Kayaking the Rio Pacuare

Bajo Pacuare to San Martin
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This spectacular section of the Pacuare is one of the world's great whitewater treasures, but its length, difficulty, and isolation preclude all but the most determined and skilled paddlers from attempting it.

Fifteen miles of paddling on water of such difficulty, with three likely portages, make for a very nearly impossible single-day descent.

Carrying camping gear in boats makes this Class V run all the more difficult. In addition, the take-out at San Martin is 1.7 miles from the river, with a steep rutted path being the only means of egress. An excellent option is, of course, to continue downstream through the scenic lower canyons. The difficulty lies in carrying sufficient gear for a three-day trip in a boat while negotiating the extremely difficult rapids of the upper section. We recommend arranging for raft support from San Martin to Siquirres.

Almost all of the difficult rapids in this section occur within two steep-walled canyons, each of which is separated by more open sections where the canyon walls are not as steep or confining.

If difficulties should arise, it would be best to continue downstream or return upstream to one of the open areas to hike out on the left bank (there are only a few isolated farms for 100 miles from river right). One could easily depart on foot from Bajo Pacuare number two, six miles downstream from the put-in, or with greater difficulty at any one of several small clusters of houses.

The upper and lower Pacuare were first run by the Polish Canoandes expedition in 1980. Led by Piotr Chmielinski, the group paddled the difficult upper gorges during the high-water month of September, making this among the most difficult rivers that the expedition attempted.

Michael Shulte, a river ranger on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, led two other kayakers on the next descent of the upper Pacuare in 1983. They portaged three rapids that were described as Class V-VI and named several of the rapids in the gorge.

The third trip down this section was inadvertent. A group of rafters from the United States put in at Bajo Pacuare, thinking that this was the correct launch site for the main Pacuare run. Fortunately, the group consisted of experienced rafters who had the sense to scout whenever the river became difficult and to portage several of the more difficult drops.

Whitewater photographer Tom Stults, Fernando Castaneda, and Rafael Gallo were the next group to attempt this section of the Pacuare, relying on Michael Shulte's detailed river notes. The group managed to run the first Class V-VI drop and obtained photographs of this remarkable river.

For the first mile and a half below Bajo Pacuare, the river flows through open fields where small farms reach to the river's edge. Small houses line the river and many fishermen are seen along the banks. Suddenly, the river bends hard to the left and becomes very congested. Difficult rapids quickly replace the houses as the most common streamside features and few signs of human occupancy are found. The rapids are very steep boulder gardens replete with powerful holes.

The first one can be boat-scouted, but each consecutive rapid seems to increase in congestion, power, and difficulty. Several of them have badly undercut sidewalls and nearly every one of them requires a lot of maneuvering between house-size boulders and large holes. One such rapid has similar features to the previous ones, only carried to an extreme. Most parties carry it, but it has been run by starting far left, then working to the far right where two monster holes must be punched.

The river opens up somewhat after approximately five miles, then the rapids are fairly easy until the small village of Bajo Pacuare appears on the left. A hanging bridge upstream from Bajo Pacuare signals the end of the first difficult section.

Two miles of easy paddling brings you to a marked canyon, where the largest drops on the upper Pacuare are found. Most parties make their second portage in this stretch at Jumping Bobo Falls, which has a Class V+ rapid above it. The rapid is named for the bobo fish, which migrates upstream to reproduce.

The ten-foot falls are a major obstacle to their migration, and they can often be seen making spectacular leaps to clear the cataract. The rapid above would be only marginally runnable without the tree jammed in it—the huge undercut rock at its left, or the waterfall at its end.

When Rafael attempted the rapid on his first run, he was pulled beneath the undercut by the tremendous force of the river and disappeared for an extended period. Fernando was manning a safety line, which Rafael managed to grab just before washing over the waterfall.

His boat remained lodged under the boulder for several more minutes before washing out. Earl Alderson accomplished the first and possibly the last "successful" run of the falls in 1984. He managed to find a clean line over the edge, using a powerful stroke to clear the drop, only to be endered and severely thrashed in the reversal at the bottom.

A few individuals have managed successful runs through the entrance rapid, but few others have attempted the falls.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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