SERVICES PROVIDED: SierraRios LLC will provide any and/or all of the following: logistical support, rafts (for you to ride on), raft support (for kit or film crew), safety kayaking, hiking support, permisions, bilingual guides, local indigenous guides, transport/storage/importation, and security motorboat escorts in the dangerous flat jungle sections. Once you finish your descent through the Andes and arrive at a port with regular passenger boat service, you can complete the rest of the river to the Atlantic in various ways: (1) on passenger boats in 4-6 weeks or (2) sea kayaking in ~3 months (~5000 km), or (3) a combination of kayaking and on motorboat. Motorboat escorts are recommended for safe passage of kayakers in the flatwater jungle sections due to potential assault. [see below]. I have organized 30+ expeditions on the headwater rivers to date (most being 14-30 day expeditons on the Marañón, but others on the Apurimac, Urubamba and Mantaro) as well as two source-to-sea expeditions [see CharlieHeadSUP2015 and EmmaKelty2017].
If interested, contact me (Rocky).
WHERE TO START?
Note that there are a number of headwater streams of the Amazon, depending on definition. In order of importance, they are Río Marañon (principal source), Río Mantaro (most distant source), Río Apurimac (most distant uninterrupted flow), and Río Urubamba (cultural and historic). I have paddled each of these and I and/or my trained experienced guides will accompany you down the river of your choice from its glacial source high in the mountains to where the river emerges from the Andes. Note that the Mantaro and Urubamba have trashy banks and poor water quality in sections and the Apurimac is excessively difficult in many sections. My general recommendation for adventurers is to follow the principal or mainstem source stream (Río Marañon) because it (1) is the headwater stream that originally had the same name as the main Amazon, (2) is the most paddleable of all, (3) is one of the cleanest of the four, (4) starts at some of the most spectacular and highest mountains of the tropics, (5) has an incredible "Grand Canyon" equivalent section that we are running trips on regularly now. The Mantaro is not as good a choice because it has 5 dams on it, many sections dewatered due to the dams, excessive pollution from upstream mines + metropolis of Huancayo, and some very difficult class V-VI sections in the lower Abyss section. For more information on each headwaters stream, see descriptions below.
Trip dates will be scheduled according to what works for you (and me) and the best time of year to make the descent. Generally, lower water levels are preferable in the difficult gorges of the Apurimac and Mantaro, but we also desire enough water in the upper sections to paddle over all the rocks (or below the dams). Best times of year for each headwater stream are:
Mantaro, best April-May.
Apurimac: best May-June
Marañon, best May-October
Urubamba best April- December
We generally will acclimatize to altitude for several days before starting our ascent up to the source by hiking - generally to 5000+ m elevation. We will then follow the watercourse on foot until there is enough water in the river to begin boating in kayak and/or raft. Most of the river will be descended in raft or kayak. All of the rivers have some portages or sections that must be walked around. The amount you walk will depend on what is possible, the total amount of time you can afford, your ability level, and how you wish the trip to proceed. It is always nice to claim to have paddled or traversed every kilometer of the river with the water, but it's not really possible on any of these streams and not necessary to fully experience the wonders of the journey. However, the more you can paddle the more impressive and satisfying the achievement. You definitely should plan to raft and/or kayak the river from where it is big enough and raftable, as those sections are probably the most enjoyable of the entire Amazon descent.
No whitewater experience is necessary but you should be in good physical condition, and the more adept at whitewater you are, the more you will likely enjoy the descent of the river in the Andes. Thus, it is advisable to prepare yourself with a few other expedition trips beforehand, such as one with SierraRios or the Grand Canyon of the Colorado (in paddle raft, rowed raft, or kayak). If you would like to kayak, you should obtain instruction in whitewater kayaking technique beforehand and have a solid roll, and train as much as possible. However, if you are even just a class III kayaker, you can enjoy paddling much of the whitewater section of river. In raftable sections, there will always be a raft available that you can board for safe passage. Safety is paramount, and we will advise you where it is safe to kayak and where it is best to ride in the raft or walk.
