Rio Pampas-Apurimac guided raft/kayak expedition: 9-18 days, up to 450 km, class IV; JOIN US!

RÍO PAMPAS-APURIMAC: Beautiful Clean Huge: Last Descent(?)


up to 450 km (270 miles), class IV+, ~18 days, cost: TBD

dates to be arranged: rendezvous in Cusco or Ayacucho. APPLY

Río Pampas-Apurimac is one of the best raft-support trips in South America, but needs documentation, publicity, and appreciation! On this expedition, we will paddle 450 km (270 miles) through its mostly desert canyon with challenging class IV rapids, beautiful clean beaches, and interesting sites to explore. Help document the unique features of this river canyon to determine what will be lost with the 3 dams planned in the middle of the trip.



This trip consists of 280 km on Río Pampas and 170 km on the Lower Río Apurimac. We want to see if this journey is as nice as Río Marañon. Río Pampas is a beautiful clean river flowing through a desert-like canyon with big beaches and a lot to explore. The first 143 km of the trip may be first descent. The next 139 km have challenging class IV+ whitewater, an impressive gorge and possibly two portages. The Apurimac section has huge water class III-IV rapids as the river transitions to the jungle. This expedition is being run to document the river canyon features and provide reasons to oppose several planned dams. [See several of the planned dam sites in the figures/article visible on the SAVE RIO MARANON! campaign webpage and this PLOS1 article]. With our documentation of the river, there will be more reason to oppose the dams.

This trip is open to everyone: rafters, kayakers, IKers, and passengers. If you plan to paddle your own boat, you must be comfortable and familiar with class IV big water. Several folks with less experience can also join the trip. Our journey will start in Cangallo (3 hr drive south of Ayacucho) at 2600 m (8300 ft) elevation, a location you can view on Google Maps. You can join the entire 18-day expedition to the jungle village of San Francisco/Kimbiri or come for just shorter sections of the river. Departing the trip early is possible at kms 145 or km 248 (appx. days 5 and 9). It is also possible to join the trip at one of these points. At the start or end of the trip, you have the option to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu, located 8-14 hr away from the river by bus. Rocky will be in Cusco before the trip begins. Current dates are tentative and may be changed, but May-Jul is the best time of year to paddle this river, with medium water levels that are steadily dropping and lots of sunshine! Come enjoy one of the nicest rivers in South America while supporting a worthy conservation cause.


1979: A rafting group attempted descent of the lower Pampas in 1979 starting at Puente Pampas, but they aborted in only a few kilometers downstream when their rafts wrapped on rocks in class IV rapids. They reported just downstream a major cataract/falls (La Catarata de Ocros). The group consisted of Rod Nash (leader), Cal Giddings, Ron Hayes, Dean Paschall, Rick Smith, Scott Hartman, and several others.

1996: A kayak self-support descent of the lower Pampas was completed in summer 1996 from Puente Pampas down to the Apurimac by Tom Hughes (USA), Benjamin Muniz (of Instinct Rafting, Cusco), Adam Jarco (USA), Hugh Pritchard (UK) and James Shrimpton (UK). Tom Hughes comments: "The entire trip took us 8 days to Villa Virgen from where we continued to San Fransisco (and onto Ayacucho by truck). As far as I know we were NOT the first to descend the river, it having seen at least one attempt before us (apparently the two man raft team walked out after running short of supplies although I don't know from what point)." The 1996 trip was written up and published in Playboating UK magazine.

The Pampas passes through a desert-like canyon that is often deeper than the Grand Canyon. Most of the river is enjoyable class II-III with some IV, and an impressive 50 km gorge at the end ("Barranca Pampas"). The Lower Apurimac follows, with big water class III-IV rapids. This trip can be divided into 4 sections:

Main Pampas1 [km 0-143: 4.5 m/km (25 fpm): III]
The initial 143 km section starts in Cangallo and has a low gradient - frequent flat sections but studded with class II-III rapids and one good canyon apparently with numerous class III. This is ideal as a warm-up section the first several days. There are large beaches and gravel bars nearly the entire way with steep canyon walls rising directly up from the riverbed. There are likely interesting side hikes, ruins, and hot springs to discover, enjoy, and document. The Incan ruins of Vilcashuamán are an 8 km hike from the river (day 2; we might visit before the trip though). The section ends at the highway bridge crossing (road between Ayacucho-Andahuaylas). Flow is estimated to be ~90 cms (3000 cfs) to start but with a major trib entering midway down, the flow should nearly double to ~180 cms (6000 cfs).

