Let’s accept the obvious fact that kayaking alone in a jungle river is an experience that all kayakers look forward too. But not all rivers that goes through a forest is ideal for kayaking. To help you out we have listed top 11 Jungle Rivers that are ideal for kayaking
1. The White Nile, Uganda
The Nile is the longest river on earth at more than 4,000 miles. And everyone who has tried to find its source–from ancient Egyptian armies to such explorers as Herodotus and John Speke–will vouch that the terrain it traverses is as jungle-choked as any on the planet.
First run by Cam McLeay and his New Zealand-based Adrift Adventures in 1996, Uganda’s Victoria (White) Nile, which roars to life minutes after slipping quietly from Lake Victoria, has everything a jungle-seeking paddler could ask for, from red-tail monkeys that will scamper away with your supper to wooden canoes paddled by friendly Acholi natives. Of course, what appealed to McLeay is the river’s whitewater, which often runs with seven times the volume of the Zambezi.
Class IV-V rapids with such names as Bujugali Falls, Total Gunga, Easy Rider, Sibling Rivalry, Big Brother and Overtime–the first half of which is usually portaged–are on par with any big-water rapids throughout the world. “It’s some of the most impressive whitewater in the world,” maintains McLeay, who offers trips on the White Nile year-round. “You couldn’t ask for a better jungle trip.” The rapids are so numerous and challenging, in fact, that the site has been selected to host the World Whitewater Rafting Championships in 1999.
Day trips start below Lake Victoria’s Owens Falls Dam, which holds back the fourth largest lake in the world, and end in a coffee field near a native village. Adrift has appropriately adorned its one-day offering with the moniker “The Big One.” Overnight trips continue down to Lake Kyoga and offer mid-river camping on a forested island. To add more bang to your jungle buck, visits can be planned to nearby mountain gorilla communities and such national treasures as Lake Mburo National Park. Longer trips are also available, including a package offering whitewater on The Big One, an overnight stay in Masindi, six days rafting from the Karuma Bridge to the Annihilator (a rapid requiring a two-day portage), two more days rafting from Big Monday to S-Bends rapids, and then two days exploring the cascading Murchison Falls in the heart of Uganda’s largest national park. And no matter what length trip you choose, be prepared to encounter hippos and crocodiles defending their territories with more tenacity than the ancient Egyptian kings.
2. The Zambezi, Zimbabwe/Zambia
Any river that has giraffes, elephants, leopards, lions, impala, zebra, warthogs and other Out of Africa-type animals roaming at will a stone’s throw from its canyon rim is a shoe-in for a story on Top Jungle Rivers. Such is the case with Zimbabwe’s Zambezi River, which thunders through the Batoka Gorge just below mile-wide and 364-feet-tall Victoria Falls, billed as the greatest curtain of falling water in the world. Just getting to the put-in can be like joining a game drive–chances are you’ll either see a herd of impala leaping across the road or a few elephants milling around in the bush.
The side of river you put in on–river left is Zambia, river right is Zimbabwe–determines your initial jungle experience. On the Zambian side, you’re rewarded with perhaps the best waterfall view of any river anywhere; as soon as you peel out of the eddy above Rapid #1, Victoria Falls comes into view in all its cascading splendor. Put in on the Zimbabwean side above Rapid #4 and you’re faced with a 900-vertical-foot hike down a bamboo-laddered trail that will make you feel like Dr. David Livingstone did when he first explored the area in 1855.
No matter where you put in, however, be prepared for non-stop action. With all of Victoria Falls’ water funneled through the Batoka Gorge, the Zambezi packs 23 Grand Canyon-size rapids in a single day trip–so many, in fact, that they are numbered instead of named. Also popular are longer, multi-day trips, which contain even more big-water rapids; and since the river pools up more downstream, it also offers prime habitat for crocodile and hippo viewing. If flatwater’s your fancy, several sections exist above the falls that combine African-style camping with canoeing among hippos, crocodiles and elephants.
