- Class: III-V+
- Distance: 50 kilometers (31 miles)
- Average Gradient: 9 m/km (50 ft/ mile)
- Maximum Gradient: 15 m/150 m (50 ft / 500 ft)
- Temperature: 15-21 C (60-70 F)
- Flow Range: 200 cms - 2000cms (7000 cfs - 70000 cfs)
- Water Quality: Crystal Clear, Turquoise
- Character: Large volume, technical. Class IV & V, continuous, up to 1.6 kms (1 mile) long.
- Interactive Map: Futaleufu River Valley
- Nearby Rivers: Azul River, Espolon River, Michimahuida River, Palena River, Tigre River
The Futaleufu River lies deep within the Andean Corridor of Lakes (Region X - Chiloe, Palena District) in Northern Patagonia, Chile. The headwaters of the river lie in Argentina’s Los Alerces National Park originating from a hydro-electric station below the man made lake, Lago Amutui Quimei. On the Argentine side of the border the Rio Futaleufu is known as the Rio Grande. The Futaleufu flows southwest and empties into Lago Yelcho and finally flows to the Southern Pacific Ocean as Rio Yelcho.
The Futaleufu River Valley is known to some as the “Grand Canyon of South America” and its landscape resembles a unique blend of features one might find in Yosemite and Glacier National Park in the United States of America. The mountains surrounding the river valley rise above 5500 feet (1700 meters) and many are glaciated and snowcapped. The geology is igneous in nature and is dotted with dormant and extinct volcanoes. The most prominent mountain in the valley, the triple spire, Cerro Tres Monjas (three nuns), is one such volcano.
The locals of the region refer to the river valley as, “Futaleufú un paisaje pintado por dios” - a landscape painted by God. Futaleufu is a Mapuche Indian word meaning Grand Grand Waters - the two "fu"s, one at the beginning and one at the end, connote this meaning. The word itself is pronounced: "Foo-tah-lay-oh-foo".
As a whitewater destination the Futaleufu River is relatively new in the world. The river was discovered in the mid-1980s by rafting and kayaking enthusiasts who were then running the Bio Bio River far to the north. It was actually Chile’s Pinochet Government that made the Futaleufu River Valley accessible to sportsmen after developing the Careterra Austral (Chile’s famous “Southern Highway”) to better knit the country together in the event of a war breaking out with Argentina.
The village of Futaleufu (population ~1000) has undergone quite a transformation since the early days of kayaking in the 1980s. Tourists coming to Futaleufu will find a fairly modern electrified infrastructure that even includes a high speed internet. The village was formally incorporated as a town in 1929 but relied on Argentina for economic sustenance and trade until the road was built in 1983. As a result of its proximity to Argentina (7.5 miles, 12 kms) and its years of isolation from Chile, the culture of Futaleufu has a distinctive Argentine flavor to it.
Paddling & River Running History
The Futaleufu River was first scouted in 1984 by Daniel Bolster and Peter Fox and first kayaked in February, 1985 by Lars Holbeck, Eric Magneson, Phil DeRiemer and Mark Allen. Several weeks later an effort was made by Steve Curry Expeditions to raft the entire river but the attempt was aborted after one of their two rafts was capsized and re-circulated in Terminator rapid. After Currey's aborted attempt the Futaleufu had to wait another five years before rafts were again seen on its waters.
In April, of that same year, Chris Spelius solo-kayaked the river and camped at the Rio Azul confluence, which later became the Tres Monjas Kayak Camp. The following year after another scouting run with a friend, Expedition Chile was running kayak trips on the Futaleufu.
In March 1991, Eric Hertz, founder of Earth River Expeditions, made another rafting attempt. The boats would be rowed by a guide as well as paddled in a hybrid type of set-up. The river was first sucessfully rafted with only Zeta portaged. The boats were rowed by Eric Hertz and Randy Porpiglia with Chris Spelius safety kayaking and helping lead the way.
The hazards of this river include the sheer volume of the river, large recirculating hydraulics, the speed of the water and undercut walls. Swimming on certain class V sections of this river is to be avoided as flush drowning is a real possibility. As of 2006, there have been six fatalities on the Futaleufu River, four rafting and two kayaking. Two flush drownings occurred when rafts flipped in Infierno Canyon at high water and another in Tiburon at high water. A pin caused another drowning in Entrada following a long swim. One kayaker drowned in his boat in Terminator and another drowning occurred in Zeta which involved undercut rock. Underwater collisions with rocks are rare but not unheard of on the Futaleufu. A few paddlers have been known to come away with neck injuries after such high speed encounters. At low water levels exposed and semi-exposed rocks need to be considered as potential hazards.