Main Pampas2 [km 143-230: 6.7 m/km (37 fpm); III-IV]
Satellite imagery and topo maps indicate some class IV (possibly V) in a short 21 m/km (110 fpm) section just downstream of the Puente Pampas access point. The toughest drop is here is the Catarata de Ocros. In 1979, the Nash rafting group reported the Catarata as a ~10 m vertical or near-vertical drop that was difficult to portage. In 1996, the Hughes kayak group did not report anything more than class IV in this section. The debate continues as to what actually the Catarata de Ocros looks like now. If we find a major class V+ falls, we will portage the rafts ~5 km around the section with a truck on a dirt road. If it is only class IV, we will run the rafts through. After the Ocros section, the river continues with good class III-IV rapids for >50 km but still displays wide riverbed with expansive beaches and gravel bars abutting steep canyon walls. A tough rapid somewhere in this section was named Obi-Wan, with wrap rocks at lower summer flows. [Tom Hughes said that Ben Muñez tried using "Jedi mind power" to move a wrap rock in the rapid!!!]. With an estimated May flow of 180 cms (6000 cfs), it will likely be quite a fun section.

Barranca Pampas [km230-282: 8.1 m/km (45 fpm): IV+ (oneP)]
The final 50 km section of Río Pampas passes through an impressive gorge [the "Barranca Pampas"] before joining the Apurimac at the end of the Apurimac's "Abyss". While the Apurimac's Abyss is a serious class V run with high gradient [often 20-30 m/km (110-160 ft/mile)] and almost double the flow of the Pampas, Barranca Pampas has lower gradient [8 m/km (45 ft/mile)], meaning it will be much more manageable. A steep access road and footbridge is found ~10 km into the section (with the "90-curvas trail" up RL). The section ends at the confluence with Río Apurimac, which generally has 2X-3X the flow of the Pampas. Satellite imagery and gradient suggest the Barranca Pampas is a class IV section. Tom Hughes confirms. He wrote that it was "mostly class III, occasional IV and one simple portage about 6 kms above the Apurimac Confluence". They called the portage "Darth Vader", described as a place where "the river drops left into a sheer walled canyon for about 400 yards.... couldn't get down there to inspect so we portaged up a scree slope on the right to the canyon rim and [reentered the river] above a chunky class 4 we called Chewbacca." Darth Vader is actually 14 km upstream of the Apurimac confluence. The portage might be difficult, especially for rafts. We anticipate a full day to get through. Also, note that the 1998 group did the trip at lower water levels in summer. Much of the river should be more challenging at higher levels in May, but some rapids - such as Chewbacca - may fill in and have less wrap/pin potential.

Lower Apurimac [km282-450: 1.7 m/km (9 fpm): IV (oneP)]
The Lower Apurimac has been paddled several times, including by trip leader Rocky Contos in 2012. [photos in the slideshow above are from the Lower Apurimac, from scouts of the Pampas, and similar elevation upper sections on the Apurimac]. In the initial ~100 km of the Lower Apurimac, there are numerous class III and IV big-water rapids. Estimated flow in late May on the Lower Apurimac is 600 cms (21000 cfs) - a medium level. There is one easy portage of Powac, a class VI rapid located ~40 km downstream of the confluence (see picture above with the drying fish). After Powac, there are several tough IVs, and the dry desert-type cacti-studded terrain soon turns to lush jungle. The first village of Lechemayo-VillaVirgen is encountered 87 km after the Pampas confluence (369 km into the trip). We'll continue another 81 km through flat wide jungle river with occasional class II-III to the bridged towns of San Francisco-Kimbiri, with regular transportation service to Ayacucho (5hr) or Cusco (15hr). Depending on our progress, we may have some layover days. With two layover days and a full day portage of Vader, we would need to average 30 km/day when we are progressing downstream.

Mystery of the Pampas: What actually is at the Catarata de Ocros now? Is it a 30' falls as reported by the 1979 crew or is it just a class IV rapid as reported by the 1996 crew? Also, what is in the Darth Vader Gorge? Is it runnable? Can we raft or ghost boat the rafts through? On this trip, we'll solve the mysteries.

km location elevation avg. flow May gradient (to next) difficulty description of section (to next)
0 Cangallo 2580 m 90 cms (3000 cfs) 4.5 m/km (25 fpm) III often flat; lots of II-III; some IV
144 Hwy Bridge 1930 m 180 cms (6000 cfs) 6.7 m/km (37 fpm) IV starts IV(V?); lots of III-IV
243 90 Curvas access 1260 m 200 cms (7000 cfs) 8.1 m/km (45 fpm) IV+ main gorge; lots of IV; one P (Vader)
282 Apurimac confl. 960 m 600 cms (21000 cfs) 3.0 m/km (16 fpm) III-IV big water III and IV; one P (Powac)
369 Lechemayo 700 m 700 cms (24000 cfs) 1.5 m/km (8 fpm) II-III class II-III big water; good surfing
450 SF/Kimbiri 580 m 1000 cms (35000 cfs) - - class II to Río Mantaro

