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From the Andes to the Pacific Ocean
The first complete crossing of Chile via Sea Kayak

by Scott Hamilton

Magellan didn’t find it; a route from the Andes through Darwin’s “Green Jungle” to the Pacific Ocean. Could there be a way to paddle across the entire country of Chile? After reviewing maps, and researching it in depth, I called Chris Spelius. With Spe’s local knowledge, contacts, and logistics capability, we determined that it was possible on the Rio Palena. All sections of the Palena had been run previously, the upper section in whitewater boats, and the lower section a few times in sea kayaks. But nobody, apparently, had ever attempted the entire run from the border of Argentina to the Pacific, across the entire country of Chile.

It was surprisingly easy to convince my unsuspecting girlfriend Melissa, to join in the adventure. Before we knew it, our February departure date was at hand and we headed out from our apartment in New York City, in snow flurries, bound for Chile. Southern hemisphere “Austral” seasons are opposite to the USA, so we would arrive in Chile at the seasonal equivalent of early August. We connected with the overnight Lan Chile flight in Miami, arriving in the early am in Santiago, and then continued on to Puerto Montt, where we switched to a small “puddle jumper” for the final 45 minute flight to the fishing village of Chaiten.

Melissa was particularly impressed by the creative use of duct tape, and the breeze from missing door gaskets on this flight segment. I was even more impressed, riding shotgun, by the pilots use of a handheld GPS to navigate in instrument conditions. From Chaiten we headed out of town in a pickup truck on the spectacular Andes to Ocean road. The final four hours passed quickly with the scenic beauty of traveling down dirt roads into the heart of Patagonia, passing by pristine lakes, hanging blue ice glaciers and the turquoise waters of Rio Futaleufu, one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.

Arriving in the Village of Futaleufu was like traveling back a hundred years in a time machine to Telluride. The town has electricity and Internet access, yet many of the kids still ride horses to school. The locals are friendly, roosters crow, dogs bark, and each little house has its own vegetable garden. There are more horses than vehicles in the village.

Bunking in a comfortable but rustic lodge we met with our guide for the expedition, Pablo Gonzalez. Pablo is an all-around great guy, and multi-talented outdoorsman, fluent in the local language and culture, with great people skills and an almost clairvoyant “sixth sense” when it comes to reading rivers.

We spent the next two days with Pablo practicing maneuvers on the nearby Rio Espolon. We spent a lot of time working on ferries, eddy turns, edging on re-entry to swift current, wet exits and re-entries, swimming position, self rescue and group rescue procedures. It took a while to get comfortable in a 2-man kayak as we were used to paddling singles. Having to make quick decisions and execute complex maneuvers in tandem with your partner takes practice (that’s why they call them “divorce boats”).

Early the next morning we piled in a truck with Spe and Brian Beauleaurier, and, pulling a trailer loaded with kayaks, headed off in a cloud of dust across Chile. Our destination was the village of Palena near the border of Argentina. Two and half hours and 80 kilometers later we rolled into the village of Palena, just like a scene from an old TV episode of Gunsmoke. As we arrived we encountered a cattle herd being driven through town, I almost expected Hoss and Little Joe to ride up and tell us there was trouble back at the Ponderosa.

After a series of wrong turns, we found a local farmer with an ox cart awaiting our arrival to carry our boats to the very out of the way put-in on the border of Argentina. Spe had sent a short-wave message to a local contact of his a few days earlier, and asked him to relay the request to the ox cart guy who lives way off the grid. The system actually worked.

We loaded the boats, and headed off down a hot dusty trail toward the boarder, a distance of 4 – 5 kilometers, and inaccessible to any sort of vehicle except an ox-cart. The scenery was spectacular with open fields of wildflowers and the mountains of Argentina in front of us. As it was an exceptionally hot day, on arrival at the Palena we took the opportunity to swim from Chile to Argentina across the narrow tributary stream dividing the border.

Spe and Brian paddled the upper Palena section with us in whitewater boats, mostly for fun, but also in case we got in trouble on the big water sections. We ran the upper Palena with empty boats, encountering a lot of smaller rapids. A couple of hours into it we encountered a 3+, the crux of the upper Palena. It was an “S” shaped bend with a steep drop, big rocks mid channel, and tangled trees on the precipitous banks making it quite difficult to get around (we portaged, Spe, Pablo and Brian ran it). By mid-afternoon we had paddled back to the road at Palena. We lugged our gear down the steep embankment, and loaded the boats. Our amigos, Spe and Brian departed back to Futaleufu, leaving the three of us to begin the next leg of our journey toward the Pacific.