River Flows / Gauge Information / Season
Flows: The Futaleufu typically flows at 425 cms (15,000 cfs) during a normal season. This can go low as 200 cms (7,000 cfs) or as high as 2000 cms (70,000+ cfs) during times of peak flood. Surprisingly the flow of the river can vary significantly over a week given the presence or absence of precipitation.
Gauge Information: At the headwaters of the Futaleufu, below Lago Amutui Quimei, lies a dam operated by Hidroeléctrica Futaleufú S.A.. On their website one can find information regarding discharge rates from the dam which can be an aid in running the Infierno Canyon, however the flow information gleaned from the dam does not tell the entire story as significant volumes of water can enter the river from the Azul and Espolon tributaries. Real-time streamflow data can also be obtained from the MOP website: Real-time Streamflow Data. The reporting station is: 10702002-0 Rio Futaleufu en La Frontera, Region X
Paddling Season: The typical Futaleufu river running season goes from about December 1st to May 1st. Historically the Futaleufu runs highest in December and tends to get continually lower until about mid-April when the volume picks up again. January and February correspond to July and August in the Northern Hemisphere and these two months are the "High Season" for paddling the Futaleufu. However, the weather in Patagonia is highly unpredictable with storms coming off the Southern Pacific that can linger for days and raise the water levels dramatically. For more information on the weather, climate and seasons in Patagonia, Chile, see the Expediciones Chile Patagonia Weather Page.
Sections of the Futaleufu
The Futaleufu River can be divided up into five distinct somewhat overlapping sections.
(14 miles, 22 kms) This is the most difficult, most committing and longest section of the Futaleufu River. It runs from the Gelves Bridge in the Pueblo of Futaleufu to the Rio Azul confluence. The Upper Futaleufu contains the Class V rapids: Gates of Infierno, Wall Shot, The Perfect Storm, Zeta and the Throne Room. The Infierno Canyon is considered un-portage-able and demands complete commitment from those who decide to paddle it. The Upper Futaleufu is also most susceptible to changes in water level and becomes more dangerous the higher the water becomes. This is truly an expert level kayak run.
(4 miles, 7 kms) This section, sometimes, referred to as the Terminator Section, runs from the Rio Azul confluence to the Zapata swinging bridge above Entrada Rapid. It is the second most difficult section, if all the rapids are run, but its extensive system of sneak routes combined with a judicious use of portages allows this section to be paddled by strong class III/IV boaters with a solid rolls. This run contains the class V Terminator rapid which is the longest on the river. The middle section is also known for great play as it contains: Pillow Rock, the Terminator Wave and the Himalayas which are probably some of the biggest waves in the Southern Hemisphere. School House rapid also contains some great eddy lines and forgiving hydraulics for squirting and linking ends.
(8 miles, 13 kms) This section runs from the Zapata swinging bridge, above Entrada rapid, to the take out at El Macal. For practical purposes it is divided up into two overlapping sections with different degrees of difficulty. Running the entire 8 miles in a single day is often referred to as running The Heart of the Futaleufu or the Corazon Section.
Bridge to Bridge Section: (5 miles, 8 kms) This segment contains one of the most continuous stretches of big volume whitewater on the planet. The take out for this section is the cement bridge, Puente Futaleufú (the Futaleufú Bridge), that lies just above the class IV/V Mas o Menos rapid. Taking out at Puente Futaleufú avoids the two biggest rapids on the Lower Futaleufu: Mas o Menos and Casa de Piedra. This section is known for great play and high velocity. When tackled as a wildwasser run, paddlers have been known to beat the shuttle vehicle to the take-out!
Zapata Bridge to El Macal: (8 miles, 13 kms) This section adds an additional distance and another level of difficulty to Bridge to Bridge Section. Below the Puente Futaleufú lie the rapids, Mas o Menos and the technical class V, Casa de Piedra. By adding this stretch paddlers up the ante from a manageable class IV run to a definite Class V run.
El Macal Whitewater Section
(2.5 miles, 4 kms) The El Macal Whitewater Section runs from the bottom of Casa de Piedra to the take-out at the bottom of the El Macal rapid. This stretch of river is sometimes referred to as the Bottom Futaleufu. This section provides a great introduction to the big water nature of the Futaleufu River and is highlighted by the Class III+, Freighter Rock rapid.
El Macal Flatwater Section
(2.5 miles, 4 kms) The El Macal Flatwater Section runs from the El Macal take-out to the village of Puerto Ramirez. This is a great section of river for beginning kayakers as it contains strong eddylines, whirlpools and currents. The section, with its vertical granite cliffs, soaring condors and eagles, and spectacular scenery is one of the most visually stunning on the river.