Adding to the area’s jungle feel are a smattering of world-renowned game parks in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana, as well as thatched-roof hotels offering happy hours on verandas overlooking watering holes frequented by animals. Time it right and your cocktail will arrive just in time to see elephants making their nightly rounds. You’ll also notice that, in true jungle fashion, local Gods are worshipped daily; most guides wear a necklace with a symbol of Nyaminyami, the river god who watches over everyone who travels the Zambezi.
3. The North Johnstone, Queensland
Most people know Australia for its Great Barrier Reef. Just inland, however, is another World Heritage Site only accessible to river runners. Coursing through 300 km of World Heritage rainforest, the North Johnstone River, which dumps into the Pacific Ocean just south of Cairns, offers paddlers something no other river in the world does: a trip through one of the most ancient rainforests in the world. Earning World Heritage status in 1988, the rainforest flanking the North Johnstone has evolved unmolested for more than 130 million years, escaping the ravages of ice ages and volcanism that plagued other parts of the world. Some individual trees you’ll pass on the river are more than 3,000 years old.
Trips start at an old converted dairy farm at Mulgalli Falls, a long boomerang’s throw south of Cairns. After scones and tea, guests are whisked away in a helicopter to the put-in. Between trips, the chopper drops supplies at pre-established campsites along the 50-mile section of river, leaving rafts light and maneuverable for such Class IV-V rapids as Black Ass Falls, the Berlin Wall, Mineshaft and Mordor. One of the river’s more aptly named rapids is Snake Falls–18 out of the 20 most venomous snakes in the world live in Australia, 17 of them in the rainforest of Queensland. One of them, the taipan, reaches lengths of 10 feet and boasts a bite with enough venom to kill 60 people.
In typical jungle fashion, the trip is replete with waterfalls, including 150-foot Stairway to Heaven, so named because aboriginal natives buried their dead at its base so the spirits could ascend to heaven. Flora and fauna-wise, expect what you would normally find in the most ancient rainforest in the world. On the animal side, the rainforest houses everything from bird spiders that prey on avians to water dragons and saltwater crocodiles, who reach lengths of up to 23 feet and come equipped with three tons of closing pressure per square inch of jaw. Boating botanists will marvel at such oddities as cicada palms, which grow but two feet every 100 years; flowering ginger trees; and the inevitable Stinging Tree, whose heart-shaped leaves contain needle-sized capsules filled with more than 20 poisons, 12 of which have no known cure. And by the end of the trip you’ll be well versed in the local technique of removing leeches: simply scrape them off with an upward movement of your fingernail.
Don’t let its leeches, snakes and skin-tingling plants scare you, however. The river is a jungle gem, and is safely navigated year in and year out. In fact, the time passes so quickly that before you know it you’ll pass the confluence of the Beatrice River, above which lies a secret aboriginal site known as Frog Cave, and negotiate such rapids as Mushroom, Rooster Tail and Champagne Falls, all caused by ancient lava flows. Then you’ll cross the World Heritage boundary and float the flats to the Nerada Tea Farm, where, in true Crocodile Dundee fashion, you’ll celebrate your jungle run with a ice cold can of Fosters.
When Captain Bligh sailed just north of Fiji after being set adrift by the crew of The Bounty, little did he know that the cannibal-infested island of Viti Levu housed one of the best jungle rivers in the Pacific. Had Bligh touched ashore–and procured a modern-day whitewater craft and dodged cannibals long enough–he might well have discovered the Navua River, which after joining the Luva, dumps into the tropical Pacific Ocean 45 miles west of the capital city of Suva.