The cost of a guided trip depends on the river, total time, your experience, how many will be accompanying you, and other factors. For a solo individual to contract logistical support, raft support (for kit or film crew and/or client), equipment (kayak and paddle), safety kayaker, hiking support (to the source with burros/mules), permits, bilingual guides, local indigenous guides, maps, and transport/storage of gear within Peru from the rendezvous point (Lima) to where regular passenger boat service is available (i.e. Sarameriza or Atalaya) expect the cost to be ~$20,000USD. Security motorboat escorts in the flatwater jungle sections are extra. We encourage individuals to find others to accompany them on sections of the journey to reduce costs per person. Also, because certain sections of the river are incredible to experience for just 1-2 weeks with raft support, we suggest that you invite and include family and friends to share some parts of the journey with you. We commonly run the trips through the raftable sections in the Andes similar to Grand Canyon Colorado trips (see UpperMarañón, MainMarañón, JunglePongos, MantaroOroya, MantaroTablachaca, MantaroLowerCanyon). No experience is necessary for family and friends joining you on raft-support section. For support services in the flatwater jungle sections of the Ucayali, Marañón and/or Amazonas, expect to pay roughly $3000-$5000 more for escort boat services within Peru (20-40 days) and another ~$8000 in Brazil (50-60 days). You'll need to bring your own sea kayak and/or pay extra to purchase a sea kayak if you intend to paddle the flatwater river into Brazil and to the mouth of the Amazon.
As mentioned, the cost also depends on the river guided. In general, the Urubamba will be at the lower end since it will occupy the least amount of time and effort (i.e., 4-5 weeks total since a steep section of the river near Machu Picchu must be descended on foot or train). The Apurimac and Mantaro will be at the higher end of costs if the difficult Abyss sections are paddled (total of 6-7 weeks). The Marañon will be in between depending on total time requested (~6 weeks). We will be camping most of the time on the expedition, though may stay in hotels when available. You can kayak as much as you can safely accomplish. Otherwise, the default mode of transport will be a raft or hiking. Lower cost trips can be arranged if time is minimized - for example, by paddling only the most desirable sections of river [e.g. the Marañon from the raftable Puchka confluence down into the jungle] - or if you coordinate your trip with one of the regularly-scheduled group trips on the Grand Canyon sections.
In all cases, I will be arranging your logistics and trip: Rocky Contos, and either I or other other qualified certified class V river guides and local guides will be with you at all times on your descent through the Andes. I paddled each of the main source streams of the Amazon as part of my 6-month Headwaters of the Amazon expedition in 2012. This included the entire Mantaro, Apurimac, and Marañon, as well most of the Urubamba. Furthermore, I discovered the true source of the Amazon and am writing articles and a book about it. Since my initial descents of each headwaters stream, I have led 9 expeditions of 14-52 days on the Marañón (from 2012-2017) and others on the Mantaro and Apurimac, have accumulated large sets of rafts, kayaks and other expedition gear (based in Trujillo) and have trained many guides from Peru and other South American countries to be competent guides on these rivers. Due to my familiarity with each river and being a river guide, I am uniquely qualified to organize and lead expeditions. There are only a few people in the world who have descended any of these rivers entirely. I also have extensive experience as a kayak instructor and have led raft and kayak expeditions over the past 20 years on rivers such as the Colorado through Grand Canyon, Salmon, Apurimac, Urubamba, Mulatos-Aros, Usumacinta, Pilcomayo, Salween, and Blue Nile. I also explored nearly every river in Mexico including 107 first descents covering ~8,000 km of river and ~55,000 m of drop, in addition to >30 other first descents in Central and South America. Several articles have featured me (American Whitewater; Kayak Session; Canoe & Kayak;). I am fluent in Spanish, adept and certified at swiftwater rescue, and have Wilderness First Responder training. I hold a B.S. in Biochemistry from UC Davis and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from UC San Diego (see CV) and have studied the geography of Peru's rivers.
