Rafting in Peru

With countless waterways descending from the mighty Andes mountains towards the Pacific coast, or into the Amazon basin, Peru has a multitude of options for white-water rafting which, in the words of Donald Trump, are 'very, very tremendous. Really tremendous'.

Here are some of the better known, going roughly from North to South, all of which can be arranged by PeruNorth

NB. There is a guide to the classification of river rapids at the end of this list. 

1. Mayo River, San Martin

This is a well-loved, half-day excursion from Tarapoto. The entry point is at the small riverside village of Churuyacu, a 45-minute drive along the main road towards Moyobamba

The rapids are Level II - III year round, so good for beginners, and it is also deep enough at a couple of points to jump out of the boat and float downstream. 

The 'tarzan rope' into the Mayo River. 

The scenery in the valley is beautiful, being a mix of high jungle and agricultural land, with plenty of birdlife in evidence. 

15 minutes from the exit point - the village of Maceda - there is a riverside beach, where there is a rope swing (‘soga de Tarzan’) into the river, tied to an overhanging tree, and a couple of swings (also hanging from trees). 

2. Cañete River, Lunahuana, Lima

Located on the banks of the Cañete River, at an altitude of just under 500 m (1,600 ft) and only a three-hour drive from the city of Lima, Lunahuana is popular with urbanites looking for winter sun, beautiful mountain landscapes and adventure activities. 

A small flotilla on the Cañete River near Lunahuana. 

There are various rafting routes along the river, catering for all levels and ages. The river is at its highest from December to April, as the rain in the Andes mountains makes its way downhill, and this is when the rapids are at their most exciting, reaching grades of IV+ and attracting experienced rafters from around Peru and beyond. 

During the rest of the year, the rapids are of a calmer II or III grade, which is ideal for beginners, with trips lasting from half an hour to two hours on the river. 

3. Urubamba River, Cusco: 

Within striking distance of the city of Cusco, there are several options for a day's rafting on the beautiful Urubamba River ... which, confusingly, is also sometimes known as the Vilcanota or Vilcamayo River:

A flat section on the Urubamba River, near Ollantaytambo. 

  • Ollantaytambo: Starting up-river from this famous Inca town, this offers a two-hour scenic float right in the heart of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, with great views of the venerated, snow-capped Veronica Mountain, along with rapids of grades II and III. 
     
  • Cusipata: Located south-east from Cusco, this has slightly more, higher-level rapids than those near Ollantaytambo, especially during the rainy season (December to May), when the river in Quiquijana is classified as grade IV. 
     
  • Chuquicahuana: A little further south from Cusipata, this section of the river has exhilarating, grade III and IV rapids. In the rainy season, it is generally too dangerous for commercial rafting.
  • Huaran: an hour's driver from Cusco, near the Sacred Valley town of Calca. From here it is a two-hour paddle along the Urubamba River, with beautiful scenery along the way. 

  • Huambutio: this is where the Cusco Valley meets the Urubamba river. From here the river flows through a young valley with views of volcanic formations and Pachatusan Mountain. It also passes through the town of San Salvador, site of the famous pilgrimage site of El Señor de Huanca. This trip is suitable for beginners, with Grade II & III rapids.

4. Santa Maria, Cusco

This one-hour rafting trip is also on the Urubamba River, but differs from the above in that it is not a day trip from Cusco. Instead, it is usually offered as an option for the afternoon of the first day of the Inka Jungle Trail, an alternative route to Machu Picchu, which is especially popular with backpackers.

Mountain biking from Abra Malaga to Santa Rosa. 

The morning is spent driving from Cusco to Abra Malaga, a mountain pass 4,316 m (14,160 ft) above sea level, where one transfers to a mountain bike in order to descend to the town of Santa Maria, over 2,300 m (7,546 ft) below.

The start point for the rafting is Chaullay bridge, a 20-minute drive from Santa Maria, and after about an hour in the river, the exit point is the jungle town of Quillabamba

The rapids are fairly constant and vary from Grade II to IV, depending on the season and volume of water in the river. 

5. Apurimac River, Cusco

A quiet section on the Apurimac River. 

For a longer, wilder rafting experience from Cusco, there are three-day tours through the Apurimac Canyon.

The Apurimac River has been claimed to be the origin of the Amazon, in that water flowing from its source, on the flanks of Mt. Mismi in Arequipa Province, travels the furthest to reach the mouth of the Amazon River, some 6,400 km (4,000 miles) away, on the Brazilian coast.

On its way to the Atlantic Ocean, it has cut a 2,000 m (6,562 ft) deep canyon, through beautiful desert scenery, which offers world-class whitewater rafting, with rapids of Class II, III, IV & even V, boasting names such as 'Tres Marias', 'Gates of Purgatory' and 'Last Laugh'!   

The first day is spent driving from Cusco to the Apurimac region, a journey of four to five hours. Although itineraries vary, the entry point is usually at Huallpachaca Bridge (2,200 m / 7,217 ft a.s.l.), and the exit point is Kunyac Bridge. The nights are spent camping in secluded spots on the river bank. 

5. Chili River, Arequipa

Chilina Valley with Chachani in background. 

The Chili River runs right through the heart of urban Arequipa, on its way from the snow-capped Andes to the Pacific Ocean, and one does not have to go very far from the city for a great half-day's rafting.

A 20-minute drive north, up the picturesque Chilina Valley, brings one to the area of Charcani where one enters the river. From there it is a 7 km (4 mile) run down to Puente Chilina, which takes about an hour and a half.

Rapids are Class II and III, with one very exciting Class IV drop, which requires extra care. The scenery is spectacular, with the skyline dominated by Chachani Mountain and Misti Volcano.

6. Cotahuasi River, Arequipa

A non-raftable section of the Cotahuasi River. 

Another classic, multi-day rafting trip through the world's deepest canyon. The Cotahuasi River offers up to 160 km (100 miles) of Class IV & V rapids, with evocative names like 'High Side for Your Life', 'Metro Canyon' and 'Centimetre'. It was only descended for the first time in 1994, and is not for the faint-hearted

It is a full day's drive from the city of Arequipa to the Andean town of Cotahuasi, and from there, rafters spend at least five days on the river, paddling (and occasionally portering) during the day and camping by the river (and near Inca ruins) at night. 

7. Colca River, Arequipa

Colca River flowing through the canyon. 

The province of Arequipa really is spoilt for mighty canyons, with the famous Colca Canyon reaching a depth of 3,270 m (10,725 ft), which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and second only to nearby Cotahuasi in Peru. It was formed by the Colca River, and there are a number of places along the river that can be rafted. 

The best-known of these routes starts in the town of Huambo, from where it is an all-day hike down into the valley, with mules carrying the equipment, to Canco, which is the put-in point. 

Most itineraries involve six day's paddling and camping, soon passing the confluence with the Mamacocha River, where the volume in the Colca River doubles and the rapids begin in earnest, with some graded as high as Class V. 

Colca Canyon is well-known for its condor population. 

A natural highlight along the way is the 'Condor Shower' Waterfall, whose fine mist is used by these huge vultures to give their feathers a rinse. 

Eventually, the terrain levels out as the river nears the Pacific and the rafting ends in the Majes Valley, not far from the Toro Muerto Petroglyphs

8. Tambopata River, Puno & Madre de Dios

This is an epic, multi-day route taking at least eight days, with five or six of those days paddling on the river, travelling from 3,878 m (12,723 ft) above sea level, in Puno province, to 200 m (656 ft) in the Amazonian province of Madre de Dios.

The entry point is in or near the small Andean town of Putina Punko, which is a rough road journey, over a high pass, from the city of Juliaca.  

Once in the water, the river which is graded as Class III - IV takes you close to the Bolivian border, and through the Bahuaja Sonene Reserve, into the heart of the Tambopata National Reserve, with its rich jungle flora and fauna. Travelling by raft during the day, and camping beside the river at night, is a great way to get close to nature, without disturbing it, so there is a good chance to see caiman, river otters, monkeys ... and even big cats like ocelots, pumas and jaguars, if lucky. 

A rescued macaw (right) at the Tambopata Research Center. 

Most of the Tambopata rafting expeditions spend a night or two at the remote Tambopata Research Center, which is particularly well-known for the nearby macaw clay lick, before catching a flight out of the city of Puerto Maldonado.  

Offering wilderness, wildlife and whitewater, the Tambopata is the ultimate rafting adventure for those looking for a combination of adrenaline and natural history. But keep in mind that this route only operates in dry season (March to October). 

River Classification

Otherwise known as the International Scale of River Difficulty, below are the six classes (or grades) of difficulty in white water rafting. They range from the simple to the very dangerous:

Which class of rapid is this? 

  • Class I – Easy: Moving water, small waves, and clear routes, almost totally unobstructed.
  • Class II – Rookie: Rapids with wide, clear channels, evident without scouting. The waves, rocks and other obstacles are easily spotted.
  • Class III – Intermediate: Rapids with higher, irregular and constant waves, capable of immersing a raft. Narrow channels that often require complex manoeuvering against the rapids and good control of the raft.
  • Class IV – Advanced: Quick, powerful, but predictable rapids that require precise boat-handling in turbulent water.
  • Class V – Expert: Very large, powerful, bumpy rapids. A high level of training is required.
  • Class VI – Extreme: These rapids are strong, unpredictable and potentially life-threatening. For teams of experts only.