Floatable year-round during a normal water year (although the rainy season from December through March is the best time), the Navua offers 25 miles of Class III-IV whitewater through a tropical jungle gorge that could keep Darwin busy for life. The trip can be done in one, two or four days, with the shorter trips ending with a motorized dugout-canoe pickup where the Navua meets the Luva. Longer trips include two nights of camping in the gorge, followed by a night in the village at the confluence where participants can join in a ceremony with the village chief drinking Kava–a mild narcotic cocktail–out of freshly cut coconut shells.
The heart of the trip is in the upper gorge, where the river narrows to less than 25 feet and is surrounded by 200-foot cliffs on either side. Referred to as Fiji’s Grand Canyon and a River Eden, the untouched gorge contains more than 400 waterfalls, countless hanging gardens and twisty-grotto side hikes that rival any found in Arizona’s Grand Canyon. You won’t see much wildlife–save for fruit bats, parrots and freshwater prawns you can eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner–but the wild ginger flowers, palms and foliage containing the rarest conifer in the world more than make up for the country’s mammal count. So does the whitewater. After paddling by 4,000-foot-high mountains in the village of Nabekelevu, day one provides 5 km of Class III-IV, jungle-filled rapids. Then you come to a 12-km Class II-III gorge whose blackened volcanic walls contrast sharply with the surrounding lush, green foliage. If you opt for the longer trip, two days later a Class I float leads to the take-out on a white-sand beach on the Pacific. And if, like Bligh, you’re in the market for a warm-water bath, the Navua offers a welcome reprieve to temperatures up north; the river averages 79 degrees F, with the sidestreams dropping to a frigid 77 degrees.
5. The Macal and Cave Branch, Belize
When a team of British army adventurers first ran Belize’s Macal River in the early 1980s, little did they know that–despite the many Class VI portages–they had stumbled on a run destined to be a jungle classic. In 1994, hardshell kayakers Cully Erdman, Dugald Bremner and Josh Lowrey affirmed this fact by running all but five drops in the river’s 20-mile granite gorge in one day. “It’s definitely a classic,” says Erdman, who feels so strongly about the river that he offers eight-mile, one-day trips on the lower gorge through his company, Slickrock Adventures. “It’s got everything you need in a jungle trip.”
The Macal is the largest drainage of Belize’s Maya Mountains, funneling countless rainforest tributaries through a 20-mile gorge cutting through the highlands. In the heart of the gorge, vine-clad walls tower up to 1,500 feet overhead, many of which harbor cascading waterfalls and hidden limestone caves. After flowing north out of the highlands near the Guatemalan border, the river opens up to a lush valley before joining the Mopan River in San Ignacio. Be forewarned, however, that it is not for the faint of heart. The granite river bed creates classic pool-drop rapids in the form of waterfalls and strong hydraulics. The best levels to tackle the rapids are between 500-1,500 cfs, which usually occurs when the rainy season subsides from November through March. The river often rises as high as 45,000 cfs in the rainy season. Excluding the Class VI portions, the average gradient is about 75 feet per mile.
Helping river runners–but harming the river’s wilderness qualities–is a hydro-electric complex recently built in the middle of the canyon that diverts flow for a few miles before depositing it back in the river at the base of the gorge’s Class VI section. The power plant provides the only road access to the lower eight-mile run, which houses such rapids as Cartwheel Falls, Rock-Hell Falls, Vaca Falls, Duck Soup and The Wall. The lower section still has several portages, including one that avoids a Class VI cataract, before you reach the take-out at Black Rock Lodge (you can also paddle another four miles of flatwater to an alternative take-out at Chaa Creek Lodge).
For a jungle fix without the adrenaline, head to the nearby Caves Branch River, which, when not meandering through rainforest-cloaked countryside, flows underground through Mayan artifact-filled caves for five of the run’s eight miles. And that’s someplace even British army adventurers dared not venture in their reconnaissance of the area in the early ’80s.
