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Futaleufú paddling Guide
Comprised of clear glacial waters descending from the mountains in Argentina cutting a distinct path through the Chilean Andes, long days on Río Futaleufú can feel like something out of a dream. With snow capped mountains anchoring the skyline, lush forests pushing up tight against the banks, and abundant fish swimming in the clear water, the “Futa” would be worth a visit if it didn’t have whitewater, but, thankfully, it does. In fact, some of the best you will find anywhere on the planet, and it runs everyday of the year.
For many visitors, the Futa will be a trip years in the making. Elite kayakers exploring Chile’s bountiful whitewater stop on the Futa to play in its massive features and test themselves among famous rapids like Throne Room and Terminator. Lifelong rafters have heard legends about the Futa and are eager to experience one of the top raftable rivers on the planet. Travelers who aren’t yet self-sufficient will likely find themselves surrounded by an expert team of local guides, in both rafts and kayaks. Ensuring the journey lives up to expectations, the quality of guiding and emphasis on safety on the Futaleufú is world class. The Futalefú truly has something for all river lovers and is well worth the long trek down to Patagonia.
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About this guide
This guide outlines the Futaleufú River from the Put-In at the Chile/Argentina border to below El Macal. This includes many different sections of whitewater ranging from intermediate to expert-level whitewater.
Choosing a Section to Raft
Those traveling to Futaleufú to raft might be overwhelmed with the amount of sections available, and confused by when they can be rafted. The quality of guiding on this river is extremely high. Each company sends out safety kayakers and safety catarafts to ensure any swim in the river is a short one. Guiding on the Futa is considered a big deal in the rafting industry. Both local and international guides train for many years before they get in a boat with guests.
If you have one day, you want to find a company doing Terminator, Bridge to Bridge, and Casa. When combined, this 22 kilometer section is the best day of rafting on the planet. When water levels are too high, companies may be limited to Bridge to Bridge and Casa, or only Bridge to Bridge. Highwater laps on Bridge to Bridge are a thrilling consolation prize when the river is pumping. If the water is low, some of the companies may offer trips to Infierno Canyon. This is a challenging trip to sell because it can be very full on in the Canyon (see description). Some companies may ask you to participate in another rafting trip with them prior to Inferno to gauge paddling and mentality. When the water is too high to run Bridge to Bridge, companies flock to the Las Escalas section.
Rapid Names and Choosing Lines
These rapid descriptions come from years of both rafting and kayaking on the Futaleufú. One of the great aspects of the Futa is the size. That size gives a tremendous amount of variability when choosing lines, making it hard to get bored with so much to explore. The advice listed below, while solid, is not the only way to approach the rapids. Please rely on your own judgment and experience to decide the best way to descend. If you don’t trust your experience, please hire a local guide!
The rapid names used in this guidebook are 95% universal to everyone on the Futaleufú, especially the big ones. Some name deviations occur on Bridge to Bridge below Mundaca and perhaps elsewhere depending on who you are on the water with.
The primary tourist months for Futaleufú are November through April. With the seasons inverted in the southern Hemisphere, November tends to be the coldest of those months. Things generally start to warm in December and begin cooling down again in April. Proximity to both Antarctica to the south and the dry regions to the north puts Futaleufú in a constant weather flux. When the high pressure system over Antarctica is strong, warm air moves south and gives this region beautiful weather, occasionally reaching the 80s. The ozone layer is thinner here causing the sun’s rays to feel more intense. When the high pressure system weakens over Antarctica, weather moves north towards Futa bringing rain and cold. It is common to see at least moderate amounts of new snowfall on the mountains every month of the year. When planning, prepare for dynamic weather that could be in the 80s for two weeks straight, or rainy in the 50s for the same duration.
Futa River Flows
The course of Río Futaleufú begins in the glacial mountains of Argentina before it is halted by an Argentinian-controlled reservoir, Los Alerces Lake. Realtime data is available on this website: http://www.chfutaleufu.com.ar/serv/hoy.asp. Keep in mind there are a number of tributaries downstream that can increase the volume significantly, especially during the spring and large rain events. The gauge can be difficult to read, so focus on how many tubes are releasing water. The tubes are listed as Caud.G01, Caud.G02, Caud.G03, Caud.G04.
4 Tubes = High Water
3 Tubes = Medium/ High
2 Tubes = Medium/low
1 Tube = Low
If the tributaries are pumping water, assume the higher end of the spectrum. This gauge should be used as one of many resources when deciding which section is right for you on a given day. It should never replace good judgment and the advice of boaters experienced on this river.
