Is Peru’s Rio Marañon really another Grand Canyon? Hearing that it was, expedition rafter Lacey Anderson had to go see for herself. This is what she learned.
My expectations for a trip down the Rio Marañon, through the so-called Grand Canyon of the Amazon, were high. Could there really be another river as amazing as the Colorado through the Grand Canyon?
In the beta I received before launching on the Marañon last fall, the river was billed as having similar characteristics to the more familiar Grand Canyon of the Colorado—a long multi-day river journey with spectacular Southwest-type scenery. I heard tales of big water and fascinating side hikes, some with Incan ruins, on an accessible river that most skilled boaters could enjoy.
After hearing these glowing reports, I had to experience the Rio Marañon for myself to see how it compared to the Colorado. Here’s what I learned.
I’m no stranger to long river trips. In fact, I’ve spent a good portion of my lifetime pursuing them. I’ve done several trips down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, but not even those trips match the length of my trip down the Marañon. Our river journey took us a month. We covered 412 miles in a span of thirty days—the longest river trip I’ve done to date. Of course, there are ways to shorten a trip down the Grand Canyon, and the same goes for the Marañon. Trips can begin or end at Balsas, the midway point of our float.
In the course of its 400+ miles, the Maranon passes through biomes ranging from barren desert to lush rainforest. With steep, dry, rocky mountains and muted colors, the upper sections of the river bring to mind the stark beauty of California’s Death Valley—with a big river running through it, if you can imagine that! Towering cliffs reminiscent of Zion National Park rose above some sections of the Marañon, while twisted, warped rocks along other stretches reminded me of the Green River through the Gates of Lodore.
As we descended from a starting elevation of 7,000 feet to the take-out at near 1,000 feet, there was a slow transition of scenery. During the first three weeks of our trip, we saw mostly desert terrain with many side creeks, occasionally dotted with palm oases. The last week carried us through dense jungle. The verdant scenery reminded me of the jungles of southern Mexico, only along the Rio Marañon the foliage was on a much taller, larger, denser scale.
Fluctuating water levels made for a very fun variety of rapids on our trip. With flows ranging from 2,000 cfs at the put-in to 40,000 cfs at the take-out, we experienced both low and high water. The excitement began just below the put-in with technical Class IV rapids. By our 14th day on the river, the rapids had become bigger and more technical with substantially larger flows.
Rapids on the last fifty miles of river, through the jungle, reminded me of the wide-open, big-water Class III–IV rapids of the Grand Canyon. As we traveled downriver I was having so much fun that I kept a log of rapids over Class III. My count came to about sixty, approximately the same number of rapids as in the Grand Canyon.
Before the trip, I was told that, like the Colorado, the entire river could be run by a competent boater. I didn’t find this to be the case. Technically speaking, we made no portages, because we did not have to pick up the rafts and carry them, but we did portage most of the gear around the two Class V rapids. “Wasson’s Landslide” turned out to be intimidating at best, and could take days to portage at worst. It’s a 1/3 mile-long boulder garden containing powerful hydraulics and sieves. Our group of nineteen boaters consisted entirely of seasoned river runners, including seven river guides and six Class V kayakers, yet none of us wanted to run Wasson’s Landslide. As of this writing, the entirety of Wasson’s has not been run by anyone. Previous rafting parties have spent from one to two days portaging gear, carrying kayaks, and lining boats. The long, boulder-choked portage and lining route made it difficult and time consuming to carry gear and line boats safely. The process took our group almost eight hours to complete.
While Wasson’s Landslide was the major obstacle in the upper section of the Rio Marañon, it was not the only Class V rapid. Located a few miles below Wasson’s, Class V “Llamara” took our group a couple of hours to negotiate. It was much easier than Wasson’s, but still daunting.
The Rio Marañon features many potential side hikes, and we did not have time to hike them all; lots of possibilities remain to be explored. While we enjoyed some interesting and beautiful treks, they fell short of the spectacular natural beauty of Grand Canyon hikes like Deer Creek, Tuckup Canyon, Havasu Creek, etc. One of my favorite trails followed a scenic side creek with some nice swimming holes, linking a distant village with a landing on the river where the locals catch lanchas (boats).