May16-18: possible visits to Cusco and Machu Picchu
May 18: rendezvous in Cusco; meet Rocky; bus to Ayacuchoo
May 19: rendezvous in Ayacucho
May 20: drive to Cangallo; rig and launch
May 21: possible layover; long hike to visit Vilcashuamán (?)
May 25: pass highway bridge (km144); many class III to here; possibly resupply some food
May 29: access point by "90 curvas" (km 243); class IV; possibly arrange a resupply of food
May 31: arrive confluence with Apurimac (km 283); serious class IV gorge
Jun 4: arrive Lechemayo/VillaVirgen (km 369); possible to resupply/depart; class III-IV to here
Jun 6: arrive San Francisco/Kimbiri; arrange shuttles to Ayacucho and/or Cuscoo
Jun 7-9: possible visits to Machu Picchu and Cusco

Peru is a travel-friendly country that readily offers tourist permits for up to 90 days. Flights would be into Lima. You should be vaccinated against Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Hepatitis A. You will be traveling into a malaria area as well so consider anti-malaria medication. Cusco is at high elevation [3400 m (11000 ft)] so if going there you may wish to have a prescription of acetazolamide.

You must be a jovial person who doesn't complain much and is likely to get along with others on a small Grand Canyon-style trip for over two weeks. You should have an interest in river conservation and help us on our mission to document the river further and talk to residents. A few raft passengers are welcome - previous river trip experience is not required. If you want to kayak, you must have adequate class IV big water experience and a solid roll. If you want to row a raft, you must have adequate class IV big water experience on something like the Grand Canyon or Salmon (at higher water). You should be in good physical condition. You should plan to help facilitate the trip in any way possible, including transport of some gear down to Peru and to the river if necessary. You don't need to be bilingual but it is helpful.

The policy we will take on the trip is that the trip leader (Rocky) will have main authority when it comes to decisions for the group regarding river progress, camp, etc. [Most criticisms of Rocky are he is too democratic or laissez-faire; but he can be convinced of reasonable rules/guidelines/courses of action.]. Trip leader decisions can be vetoed by a majority vote of the group. Any participant always has the right to leave the trip if they so desire. You must also agree to leave the trip or be relegated to passenger status on a raft if the group feels you are a liability for the trip.

Rocky already has all topo maps of the entire river. When you sign on to the trip, you will gain access to them so you can view and print out a copy for yourself. If you have the password, click here to access printable maps.

The trip occurs at tropical latitudes in the dry season but starting at fairly high elevation. Average annual precipitation is about 300-400 mm (13-16 in) along most of the Pampas, and 2500 mm (80 in) by the take-out at San Francisco-Kimbiri. May-Oct is the dry season. The elevation at the put-in is 2600 m (8300 ft), so expect warmish days/cold evenings to start (25oC/77oF highs and 10oC/50oF lows). After the first few days, temperatures should be much warmer, with daytime highs 30-35oC/86-95oF and lows of 10-21oC/50-70oF). A meterological station by Puente Pampas confirms average temperatures of 32oC/12oC (90oF/54oF) in May-June in the past. There is little chance of rain in the dry canyon portions of the trip (1st 14 days). Expect rain once down in the jungle area. Ferocious winds are often encountered in the jungle transition zone (just past the Apurimac-Pampas confluence).

Some camps will likely have annoying biting gnats and flies. Repellent works against these. Mosquitos are not common in the dry canyon areas - moreso in the jungle. Other critters to beware of are spiders, scorpions, snakes, and centipedes.


AYACUCHO: The main rendezvous point will be Ayacucho. Ayacucho is a charming colonial city and a pleasure to stroll around on pedestrian cobblestone streets. Logistics will be coordinated before the trip. You will need to arrive to Ayacucho at least one day prior to departure for the river. You can get to Ayacucho from Lima easily on a 10 hr bus ride (~$30USD). It is also possible to fly to Ayacucho from Lima (check domestic arilines like STAR, LAN, or PeruvianAir; a quick search revealed May16 5:30 am LIM-AYA flight is $68USD on STAR). Once we all meet in Ayacucho, we will take privately-contracted transportation to the put-in at Cangallo (3 hr drive south of Ayacucho). We may spend Day1 visiting the ruins at Vilcashuamán before arriving in Cangallo and rigging the rafts.