In a perfect world there would be numerous online gauges available on the Futaleufú, but without that resource locals and guiding companies use stick gauges to get an idea. The most common stick gauge is at the public Bridge to Bridge put-in, Chucao Beach. This gauge replaced the more well known “Josh’s Gauge” which still exists, but was snapped in half during 2018 highwater.
Chucao Stick Gauge: Highwater = 70 or greater
Medium = 30 to 69
Low = 30 to -100
How to get to the Futaleufu
Futaleufú is about 1,500 kilometers south of the Chilean Capital City of Santiago. Most visitors will initially fly here and then decide how to progress south. It is typically more expensive to fly into Buenos Aires, Argentina but that option is also worth exploring. If you are planning to rent a car, do so in Chile as the vehicles tend to be better. Before crossing any borders in a rental car, check that you are allowed to do so.
Fly – Ferry – Bus
This the fastest and least painful way to get to Futa. It might not be the best option if you are bringing a kayak as the domestic flight to Puerto Montt may or may not take a kayak. The Ferry to Chaiten definitely will, but the bus from Chaiten to Futaleufú won’t. Hitchhiking to Futa is an option, but it could take a couple days if you are unlucky.
- From SCL airport in Santiago, you can book a short flight to Puerto Montt.
- A short, inexpensive bus ride to Naviera Austral Ferry in Puerto Montt.
- Pre book a ferry to Chaiten here https://navieraustral.cl. This ferry does not run every day! Usually three times per week, departing in the evening and landing in Chaiten in the morning.
- Once in Chaiten, a short, free bus to the main bus terminal.
- There are multiple buses a day to Futaleufú. Locals have ticket priority.
Rental Car – Ferry
With so much to see in Chile, renting a car and traveling at your own pace south is a wonderful option. For kayakers, this is the best way to control your own destiny with boats and river logistics.
- Shuttle to car rental in Santiago
- Rental car south.
- You can decide on putting your car on the Puerto Montt ferry that goes directly to Chaiten https://navieraustral.cl, or use a series of smaller ferries that operate during the day.
- Drive to Futaluefú
Bus – Ferry – Bus
Public transportation in Chile is good. You can book a bus to Chaiten that will take over 15 hours. These buses are double decker and have semi or full camas (beds). Although the cheapest option, for a little more money flying direct to Puerto Montt is a lot faster. You may also find buses that travel through Argentina to Futaleufú. Anticipate that these buses will not carry a kayak.
- Taxi to the bus station in Santiago
- Bus to either the Puerto Montt Ferry or to Chaiten
- Bus from Chaiten to Futaelufú
The town of Futaleufu
When we imagine small towns attracting tourists it’s easy to drift to the image of the “cool” ski resort town that has become corporatized to death. Culture driven communities with long standing locals replaced by strips of expensive shops and hotels. Thankfully, Futaleufú does not fit that model. The town certainly has adapted to the influx of visitors during the summer months. Numerous hostels, rafting companies, and markets are available, but the culture and charm of the community remains intact. Walking the streets you will see houses built in the traditional Patagonian frontier style with chimney smoke rising as people bake fresh bread. More modern buildings like the school and hospital have helped improve the community’s infrastructure as well. While a majority of the 2,000+ residents live in the town, the countryside is littered with farms “campos”, where farmers raise sheep, cows, and horses. These large swaths of land are clearly visible as you explore the area by both road and river.
The people of Futaleufú are welcoming to the visitors of their small town. Chileans, in general, are outgoing, passionate, and genuine, often greeting friends and acquaintances with a kiss on the cheek. While rafting companies and some markets will have English speakers, most people will speak only Spanish. Visitors don’t need to be fluent in Spanish to thrive in Futa, but should make an effort to try. It is surprising how many doors filled with unique and fun opportunities open up in this small town when you engage with the locals and other travelers.
What was once a river enjoyed only by foreigners has transformed over the last two decades. Many local girls and boys are now kayaking and guiding the river, giving the older generation a window into why people travel great distances to see the Futa. This is the hopeful progression of any international river community; visitors with experience arrive, explore, and teach the younger generation how to enjoy the resource in their backyard. The talent of guides and kayakers in Futaleufú has long been world class, and now includes many people who grew up seeing this river every day.
