Last winter, I took a semester off from teaching to accompany my husband on his sabbatical to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. I spent three months traveling and paddling throughout South America. I had little prior experience traveling abroad to kayak, with the exception of international freestyle competitions. Dealing with creek boats, gear, and logistics for running rivers in a foreign country was a different experience. I went on two major paddling trips from my home base in Bariloche and attempted a third sea-kayaking trip, but it failed due to impossible logistics. I speak little Spanish and I did minimal prior planning. Needless to say, I learned a lot.
Rent a vehicle. Unless you’re staying for close to a year or more, buying a vehicle isn’t worth it. Foreigners are often ripped off and they aren’t allowed to take a car across the Chilean border—even if they own it. This sounds weird, but it’s a strict and enforced rule. In addition, not even all rental cars are allowed to cross the Chile-Argentina border, so look carefully at your rental car agreement if your trip requires a border crossing. On top of all that, car rentals are expensive, which leads to my next tip: travel as a pair or as a small group with the same paddling skills and interests. I did meet people to paddle with, but traveling solo was challenging and I had to foot the entire bill for the car. Lastly, don’t get eddied out in Pucon. If you get the chance, head south to paddle in Patagonia.
Bring most—but not all—of your own gear. I recommend buying a boat when you get there. Have you ever tried flying with one? Or worse, two? Think steep fees, lost boats, or risk of it being refused at the airport or public transportation. Maybe you’ve dialed in the technique of flying with boats but I prefer the ease of traveling without one. Yes, it’s an initial major expense to your travel budget, but think of it as a trip deposit. It’s very difficult for Argentinians and Chileans to get kayaking gear, making it very easy to sell gear at the end of your trip, especially in Patagonia.
You can buy kayaks in Pucon at Rivers, Lakes, and Oceans. An American kayaker, Ian Garcia, owns and runs the shop. It’s well equipped with creek boats, play boats, and sea kayaks and they’re very eager to answer questions about the area. Another place to buy boats is in Valdivia at Tiendaod. I bought a Pyranha Burn III from them and they were also very helpful. Their website is more difficult to navigate, but they’re easy to communicate with over e-mail. Expect to have to write e-mails in Spanish, but hey, that’s part of the fun! But whatever you decide to do about your boat, definitely bring your own paddle.
As for the rest of your gear, bring all of your paddling soft goods—drysuit, PFD, spray skirt, helmet, river shoes, dry bags, throw bags, and base layers. The weather in South America is volatile and it rains a lot. If you have enough space, throw in a dry top for warmer days, but whatever you do don’t forget the drysuit. For camping equipment I appreciated my tent, sleeping bag and pad. A stove is optional depending on any plans for a multi-day. Backpacking has become very popular, and outdoor stores are fairly common although they have a limited selection. The challenge with a stove is finding fuel. Surprisingly, white gas is harder to find than butane fuel canisters. Otherwise, cooking on a fire is standard procedure in Patagonia. If you’re comfortable with that, it’s a good option and what I ultimately chose to do. I did find it easier to bring my own backpacking utensils and a pot, but that’s something you can pick up once you’re there. I packed everything I needed in my NRS Bill’s Bag. It holds plenty of gear, has backpack straps, and you can throw it in the back of a pickup truck in the pouring rain without hesitation.
My journey started in Pucon, which was a great place to begin. It’s one of the most established paddling destinations in South America, it’s relatively easy to get to, and has numerous river runs from Class II to V. I took the bus from San Carlos de Bariloche to Valdivia to pick up my boat, and paid for a shuttle service from Valdivia to Pucon. The buses are very nice, but they have baggage rules and won’t let you stow a creek boat, unless you paddle a smaller boat to which the bus driver won’t realize what you’re carrying on. Like my best friend from graduate school, Elizabeth Powers, who met me in Pucon. She came form Santiago by bus and managed to get her Little Hero on as baggage. 30-hour bus rides aren’t for everyone. If your budget allows, there are flights from Santiago to Temuco, which is a pretty easy destination to catch a shuttle to Pucon.