Immediately upon launching from Palena we were in moderate swiftwater, mostly class 1, and nothing bigger than class 2 rapids. Our first night we camped in a great spot on the distant fringe of a cattle ranch. The following morning started with a tricky rapid, a sweeping right turn followed by a hairpin left with a steep drop. It was one of the tougher pitches of the trip, and the rapids continued with only brief interruptions for most of the day. This section of the Palena has narrow box canyons, steep walls, very rapid flow and sustained vertical drop. Afraid to divert our attention for more than a moment, brief glimpses away from the river revealed a spectacular panorama of Andes, lush forests, waterfalls and glacial peaks. We paddled under a huge cliff with waterfalls, followed by a long very winding section of the river. The water was so clear you could look down and see the bottom flying by.

There was no way to scout the rapids due to the box canyon nature of the terrain, and no way to walk around or portage most of the rapids. This was a hairy section of river and definitely not for the faint of heart. Paddling a loaded 2 man sea kayak in whitewater is a cross between rafting and kayaking. We quickly learned it was usually better to keep the rudder up in the bigger whitewater sections.

About mid-day the Rio Tigre entered from the left with a massive convergence of the two dissimilar currents. There were many more rapids below the Tigre with drops and turns. By early afternoon we finally got out of the canyon and onto a wider section of the river. It had been raining off and on most of the day, and the rain brought much more sediment into the river, leaving it dark, deep, and really creepy at times with low clouds, grey skies, wind and rain

Mid morning the next day the Palena merged with the Rio Frio entering from the right. The Frio was a big high volume river spewing turbid, super cold glacial melt water. The Palena below this point has very swift, cold murky water, literally racing along. We ran rapid after rapid after rapid, some running for hundreds of yards. The biggest waves, and the toughest rapids of the trip were encountered in this section. We had very little time to enjoy the amazing scenery with our attention focused constantly on the river in front, loaded with sweepers and snags that could nail you quickly with a momentary lapse in attention. To swim here might be to die here without a wetsuit on (wetsuits or drysuits might have been a good idea, hindsight is always 20/20). If you crash and burn in a rocky section you’ll probably flush out the bottom somewhere, but if one of these snags gets you…. The river here has a massive amount of current, edging was critical. In some places big pillows of water a foot or more above the river level would build up in hairpin turns, and once in a while the massive boiling swirling currents would grab our loaded two man boat and spin it around like we were in the clutches of some giant submerged fiend.

Early in the afternoon we encountered our first signs of civilization as we passed under a hand operated cable tram, and then the “Road to the End of the World” (the Careterra Austral) that crosses the river on a bridge. Nearby is the town of La Junta though we didn’t see it from the river. In this area there a few farms and a couple of remote fishing lodges as emerged from the mountains into an area of flatter terrain. With the less steep terrain the river moderated considerably, allowing us an opportunity to savor the sweeping vistas and tiny rustic ranchitos that we encountered on the river banks. This evoked images of what the US probably looked like at the turn of the century. We located a great campsite near some local hot springs, and experienced a sense of relief brought about by clearing skies and sunshine, along with the knowledge that the most difficult portion of the river was behind us.

The whole character of the river changed the next day as the terrain began to flatten out and the river became calmer. In this section we saw lots of flocks of birds, with shafts of sunlight coming down in rays from the clouds, and Volcan Melimoy and its hanging blue ice glaciers above us. It was like a scene out of Conan Doyle’s “Lost World”. If dinosaurs were still roaming the earth this is where they would be. It was like paddling through Jurassic Park. We encountered shallows in places, which we got around without too much difficulty with some pushing and dragging for brief stretches. In a few places there were still a some hairy rapids that we ran like a giant slalom course between whole trees and giant snags, with sharp turns and big sweepers mid-river.

On the Palena you really have to be on full alert, watching where you’re going. We had a few “pucker moments” with submerged snags hidden in the eddy lines in fast water. Left or right? We had to choose which fork to take several times with significant consequences. Pablo’s experience was invaluable here. A couple of times we looked back to whisper “thank God we didn’t go that way”. There were monstrous sweepers and snags in places, as if whole sections of forests were deposited en masse by the early spring snow melt and resulting runoff. Sometimes the only navigable openings were only a yard or two across between the roots and branches in the swift moving water. It wasn’t particularly difficult paddling, but the consequences of screwing up were large. This was true of much of the Palena. The danger factor was usually created by the objective hazards of the sweepers and snags, less so by technically complex rapids.

