The 2011 Wet Planet Peru Expedition exceeded everyone’s expectations, even the intrepid international guide Brian Lee. As with any good whitewater expedition in a developing nation, the trip had its share of trials and tribulations, to remind us of the great lengths we go to for the ultimate adventure. River Explorers, Wet Planet’s Peruvian partner, employs a very talented, professional, and thoroughly intriguing staff.
Guest Arrival Day
Day 1: October 1, 2011
I contacted Juan Carlos, manager of River Explorers, and he assured me that all transportation had been arranged for our guests’ airport pick up in Lima, Peru. He recommended that I not hail a taxi late at night on the street to meet them – sound advice from a local. Instead, River Explorers would pick everyone up in an official vehicle. .
Some of us ate dinner at Panchita Restaurante in beautiful Miraflores for our first Peruvian meal together.
The others checked into their room later in the evening. The group had all made it safely and were excited to continue travel to the ancient Peruvian city of Cusco.
Ceviche, Beaches and Parques in Miraflores, Lima
Day 2: October 2, 2011
After a delicious fresh breakfast at the hotel, we strolled through the Sunday market in Parque Kennedy and walked down to the beautiful beach. For lunch we all tried Ceviche, Peru’s famous dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice and peppers, at “Al Fresco Restaurante.”
We walked along the Malecón Cisnéros overlooking the vast ocean and beaches, a far different sight than the coastline of the Pacific Northwest. After pausing in the Parque del Amor, we returned to El Carmel to rest (an extra treat when traveling internationally).
Unable to quell our desire to get out and take in the sights of Peru’s capital city, Lima, we asked the front desk to call us a taxi to another neighborhood, Barranco, to see an illuminated art display in another park.
We finished the night with pizza at an Italian restaurant near the park – unlike any Italian restaurant in the Columbia River Gorge – and returned to the Miraflores district, exhausted, excited, and ready for more Peruvian exploration.
Lima to Cusco
Day 3: October 3, 2011
Happy to see our River Explorers transport arrive on time, we were off to the airport to make our way to the ancient Incan city, Cuzco. Other than a forgotten Leatherman knife in a carry-on, our flights were without difficulty. The international traveling gods continued to smile upon us.
We were welcomed into the high Andean city with flutes and flags, the culture of the people proudly blazed. Juan Carlos met us outside the baggage claim area, helped us load everything into a comfortable River Explorers van, and explained the details of our upcoming journey on the Apurímac River. His nearly fluent English was impressive.
Our hotel could not have been more centrally located to Cusco’s incredible attractions. La Casona Real sat just off of the historic Plaza de Armas.
As soon as we could, our group embarked on a tour of the city.
Auriel, a guide arranged by River Explorers, led us on a short tour of some of the city’s highlights including the Incan Temple of the Sun, Qoricancha. He explained that at one time the perfectly fitting blocks of stone had been covered with plates of solid gold, but were removed by the Conquistador Spaniards led be Francisco Pizzaro in 1533.
We decided to cut our tour a bit short and allow ourselves to acclimatize more. Cusco’s altitude is at an incredible 11,000 feet, while most of the group lives just above sea level in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. Luckily, time allowed for the needed rest and hydration to help everyone feel more comfortable.
We ate another Peruvian favorite dish Lomo Saltado, a specialty of the Andean highlands consisting of stir fried beef, onions and potatoes, at a small restaurant called Piedras y Carbón in the San Blas neighborhood overlooking the city. Afterwards, Auriel led us on a requisite shopping tour for alpaca merchandise.
We returned to the hotel to meet the Río Apurímac Trip Leader and raft guide, Jean Claude.
We would be embarking on the 63 km section between the Black Canyon and Acabamba Abyss sections of the Apurímac River, the source of the great Amazon River. We were fortunate enough to have three other guests in our raft for the trip, as one of the greatest parts of traveling internationally is meeting other adventure seekers from across the globe. We would have Chilean raft guide named Fabian, who Jean Claude had worked with previously on the Futalefu, and his girlfriend Wanda. Another female, Sol, would also join us.
The weather was to be clear and 90 degrees, a far cry from the Pacific Northwest’s typical wet and cold October climate.
Because the river is spring-fed, like the White Salmon River, the water gets colder as you descend, and more cold spring water enters the main flow.
We were impressed by the River Explorers Leave No Trace Ethics for waste, similar to our own high environmental standards for rafting in the Northwest. Jimmy left us with dry bags for our guests to pack everything they would need for the four-day journey, arranged secure storage at the hotel for our belongings that we did not wish to take on the river, and confirmed the time that he, the gear boater Ruben, and support kayaker Franc would meet us at the hotel in the morning.
