Portages and Pisco: An Expedition into the Marañón River Headwaters


Helplessly watching your loaded boat slide off its perch and into the top of a mandatory portage is among the least enjoyable things I could imagine doing on a remote expedition. Especially when (like at that exact moment) hiking out would be a massive undertaking. As I watched the boat hit the water and float toward the sieve-filled horizon line, my mind started racing: how was I going to get out of here?

Since I started paddling, I’ve heard stories of the legendary Río Marañón, often reverently called the “Grand Canyon of Peru.” I’d seen footage of huge water, Andean forests, and red cliffs that recalled the heart of the Colorado. Until this year, however, I’d never seen the Marañón River myself.

So, when Vera Knook and Luigi Marmanillo, who both live and run rafting trips in the Marañón watershed, reached out about an expedition to the river’s headwaters, I couldn’t help feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. Aside from finally paddling this fabled section of river, Vera and Luigi’s ambitious secondary vision sparked excitement, too. They planned to use the expedition to help protect the Marañón from development.

Back in 2015, Luigi, along with fellow paddler and guide Ben Webb, founded the raft outfitter Marañón Experience, simultaneously establishing the conservation nonprofit Marañón Waterkeeper. Waterkeeper soon found its home within Conservamos por Naturaleza, a Lima-based NGO that is itself part of SPDA (The Peruvian Society for Environmental Law). Today, Vera and Luigi work closely with Conservamos, which is currently drafting legislation to protect the entirety of the Marañón from threats like hydropower development. Conservamos’ staff agreed that a paddling trip through the river’s highest canyons could play a valuable role in their conservation efforts.

The Marañón is Peru’s second-longest river and the hydrologic source of the Amazon. Its immense watershed covers over 20% of Peru’s land area and is home to a huge number of endemic species, as well as numerous rural and Indigenous groups.

The river’s importance to the people living along its banks is impossible to overstate. The free-flowing Marañón allows for travel up and downriver, and it supports fisheries that provide food and income for a huge number of people. The undammed river also carries sediment from the Andes to the Amazon during the rainy season, enriching soil in farmlands that feed thousands of people far downstream.

In recent years, Peru’s government proposed 20 separate hydropower projects on the Marañón, a vision that, if carried out, would transform most of the river into a series of stagnant lakes. Two of the proposed dams were very nearly built, but various factors, including significant local resistance, ultimately derailed construction. In one case, a riverside community furious at the lack of transparency and consultation by the companies orchestrating the projects detained a group of engineers who were posing as tourists.

Actions like this one spoke loudly: local people recognized the devastating impacts they would suffer if the dams were built. Today, the hydropower concessions granted by the government have all been stalled, but that doesn’t equal permanent protection. Wealthy foreign corporations seeking easy profits could buy their way into these still-existing concessions with relative ease.

Passing legislation to protect the river in its entirety, despite having scientific evidence to support such protection, is complicated. The Director of Conservamos agreed that a kayaking trip to the upper stretches of the Marañón could achieve several things. It would allow us to speak with communities along the river and better understand how people use the river in their everyday lives. Evidence of the free-flowing river’s importance—and the negative impacts development would have on local communities—is invaluable when making a case against damming.

During our time with these river communities, we also planned to share Conservamos’s documentary El Rugir del Marañón. There’s often a disconnect between urban conservationists and communities on the ground. We hoped that by sharing the NGO’s story and the work they’re doing for the Marañón, we could help bridge the gap. Unifying the two groups would ultimately expand the network of supporters for river protections.

Of course, selfishly, the expedition would also give us a chance to explore a seldom-seen section of the river; one that, given its deep canyons and steep gradient, might well be flooded forever should the now-dormant concessions be revived.

After a week of warm-up paddling on the Río Santa, just across the Cordillera Blanca to the west of the Marañón, we started the long drive to the Amazon’s headwaters. The Marañón originates at the confluence of the Río Nupe and Río Lauracocha, and although the dry season flows were too low to paddle any of these high tributaries, we drove and then hiked alongside the Nupe (the longer of the two) to the glacial lakes at its headwaters.

At around 14,000 feet, we sat at an overlook between two of the lakes, watching small avalanches spill off the hanging glaciers and down ice-carved channels in the cliffs. It felt unfathomable that the glacial blue water below us would eventually run through the Amazon delta, thousands of miles downstream.

Driving downriver on wild rural backroads, we searched for a put-in with enough water to paddle. We skipped one section that, although runnable, was supposedly packed with over 300 gold dredging operations. Dodging hundreds of suction pumps tethered in the river wasn’t quite what we had in mind. As we searched for a put-in, however, we turned our focus to the people along our route.

Our pre-expedition days in the headwaters gave us the best opportunity to connect with local communities. Once we started paddling, we would be deep in the canyon and away from all towns.

Fortunately, connecting with locals proved somewhat easier than expected. Store clerks and hostel owners graciously shared contact information and directions. Several teachers we met were enthusiastic about sharing El Rugir del Marañón with their students, and one invited us to his campus. Standing in the schoolyard, excited uniformed kids swarmed us as Luigi spoke with the headmaster, handing over a copy of the film.

