The First descent of the Tambopata River

It was mid-September, 1981 when a small group of us ventured out from the city of Puno towards Juliaca, where se stocked up on supplies. We spent a day and a half bouncing around the back of a 1974 Dodge 4×4 truck with wonderful views of adobe house on the lakeshore, where people were drying their fishing nets and the flamingos were flocking between the small islands and beaches of the north shore of Lake Titicaca. After reaching Putina we began heading east along the Apolobamba range and its impressive snow capped peaks, turning orange and gold with the sun setting on our backs. We began to descend towards the cloud forest past Cuyo Cuyo and its endless terraces starting at 4,000 meters above sea level and ending where banana and papaya trees grow. This section of road was so narrow that the direction of traffic alternated with the days of the week. Finally, we arrived at our put in at the road head, a precarious set of houses past San Juan del Oro.

We camped the fi rst night on the local soccer fi eld, waking up to the villagers staring at us as if the circus had just arrived and we were the main act. At last we had arrived at the headwaters of the Tambopata. We began to organize our gear and inflate our boats, which took us until the afternoon, when we embarked on our adventure on a narrow mountain creek, very steep and technical. We began to doubt our choice of boat size as it was almost impossible to maneuver the oars on the equipment boats and after bouncing around and getting stuck on numerous rocks, we decided to camp by the river on a slanted beach between huge rocks. Fortunately that night it didn’t rain as there was no space to set up tents.

After a hearty breakfast, we began paddling around boulders and after some big rapids we entered a pool of still water, its only outlet being a small gap between towering rock cliff s. Our rafts would barely squeeze through the canyon, but we had no idea what lay ahead, could there be a waterfall? We were all pretty scared, but there was no alternative so we decided to head into it slowly in hopes of getting through safely.

Past this narrow gap, the river charges up with the fl ow of several tributaries, making it more navigable but very technical. We stopped at each curve to scout what was coming up ahead. After a curving rapid we found ourselves heading into a huge fallen tree across the river. – is part of the valley was so narrow that one fallen tree was enough to block the entire width of the river. We had to cut the branches with our machetes, climb on top of the tree and portage the rafts over it.

By the next day, the volume of water fl owing through the river had doubled, with plenty of rocks and obstacles, making this a fast and technical section. On a class IV rapid, we were attacked by little red ants, whose bites stung like fi re, and the rapid was quickly baptized “Hormigas”. – at night on the 21st of September, we celebrated my birthday with a huge campfire and plenty of pisco punch, our national drink.

We began the day quite late due to the previous night’s celebrations on a short run filled with huge rapids, waves, and boulders the size of a house in the middle of the river. In some parts the river turned 90 degree corners in which the width and fl ow of the river was reduced to perhaps three meters crashing against rock walls and fl owing furiously in search of the next obstacle. Three such rapids were enough for the day and we set up camp.

The next day was probably the most intense rafting day of my life with one huge rapid after another, which we negotiated from all angles. We counted nearly 20 big rapids before we finished the day completely wiped out. Ricky, a close friend, passed out on the sand as soon as he stepped off the boat, an indicator that we should take the next day off . That night we were visited by a tapir and later on by a jaguar which wandered around the campsite leaving footprints all over while we were asleep.

On our day off we decided to do some hiking and wandered up a dry creek bed. That day we saw tapirs, capybaras, giant anteaters, and a wide variety of birds. In the distance we could hear the howler monkeys communicating with each other.

After the previous day on the river, the Tambopata now began to simmer down; it got so calm that at times we didn’t know which way the current was fl owing. This day we saw more wildlife than in all the previous days put together: families of capybaras crossing the river in groups of 4 and 6, tapirs, monkeys, and even an eagle soaring overhead with a snake in its claws. In the distance a cloud of perhaps 100 macaws flocked from a tree only to whip around in the sky and return to its branches. The last couple of days seemed eternal as we slowly advanced down the river. During the afternoon the head wind was so strong that if we stopped paddling we would move in reverse. We finally arrived at a place near the confluence of the Malinosky River where a dug-out canoe with an outboard hauled us all the way out to Puerto Maldonado.

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