CUSCO: Rocky is planning to be in Cusco several days before the launch, organizing and sending gear to Ayacucho and arranging other aspects of the trip. If you wish, you can arrive to Cusco beforehand,and either visit ruins or help in organizing food/gear, and then accompany Rocky to Ayacucho on bus (20 hr) 2 days prior to the launch day. You can try to book directly with your US carrier to Cusco, but also can co-book a domestic ariline like STAR, LAN, or PeruvianAir (about $100-200 one-way). [Rocky will also be kayaking several class V rivers in the 3 weeks prior to the trip, including Colca, Cotahuasi, and Tambo - kayak partners are sought; ask him]. Gear will be sent to Lima at the end of the trip for storage/preparation for a Marañon trip.

ACCESS POINTS: The tentative dates at each access point are listed. We can help arrange transport to/from these if you need to enter or depart the trip from one.

This trip is being run to raise more awareness of the dams planned for the Pampas and Apurimac. We welcome everyone: raft passengers, raft paddlers, raft rowers, kayakers, IKers, and guides. How much the trip costs for you depends on what you want out of it and what you can offer to make it a success. Costs are reduced significantly for early commitment with a deposit, for those with significant boating/guiding experience, and for those who can really make a difference in the fight against the dams. Consider the rates that typical clients pay for similar long multi-day raft trips: ~$4000 for 14-day Grand Canyon trips, ~$2000 for 6-day MF Salmon River trips, and $1500 for 5-day Salmon River trips. Our rates for similar trips where everything is taken care of are considerably lower:
Contribution guidelines: General

However, if you're a river guide yourself or an experienced paddler who can mostly take care of yourself and watch after others, you might be able to join a trip for a lower contribution amount - something closer to the Outfitting Service rate.

Everyone can always save by getting friends to join up for the trip. If at all interested in joining a trip, send Rocky a note ( saying how you found out about the trip and a little background info about you and your paddling experience. [If you're a guide, it is nice to see a resumé and provide references].

If at all interested in joining a trip, start a discussion by sending Rocky a note ( saying how you found out about the trip and a little background info about you and your paddling experience, how you first heard about the trip, and what sections of the expedition you are most interested in joining. Once you get the go-ahead from Rocky, you will need to provide a deposit to reserve your place on the trip ($1000). Full contribution must be received before the trip. See PAYMENTS for payment options.

We reserve the right to cancel the trip 2+ months in advance. This generally will occur only if there are not enough folks signed up (<12). If we cancel the trip, all deposits and payments will be refunded. 

If you must cancel, you'll get your money back if you find someone to take your place on the trip. If you don't find someone, we may allow much of the payment to be applied to a future trip (at our discretion). The amount depends on the circumstances surrounding the cancellation.

(1) Rocky Contos, the trip leader, descended the entire Apurimac from its headwaters to the Ene between June and October 2012, as well as Ríos Marañon, Mantaro, and Urubamba as part of his Headwaters of the Amazon expedition. He also has explored nearly every river in Mexico including >100 first descents covering ~8,000 km of river and ~55,000 m of drop. Although Rocky believes the Marañon is the finest Grand Canyon-style raftable river in the Americas, he wants to see how the Pampas-Apurimac compares [the Apurimac is about as clean and beautiful as the Marañon but has too many portages and class Vs in the Queswachaca and Abyss sections - the Pampas as a tributary may avoid these issues on the Apurimac]. Rocky is fluent in Spanish and has organized many Grand Canyon length trips. Several articles have featured Rocky (American Whitewater; Kayak Session; Canoe & Kayak). While attaining his Ph.D. in neuroscience (see CV), Rocky worked as a kayak instructor and guide for UCSD's Outback adventures from 1993-1996 and gained valuable trip planning skills for large groups. Although primarily a kayaker, Rocky started rafting in the mid-1990s in order to introduce more people to the wonders of river travel. Since then and throughout his years as a postdoctoral research associate, he organized numerous large group raft and kayak expeditions, including five through Grand Canyon (18-22 days), three on the Salmon River (4-10 days each), two on Río Mulatos-Aros (8-11 days), four on Río Usumacinta (7-8 days each), and dozens to destinations such as the Salt, Kern, Rogue, Deschutes, John Day, Thompson, Similkameen, and Baja California (2-6 days each). Rocky had dreamed of rafting the Marañon for over 10 years and has all the maps and information. Rocky founded SierraRios with the goal of conserving the rivers of Latin America, and hopes that increased awareness and enjoyment of the resource will lead to protection. He is organizing all aspects of the trip. He likely will be safety kayaking since plenty of competent oarsmen are availble.

