Getting to South America takes long enough, but making it to a town of 900 people living in the bowels of Chile's Patagonia—one that the Rand McNally World Atlas has yet to acknowledge...now that takes some serious planning and patience. After four commercial flights, Christmas dinner in the Toronto Airport, a 20-minute chartered flight, and a jolting, four-hour drive through the austral Andes, I had finally arrived at my destination: the tiny village of Futaleufú, forgotten by the world if not for its infamously turbid river of the same name. From the air, the landscape between Puerto Montt and Chaiten (Futa's coastal gateway city—if you can call it that), inspired memories of Candy Land's Gum Drop Pass: verdant islands emerging like bobbing broccoli from swirling Mediterranean blues. Chaiten, a motley collection of ramshackle buildings, looks nestled in a world 100 years gone, but once you spend a week or two in Futa, Chaiten can feel like Manhattan on steroids.
Access and Resources
During the four-hour stumble from Chaiten, the land that Pablo Nerruda called his "Thin Country" became deceptively meatier as we drove further south. In a childlike state of awe, I found myself severely regressing from board game associations to near-infant drooling as we rumbled into the dusty streets of Futaleufú. Surrounded by panoramic views of white-capped Andean peaks, the town is centered on a small, manicured plaza. The streets have yet to see pavement and caballos remain the favored mode of transportation. We pulled into the Centro Aventura Futaleufú Lodge, a rustic inn emitting the aromas of fresh homemade bread and the Chilean cocktail specialty, pisco sours. Expediciones Chile, the outfitter sponsoring my ten-day paddling binge in Futa, has several camps and lodges, and I would be spending my first few days here, easing further into the deceptively calm sections of the raging Fu River.
The Mad Paddlers
On my first evening in Patagonia, sitting across the table from Chris Spelius, former kayak Olympian and owner of Expediciones Chile, and several of his kayak instructors (each with their own array of impressive—if not frightening—credentials), I felt more than a few pesos out of my league. While they'd kayaked down many of the world's fiercest rivers, creeks, waterfalls, I'd—well, I kayaked a bit around my backyard pond as a kid. I was listening to harrowing tales of daredevil drops and catastrophic runs, not really understanding the majority of kayaking slang zinging across the table, but it all sounded pretty impressive. Still struggling with the nomenclature of "haystack" (which, by the way, refers to large standing waves in a wave train before a big drop), I was drawn back to the table with the story of a record-breaking waterfall nosedive. I'd heard about Ed Lucero's 105.6-foot drop recently, and here I was sitting with a pal of the world-record holder. When I read about it, the jump seemed a ludicrous risk. Even at the table, with one degree of separation from that mad paddler, it still seemed downright impossible. And after a week on Chile's Futaleufú River, I would have a new appreciation and respect for explosive whitewater, having faced the river's foaming Cerberus in its Infíerno Canyon.
Most of these guides have handled more than a few death-defying moments on the Futaleufú; Spelius—fondly referred to as "Spe"—recognized a burgeoning industry waiting to explode and pretty much made the introductions between the U.S. and Patagonian kayaking. Although he wasn't the first to run the mighty Fu, he was among the early birds: "Dripping wet, in my fluorescent paddling gear, elated that I'd finally run this river, I stood out in the middle of that plaza," he pointed across the road, "and I knew that people would come—they had to come—this place is too incredible not to."
And so Expediciones Chile, the first commercial company in the region, was born. While hardcore kayakers made the Futa legendary, for better or for worse this 120-mile-long oasis isn't just about the kayaking anymore. Yeah, sure, that's still indisputably the coolest, most adrenaline-pumping sport to do here, but now there are a whole slew of other opportunities to distract all paddling novices from their inexperience and flagging athleticism. And ExChile can take you to the center of the action, whether it's paddling through a Class V rapid, landing a 10+-pound rainbow trout, horseback riding to lookouts over unrunnable rapids, or kayaking through the pristine Lago Yelcho. All these activities provide the brochure-promised, do-it-all, multisport trip, but visitors would be remiss to disclaim the real draw, the region's omnipresent centerpiece: Futa's whitewater.
Zoning Out of Time
Anyone with a severe schedule-centric mindset, consider yourself warned: Leave the to-do lists on the fridge at home, Chilean time runs by a very different clock. The summer sun doesn't set here until 10:30 p.m., and the nine-to-five rush is as foreign to them as a six-hour asado barbeque is to us. ExChile prides itself on being more culturally aware than most outfitters, so while this is a U.S. company, expect agendas to be loose. I planned most of my activities once in Patagonia—and after I witnessed what world-class whitewater looks like up close.