Places to Stay
If you elect to raft or kayak with one of the multi day companies, they will have river side accommodations ready for you when you arrive. The town of Futaleufú will offer the most options for accommodation. From an extremely high end hotel overlooking the town, to rustic hostels, there are plenty of options for visitors. Here are some of our favorites.
Cara Del Indio https://www.caradelindio.cl
Located midway down the Bridge to Bridge section on river right. This is a popular camping destination for kayakers that features bathrooms, a kitchen, and some cabañas as well. You are likely to meet other kayakers here which will make sorting out logistics easier. From here you are about 20-30 minutes from the town of Futaluefú. Cara Del Indio has a small restaurant, but you will want to stock up on food in the town if you are cooking.
Hostal Las Natales: http://hostallasnatalias.info
Located in the town of Futaleufú, this Hostel is owned by a wonderful couple who live in town year round. The hostel is clean, offers a variety of room types, has a large kitchen, and is a great place to meet other travelers and boaters. As kayakers, owners Nate and Nancy are well connected within the community and can give advice on guiding services and kayak rentals.
El Límite – Class II, III & IV+
This Class II-IV section is most commonly utilized by fisherman and boaters looking for a more tranquil section of the Futa. When the river is extremely high, this might be one of the only portions available for the commercial rating companies operating in the valley. If you are rafting, the only reasonable takeout involves running a Class III-IV rapid at the end. Kayakers and other small vessels can elect to end the trip at the bridge, avoiding anything greater than Class III. Although it parallels the road, the river gives outstanding views of snow capped mountains and lush forests.
Infierno Canyon – Class IV & V
Infierno Canyon is the closest section to the town of Futaluefú. “Hell Canyon”, cuts deep into the Andes Mountains, constricting the river into a remarkable stretch of whitewater. While no single rapid in Infierno is in the top five most challenging, the consequences of swimming here makes it Class V. Extremely powerful boils, eddies, seams, and holes make it challenging for swimmers to stay on the surface. The steep walls also make it nearly impossible to climb out of the canyon if something goes wrong. The hardest flow for Infierno is the high end of medium when the holes are big and defined. At high water, Infierno is still hard, but a lot of features start to flush out. Rafting companies operate here infrequently, waiting for low water and stout clients. Features and rapids below can vary a great deal depending on water level so always use your best judgment in the moment. If you have the skills and the water levels are right, Inferno is an amazing section that should not be missed.
Las Escalas – Class III, IV & V
Often overshadowed by Futa’s two hardest rapids, Zeta and Throne Room, the beauty of Las Escalas does not get the recognition it deserves. To many, Las Escalas is the prettiest section of Rio Futaluefú. The river is not gorged in, allowing boaters to appreciate the lush green forests and snow capped peaks. Due to the rain shadow further downstream the weather is typically better up here. From the put-in, enjoy several kilometers of fast moving clear water with few rapids to speak of. With plenty of stout whitewater on the back half, take your time and enjoy the remarkable beauty on the front.
Las Escalas technically ends at the confluence with Rio Azul, but given the lack of a good take-out option there, most boaters elect to ask for permission to take out on private land or run the Class V Terminator section downstream. This section is packed with tons of action and adds about 10 kilometers of adrenaline-packed, beautiful whitewater to your day.
Terminator – Class III, IV & V
Terminator Section has great scenery, lush forests, and enough challenging, big water lines to keep top boaters satisfied. It also features enough sneak lines to make this a manageable section for Class IV boaters. When combined with the two sections below; Bridge to Bridge and Mas o Menos, this is the best raftable section on the planet. Even with slightly more complicated logistics, make sure Terminator is high on your list when you visit the Futa.
Bridge to Bridge – Class III & IV+
Bridge to Bridge is the most commonly run section of the Futaleufú both commercially and privately. Super fun, continuous whitewater combined with an easy shuttle makes this a great place to spend a bulk of your time on the Futa. While Bridge to Bridge does not feature anything as challenging as Terminator, at high water the features are massive with very little break between rapids making it solid Class IV+. At medium and low water the pace slows down and the section feels more Class IV.
Casa – Class III, IV & V
This section has two outstanding rapids and is a notable step up from Bridge to Bridge. Portaging is not really an option, but the road remains close to the river along the left side if you need to walk out for any reason. Class V kayakers will feel very comfortable here. Class IV boaters paddling well with a good crew can also make it down. Rafting companies will start running this section at Medium water.
El Macal – Class III
Macal is a class III section that is often used by kayakers who are preparing themselves for the harder sections above. Everything is read-and-run.