Later in the day the terrain flattened even more with the towering peak of Volcan Melimoyu with its hanging blue ice glaciers now slowly receding in the distance behind us. With about 55k to go on the still swift river we camped above a gravel bar, up on the sand, with a driftwood fire. We spent a beautiful night camping under clear star-studded skies under the Southern Cross. Only one more day of easy paddling between us and the Pacific.

We awoke to a beautiful warm, dry morning and the best weather of the trip, light breeze and missing boats. Holy shit, no kayaks. We had carried them a long way up the gentle gravel river bar, but with only some mysterious footprints in the sand our kayaks had vanished sometime in the night. Apparently the local gypsies, perhaps with the unexpected tide, had absconded with the boats. A newly constructed road was visible in the distance so, having no viable alternative, we set off by foot through the jungle-like terrain along the river.

The bushwhack took several hours lugging all our gear with jury-rigged harnesses made from belts and stuff sacks tied into make-shift packs using plastic bags as slings . This was a difficult and unpleasant slog. Visibility was limited to a couple of meters by the dense foliage. We would leave Melissa with the gear, then reconnoiter for viable routes through the twisted roots, vines, and slime filled ravines, shouting back and forth to keep our bearings. It evoked images of pit vipers, creepy crawlers, and the jungles of Vietnam except, thankfully, nobody was shooting at us.

We eventually emerged on the roadway, re-hydrated at a small waterfall, lay on the rocks resting for a while, and then hiked down the gravel roadbed, still under construction, and not yet a traveled way. A short distance farther we came to a gravel slope used by the workers to access the river where we miraculously found Pablo’s kayak and paddle. We learned afterward that a local fisherman from the village had found it in the bushes downriver and kindly towed it up to the gravel bar near the road, assuming correctly that someone might need it. Some of our gear had been pilfered, but at least we had our boat back.

What had looked like utter defeat began to show a ray of hope. We felt like the Argonauts of mythology, pawns in a giant chess game being played by the Gods. Viewing the recovery of the boat as a miracle of sorts, we agreed that one of us should complete the trip we had set out to do. At 5:00pm Pablo set off down river in an effort to reach the Pacific Ocean while I backtracked to the waterfall to retrieve supplies we had cached there after getting out of the jungle. Amazingly, an hour or so later Pablo came paddling back upstream toward us, towing the double kayak behind him, which he had found in hidden in bushes a couple of kilometers downstream.

The good news was we had recovered both boats; the bad news was that we had only one paddle, the others stolen or washed out to sea. It was after 6:00pm, we had two boats, one paddle, and we were headed to the Pacific, which we would certainly reach long after nightfall. But the weather was good, skies clear, no wind, and we had come so far that quitting now just wasn’t an option we were willing to embrace. With almost no discussion, we collectively decided to push on; experimenting with towing rigs enroute and taking turns paddling. We found it worked best paddling from the stern of the double boat, pulling the single behind on a short tether.

Later that evening, just as dusk was turning to darkness, we entered a narrow channel of the Pitipalena Estuary, overhung by dense vegetation at the base of the island of our destination village. While paddling through the canal darkness enveloped us completely and we paddled onward using a headlamp. We exited the canal into a dark abyss maybe an hour later. At this point we realized we were in salt ocean water, evinced by the glittering bioluminescent phosphorescence in the water, and high salt content (by taste). The sea conditions were totally calm, like a giant mill pond. We soon realized that we were near low tide, and as a result were on the wrong side of a multi-mile long mud bar extending seemingly endlessly into the dark void. Reconnoitering from the ridge of the bar, we could make out distant lights that we presumed were from the village of Raul Marin Balmeceda. Because the village electricity is supplied by generator, we knew we had to move swiftly before the generator was shut down for the night, which would cause us to lose our guiding beacon.