6. The Upper Moho, Belize
Even the most open-minded archaeologists have a hard time envisioning ancient Mayan Indians standing around chewing gum. Nevertheless, deep in the jungle of Belize–especially along the banks of the Upper Moho River–lie giant gum-producing Sapodilla trees, responsible for satisfying the chewing needs of the entire allied forces during World War I. The river, of course, offers far more than a chance to discover the origin of chicles.
Located in the foothills of the Mayan Mountains near the Colombia Forest Reserve and Blue Creek Wildlife Sanctuary–the only biological research station with a steel-cabled walkway hung high in the rainforest canopy–the jungle-draped Upper Moho offers a chance to spend four days running whitewater in one of the most remote parts of Central America.
To get there you have to fly south from Belize City to Punta Gorda and then take a short ride to the Blue Creek sanctuary where you’ll learn about the rainforest and take a stroll high overhead on the canopy walkway.
A two-hour drive then takes you to a remote Mayan village where Mayan cowboys–members of the Mopan and Kekchi Maya peoples–load you and your gear on horseback for a half-day trot to the put-in. Only then does the river portion of your trip begin, as you take off on a Caribbean-bound waterway fed by more than 150 inches of rain each year. “It’s definitely about as remote as you can get in Belize,” says Tim Boys, who ran the first descent of the river in 1995. “There’s not a lot of people down there.” But there is plenty of emerald-green whitewater: stair-stepping through a jungle-filled gorge are more than 60 rapids, including several 18- to 20-foot drops–like aptly named Monkey Falls–that cascade into deep pools as green as the jungle walls. Camping takes place in the heart of the forest among indigenous birds, jaguar tracks and howler monkeys. If you’re lucky you might even spot a monkey eagle or shadow-casting whitehawk eagle–the largest neo-tropical bird of prey in existence–catching thermals rising from the river up the canyon walls. And, of course, there’s plenty of time to relax at camp, hike and practice blowing bubbles with indigenous tree sap.
7. The Pacuare, Costa Rica
When Hollywood needed authentic jungle river footage for Michael Crichton’s Congo, it didn’t go to the movie’s African namesake. Instead, it went straight to Costa Rica’s Pacuare River, which offers one of the most quintessential jungle whitewater rafting trips in the world. “They needed a perfect jungle river,” says Rafael Gallo, co-owner of Rios Tropicales, an outfitter that operates trips on several Costa Rican waterways. “So they came here–and they got what they were looking for.”
The Pacuare flows into the Caribbean from the Costa Rican highlands, picking its way through lush, tropical mountains before depositing its rain-fed wares in the sea. Its setting is so unique that in 1986 Costa Rica’s government declared it a Wild and Scenic River–the first river to be offered such protection in Central America. Paddlers, of course, are thankful for this because of the river’s rapids–matching the waterway’s wild and scenic qualities are 32 miles of Class III-IV, emerald green whitewater.
Linking the rapids are tranquil pools that reflect orchids swirling in eddies and allow plenty of time to explore side creeks, bathe beneath waterfalls and listen to the calls of the country’s 850 species of birds.
Trips range anywhere from one to three days, but as Tarzan would say, the longer you can stay in the jungle, the better. The river even has an upper Class V section for seasoned jungle hairboaters. Most trips originate in Costa Rica’s capital of San Jose, home of the infamous Museo de Jade, which features the world’s largest collection of jade, and the Museo de Oro Precolombino, which contains more than 2,000 pre-Colombian gold artifacts. Before you’ve had a chance to share your museum tales, you’ll arrive at the banks of the Pacuare feeling like you’ve just entered the Land of the Lost–thick jungle walls filled with flowers bookend the river, leaving the waterway as the only way out. After negotiating several rapids and floating through the most varied fauna on the planet–in terms of species per unit area–safari-style accommodations appear around a bend about halfway through the trip. Don’t expect anything that wouldn’t satisfy Jungle George. At one lodge, hammock-filled, thatch-roofed huts–offering dorm- and honeymoon-style rooms–surround an even larger thatch-roofed lodge next to a gurgling waterfall. Linking the huts to the lodge’s open-walled dining room, bar and reading room are bamboo-railed boardwalks that make wearing anything but river sandals sacrilegious. Don’t get so comfortable in the reading room’s hammock, however, that you miss the cocktail-hour bell; in true jungle fashion, all apres-paddle drinks are served in coconut shells.