Dinner that night was full of the anticipation of one of the world’s best multi-day rafting trips.
Apurímac River Trip Begins
Day 4: October 4, 2011
After breakfast in the hotel, the vehicles arrived and we packed up and set off into the Andean mountains. Just outside of Cusco, we stopped at a small town where the guides were able to buy additional supplies for the journey. Outside of the tourist scene in Cusco, the guests were able to get a better impression of rural life in Peru.
After leaving the small pueblo, the road began to look more and more like a rural, foreign country. The switchbacks and dust clouds reminded us that our trip would be off the beaten path and in the true wilds of South American. A few times we encountered an oncoming bus and had to back up to where we could let the bus pass, an added element of adrenaline. On the way, Jean Claude’s personable guiding character began to emerge as he provided insights into the lives of the highland people, without talking our ears off, so to speak.
At the put-in, the guides and I were quick and efficient in getting the boats packed, rigged and ready to go while the clients had a hearty lunch of stir-fried rice and chicken.
Finally, we pushed off the shore and began floating downstream.
Jean Claude used the first few rapids to deliver the Trip Talk and train the guests on how to paddle. Before we even realized it, we had already arrived at our camp with plenty of sun left to set up tents, change, and lay clothes out to dry. The guides and I prepared a big dinner of caldo de gallina (chicken soup) followed by mashed potatoes, steamed veggies and sautéed cuts of chicken and beef. The freshest meats and veggies taste even fresher while on the river. And of course in true multi-day river trip style, there was way too much food. Everyone sat in the sand next to the Río Apurímac around a roaring driftwood fire after dinner, under entirely different constellations of stars.
Apurímac – El Portage, Purgatorio, y Trident
Day 5: October 5, 2011
When the Wet Planet crew paddled the Apurímac in 2007, this was the only commercial portage at the time (but they all ran it, of course). Since then, there have been some rock slides and floods that have created more issues. This rapid was portaged entirely by all the guests, and partially by Franc and I. We set support in key spots for the gear boater, Ruben and Jean Claude with stern-mounted oars who both ran the whole rapid.
Purgatorio was next and turned out to be everyone’s favorite rapid. It was a constricted channel on river left with huge waves up against a polished granite wall, as seen on all the promotional posters for the Apurímac. It pushed into a huge boulder that obstructing the river’s main channel. All raft guides skillfully eddied out on river right immediately above. Franc and I ran the kayak-only channel to the right of the boulder and then helped Jean Claude and Ruben to low-side the rafts through the slightly wider left channel while all guests portaged the short distance to the other side of the boulder.
We had lunch, and then the river maintained a steady class II – III character for hours until we arrived at a big class IV rapid called Trident. It is named for the three lines separated by two large holes that make the rapid a mandatory commercial portage at high flows. At our medium-low volume it was technical, but manageable and fun for the rafters.
Almost immediately after Trident, we set up camp on a river-left beach big enough for a soccer game. We had Lomo Saltado for dinner around another huge fire, and went to bed early in anticipation of another big day on the river.
Apurímac – Dolor de Muelas, Tu Primero, El Final
Day 6: October 6, 2011
The third day on the Apurímac was comparable to the second day in length and difficulty.
Dolor de Muelas was a complex class IV+ rapid that the guests portaged. Tu Primero had long entrance into a 5 foot ledge hole which fed into a rock sieve where the only commercial fatality on the Río Apurímac occurred ten years ago. This rapid was portaged by guests and safety kayakers. We set support for Ruben and Jean Claude.
El Final or the final rapid was shallow and spread over three channels. Frank and I ran a fun boof line in the middle, then set support for the rafts to run the more open, right line.
At the bottom of the rapid there was a large hole which made for the perfect raft surf session. The stern mounted paddle raft must have taken at least 10 laps.
Shortly afterward, we arrived at a river right site owned by River Explorers. We derigged everything and hauled all the gear up the hill to an established camp site with sheltered picnic tables, and a side building with flushable toilets and cold showers.
After setting up camp a local farmer, Ernesto, showed us around his mango and avocado orchard.
Apurímac – Kayaking lessons and Hot Springs take-out
Day 7: October 7, 2011
While the rest of the group departed, the Wet Planet guests and I continued on to the hot springs, feeling light with only our daypacks. From there, Franc switched roles and became the raft guide.