As the minutes ticked by we huddled and decided it would probably be more efficient to drag the loaded boats across the mud flats directly toward the distant lights, instead of paddling further outward an unknown distance to round the end of the bar. The whole day was beginning to feel more and more like an episode of “Survivor” gone bad. With jury rigged cord harnesses we dragged the boats for 50 paces or so at a stretch, huffing and puffing until our heart rates were maxed out, then we would rest for a couple of minutes, and repeat the process over and over again. The distance seemed endless, but was probably a bit less than half a kilometer, which took nearly an hour of serious aerobic humping. If any of us had been predisposed to having the “big one” it would certainly have happened there.

In another time and place it would have been a beautiful evening. Cool, clear, broken clouds overhead. It was easy to imagine sitting on a porch somewhere, sipping a beer with your feet on the railing. The mud was loaded with bioluminescence and each of our footsteps created a brilliant blue green flash radiating outward as if we were wearing giant iridescent snowshoes. Once we finally crossed the bar and got back in the water we figured the hard part was finally over. Not quite, however. We next encountered head currents so strong we came to the unfortunate realization that, though still paddling, we were actually going backwards when carefully marked against the distant shore. The only way we could make progress was to take turns paddling sprints with the lone paddle in an effort to get closer to the shore and out of the main current. Pablo and I took turns paddling furiously, while Melissa served as coxswain from the single boat behind. “Come on guys, give me ten more, you can do it…paddle, paddle, paddle” A seemingly endless time later a moored fishing boat emerged from the darkness, ever so slowly, like a ghostly apparition from a surreal mist. Somewhere ashore a dog barked.

A short time later we paddled up to the embankment of the village of Puerto Raul Marin Balmeceda, several wooden fishing boats on the beach, and a lone light bulb hanging from a post. Dragging our boats ashore we could make out a small traveled way leading to a munchkin-like cluster of dwellings. Accessible only by boat, this storybook village is unplugged from the “real” world, built on a broad sand spit between the Palena and the Pitipalena Estuary. We had finally completed our trip and reached our goal.

Minutes later, at midnight, the local generator sputtered to a halt and the few lights in town dimmed to an orange glow, then vanished in the darkness. The night became quite still. Then, as if on cue, the canine residents of the village one by one joined in an impressive primeval “group howl”, like an extended family of wolves, slowly reaching a crescendo under the dim moonlight of the Patagonian sky.


The Rio Palena, like many other large rivers in Chile, is threatened by massive hydropower projects, so the opportunity to do this trip may not last much longer. Your voice and support can make a difference, and an outstanding grass-roots local group supporting preservation of these rivers is www.futafriends.org

I was glad to have had both sea kayaking and whitewater experience prior to the trip, and believe mandatory preparation for this trip would include a minimum of several days of serious whitewater training, with at least two days of that training in a sea kayak. While certainly helpful, ocean or flat-water kayaking experience alone isn’t sufficient preparation. You want to have a feel for fast water, and plenty of practice in maneuvering heavy loaded boats, ferrying, eddy turns, etc. It turned out to be a great expedition, and a real adventure. On average, we paddled about 8 hours a day, and ran many, many sections of whitewater (maybe 60 -70 rapids total on the trip...we lost count). The upper Palena has a class 3+ rapid. Most of the rest of the Palena is class 1 & 2 with an occasional 2+. The danger factor was usually created by the length of the rapids, and the objective hazards created by sweepers and snags, less so by technically complex rapids. We estimate the total distance run at about 225 kilometers, over the 5 days.

This trip is ideal for paddlers with intermediate to advanced experience in both sea kayaking and whitewater, with a genuine sense of adventure. Expect fabulous scenery, blue ice glaciers, waterfalls, flocks of birds, and primeval forests. At times we felt like we were paddling through Jurassic Park. Also expect rain and wind, and lots and lots of fast water and rapids. The Palena is not without an element of risk. To plan a trip get in touch with Expediciones Chile. If you’re up for it, go for it. The adventure of a lifetime awaits.

Expediciones Chile specializes in adventure travel vacations in Patagonia Chile. Rafting in Chile on the Futaleufu River. Torres del Paine, Cerro FitzRoy trekking in Patagonia. Off season skiing in Chile and Argentina. Equestrian vacations and mountain biking holidays in the Futaleufu Valley. Whitewater kayaking in Chile. Whitewater rafting outdoor guide school. Fly fishing in Patagonia Chile and Argentina. Learn to roll a kayak at the Expediciones Chile kayak school. Eco tours and yoga vacations. Information on the climate of Patagonia, traveling in Patagonia and regional maps.

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