After waking to the chirps of monkeys and toucans, you can either lay-over for a day, enjoying side hikes and pristine swimming pools, or hop back aboard your craft for another 16 miles of unspoiled whitewater, rainforest and towering green cliffs–some of which house waterfalls that rinse your raft as you pass. And if, by chance, you still need more of a jungle fix when all is said and done, you can always head to nearby Mt. Arenal after your return to San Jose–Hollywood also came to Costa Rica to find a Congo-like active volcano.
8. The Cahabon, Guatemala
If exploring Mayan ruins, candle-lit caves, hotsprings and Central American whitewater gets your jungle juices flowing, head to the lush foothills of Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz region where the aquamarine Rio Cahabón flows through near-virgin rainforest that has remained essentially unchanged for centuries.
As is true in many regions of Guatemala, the first thing that makes this trip special is interactions with locals. During my first trip in 1990, children of the local Kekchi families visited our camp, fascinated by our tents (especially the poles) and eager to help us set up camp. In the morning they returned and we made some extra eggs for them which they ate off banana leaves. The next thing that makes this jungle trip unique is the drive to the put-in. To get there, most boaters drive east from the mid-size city of Coban, often stopping to explore the 200-km-long caves of Lanquin. Many Guatemalan visitors believe spirits dwell here and leave candles and other offerings on a makeshift altar.
The river, of course, is the main draw, and the rapids start right after you put in. On my first trip, Maya Expeditions founder Tammy Ridenour tumbled out of the boat in these initial rapids, called Rock and Roll, and called commands to her crew from the water. After a splash-filled beginning the river stretches out for a while, offering some intermediate rapids such as the deceptively sticky Wrap Rock. The biggest challenges are downstream, namely Sacacorcha (Corkscrew) which at higher levels will flip any boat that doesn’t hit it straight and hard, and Sacacaca which gets uglier at low water. Just downstream, in a setting Disney couldn’t top, is an aptly named pull-out called Paraiso (Paradise), where paddlers can play in a 20-foot waterfall and then bathe in natural hot springs. A couple of pools have room for six or eight people. In the depths of the Guatemalan jungle, there’s nothing like grabbing a cold Gallo (Guatemalan beer), soaking in a hot spring and recounting tales of the trip. A typical trip on the Cahabón includes three days of boating plus a day to reach the put-in and a day to drive back to Guatemala City. Among other attractions en route are the Biotopo Nature Reserve, home to the rare resplendent quetzal (Guatemala’s national bird), and on the way out, the Mayan Ruins at Queriga.
9. The Cangrejal, Honduras
The Rio Cangrejal, hidden in north-central Honduras in a tropical jungle only 10 minutes from the Caribbean-coast city of La Ceiba, offers everything from canopy-covered Class III and foliage-lined Class V to more than a week’s worth of creeks within an hour’s drive. The combination of easy access, jungle-lined drops and friendly locals make the area a no-brainer for rainforest-seeking river runners.
The put-in for the 12-mile stretch on the Cangrejal (also known as the Kong) starts about 15 miles out of La Ceiba. On the dirt road paralleling the river you’ll pass several pueblos; be prepared for irresistible smiles of children who will chase your vehicle screaming, Dulces, Dulces! (Sweets, Sweets!).
The proper response requires tossing candy from the vehicle. The 12-mile run has four different sections–the lower, middle, upper and top–which in contrast to their names, are quite unique. The lower is the easiest and commercially run section. It contains about 3.5 miles of Class III-IV pool-drop rapids, with the pools providing idyllic swimming holes. Since La Ceiba lies beneath the run, pollution from the city is not an issue. Swim and roll in peace, but don’t be surprised to encounter a local spear fisherman diving for savory bonito. You will also find several sandy beaches along this section, some complete with bungalows.