I saw the opportunity to turn a mellow stretch of river into a kayak course. All of the guests were able to feel the flow from the seat of a kayak with the help of basic beginner kayaking principles. They were able to take turns paddling the flat water and class I-II rapids in Franc´s old Pyranha during the significantly shorter river section on the fourth day on the river. They all insisted that this was one of the main highlights of the entire Peru Trip for them.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by a crowd of semi-shocked locals lining the banks of the river next to the developed hot springs. Franc, Freddy and I loaded the van while the guests swam in the pools. We had a great lunch which included the guests favorite salsa of the trip, a spicy green peanut sauce, at the pool-side picnic tables before driving back to Cusco.
We had dinner at a little restaurant next to our hotel, La Casona Real. Peru beat Paraguay 2-0 in a soccer game that night and the whole town seemed to be celebrating. People paraded up and down the streets chanting and singing all night.
Cusco Exploration Day
Day 8: October 8, 2011
I woke up sick with a case of “Atahualpa´s Revenge” (he was the 12th and last Inca who was executed by Francisco Pizzaro even after paying his ransom of over 6 tons of gold and 12 tons of silver). I stayed in the hotel close to the baño while the group took a taxi to the Incan ruins outside of Cusco called Saqsayhuahman. They later went to the Choco Museo (Chocolate Museum) and did some more shopping in downtown Cusco.
In the early evening, Juan Carlos and our guides for the next phase of the journey arrived at our hotel for a briefing in the lobby. Edwin would be our local guide for the Pisaq and Ollayantaytambo ruins in the Sacred Valley the following day. Jimmy would the escort us through our Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu: three days of biking, rafting, zip-lining, and trekking all around towering Andean peaks in the sacred valley of the Incas.
Jimmy outlined our day at Machu Picchu, our accommodations for the entire adventure, and the weather forecast. After another delicious meal in Cusco, the group went to bed dreaming of more adventure.
Sacred Valley – Pisaq, Ollayantaytambo
Day 9 October 9, 2011
We started off by visiting a small traditional market on the way to Pisaq, and then continued on to the ruins. Edwin explained that this valley was sacred to the people of the Incan Empire because of its fertility. He showed us a carved stone which formed a half “chacana,” a three-tiered sacred Incan symbol. The rock was oriented so that the sunrise on the winter solstice would perfectly align it with its own shadow.
We drove for roughly an hour, arriving at a ranch style restaurant. There was a musician playing traditional Andean flute music, and we sat outside on the covered patio surrounded by a large flower garden with tropical birds and grazing vecuñas, a smaller relative of the Alpaca valued for its cashmere-like wool.
Next came the town of Ollyantaytambo where Edwin gave us a tour of the Incan archeological site bearing the same name, located on the hillside overlooking the small town. Edwin delivered a very interesting tour of this sacred Incan site, and I marveled at the immensity of the stones and the precision with which they were fit together.
The hot showers and beds at our hotel, Muñay Inca, in Ollyantaytambo that night were particularly comfortable after a long day of sight-seeing.
Biking, Mud, and a Sacred Connection
Day 10: October 10, 2011
The starting point for the bike ride was at a higher elevation than anywhere in the continental United Sates (7,000 feet higher than the summit of our own backyard volcano, Mt Adams).
We stood at the base of Mount Veronica, a 6,000 meter (19,685 feet) glaciated peak, and our guide Jimmy pointed out that Machu Picchu was located just on the other side. He explained that it was this mountain that had prevented the Conquistador Spaniards from ever reaching the hidden city of Machu Picchu. He elaborated on the significance of the journey to Machu Picchu, that it was a sacred pilgrimage for the Quechua people of the ancient Incan Empire. Our journey would mirror that sacred pilgrimage giving us a stronger connection to this amazing place.
He made an offering of three coca leaves to Pachamama, Mother Earth, and we began our descent on the paved road into the verdant valley below.
The bicycles were well tuned, in great condition, and high quality even by American standards. With helmets, elbow pads and knee pads, we felt pretty hardcore.
We encountered rain, mud, and shallow stream crossings along the way. Our support vehicle followed us, allowing us to change clothes as the weather and climate changed during the descent. Our guide and driver provided us with snacks and water at various rest stops.
At one stop, a young boy emerged from his home, shy but curious to see what we gringos were up to. One guest offered him a juice box, and he was very grateful. We eventually made it to an archeological site, and then our final destination – a small home with no electricity, where the woman of the house had prepared us a lunch of steamed veggies, fried chicken and a native tuber called yuca over a wood-fire stove.
We arrived in the small town of Santa Maria after a short drive, checked in and hung our muddy biking clothes out to dry in the courtyard.