The confluence of Río Espolón and Río Futaleufú cradles the town of Futa 1,000 miles south of Santiago and 100 miles southeast of Chaiten. Because of the geographical isolation, time underwent near paralysis in this region for hundreds of years. Until recently, Futaleufú and nearby towns were only accessible from Argentina (prior to his extradition, Pinochet began a road-building project during the 1980s, which ran through Patagonian towns forgotten for centuries). Futa didn't get electricity until the late '80s, and communication today is mainly via walky-talkies, making most plans fairly spontaneous. While the river might be where the adrenaline flows, in many ways it's merely one component of this truly staggering swath of Patagonia.
After the electric turquoise color of the water, Futa's air quality is its most refreshing feature; with no pollution or smog, the landscape elucidates colors to the nth degree, as if each object on the horizon were cut out and pasted haphazardly to the sky. Even in the rain and fog, there's a refreshing sense of vitality and purity of color that, alongside the unpaved roads, oxen-pulled carts, and grazing sheep, throws you back about a century or two. As more and more neoprened neophytes arrive, however, the town is slowly trading its farming skills for tourist know-how (the ubiquitous Nestlé chocolate advertisements are the first clue, quickly followed by the vans laden with fluorescent kayaks).
"They thought I was crazy, showing up at their doorsteps drenching wet in my neon paddling gear, platinum blond hair, reflector sunglasses," remembered Spe with a laugh. Not to mention that he'd just run a monster of a river, an act deemed outlandish by most of the sane world. But these days, Chileans are seeing the windfall to this frenzy, and a few Americans are helping them to reap the rewards. U.S.-based companies and river guides have started to train locals to run their own paddling trips, and locals maintain many of the camps that outfitters have outside of town or on the river banks, handling the upkeep in Chile's winter when most pack up and head north.
Futa on Her Best Behavior
While researching for his backpacker classic, In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin wrote to his wife about the region's isolation and timelessness: "Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness..." This metaphor is equally apt for the ever-daring kayaker and his river. Río Futaleufú is certainly alluring. As soon as I saw the turquoise swathe and the mix of horror and pleasure on the river runners' faces at the take-outs, I knew I had to dip into that 40-mile whitewater gauntlet. For a novice, that of course meant rafting the Class Vs, not kayaking.
The first few days of my weeklong Futa adventure acquainted me with the river and its surroundings. Galloping from town into the surrounding Andean valleys took me to views of the river's torrential, unrunnable whiteouts. Dipping into Class I and II rapids in sit-on-top kayaks, I saw the playful parts of Futa, sections where flipping out of a boat meant a leisurely doggy-paddle to the shore, not wondering if I'd ever breathe again.
I returned to town after these seven- and eight-hour days to imbibe in the village's victual perfection: fresh grilled seafood and steak with wine from local Patagonian vineyards, followed by chocolate mouse or fresh fruit salad. Placid, serene times...but as I'd later learn, this five-day exposure to the river did not prepare me for the harsher side of this body of water, a 14-mile stretch of dense, churning Class V froth aptly named the Infíerno. During my final, three-day adrenaline push, I'd get more than a mouthful of river water, especially on day seven, a day of no rest because the Infíerno was upon us.
Even a Priest Couldn't Hold off These Rapids
On the fated morning before we reached Infíerno, our guide Mitch Sasser lifted his reflector shades, indicating to all of us to listen in; he was about to impart some river wisdom: "Most paddlers think the Futa has a female feel to it," he explained. I peered out of the raft down into the saline water and tried to imagine a Lady Macbeth bubbling and plotting below the placid surface. How apposite that today we would make our descent into hell's fury. Infíerno Canyon's rapids are, sequentially: Infíerno, Purgatory, Dances with Angels, and Escala De Jacoba (Jacob's Ladder).
Our flotilla included two rafts of travelers ranging from experienced Zambezi veterans to first-timers, two safety kayakers, and a cataraft (a suped-up version of a catamaran with two elephant-ear-sized oars). We floated toward a grumbling baritone, which grew ominously louder as we neared a blind corner of the river. The last two days had been flip-free in Futa's Class III and IV zones; we expected this day would be the same. Not so. The basalt chasm's shadows engulfed us as we fidgeted in our wetsuits, approaching waves high enough to incite vertigo. The two safety kayakers pounded different lines through the first set of rapids, followed shortly thereafter by the cataraft.