In another town, a friendly young local hopped in Luigi’s truck, directing us to a street party where the mayor was hanging out. Without hesitation, the mayor climbed in the back with all our kayaks and shouted directions to his property. He let us camp on the section of riverfront beach he owned and answered Vera and Luigi’s questions the next morning. The mayor’s beach, roughly 80 km downstream from the official origin of the Marañón River, became our put-in. At Luigi’s suggestion, we sprinkled a few handfuls of coca leaves into the river before pushing off, asking the river for safe passage.

Within half a mile of putting on, we realized we hadn’t missed the mining operations entirely. We spent the next two hours dodging floating suction pumps, ducking under and paddling over countless cables strung across the river, occasionally mid-rapid. It was easily one of the sketchiest mornings of boat scouting I can remember.

To top it off, gold mining teams use divers to position the dredging equipment in the riverbed, so the occasional human emerged from the river mid-current as we navigated the mazes of ropes and machinery. As we greeted our third or fourth diver of the day, I started thinking about the enormity of the task that faces environmentalists on the Marañón.

The conversations we’d had with local people on our way to the river had painted a complex picture. Many people along the Marañón depend on the river for much, or sometimes all, of the money and/or food they bring in each year. Sometimes, the uses (like gold dredging) aren’t entirely compatible with the kind of protected state that conservationists idealize. Many would also be nearly impossible to regulate. But even if activities like gold dredging were possible to control, I thought, how could one justify telling a person to give up the only work that kept their family fed?

This reality is one of the most delicate considerations in the fight for permanent river protections, not only on the Marañón, but on countless rivers around the world. As I thought about this, the canyon closed in around us and the gold miners finally disappeared. Before long, we were approaching the canyon’s first portage.

Several hours later, I stood in shock and watched my kayak drifting toward the horizon line. I started sprinting downstream, hoping to catch it, or whatever might escape from it once it pinned, before it floated out of reach. Miraculously, the boat found an impossible, semi-clean line through the portage, eddying out half-full of water and with minimal piton damage. We thanked the river gods profusely.

That afternoon kicked off a legitimate five-day sufferfest. The rapid where my boat went for a ghost ride was the first and shortest of four massive portages, with numerous smaller ones between them. The big portages required a herculean team effort, passing boats through gigantic siphon caves and belaying them across steep hillsides, sometimes using every piece of rescue gear we’d brought with us.

We regularly looked at one another and burst into exhausted laughter at the amount of effort we were expending for a kayaking trip. Even halfway through the most heinous portages, though, I couldn’t help looking up, mouth wide open, at the peaks that towered over the river. Going into the expedition, I’d been prepared for a canyon of epic proportions. But the seldom-run gorges we floated through blew my expectations away.

Between the portages, we found plenty of read-and-run paddling: a few beautiful boofs and lots of long boulder gardens. Around us, waterfalls poured in from hundreds of feet overhead and native Andean birds dipped through the sparse trees. We could see small towns dotting the hillsides thousands of feet above us. Even the mankier rapids made us smile. Anything that wasn’t portaging was great news, as far as we were concerned.

The longest stretches of uninterrupted paddling happened on the third and fifth days. On the third day, we enthusiastically pushed our mileage a bit too far, almost getting gorged in above a class VI rapid as the daylight quickly faded. A small, incredibly well-placed island saved us from the soul-crushing prospect of portaging by headlamp.

Despite the steep, constricted nature of the canyon, we also found gorgeous sandy beaches to camp on most nights and plenty of wood for cooking fires. We spent each evening gazing at the high peaks around us, making dinner and tea over the fire, and sipping from the bottle of pisco we’d brought as our one luxury. I also spent time each evening repairing my (brand new) shoes. By the end of the trip, I’d gone through half a roll of dental floss and a full tube of aquaseal trying to hold them together.

By the time we made it to the road bridge at the Río Puchka confluence late on the evening of day five, the sight of our shuttle driver Manuel waiting with cold beers felt like a borderline hallucination.

Despite the trip’s physical intensity, it was incredibly gratifying to accompany Vera and Luigi as they laid eyes on a new section of their home river. Their dedication to protecting the Marañón River is admirable, as is their creativity in doing so. Among many other efforts, they have tentative plans to establish a traveling river festival on the Marañón and hope to engage more students and young conservationists through river-based programming.

Watching friends halfway around the world fighting for their rivers the same way so many are fighting for ours here in the U.S. is one of the things that inspires me most. This expedition reignited my own determination for efforts like undamming the Lower Snake River.

Hydropower development remains a significant threat to the free-flowing Marañón, but, there are abundant reasons to be hopeful for continued progress toward real protections. Rural and Indigenous communities directly threatened by proposed dams have provided strong collective resistance in the past, and solid policy and legal support exists from NGOs in Lima. The Amazon’s source has many protectors, and whatever unfolds for the river in coming years, I have even greater admiration for the work of those people for having seen the river myself.


Writer’s Note: Looking for ways to help? If you have the resources, donations to Marañón Waterkeeper help support ongoing efforts to protect the river. You can also visit the Marañón. The more people who paddle, appreciate, and understand the Marañón, the more support its protectors will have at their backs as conservation efforts intensify. For those not seeking a sufferfest, there are hundreds of miles of glorious, portage-free paddling waiting just downstream.

Guest Contributor Libby Tobey is a river guide, kayak/rescue instructor, and environmental advocate based in Missoula, Montana. Childhood trips on the desert rivers of Utah cemented her early love of paddling, which has shaped her life, travel, and education ever since. She’s a firm believer that night swims and dish line dance parties are among the most important parts of every river trip.