The middle is referred to as the Juice by local gringos and El Loco by the locals. At low water, this section, clogged with monolithic granite boulders, is clean and creeky. Its labyrinthine nature is similar to Bald Rock Canyon in California. At medium flows the pools begin to disappear and the rapids transform into big-water Class V. At high water, just a glimpse of the holes is enough to rip you out of your boat and make you feel like jungle-prey. The top and upper sections are the most pristine, owing to the road’s divergence from the river and a deep cloud-forested canyon. They also offer the most continuous Class III-IV whitewater. The guttural melee of macaws is likely the only sound you’ll hear breaching the sheltered canyon. And like all sounds in the canyon, this discord is easily swallowed by the dense jungle walls. Unfortunately, the top section itself might soon be swallowed as well by an impending dam, silencing the canyon forever.
Paddling in Honduras is more plentiful during the rainy season, but the Cangrejal almost always has enough water to kayak. Avoid the rainy season (October through December) if you’re looking for sunshine and mellow whitewater.
10. The Rio Quijos, Equador
Jungles don’t get any thicker than the Amazon, and few rivers boast more Amazon surroundings than the Rio Quijos, which spills off the eastern flanks of Ecuador’s Andes into the Upper Amazon Basin. To give an idea of the jungle’s intrigue, locals refer to it as “El Oriente,” a name associated with the great unknown. At the paddling forefront of this jungle is the Quijos near the town of El Chaco, offering more than 40 miles of easily accessible, jungle-strewn whitewater. The river’s first 10 miles contain steep, continuous, small-volume Class III-V rapids.
Below this the river grows as quickly as Amazon vines, with the river becoming more and more powerful and pool/drop in nature. Of particular note is the Linares Gorge and Grand Canyon of the Quijos, which narrow to a 30-foot-wide basalt gorge flanked by primary and secondary jungle. Other popular runs in the area include Class III-V sections on the Papallacta, Cosonga and Oyacachi tributaries, each of which has as many orchids and parrots as it does rapids. And lest you not favor camping in the jungle, Small World Adventures, an outfitter specializing in Ecuadorian jungle runs, is building a lodge near the confluence of the Quijos and Cosonga to facilitate paddlers.
If you want big-volume and continuous whitewater, head to the region during the rainy season, which runs from mid-March to mid-September. The rest of the year is the dry season, when commercial outfitters run trips. During these months there’s still plenty of action–just not as extreme. Day tripping is the norm on the upper Quijos, although further downstream you can do a two-day trip near the town of El Reventador. And as with the canoe-paddling natives in Tarzan movies who constantly dodge waterfalls, make sure not to miss the take-out on the Grand Canyon section: at the end of it the Quijos plunges over 480-foot San Rafael Falls, the highest waterfall in Ecuador.The Rio
11. Upano, Equador
Ecuador’s Rio Upano features one of the most jungle-sounding nicknames in the book: the River of the Sacred Waterfalls. The nickname stems from its passage through the Namangosa Gorge, where dozens of waterfalls plummet hundreds of feet into the river. But the river has something else that adds to its jungle billing: as well as surging through the depths of the Amazon rainforest, it travels through the heartland of the Shuar Indians, whose ancestors had a hearty history of head-hunting. On a typical trip you’ll see their homemade balsa-wood rafts, used to ferry back and forth, as you travel down the jungle-lined corridor.
While the Class III-IV gorge–first run in 1992 by Idaho’s ROW Expeditions–is undoubtedly the river’s highlight, what makes a journey down the Upano special is witnessing the changing character of an Amazon river. Trickling from a string of mountain lakes the river quickly gathers force, carving a path southward through the province of Morona Santiago. As it rushes past Macas, the provincial capital, the river is shallow and braided; picking a route from the myriad channels is a real challenge–make the wrong choice and be prepared for an unscheduled portage.