The easiest, and most obvious, place to book lodging, boat rentals, and guiding service online and in advance is the Pucon Kayak Hostel. However, I would recommend spending a Escape is a travel company run by American kayaker LJ Groth. As long as he’s not leading a trip, he answers e-mails and Facebook messages quickly, but he seems to fill up fast, so try to book in advance. Kayak Pucon is a local company that focuses mainly on rafting, but they run some basic kayaking trips. They’re also very helpful with general questions about kayaking in the area. Don’t expect a quick response, but they will point you in the right direction if you have a question. Kayak Pucon helped us find Albert Aixas. Albert is a Catalonian who very recently started a kayaking hostel in Pucon. He doesn’t have a website yet and his clients mostly find him through word of mouth. Although he can’t accommodate large groups, he will take you kayaking on any of the rivers around Pucon. We had a great time paddling with him and the other Catalonians. It pays to do a little research and think outside of the box so you can get away from the generic kayaking packages offered in the region.
Staying with Albert gave us the full experience—kayaking in green valleys and gorges, views of Volcan Villarica, steep creeking and waterfalls. We were there in January, which is a little late for the smaller rain-dependent drainages and the classics farther north (i.e. the Teacups). However, it rained for three straight days starting the day we arrived. Everything in Pucon and to the east and south went from too low to too high. Nevertheless, we paddled the Pucon classics. The upper Palguin, and the upper and lower Trancura are great at just about any level and they’re just minutes away from town. The Maichin, not too far from town, is in a beautiful deep green gorge. It only comes in if it rains, but it’s totally worth doing for the scenery—the class III-IV rapids are fun too. Other classics, such as the Rio Fuy, are a little farther and spectacular. The lower Fuy is like a mini Futa, and the middle and upper Fuy have the classic Chilean waterfalls. Rivers of Chile is a great website for getting ideas on where to paddle.
Pucon is a great place to start your paddling adventure, but don’t make the mistake of getting eddied out and missing out on kayaking farther south. Planning a kayaking trip gets more difficult the farther you go, but the Rio Futalefue is relatively easy to get to and requires minimal planning if you have enough time. And really, the Futa is iconic for a reason—blue glacial water, big rapids, and Chilean farms along the river, all with the Andes in the backdrop. There are two ways to get to the Futa from Pucon, through Chile or through Argentina. Both are lovely. We rented a car for my first trip to the Futa in mid-January and drove down the Chilean side. You have to take an overnight ferry or a sequence of three ferries to travel south in Chile. We took the overnight ferry (nine hours) from Puerto Monte to Chaiten. Make ferry reservations ahead of time. The trip takes two days, but it’s rather painless and stress-free. From Chaiten, it’s a beautiful drive on dirt roads through the Andes to the Futa.
The best place to stay for dirt bag kayakers looking to meet other traveling kayakers is Cara Del Indio. It’s a working farm, which also runs day rafting trips, situated on the riverbank in the middle of the Bridge-to-Bridge section. They offer cabins, but I recommend camping and using one of the quinchos (a communal, round house with a fire pit in the middle) for cooking and to get out of the rain. Reservations aren’t necessary, just show up and find a spot. Camping is in a pasture, so make sure you shut the gate and don’t leave any food in your tent because the pigs will find it. And watch out for the stallion. Cara Del Indio is really convenient and you’re guaranteed to get a cultural experience.
If you want a less rustic place to stay or if you’re looking for kayaking instruction or guiding services and gear rental, Bio Bio is the way to go. Bio Bio is a travel outfitter that runs all-inclusive weeklong rafting/hiking/kayaking trips. Prior to the dam they operated on the Rio Bio Bio, but moved to the Futa after its construction. We were lucky enough to have a connection with one of the guides at Bio Bio, so we stayed there a few nights. The camping amenities and food were amazing, and because so many of the guides are from various places throughout South America, the atmosphere was eclectic and fun. However, if you’re dialed on gear, skill and a plan but need a nice place to stay, I’d suggest Peuma Lodge. It’s relatively new with a lovely wooden building and a wood-fired hot tub and, even better, it’s not too pricey. The actual town of Futalefue is about 45 minutes from the kayaking runs, and although there are places to stay in town, it’s not that convenient for kayaking. Still, town is a good place to sell a boat and it’s worth checking out. Stop in at Café Mandala for coffee and pastries and to say hi to Catalina!
