Here’s a pretty good adventure from last year. I never published this piece cos I was hoping it might get published in an outdoor magazine, buuuut that never happened so here it is, better late than never :). To begin, here’s a Video that Matt made about the trip, write up and photos below.
The promise of first descent of canyons in remote Peruvian Andes was the drawcard that sucked my friends, the self-proclaimed ‘Avocado Collective’, to Peru. The only problem was that this is easier dreamed up than done. It would become 28 days of whitewater expedition down the Marañón River, stopping on its wide sandy beaches to walk up spiny and spiraling ridges only to drop into steep walled slot canyons and hopefully make our way back to river level. Bringing together a trip of this complexity on the shoestring budget of students and dirtbags was a new and ambitious challenge for all of us, further complicated by the group being distributed around the globe for all stages of planning.
The crew of 15 trickled into the small beachside town of Huanchako in the week before launch to buy food, finalise expedition kit lists and sort out our unconventional logistics to the river. Flying in from Melbourne, Sydney, Canada, Sweden, Argentina and New Zealand, this was the first time that the whole group of friend and friends of friends had been together in the one place. The day-long drive to the river took us from the coast, over the Andes and down into the Marañón Valley, the altitude and corners taking their toll on stomachs already delicate from the change in diet.
Four days after launching our small fleet of rafts and kayaks, the approach to the Muro Poso Canyon was daunting to say the least. As we drew close the mountains looked taller, the canyon steeper and the waterfall much higher than I remembered. This was the first on our list of ‘potential canyons’ and with a 300m waterfall plunging off the cliff down to river level it had significant potential as both an incredible canyon, or for things to go very wrong. Looking up at the massive waterfall, our printed Google Map satellite images with annotated ascent routes and ‘best guesses’ of what lay inside the canyon above, suddenly didn’t seem adequate for 700m of vertical drop over 2km of horizontal.
Having gained a reputation as the Grand Canyon of South America, the Marañón has no shortage of terrain to explore for eager canyoneers, hikers, whitewater boaters and I daresay archeologists. What sets this river apart from all other Amazonian tributaries that drop eastwardly off the side of the Andes is that the Marañón has carved a deep trench parallel between the Andes. It flows directly north for 800km through steep walled whitewater canyons, before finally turning east to form the Amazon River. It is the giant Andean mountains on either side which create highly endemic ‘seasonally dry tropical forests’ and allow the cactus of the Marañón to grow their spikes in isolation. This geography also creates perfect terrain for dozens of fairweather slot canyons.
We pulled up on the beach, laid out the gear and began thinking. Close to 300m of static rope, 60m of webbing, nuts, bolts, drills, radios and a box of fireworks (in case of emergency). We had decided to send a maximum of half the group up at any given time, always leaving behind enough skills and equipment to enact a rescue if needed. Even if we were able to get a message to the outside world for help, in the heart of the Peruvian Andes it is hard to know who, if anyone would respond. We’d accepted that we needed to be self-sufficient for almost any rescue situation.
Conservative in our first tentative steps into the unknown, we split Muro Poso Canyon into three separate sections by finding escape routes in between each section. The Upper, The Waterfall and The Lower. Crew began scouting from nearby overlooks to learn what we could by peering from clifftops into dark slots below. Names started appearing to discern between features and we schemed about how we would make our way through ‘The Love Tunnels’, climb over ‘Baby Bear’ under ‘The Nose’ or drop into ‘The Cesspit’. The Lower section, dubbed ‘The Canyon Downstairs’ was conquered with ease; a good chance to test ourselves and the rock quality. After an afternoon scouting an entrance route, it was a fun half day up and back, with a handful of neat abseils from 20-60m tall.
The Upper section however, required coordinated siege tactics. The scout crew went up while the rest were doing second descents of the Lower. After five hours walk up a steep cavernous ridge overlooking the Marañón we found a water source and a grassy knoll to call high camp. We radioed base camp and early the next morning the troops arrived with snacks, supplies and a small mountain of hardware.
It was a special feeling to crawl through the undergrowth, peer over the edge, drop into a pool, abseil a huge drop and then arrive into a place where you can be almost 100% certain that no human eyes have ever seen before (unless the Incas had extremely advanced rope techniques). Muro Poso Upper was a delightfully stunning canyon with a dozen abseils and cavernous isolated feel, culminating the exit through the ‘Birth Canal’, a narrow split between vertical walls rising 150m above us. Once the whole crew had completed at least one descent of the Upper, we decided to keep the expedition moving. The Waterfall section, with it’s 300+ knee shakingly vertical meters down to river level, would have to wait for the next group of explorers who dare to venture there; building on our knowledge linking all three sections is a very achievable objective, sadly on this trip we just ran out of time.
Over 28 days we floated down 300km of river between high canyon walls. We crossed tranquil still pools, battled winds and charged thunderous class IV rapids. We had a raft stolen, we arrested the thieves and handed them over to police to the pleasure of the local community; only delaying our explorations by two days. Finding riverside mangos and coconuts, buying big branches of bananas from local farmers and discovering that donkeys had carried in boxes of beer to the most remote nooks in the Andes were unexpected perks. We had a knack for arriving to villages just in time for a ‘fiesta’ where after feasting on fried trout we traded traditional Cumbia and Huayno dance moves for the latest and greatest ‘knee-to-elbow’ style direct from Melbourne.
All said and done, we completed first descents of five separate canyons each with a distinct character from the last. Rio Trapiches with is stunning turquoise pools and black marbled volcanic rock, Playa Cura with its towering ‘Middle Earth’ walk past Martin the sustainable bowl farmer, epic drops in the jungle-like Tupen Grande and La Lejia (Las Cascadas AKA Party Canyon) with its gorgeous jumps, slides, pools, wild edible pineapples and orchids. There are countless other canyons still waiting to be discovered; watch out for future explorations….
The Marañón River is under threat from 20 massive hydroelectric dams which have disastrous impacts on the source of the Amazon, hundreds of indigenous communities and highly endemic flora & fauna.
Not only did the Avocado Collective document previously unexplored canyons, they also raised over $7000 to help Marañón Waterkeeper create a Conservation Area alongside the river. This will protect habitat of at least 13 threatened species and create direct resistance to the Veracruz Dam project which threatens to flood 3600 hectares of highly endemic seasonally dry tropical forest.