I’ve only been rafting once before. That adventure was well over a year ago, and can be attributed to Paul’s shock and upset (you might say he was a-paul-d) at my working in Amazonas for over a year and I had still not graced the raft with my famously good balance and quick thinking skills. Truthfully, it didn’t take long (at all) for me to cave to peer pressure and submit myself to the raft.
I have to admit, after my first time I was very quickly turned to the side of the white water. If you’ve never tried rafting then there is very little to compare it to- it’s adrenaline filled fun that takes you to some incredible places unreachable by foot. I had a fantastic time, swore up and down I wanted to do it every week, maybe even become a guide? And then promptly never did it again.
Here’s the thing about rafting. It’s fun. Pure and simple fun- but it’s not exactly the most accessible sport (you need a raft, a guide, and of course, white water), hence why so many people haven’t tried it. So when Paul looked up from his computer screen a few weeks ago, leaned over, and asked if I would be interested in balancing a raft for a solo traveler, I did not take much convincing.
I’ve typically always been a bit of a yes woman when it comes to, well, most things. The phrase “feel the fear and do it anyway” is quite close to my heart. However, as the date approached, trepidation began to creep in. What was I, a small town girl from the sticks of Yorkshire, doing taking on four days of rafting through one of the deepest canyons in Peru, of all places?
It’s not like I am not at least semi-active. I like a nice (easy) hike, I walk my dogs, I bully myself into a slow and painful jog every 6 months- the normal stuff. But it is fair to say that I am not super fit and haven’t been for many years. Would this be enough for four days in the canyon?
As I stewed over my fitness level, I also dreamt up a plethora of horror stories in my head. Think The River Wild, a Meryl Streep masterpiece (I don’t care what IMDb says, I liked it). What would happen if we were taken hostage by Kevin Bacon, who needed our help to escape the police down treacherous rapids? What would happen then??
Eventually, I gave myself a talking to. I accepted that the chance of incredible adventure was (probably) greater than bumping into Kevin Bacon deep in the Granite Canyon- and in the unlikely event of that actually happening, it would probably end up a hell of an adventure itself. As for fitness level- well. We’d just have to see.
After all… How bad could it really be?
On to the Rafting
I had put my phone on airplane mode as I left my apartment. I knew I’d be more grateful for a phone to take pictures with on the river (disclaimer- the majority of the photos on this blog are not taken by me), than a phone to mindlessly scroll social media while in the car. Regardless of this, I am a product of my environment, so we’d been in the car about 10 minutes before I allowed myself one final check in on the digital world.
A missed call rolled in, along with a relatively long text message from Paul, offering one final word of advice/warning, the crux of which was- please don’t be too annoying, and allow the guest his personal space. He probably won’t want to talk to you too much, so just leave him be.
As the hum of a conversation I couldn’t understand rolled in the front seat, the nerves poked their head out from the trunk of the car. I am an extrovert, but I don’t speak Quechua, the language of the shared conversation in the front, and if the guest didn’t want to talk to me… Why was I here? (The answer to this beautifully existential question was given at the start, to balance the boat).
We arrived in front of the guest’s hotel, and the driver and I waited in silence as Rom, the guide, went to collect him. The tension seemed to mount with each moment. After what felt like at least half an hour of nervous anticipation (actually around 4 minutes), the car door swung open and I was met with a broad yorkshire accent, a smiling face, and extremely blue eyes.
We became fast friends, sharing travel horror stories, jokes unfit for a work trip, and reminiscing about what it’s like to be from Yorkshire (God’s own country, afterall).
Once we arrived on the shore of the canyon, the anxiety surrounding my general fitness level had a little time to marinate as the team busied themselves getting the boats ready, and it began to positively stew as we sat down for lunch. In fact, I was too busy eyeing the boats waiting on the shore to really concentrate on the lunch at all.
Day 1 – The Black Canyon
Eventually, all of the simmering stress came to a head, and we pushed the boat out onto water. Rom ran through the important safety drills with us, had us practice until we were comfortable, and then we were off.
All in all, it took about 9 seconds of time on the water for me to chill out, stop worrying about Kevin Bacon peaking out from behind a rock, and start enjoying myself. The bright sunshine coupled with the easy level two and three rapids inspired a fun and relaxed afternoon.
For those of you who, like me, do not know what any levels in rafting mean, indulge yourself in the following crash course, from my inexperience to yours:
Level 1 rapids – Oh, sorry, was that really a rapid?
Level 2 rapids – Easy peasy lemon squeezy
Level 3 rapids – I could probably swim that
Level 4 rapids – I am definitely not swimming that
Level 5 rapids – Difficult difficult lemon difficult
Level 6 rapids – Don’t bother.
Now that you’re acquainted with the complexities of rafting, you can picture the motley crew bimbling down the river, sunshine on our backs and laughter in our bellies. With three more days stretching out in front of us, I found myself thanking the world that I could disconnect from reality, and lose myself in the perennial canyon.
The Black Canyon is a beautiful section of the Apurimac river and you can more or less choose the speed you travel at. If you’re not super fit then you can let the current take you, floating easily down the water. If you want to hammer it a bit more you can paddle for as much time as you like. Hell, you can even get out and swim.
At one point our boat bobbed by a beach and Rom pointed out the wild watermelons growing on the sand. Having never seen wild watermelons before, we begged to stop and pick some up. Rom just laughed at his unruly boat-children as we carried on down the river.
Not much further downstream, cries rang out from the cargo boat and kayak, maybe 40 meters in front of us. Our safety kayaker Gonzalo pulled something out of the water… Could this be the beginning of the bad times I had so gravely anticipated?
It was a watermelon. A perfectly ripe, absolutely huge watermelon. A couple of knowledgeable spanks from Victor, our cargo boat driver, told us this baby was sweet, juicy, and ready to be eaten. An Apurimac miracle.
The first day of our rafting trip was easy and, dare I say, relaxing. The rapids were enough to get warmed up, but not scary enough for me to ever feel like we were in danger of flipping the boat, falling out. It was enough to tire you out but not leave you exhausted, or any other catastrophe that my overactive imagination had dreamed up.
Rom guided us down each rapid with skill and precision, and when we began to pull into a beach, both the guest and I whipped around, crestfallen- not realising that three hours had already passed and we needed time to set up the camp before nightfall.
Once we were on the beach we relaxed a little, I helped Gonzalo set up the tents (after all, I was, technically, on the clock), we did some stretches to ease out our achy muscles, and then we busied ourselves finding a (rather impressive) selection of firewood before the night bit.
We found what looked to be half a tree wedged under a boulder- and swiftly got to work excavating the noble branch from his rocky resting place. Despite discouraging remarks insisting the tree would never be free, after a good bit of teamwork (which, as we know, makes the dream work) we managed to dislodge it.
It should still be sat by the fire pit, waiting as a bench for other weary travelers. Think of me if you should rest your back upon it.
Our first night spent camping on the beach was accompanied by a freshly built fire, a few cold beers, and an absolute slathering of insect repellent. Being disconnected from my phone felt like a real blessing as I sat by the fire and watched the milky way emerge above me.
Day 2 – The Granite Canyon
Day two saw a notable uptick in activity. The level two and three rapids were replaced by level three and four +, and a full day of rafting. The non-stop laughter of day 1 was peppered with the occasional cries of excitement, gasps of awe, Rom’s instructions flying through the boat, and the silence that follows concentration so dedicatedly.
The team worked seamlessly together to ensure that there really was nothing for us to worry about. From Victor busying himself over each meal, to Rom making sure we always had our hard hats on, life jackets tightened, and bug spray at hand, to Gonzalo silently paddling around waiting to save us from ourselves. Everyone had their job.
This meant that we in the boat could concentrate on putting the world to rights, like which of us was singing the correct lyrics to “come on Eileen”, what the best Billy Joel song is, white water rafting related pick-up lines, and other desperately important matters.
During our lunch break Victor took the watermelon out of his bed, eager to slice him up- only to be met with cries of protest. Recognising that this melon was with us for the long haul, he ended up drawing a face on him, cracking a beer for him (as he didn’t have the dexterity to do it himself), and even his own safety hat. Welcome to the family, Wilson.
Lunch was a quick affair, as I had foolishly ignored Rom’s advice to pack my insect repellant in an accessible place. Nothing ruins the lunch mood like becoming lunch yourself- so before long we were back on the water, floating through the most incredible canyon you have ever seen. It felt as though I was being welcomed into my own private premier of “Walking with Dinosaurs”.
Once again, we floated on to a beach and began to set up the tents before searching out firewood, and settling in to see the milky way reveal itself above us. We sat by that fire long after the sun had stolen away the dusk, dizzy with fun over the shapes we found in sticks, the days to come and those past.
How incredible it is to have found ourselves sharing moments such as these with strangers.
Day 3 – The Granite Canyon
Day three was equally as exciting as day two, with a few minor differences. My insect repellant was on hand at all times, and towards the end of the day, the Great Apurimac Canyon began to widen. Seeing the change from the beginning of the day to the end was really an incredible sight to behold.
The day was split between rafting, pauses as the guides navigated the rapids, and jumping out the boat to float downstream, as a thousand meters of rock loomed above us. I felt a little twinge of melencholy as the formidable canyon walls began to widen and fall towards sea level.
The final evening welcomed a huge rainstorm, watched from the lip of the tent along with the guides who fretted and grumbled about the weather, the integrity of the rain cover, and how well we would all fit below the tarp.
I allowed the thunder of the rain and the mindless chitter chatter to wash over me as I stared out at the water. I couldn’t help but think about how liberating it might be to swim in the storm. About how I had spent the majority of the last three days soaked, and about how, after all- it’s only water.
Victor noticed my determined stare into the depths, and upon my confession of what was running through my mind, he immediately insisted that I act upon my impulse. Life is short, we’ll only be in this moment once.
Before I could change my mind, I jumped in, fully clothed, and floated around in the rain while the rest of the crew questioned my objective sanity (a fair question, when all is said and done).
Swimming in a rainstorm is not something I really ever considered as a bucket list item but it was a truly magical experience. A moment that reminds you to feel with all of your senses, to connect with nature & the pachamama. To always make sure you have a spare set of dry clothes.
When the rain eased up, I headed back to the shore where I was immediately handed a beer by Victor, and almost as quickly rushed off to change out of my wet clothes by Rom. When I returned, freshly damp (dry was a mere pipe dream at this point in the trip), dinner was ready.
Despite the rain soaking much of the firewood, we still managed to get a good blaze going, and as the night wore on and dinner was forgotten, a pan was placed on the flames to cook some popcorn.
It may utterly shock you, but for people who have spent the day in the sun and are a few beers deep, cooking on an open bonfire is not what one may call a stellar idea. It didn’t take too long until the over-oiled pan was completely engulfed in flames.
The second attempt was more fruitful- despite the protests of the guides. I’d love to tell you the blackened and unseasoned popcorn was the best I’ve ever had, but I will not compromise my journalistic integrity in such a fashion. It was disgusting.
Day 4 – The Finish Line
Our final morning began early and the comradery was palpable. We shared one last breakfast with our beloved Wilson, and tried to negotiate who would shoulder the responsibility of cutting him up and scooping his brains out.
Unsurprisingly, no one wanted to be the person to unsheath the weapon. So we decided we would share one last lunch with our lovely melon, delaying the inevitable a moment longer. Back in the boat he went.
The final day in the raft was a lot calmer. The canyon gradually faded away beside us, we caught glimpses of civilization and other people once more, and the rapids settled back down to grades three, two and one.
The day was not the wild and fun rafting that it had been the previous two, nor was it the day 1 adventure of entering the canyon and the excitement of an adventure to come. Day 4 was more of a reintroduction to civilization. We passed construction workers who would take our picture with a wave, houses, and even very small towns.
Our day was filled with hours of bobbing along the water, using our oars to splash the other boats, jumping off rocks and spotting wild otters and foxes on the side of the river. Pointing out a great piece of firewood waiting at what would have been a great campsite, and halfheartedly asking Rom if we could stay for just one more night.
Before we knew it, David, the driver had pulled our boat in. Before we could even register the disappointment, he had directed us to a cooler full of cold beers. Rom had been beguiling us for hours about the amazing natural hot springs we would finish next to and wash the river away in. The hot springs were indeed hard- no- impossible to miss.
Unfortunately, that was because we had arrived right in the middle of a school holiday, and the hot springs were quite literally overflowing with excited children. All splashing, screaming, and jumping. The joy was shared, but all things considered, we decided to forgo the dip and head straight to lunch (Wilson still in tow).
We shared our final meal together in Victor’s mothers house. We were introduced to his entire family including both dogs and multiple half-stray cats. After eating, we all shared a look and glanced over to our collective melon child, happily smiling away on the sofa, and gave him to Victor’s mother to love and care for. I hear he’s starting school any day now.
From there, it was a three hour drive back to Cusco, and none-stop reminiscing about the trip, planning another even longer trip the next year, discussing how rafting was the best thing ever, and waking Rom up from his multiple naps to ask him one inane question after another.
Should you try the 4-day Apurímac rafting trip?
For many, rafting ends up being an absolute highlight of their trip to Peru. This adventure would fit an active family perfectly with a great balance of teamwork and total surrender of responsibilities. Hell, I’ve lived in Peru for almost six years and this rafting trip was one of the highlights of my entire time here (and not to brag, but I’ve been to Machu Picchu four times).
However, there are exceptions that make every rule. If you don’t like water in any capacity, if adventure sports really aren’t your thing (if you’re not sure on this one, you can try a one or two day trip), if you can’t swim, if you absolutely have to be with cell phone reception at all times, then this is not the trip for you.
If you like camping on the beach, collecting your own firewood, phenomenal views, adventure sneaking around each corner, and experiencing places that are truly, truly untouched by time, then the Apurimac is for you.
There’s something incredibly special about this canyon. Each and every time I visit, I fall a little more in love with Peru. Each time I visit I think of every person who I want to bring back to experience it with me. I think about the way the rocks have been here for far longer than humanity, and I wonder. If rocks could talk, what would they say?
While I am rafting the Apurimac, I have space to think about everything.
I think of how much parts of this country are still so untouched, and floating through a tiny crack of it- far isolated from the screams of the city and the hordes of tourists that swarm the same three sites- reminds me what I really love about the place. It reminds me of the soul of the incredible, complex, and phenomenal place that is Peru.
I think about everything.
Everything except work, except the mundane repetition of day to day life.
If this sounds like the sort of adventure you can picture yourself enjoying, get in contact with us today and we can make it happen.0