In mid-March I went alone back to the Futa for a second time. March marks the end of the season, but there were still three other kayakers at Cara Del Indio and Bio Bio was running their last trip. I rented a car in Bariloche and drove down the Argentinian side. The highway runs along the east side of the Andes where the mountains meet the Pampas. If you have a rental car that can cross the Argentine-Chilean border, this route is beautiful and logistically easy. Argentina also has some fantastic creeking, but you need a crew to explore the east side of the Andes. The runs are far apart and some of the areas are remote or on private land. Just south of Bariloche, the Rio Manso has everything from class III to stout waterfalls at the headwaters and a potential multiday adventure where the river crosses the border back into Chile. The Rio Blanco is sadly on private land and you need a local to show you down, but it’s supposed to be spectacular and filled with clean waterfalls and drops. Farther south, other runs I would have loved to check out are the Rio Hielo near Corcovado, Argentina, and the Rio Frey, which is above the dam on the Futa on the Argentinian side. You could hit all these runs on the route from Pucon to the Futa through Argentina.
Tierra del Fuego
Once we were in South America, we figured we might as well venture to Tierra del Fuego, which is as far south as possible. My husband and I had a grand idea of sea kayaking up the Beagle channel from Ushuaia, Argentina to the Fjords of the Cordillera Darwin with mountaineering gear and ascending one of the peaks rising above the channel. But we couldn’t figure out the logistics to make it happen. So we ended up backpacking around an Island just south of the Beagle Channel, Isla Navarino, but on a clear day the views of the Cordillera Darwin were incredible. The mountains aren’t high in elevation, but because the weather is so harsh, the alpine region begins only about 2,000 feet above sea level and glaciers pour into the ocean.
To make a sea-kayaking trip happen at the end of the world, I would recommend spending at least a month in Tierra Del Fuego. Reserving the transports, finding sea kayaks, and navigating the border crossings are something you’re going to have to figure out once you’re down there. On top of that, storms can roll in—even in mid-summer—and trap you shore-bound for days. Ultimately, we were thwarted by not being able to find sea kayaks to rent. I could only find guided day trips. The best lead I had was Swoop Patagonia, a UK-based company that runs all kinds of adventure travel trips throughout Patagonia, including extended sea kayaking tours. They were very willing to correspond over e-mail and I would recommend starting there to look for a sea kayak rental. If you’re interested in renting sea kayaks, I would also recommend making is up to date, they might ask for that as part of the rental agreement. If I could do it over I would have used a Pakayak, Oru, or other break down kayak and flew it down with me to Ushuaia. Hindsight, huh?
Besides the distance, getting to Ushuaia is easy. Ushuaia is a sizeable town with a prominent tourist industry and a big airport. It’s a popular port for cruise ships from Buenos Aires and cruises to Antarctica, but it still feels like the end of the earth. The main problem is, even though it’s geographically the closest access point to the islands of Tierra Del Fuego, Ushuaia is in Argentina and the rest of the archipelago is in Chile. Before you can head west, you have to head south across the Beagle Channel to Puerto Navarino to enter Chile. From there, with a sea kayak, you could head west to the Cordillera Darwin or south to Cabo de Hornos. There are endless possibilities for epic sea kayaking adventures out of Ushuaia if you have the time to figure out the initial logistics. It’s one of the things I missed and would definitely go back to see.
Overall, Chile and Argentina are beautiful countries with epic paddling, from steep creeking to sea kayaking. However, this area of the world is logistically difficult to plan a paddling trip. Things operate slowly in South America, from lapses in e-mail responses to inexistent websites and poor internet connections, it’s hard to get a feel for the place until you arrive, making it nearly impossible to plan ahead. But don’t let that stop you.