Eager to conquer, my raft volunteered to go first. In front of me, Rick, a daring priest who had offered to be our lead-paddler, harried the first rapid, "Bring it on! Yeah, you're mine!" A yelling, muscled holy man on your side lends a certain reassurance. But his quixotic threats and our confidence were quickly submerged in Infíerno's second rapid. We hit a hole in the river and faced a looming 10-foot wall of whitewater. Paralyzed or deaf to Mitch's shouts, the raft went vertical and all of us launched into the air, splashing into the dark, churning water with a series of impressive Cirque du Soleil contortions. Broken moments of thunderous light and half breaths were followed by silent blackness. An air-hungry loopiness set in, and all the capsized directives I'd learned vanished as quickly as the oxygen. After 90 seconds that lasted an hour and a half, I emerged from the rapids, perniciously close to the canyon's left-side wall. In a Spiderman feat of gravity evasion, Mitch had managed to stay in the raft. He stood about 12 feet away, yelling, "Swim, swim, swim for the raft!"
"Okay, okay," I sputtered, drowned out by the roar of the upcoming rapid known as Purgatory.
A three-year-old in floaties might've beaten me in that doggy-paddle race, but I made it, gasping, flailing, and exhausted. After tending to another drenched paddler, Mitch reached into the water and pulled me into the raft like he was landing a flopping, human-sized halibut. Teeth chattering, we sucked in oxygen and waited for the second raft to descend. With masterful strokes, they cut a beautiful line that left us feeling the paddler inadequates. The two safety kayakers and the cataraft picked up the rest of our crew, but not before one brave woman became a makeshift rudder on the cataraft through Purgatory's wave train.
For the next few hours, after our "tumble," the safety kayakers were elevated to the status of super heroes. The sport took on a whole new dimension: reading the water, facing unrun rapids, controlling the line...everything else seemed pretty tame by comparison.
Exhausted, spent, and satiated with asado barbeque after my final day on the river, I sat on the banks of the Futa at ExChile's Campo Tres Monjas for what was meant to be my last night in Patagonia. I listened enviously to the itinerary of the man with whom I'd caught a puddle jumper from Puerto Montt a week earlier. He was staying another week to do a guided five-day kayak trip, paddling from the Futaleufú Valley through the Andes to the town of Chaiten on the Pacific. My jealousy must have been apparent; Spe asked me if I might be interested in joining. Paddle through untouched wilderness and fjords, camp on sandy riverbanks, live on sausage, smores, and cheap red wine? "Um, yes please." The next morning, waiting for the modem to warm up on what was likely one of two computers in the entire Futaleufú Valley, I wondered just how many Lan Chile airline tickets are extended.... As difficult as it may be to get all the way down here, it's a hell of a lot harder to leave.
Getting There: Patagonia is the austral part of Chile and Argentina, starting at Río Colorado and running all the way down to the Straight of Magellan. The Futaleufú River Valley sits in central Chilean Patagonia. Hour-and-a-half flights from Santiago to Puerto Montt are frequent and relatively inexpensive. From there you can take a nine-hour ferry to Chaiten, or take a 40-minute chartered flight; most outfitters offer discounted rates for the flight, and you also can take in the unbelievable views. From Chaiten, buses and vans (provided by most outfitters) take you the jolting three-and-a-half hours to Futa.
Futaleufú can also be reached coming from Bariloche, the tourist center of Argentina's Lake District, to Esquel on the Argentine border. This will also save you the $100 Chilean airport tax. Daily flights to Bariloche depart from both Santiago and Buenos Aires.
Lan Chile Airlines offers direct flights from most major U.S. cities.
Getting Your Feet Wet: I highly recommend some pre-trip training: either some solid cardio (jogging, cycling, or—best yet—time on a rowing machine) to build stamina and lung power. Or take a few paddling lessons in the States so you can enjoy a bit more of the Futa—or at least conquer your initial fear of getting dumped into the froth. One ExChile guide, a former kayak rodeo star, runs a kayak school in Bozeman, Montana, during the summer months. Check out prices and schedules at www.montanasurf.com
Activities: The Futa Valley's activity list is nearly limitless. Besides whitewater paddling, there's kayaking on the area's major lakes, horseback riding, trekking, mountain biking, camping, premiere fly-fishing, and canyoneering, to name only a few.
For sample itineraries and pricing check out: www.exchile.com
When to Go: Futa's season starts in December and runs through March, but the water level is best for kayaking in February and March (the river runs anywhere from 6,000 to 20,000 cubic feet per second).
Extensions: If you have the time, definitely add a trip across the border to Argentina's Los Alerces National Park or further south into Patagonia's Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego.