Urubamba River, Cusco


A calm section on the Urubamba River, near Ollantaytambo.

A calm section on the Urubamba River, near Ollantaytambo.

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 major tributary of the Amazon.

During the dry season (roughly April - October), the most popular rafting route is the lovely stretch of river that goes past the town of Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley. The rafting here is often combined with a visit to the the Incan fortress and/or the famous market at Pisac.

In high water season (December - May approx), the rapids are submerged, so rafting operators prefer to go to locations to the south-east of Cusco.

Finally, further downstream, and beyond Machu Picchu, organised rafting is available year-round near the town of Santa Maria, and this is usually offered as an optional extra during the Inca Jungle Trail, an alternative route to the iconic Inca citadel.

Sacred Valley

  • 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.

  • Huaran: an hour's drive 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. 

South of Cusco

  • 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.

  • 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.

Santa Maria

Santa Maria, Cusco

This one-hour rafting trip is also on the Urubamba River, but differs from those in the Sacred Valley 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 Maria.

Mountain biking from Abra Malaga to Santa Maria.

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.