TOPOGRAPHIC MAPS of all rivers in Peru are available once you sign up for an expedition (password required to access)
FLATWATER JOURNEY ON THE AMAZON AND RISKS:
Many Amazon adventurers wish to kayak the flatwater river down through the Amazon jungle to the mouth at the Atlantic Ocean. This does not involve much skill as it is a flat river with some current. However, it does involve excessive risk due to the threat of assault from various people along the way who take advantage of susceptible passers-by to assault and rob. These "pirates" are immoral types who have no respect for human life and do not feel that any law or justice will come after them for their acts. Indeed, in the majority of cases, there is no investigation or justice served as the population often attacked are local people that are not considered very important. Many term this the "Jungle Law" referring to the general lawlessness and crime that occurs, as well as vigilante or gang retribution if the attacked is someone with support or connections. Many kayakers heading down the Ucayali, Marañón, Huallaga and main Amazon have been assaulted in the past. In the cases where it is known, the perpetrators are generally groups of individuals (a "gang") sometimes of indigenous people (such as Ashaninka or Awajún) but sometimes of mestizos, who have the mentality to shoot any passing boats or tourists and rob them of anything valuable. After shooting and injuring the hapless victim, the general rule is to finish off the person and kill them with more gunshots or stabbing, and then throwing the body into the river,and then taking any money or other valuables. There are at least 4 well-documented cases (see links below) and scores of others of this happening on the jungle Marañón, the Ucayali, the Huallaga, the mainstem Amazon, and the Amazon delta area near the mouth. In general, it is NOT SAFE to kayak on these sections of river without some sort of protection. This is why we recommend that you kayak in a group if possible and/or with a security motorboat accompanying you. If not possible to contract such services for the entire journey, there are sections that are known to harbor more such "pirates" than others, and it is strongly recommended that you get an escort through these sections for protection. Some of the previous accounts of assaults are below:
Jan1995 Patchin Miller murdered on Marañón: A Darkness on the River (Outside)
May2011 Polish couple murdered kayaking on Ucayali: PolishCouple Killed
Aug2012 Davey Duplessis shot on Ucayl: OutsideOnline ; ExplorersWeb
Sep2017 Emma Kelty shot on main Amazon near Coari (Brazil): BBC SunWorldNews SunWorldNews
NOTE: I and all of us at SierraRios lament the murder of Emma Kelty on her source-to-sea journey near Coari (Brazil). She received our guiding services for the first ~43 days of her expedition (17June2017-30July2017) from the source of the Amazon (Marañón) to the port of Sarameriza (1104 km). Emma made it through the whitewater section fine and was very happy with the services we provided to her, but then decided to continue down the flatwater Marañón-Amazon unassisted and unaccompanied. After another 45 days of her solo journey, during which time she kayaked another ~2500 km to Coari, Brazil, she was murdered by a group of 7 "pirates", many of whom have been captured or killed to date (Sep2017).
THE HEADWATERS OF THE AMAZON
APURÍMAC: The Apurímac is considered the headwaters stream of the Amazon with the actual source point up by Mt. Mismi or Mt. Quehuisha. Clean and beautiful, this river has some of the most difficult whitewater of the four headwater stream options (i.e. whitewater that we will descend). After summiting Mt. Mismi and/or Quehuisha, we will trek down Rio Hornillos to the junction with the nominal Apurimac where we can start paddling in kayaks. But only ~3 days downstream, we will likely leave the water for a trek around the nasty "Queswachaca" section (formerly called the "Black Canyon"), where there are dozens of mandatory portages for any craft. Back to the water at Pillpinto, we can plan to paddle the rest of the way to the Mantaro confluence, through the Nayhua section, Black Canyon, Granite Canyon (commonly rafted), Acombamba Abyss, and Lower sections. The Nayhua section, Granite Canyon, and Acombamba Abyss feature numerous class V rapids (and some portages) so will take quite a bit of effort and time to get through. Expect 5-6 weeks total from source to Puerto Ene, where regular passenger boat service begins.