Difficulty Scale & Assumptions
The International Scale of Whitewater Difficulty
The International Scale of Whitewater Difficulty is what we use to classify rapids in this river guidebook.
The spectrum of difficulty lies between the easy Class I and the extreme Class VI.
- Class I: Small, regular waves, few obstacles, little maneuvering required. (Skill Level: Minimal Skills)
- Class II: Easy rapids, eddies and bends, some maneuvering required. (Skill Level: Basic Paddling Skills)
- Class III: Numerous waves, narrow passages, maneuvering required, may require scouting. (Skill Level: Experienced Whitewater Skills)
- Class IV: Difficult rapids, abrupt bends, narrow passages, scouting often necessary, precise maneuvering required. (Skill Level: Advanced Whitewater Experience)
- Class V: Long rapids with wild turbulence and extremely congested routs, complex maneuvering, scouting is difficult. (Skill Level: Expert)
- Class VI: Limits of Navigation: Nearly impossible and very dangerous, a definite hazard to life. (Skill Level: Expert)
However, there are many things in the environment that can alter these classifications. The water volume on the Futaleufu can vary appreciably throughout the season. High water can make some rapids un-runnable and wash-out others completely. The air temperature in this region of Patagonia can also change significantly raising the risk of hypothermia should a swim occur. The river also has different hazards depending on the craft one is paddling. Kayakers can run some rapids that are just too risky to do in a raft or other inflatables. For the descriptions of rapids in this guidebook we made the following assumptions:
- Water Level: Typical water levels on the Futaleufu range from about 12000 - 16000 cfs (340 cms - 453 cms)
- Season: The normal paddling season is from 1 December - 1 April
- Water Temperatures: 60-70 F (15-21 C)
- Air Temperature: 50-80 F (10-26 C)
- Focus: Hardshell Kayakers
| Upper Futaleufu
Las Escalas Valley (II)
False Zeta (IV)
Zeta (V plus)
Throne Room (V plus)
Wild Mile Section
School House (III)
Asleep at the Wheel (IV)
Pillow Rock (III play feature)
Khyber Pass (IV)
Himalayas (III plus)
| Lower Futaleufu
Futaleufu Bridge to El Macal
El Macal Whitewater Section
Surf Wave (III)
Rodeo Hole (III play feature)
Freighter Rock (III)
El Macal (III plus)
Put-Ins and Take-Outs
The Upper Futaleufu:
Put-in: The put-in for the Upper Futaleufu is Puente Gelves (Gelves Bridge) just outside the village of Futaleufu. An alternate put-in is getting on the class II/III Espolon River and taking it to the confluence of the Futaleufu River. This is ideal if you are camping along the Espolon River, but by doing so you miss the Mini-Canyon and the two warm-up rapids: Initiation and Exit.
Take-out: The take-out for the Upper Futaleufu is the small beach on river left after passing under the Passerela Azul (Azul swinging bridge) but before the confluence of the Rio Azul. You will need cross the bridge to get to your shuttle vehicle on river right.
The Middle Futaleufu:
Put-in: The put-in for the Middle Futaleufu is a small beach located on river left just past the Passarela Azul (Azul swinging bridge). Park your shuttle vehicle on river right, at the end of the access road, and walk across the bridge to the put-in. The access road to the Passarela Azul is on the north side of the Rio Azul near a small wooden Roman Catholic Church. An alternate put-in arrangement is getting on the Rio Azul and taking it to the Futaleufu confluence.
Take-out: The take-out for the Middle Futaleufu is on river right just before the Passarella Zapata (Zapata swinging bridge).
The Lower Futaleufu:
Put-in: The put-in for the Lower Futaleufu is the Passarela Zapata (Zapata swinging bridge) just above Entrada rapid on river right. This is the first bridge in the Bridge-to-Bridge Section. Put-in above the bridge in the large warm-up eddy.
Upper Take-out: The first take-out is the Puente Futaleufú (Futaleufu cement bridge) just above Mas-o-Menos. This is the second bridge in the Bridge-to-Bridge section. Take-out on river left along the sloping rock ledges before the bridge. The eddys here are small and squirrelly especially at high water.
Lower Take-out: The second take-out is at the Casa de Empanadas after Freighter Rock rapid on river left. The take out is located along a beach after the last stretch of whitewater on the Futaleufu, the El Macal rapid. The farm is owned by the Soto family and they have some of the best empanadas available for sale in the entire valley. When you do this run bring along some pesos for a real treat. If you need to change clothes, please do so out of sight of the road and house as this is a private farm.