(2) Already committed to the trip are Greg Schwendinger (expert kayaker; author , Lacey Anderson (guide/catarafter), Neil Nikirk (experienced catarafter), and Rorie Gotham (experienced rafter; SY Film Festival help). Kurt Casey is likely to join the trip as well. Heather and Nate Herbeck may make a documentary film. There have been 10 other inquiries/applications so far.

(3) The trip will likely will include 1-2 of Rocky's Peruvian guide friends - Juan de Ugarte, Pedro Peña, Julio Baca, or others from Apurimac Explorer (Alonso, Romel or Victor).

(4) Our expedition members will be experienced river runners, but a few non-experienced people are welcome to join as well, especially for documentation/conservation purposes.

There have been no reports of Sendero Luminoso along the Pampas. However, they are known to be along the Lower Apurimac. Their latest policy is not to molest or disturb tourists. As long as we can convince them we are tourists, we should have no problem. On the 2012 trip, we saw a few folks who may have been Senderistas, but they were friendly.

The other aspect of safety is prevention of accidents. It is of utmost importance that you take all precautions necessary to avert injury, sickness, and complications while on the trip. You should be vaccinated against Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Hepatitis A. You might consider taking anti-malaria medication if you do not plan to use insect repellent or protect yourself adequately from mosquitos. We cannot guarantee against accidents. You must accept the responsibility for what happens on the river if you are in control of your craft. If you are concerned about the whitewater or other aspects, it is your responsibility to make appropriate decisions whether to run the rapid or not and to stay close to someone who can watch and oversee you (if you desire that level of protection). If an accident occurs, we will do all in our power to help you, see that proper care is rendered, or evacuate you if need be. Rocky is a trained Wilderness First Responder.

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"I need to do another expedition!!!!! I'm already jonsing for one .... The Marañon trip was one of kind that I will never forget ... the perfect combination of big water, gorgeous scenery and a taste of rurual Peruvian lifestyle! ...  I would do this trip again in a heart beat ... It really is amazing how helpful some people have been along the way. Going way out of their way in order to help..."
Amie Begg; class IV kayaker on 2012 Marañon trip

"The Marañon trip was a magical journey. Big, clean water; big canyons and expansive natural beauty; and big-hearted, friendly people who made us feel welcome along the way, while sharing with us their fears of imminent dams, mines, and petroleum drilling. I hope we can find a way to help them protect this incredible treasure and their ways of life."

Barbara Conboy; SierraRios board member and rafter/kayaker on 2012 Marañon trip

THE TRIP KICKED MAJOR ASS! mike" [2011 Mulatos-Aros trip; 2012 Marañon trip]
ike Doktor (Portland, OR), former raft guide for Ken Warren Expeditions

Hi Rocky, Thanks again for a sensational and unforgettable trip. You did such an amazing job organizing. I especially am psyched to have met you and to have another kayak friend/guide to work with. You guiding me off the waterfall was a big highlight... Erik." [2011b Usumacinta trip]
Erik Weihenmayer, blind mountaineer/author and budding kayaker (see )

"You led one of the best trips I've ever been on... and I've been on a lot. " [2011b Usumacinta trip]
Chris Wiegand, former olympic runner and C1 paddler, founder of Sportainability and guide for Erik Weihenmayer

"Thanks for everything man, it was a trip of a lifetime ... We´ll be in touch and I look forward to conquering new rivers in the future. Salud, Eric" [2011b Usumacinta trip]
Eric Bach, Modern Gypsy (see

"Hey Rocky, Thanks for the great trip... Looking forward to another trip down the road. John"
[2011b Usumacinta trip]
John Post, Modern Gypsy (see

"Great synopsis of a fabulous trip. Expect to hear more from Team Weihenmayer in the future... Cheers, Rob. " [2011b Usumacinta trip]
Rob Raker, climber extraordinaire and guide for Erik Weihenmayer (also see here)

"Thanks again for the great tour and the late-night excitement, Greg" [2011a Usumacinta trip]
Greg Scwhendinger, kayak explorer of Chiapas and Central America (see

"The trip on the Usumacinta was great, I am very happy that I paddled the river and did not sit on the raft." [2013a Usumacinta trip]
Stanislav Chladek, former C1 world champion and author of Exploring Mayan Ritual Caves

"Thanks for everything, Rocky! What a blast that all was.  When's our next trip?!! -Suzy" [2011b Usumacinta trip]
Suzy Garren (Oakland, CA), former Grand Canyon trip participant.