With dinner and rest, we were ready for our next adventure.
Rio Urubamba Rafting
Day 11: October 11, 2011
The people of the Inca Empire envisioned the Milky Way Galaxy as a river of stars, and during the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, it appears to run parallel to the Urubamba River. They considered the Urubamba, also known as the Wilcamayu (sacred ricer in Quechua) to be the galaxy’s earthly counterpart.
We met Wilbur, the raft guide, Manolo the safety kayaker, and Santiago, a guide in training who rode along.
The put-in was immediately downstream from the town of Santa Maria. Due to heavy rains the day before, both rivers were running higher than normal and loaded with sediment. At the confluence, the black and brown waters swirled together. The character of the river was continuous class II – III with fun waves at that flow. The length of the trip was ideal. Just enough time on the water to have some fun, but not to long that we were burned out upon our arrival in the town of Quillabumba, the largest town in the Sacred Valley. We had lunch in a small restaurant with no tourists.
We then traveled to Santa Teresa. The road there was another one lane dirt road with no guard rails. We reached Santa Teresa in under an hour, unscathed, and checked into Manchata, our hotel for that night.
On the way there, we stopped at a vista overlooking the upper Urubamba River. From high above, it appeared to be continuous class V rafting and its banks were scarred from a huge flood.
Jimmy told us that 15 years ago there had been two huge avalanches off the slopes of 6,000 meter Mount Salkanty that almost completely dammed the river, creating a large reservoir behind the ice dam. When the river eventually broke the dam, a huge wall of water drowned Santa Teresa, killing many people. Jimmy told us of a celebration that evening in the town park to commemorate the rebuilding of the town.
We saw a local woman crossing the Urubamba in a tiny cable car in order to return to her village on the other side. Opting for a spontaneous adventure, we each took a turn in flying across the river as well. We arrived at the hot springs and soaked until nightfall.
Zip-line and Trekking Day
Day 12: October 12, 2011
After breakfast we headed to Cola de Mono where we would sail across the river valley on Gian Marco’s zip-lines. The lines were strung high above a smaller creek, providing spectacular views all around.
Our shuttle dropped us off outside a checkpoint on the backside of the Machu Picchu Protected Area. We hiked for about half an until arriving at a small home next to the trail. Jimmy had arranged for the woman of the house to make us lunch, and the Lomo Saltado was hot and ready when we arrived.
The remaining two and a half hour walk on the trail to Aguas Calientes did not gain significantly in elevation, to all of our delight.
We checked into our hotel and then Jimmy left us to rest while he arranged everything for the upcoming day. From tickets to Machu Picchu, to reservations for hiking Wynapicchu, to bus tickets and shuttle pick-ups, he set everything up all the way to our hotel back in Cusco.
Machu Picchu guided tour and Train back to Cusco
Day 13: October 13, 2011
We awoke at 3am, stored everything we did not want to take up to Machu Picchu in a locker at the hotel, packed light day bags, and began our headlamp assisted ascent of the ancient Incan Trail.
We climbed the 1,800 stone steps of the 600 year old trail, and arrived at the base of the Incan citadel at 5:45am, 15 minutes before the national park would open. A line had already formed at the gate, and when the doors opened, the crowed rushed in like it was a powder day at a ski area. This being a rare clear day, visitors were eager to capture the coveted pictures from the famous view point overlooking the archeological site without any people in the frame.
Jimmy gave us a great tour of the ancient city including highlights like the Temple of the Condor and a carved rock which perfectly pointed to all four cardinal directions (we confirmed with a compass).
At 8 am we began the ascent of Wynapicchu mountain. The view from the top was incomparable and the crowds were less. The day felt full and it was only 11 am. By 2 pm we had boarded our trail with our packs, ready to take in more views of the valley.
More Cusco Exploration
Day 14: October 14, 2011
After biking from a point higher than any summit in the continental United States, trekking through the sacred valley of the Incas, seeing the sun rise after hiking our way to Machu Picchu, and riding on the narrow and winding dirt roads of Peru, our entire group enjoyed a day of rest and relaxation in Cusco.
Cusco to Lima
Day 15: October 15, 2011
Our group temporarily parted ways to travel back to Lima, due to making reservations at different times. By the evening, we were all back together again and headed out on the town for a farewell dinner together.
Having traveled to Costa Rica with Wet Planet in the past, one member of the group decided to bring back the tradition of the Awards Ceremony. She gave out awards for strength and perseverance, and me an award for my patience and positive attitude. We exchanged hugs, wished each other safe travels and parted ways.