The El Macal Whitewater Section:
Put-in: The put-in for the El Macal Whitewater Section is on river left below Casa de Piedra. This put-in allows you to run the Freighter Rock section of the Futaleufu.
Take-out: The take-out is at the Casa de Empanadas after the El Macal rapid on river left. The take out is located along a narrow beach after the last stretch of whitewater on the Futaleufu River, the El Macal rapid.
The El Macal Flatwater Section:
Put-in: The put-in for the El Macal Flatwater Section is at the Casa de Empanadas on river left. The put in is located along a narrow beach after the last stretch of whitewater on the Futaleufu River, the El Macal rapid.
Take-out: Take-out in the village of Puerto Ramierez on river left, or at the Endessa Cable Crossing before the village.
Getting to the Futaleufu River Valley
The Futaleufu River Valley can be accessed from either Chile or Argentina.
Chile Option: Flying in through Santiago de Chile, one must take a bus or plane to Puerto Montt, Chile then take another flight (or ferry boat) to Chaiten, Chile. From Chaiten there is a three hour drive over a dirt road to the village of Futaleufu.
Argentina Option: Flying in through Buenos Aires, one must take another flight to Esquel, Argentina or to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. Esquel is the closest but flights only arrive and depart on certain days of the week. For either of these two points a bus, taxi or private shuttle will get you to the Futaleufu Valley. From Esquel the Futaleufu Valley is 2.5 hours away and from San Carlos de Bariloche it is 6.5 hours away.
You can consult the Expediciones Chile Patagonia Maps page to get detailed information on navigating the region. The Expediciones Chile Travel Information Page goes over the travel details and the pros and cons of each route.
What to Bring
Trying to decide what to bring to Patagonia, Chile will depend on the season you are visiting and the lodging accomodations you want. Campers will need to bring more gear than those staying in local hosterias and hospedajes. Our best recommendation is to get your hands on a packing list provided by one of the local tour operators to use as a guide. The Expediciones Chile packing list can be found at the following page: Kayak Packing List.
Bringing your own kayak to Chile is doable proposition but can be problematic with all the airline luggage restrictions and surcharges. At the time of the writing (Sept. 2006) some airlines were charging up to $200.00 to transport a kayak to Chile. As a result, some paddlers elect to sell their kayaks in Chile instead of transporting them back to the United States and Europe but this takes time and can have an uncertain outcome. There are a few companies that will rent kayaks in the Futaleufu River Valley. Expediciones Chile has a limited number of kayaks to rent in the town of Futaleufu: Kayak Rental Form
Places to Stay / Campgrounds
There are numerous places to lodge and camp in the Futaleufu River Valley. However, many of these places change ownership, email addresses and telephone numbers frequently. We recommend that you check the Futaleufu municipality website for the most up to date and complete information: www.futaleufu.cl Check under the "Servicios" section. Frommers Guidebooks also does a good job of keeping their information accurate and current. See: Frommers Futaleufu.
Maps & Outside Links
Hydroelectric Development & River Conservation
In 1997 a European owned energy conglomerate, Endessa, was granted the full water rights to the entire Futaleufu river, to generate 1415 MW of electrical power. Since then the dam projects have been submitted to Chile's National Energy Commission; however, the date of dam construction remains uncertain. According to Endessa, the Futaleufu dams are contingent on increases in regional energy demands, this includes localities in neighboring Argentina via energy exchange protocols between both countries.
In response to the 1997 annoucement, FutaFriends was established in 1999. Futafriends serves as an educational resource on the issue and helps coordinate international interest in the region's conservation. They provide funding for Chilean groups working for the future of the Futaleufú Valley, a future based on ecotourism, small scale agriculture, strong local traditions, conservation of local landscapes and increasing opportunities for the local community.
To get the latest news on the hydroelectric threat to the Futaleufu River, and find out how you or your organization can help, please visit FutaFriends at: www.futafriends.org
Copyrights: (Copyright © 2006, Expediciones Chile) All photos, maps, diagrams, text and computer code is the copyrighted property of Expediciones Chile with all rights reserved.
Disclaimer: Under no circumstances should paddlers substitute the information and diagrams in this guidebook for their own sound judgment on the river and their collective experience running rivers. This guidebook is based on Expediciones Chile's twenty years of experience running the Futaleufu River. However, the diagrams and descriptions found here are only approximations of what paddlers will find on the river once they get here. They are not to scale and nor are they completely accurate. Water levels change, rocks move around, landslide debris can enter the river at any time making the diagrams obsolete. Expediciones Chile also reserves the right to update these diagrams and descriptions at any time as we find better ways to illustrate and discuss the rapids. Use this guidebook at your own risk.Read More: Disclaimer