MANTARO: Although it may be considered the real source of the Amazon, the Mantaro has many drawbacks. It is one of the most polluted rivers in Peru, with contaminated water and trash present from mining operations and the cities of La Oroya and Huancayo. It also has 3 dams on it and another that is under construction. Timing a descent of the Mantaro is a tricky issue with these factors, but it is best to start in April or May. The source is up in the Cerros Cuchpanga near Lago Acucocha. We'll descend nearly all of the river in kayaks and rafts. The initial 300 km are generally only class III (with a little bit of IV and V) so it is a great section to warm up. The lower canyons feature many class IV and V rapids, and it will take a lot of time and some portages to get through. Expect 5-6 weeks total from the source to Puerto Ene, where regular passenger boat service begins.
MARAÑON: Río Marañon was considered the headwater source stream of the Amazon for over 200 years, and it has a good claim to the title as it carries the most water of any branch if one progresses upstream on the Amazon from the mouth. This "hydrological source" of the Amazon is one of the most beautiful, clean, and raftable rivers in the Andes, and a bona fide Grand Canyon of South America. Its headwaters are accessed by a short hike from a road to a mine (up Río Lauricocha) or by the second highest tropical mountain in the world (Yerupajá) in the Huayhuash (up Río Nupe). The popular trekking area around Yerupajá is an ideal start to the journey down the Marañon. Much or all of the first ~200 km of river to the Puchka confluence can be kayaked (class III-IV), with several portages around class V-VI sections. We may have a 2-day stop at Balsas to visit Chachapoyas and the ruins of Kuelap or Cajamarca. Note the Marañon may not be available for long: a series of 20 hydroelectric dams are planned for the river, some in late stages of planning. [Please show your opposition at SAVE THE MARANON!]. I will happily guide this river as it is the most beautiful, clean and runnable of any of the Amazon headwaters. I may offer the main Marañon river trip regularly in the future, so it might be possible to schedule a full descent for much less cost if the regular trip is worked in. In the final 70-280 km of the river below the town of El Mullo, we will have Aguaruna guides accompany us for safety. The trip ends at Imacita or Sarameriza, where passenger boat service is available to Lagunas and Iquitos. Expect 5-6 weeks total.
URUBAMBA: The Urubamba was considered the headwaters source stream of the Amazon by various individuals starting in the late 19th century and through the 1960s before the Apurímac became established as the longer stream and therefore the true source. Río Urubamba can still be considered the "cultural and historical source" of the Amazon, as it is the most sacred river of the Inca. Flowing close to Cusco and by the citadel Machu Picchu and numerous other Incan ruins, a descent on this river will enable you to also visit the former heart of the Incan Empire. The river's source is up by Lago Sabinacocha, where it emerges as Río Salcca and continues as Río Vilcanota before taking on the name of Urubamba near the eponymous town. After our rendezvous in Cusco, we'll head up to the source area close to the mountain of Ausangate, a popular trekking destination. After our own trek to the source and downstream along Rio Salcca, we'll board rafts and/or kayaks near Combapata and paddle for a week down to to the village of Chilca (class III-IV). Parts of this section of the Vilcanota have frequent day-trip tourist descents on raft. At Chilca, we'll send the boating equipment downstream on the train and hike or ride along the steep class V-VI Torontoi Gorge section to Agua Caliente, where we'll visit Machu Picchu. After our visit to these incredible ruins, we'll hike farther downstream and get back in the rafts at a hotsprings by Santa Teresa, then paddle a class V section of river for one day. The next several days down to the Yanatile confluence feature lots of class III and some IV. It should be another ~2 weeks, with a visit to the ruins of Espiritú Pampa (the lost ruins of Vilcabamba) on the Lower Urubamba - and through the magnificent Pongo de Mainique - before we arrive at Malvinas, where regular passenger boat service is available to Atalaya. Expect 4-5 weeks total. Some photos and trip details can be seen here.
HUALLAGA: Río Huallaga is nearly as long as the Marañon and nearly as voluminous, so it was considered the headwaters stream by various individuals and organizations in the 1800s through the 1950s. The majority of whitewater and gradient on the river are in the first 400 km above Tingo Maria. Although I have yet to paddle the Huallaga, most of the upper river is not suitable to guide as it is too steep and difficult (class V-VI). The lower section from Tingo Maria down is possible and can be a low-cost alternative Amazon headwaters trip.