Escape Magazine

"Rafting Rush in Patagonia"

By Rob Mcfarland

Escape Chile Rafting

White water ride to Chile
Starting in Argentina, winding through the Andes to Chile, join Rob McFarland on the Futaleufu River for a dream rafting trip.

"PAY attention," shouts Pedro from the back of the raft. Six panting heads snap around in unison. We've failed to make it to the exit on the left side of the rapid so after some furious back-paddling we're now in an eddy on the more dangerous right side. It's time for Plan B. In front of us the river roars between two hulking granite boulders and there's just enough space for our raft.

"Ready?" asks Pedro. We nod. Forward paddle. We launch back into the main flow and are catapulted towards the right boulder. Commands come in quick succession: Left back ... right back ... all forward and we dig our paddles into the bracing, teal-coloured water. The boulders whiz by in a blur of grey and we're spat out into the calmer waters below. Exhausted, I turn around to see Pedro grinning. "Good job," he says, his deep, infectious laugh echoing off the sheer rock walls.


Today is Big Friday. In rafting terms, it's one of the biggest days of whitewater in the world. Fifteen Class 4 and 5 rapids spread over 15km of the Futaleufu River in the depths of Chile's Patagonia. I wouldn't mind but Sunday through Thursday weren't exactly small. Over the past five days our group of 15 has tackled some of the southern hemisphere's most exhilarating whitewater. And all while surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.Patagonia is nature showing off. Encompassing the southernmost portion of South America, it features idyllic Swiss-style green pastures peppered with quaint pastel-coloured wooden houses from which granite cliffs soar skyward towards snow-covered peaks. The entire region is word-robbingly scenic.

Starting in Argentina, the mouthwash-blue Futaleufu River squirms its way through the Andes into Chile, creating what many claim is the world's No.1 multiday whitewater rafting trip. Our adventure started six days ago with a bone-jarring six-hour drive from Balmaceda airport in southern Chile to Queulat National Park and an overnight stop in El Pangue Lodge. From here it is another 2 1/2-hour drive to the lower part of the Futaleufu. 

We spend a couple of hours kayaking glacier-fed waters of the Azul.  After a thorough safety briefing on shore, we're distributed among the rafts and spend some time practising the various paddling commands. Feeling excited but apprehensive, we plunge into a series of Class 3 and 4 rapids that test our technical skills and stamina. Unlike many commercial rafting trips where the guide does all the paddling, on the Futaleufu everyone has a paddle and everyone is expected to pull their weight. We stumble wearily on to the bus at the end of the day and head towards our home for the night.

Earth River sets the scene for a week of indescribably good food that's miraculously conjured up in the middle of Patagonia.  Breakfasts are sumptuous platters of scrambled eggs, pancakes, pastries and fruit; lunches feature a smorgasbord of cold meat and salad; and dinners range from steak cooked over an open fire with creamy gratin potatoes to a mountainous spaghetti bolognese complete with garlic bread.

The rest of the group are all Americans and they're a mixed bunch. There's a neurologist and his wife from Wisconsin; a patent lawyer living in Shanghai; a retired consultant and his wife from Boston; and three generations of the McKay family that range from a 15-year-old to his 75-year-old grandfather. Throw in a straight-talking Tennessee girl with an accent straight out of Sweet Home Alabama and you have all the ingredients for an entertaining week.

Over the next four days we make our way downriver, tackling menacing-sounding rapids such as Purgatory, Inferno and House of Stone. Often the guides pull in before a rapid to go ahead and check the best route. Each time, our gentle Chilean man-mountain Pedro returns with his trademark grin and talks us through what we'll need to do. As we progress downstream, the scenery gets even more spectacular. 

Over the past 20 years, Earth River and it's guests have acquired more than 20km of sensitive riverfront property with the aim of providing some resistance when the inevitable damming scheme begins.  This is the fourth time Scott McKay has rafted the Futaleufu and the first time he'll see the 25 acre piece of land he bought in November last year. The company has also been instrumental in bringing employment to the area. Locals cook in the camps, transport luggage by ox-cart and even provide a roasted sheep for the celebratory last dinner.

Earth River describes this journey as a mulri-lodgr, multi-sport trip because in addition to the rafting, you get the chance to try a range of other heart-stopping activities such as inflatable whitewater kayaking, rock climbing, stand up pddle boarding, trekking, mountain biking and canyoning. As someone who gets nervous on a high cliff, the thought of some of these is frankly terrifying. But that's a large part of what a trip like this is all about confronting your fears, whether it's heights, getting wet or just going without email access for a week.  Everyone in the group has his or her own demons to tackle, and it's almost as rewarding watching someone else conquer a deeply held fear.

When we reach the final take-out point at the end of Big Friday, our group is unusually subdued. We strip off our wetsuits for the last time and say a heartfelt goodbye to the guides who have kept us safe all week. When I ask Pedro how many times he's rafted the Futaleufu, he pauses, mentally ticking off the years in his head, before answering, "Maybe 300?" This trip has been just another week in the office for him. For the rest of us, it's created memories that will last a lifetime.

NOTE: Escape Magazine is the travel section inserted into the six largest newspapers in Australia every Sunday (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, among others). With a readership of over 6 million, it has the largest coverage in Australia and is read by over 25% of the country. 

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