative paddling could endanger everyone in the raft. Kayakers should be veteran Class V paddlers with a bulletproof combat roll.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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