A group of enthusiastic Awajún (an indigenous tribe) men led us on another memorable hike. We took a short, well traveled trail to a lancha, and then motored upriver through a small rapid and back to shore. After some very adventurous jungle bush whacking, we arrived at a delightful waterfall.
As in the Grand Canyon, some side hikes displayed evidence of ancient peoples. Noticing a large cave accessible only by river, we stopped to investigate. We discovered that the cave contained what looked to be ancient tombs. While we had expected that the ruins and rock structures we would see along the Marañon would be Incan, we discovered that the ancient people who occupied the Marañon canyon were pre-Incan and, in fact, the Inca lived in the Marañon region for only a short time.
We met lots of extremely generous folks while out boating and walking, such as the woman living in a one-room adobe casa surrounded by children, animals, and a meager maize field. She invited us into her home and then fed us a lunch of rice and fish stew. But not all of our interactions with local peoples went quite so well. In Mendán, we stopped at the village to talk with the locals about the proposed dams on the Rio Marañon, as we had heard that they oppose the dams. We discovered that they were very suspicious of outsiders, and for good reason. Previous rafting groups had come down saying they were tourists or doing studies, when they were actually doing research for dam projects. The residents of Mendán initially helped them, but when they learned that the dam would flood their village and force them to relocate, they felt betrayed. So they have become wary of outsiders, and they now work to keep dam survey groups and other workers from going down the river.
Permits and Permissions
The “permit” system for the Marañon is quite different than the permit system in the Grand Canyon. In fact, there is no system at all. Instead, boaters must negotiate a complex network of local jurisdictions.
During our visit to Mendán, the local security group (La Ronda) requested our presence at a meeting. In order to continue downriver safely, we felt it best to honor their request. We made camp on their beach and attended a meeting that evening. Members of our group made speeches explaining that we were not connected with dam projects, but rather hoped, like they did, to prevent the dams from being built. In the end, we were granted permission (a letter) to continue. We were also warned that the villages below might not be as friendly or understanding.
When we arrived at the next village (Tupen), the locals were even more suspicious. The Presidente of the La Ronda was fairly resistant. Finally, after a long meeting, we were granted permission to travel on in exchange for promises to get permission/permits ahead of time if we ever came again. This town never seemed convinced that we were just tourists. They wanted to know how, in the future, they could tell a real tourist group from dam workers or a survey team.
On our last day on the river, the indigenous Awajún from Yupicusa insistently waved us over and escorted us into town for a tribunal with the Apu and several hundred residents. We were lined up along a building facing the leaders and townspeople. Many of the more traditionally dressed residents were very angry and did not want us there. Our trip leader presented letters of permission and explained why we were on the river, passing through their land. This village was not satisfied with our permission letter, saying that the association that had granted the letter did not represent them, making it invalid. Eventually, after about a two and a half hour meeting, we were granted permission to continue. However, the leaders put conditions on future trips. In the future, Marañon boaters must contact this village directly and ask for permission, which may or may not be granted.
Which River Would I Choose?
If given the choice to run either the Marañon or the Colorado again, which one would I choose? The Rio Marañon.
While I didn’t exactly find the Grand Canyon of the Amazon to be a Peruvian version of the Grand Canyon, the Rio Marañon adventure was, for me, even better. Why? Because I prefer rivers that are more exploratory in nature, and the Marañon has been run by only a handful of groups. I also prefer long river trips, and one can float for a month, or even more, on the Marañon! I especially enjoyed the variety of flows and rapids we encountered on the Marañon; low water to high water, easy Class II, fun Class III wave trains, technical Class IV, and even the challenge of difficult portages—the Marañon had it all! I also enjoyed the encounters with people of different cultures along the Marañon. And, as for the side hikes, there are many left to be discovered. I only hope that they can be discovered before they are flooded by dams.