The pace steadily increases until the river plunges into the Namangosa Gorge, whose sheer walls are covered by a thick layer of primary rainforest broken only by waterfalls spilling off the canyon lip. Some falls cascade down staggered cliffs while others freefall into the jungle below. The river’s Lost World atmosphere is made even more daunting by Brontosaurus-sized boulders and seething rapids. The rapids are big-volume Class IV with lots of raft-flipping boils and kayak-swallowing eddylines. Once out of the gorge, the river broadens and deepens to become a calm but powerful giant on its way to meet the Amazon.
Most trips start near Macas, accessible from Quito by road (12 hrs.) and air (35 min.). The 80-mile run from Macas to the end of the gorge takes four to five days. You can also continue another day or so downstream to Santiago Mayatico, the final possible take-out. From here it’s only a few miles as the toucan flies to the border with Peru. As with other rivers of the Amazon, water levels vary throughout the year. Recommended months are October to February; during the rest of the year the river can flood unexpectedly. During April and May, when the river peaks, the gorge fills so much that the native Shuar Indians can travel upstream to Macas in motorized boats–no rapids, no campsites.
12. The Tambopata, Peru
If South America has a Jórge of the Jungle, chances are he would be found near the take-out for Peru’s Class III-IV Tambopata. The river’s take-out is at the Explorer’s Inn, one of the foremost scientific research centers in the entire Amazon Basin. Located 38 miles upstream from the village of Puerto Maldonado, the Inn–complete with thatch-roofed huts, a honor-system bar and piranha-filled pools–is the heart of the Tambopata Nature Reserve, a 20,000-acre preserve containing the greatest diversity of wildlife yet discovered on the planet. So far, more than 570 species of birds and 1,200 species of butterflies have been discovered in the reserve, more than in any other location of its size in the world. And you encounter all of this only after you return to civilization.
Getting to the put-in is an adventure in itself. It requires a 24- to 40-hour drive that takes you from the town of Juliaca–located at 12,000 feet on the banks of Lake Titicaca, the storied birthplace of the Inca civilization–and over a 15,000-foot Andean plateau before depositing you with popping ears in the Amazon Basin 9,000 vertical feet later. From there, you drop 5,400 feet in 120 miles through Class III-IV whitewater flanked by the densest jungle in the world.
The denseness stems from the river’s location. Starting high in the eastern Andes before joining the Madre de Dios in Puerto Maldonado, the Beni in Bolivia and the Amazon in Brazil, the Tambopata lies in the direct path of gale-force Andean winds which often sweep down and break the rainforest’s century-old trees like toothpicks. This lets extra light filter down to the forest floor, giving smaller plants a chance to flourish. (Some trees have adapted to the winds by growing teepee-like support roots and swollen lumps high in their trunks.) The fight for light is evident everywhere: one native vine attaches itself to trees and forms soil-generating bowls with its leaves so it can root into itself and continue upward. Another tree, the Tungarhana, produces a sugary sap to lure ants inside its trunk, who in return for the free accommodations eat vines trying to catch a ride up to the canopy. More than 45 species of ants were once found in a single tree.
When you’re not marveling at nature’s adaptations in the forest, you’ll be marveling at the rapids, which come in quick succession and include Ants’ Nest–named for an unsuspecting ant attack during a scouting mission on the first descent–Dead Frog and Class IV Monster. Around campfires you’ll hear stories of groups forced to bivouac for days on end because of flash-flooding and groups forced to subsist on nothing but hand-picked bananas for three days. “The Tambopata is very crazy and unpredictable,” maintains Toni Ugarte, a Peruvian who participated on the first descent of the river in 1979. “Different things can happen on each trip.”
The fauna is as diverse as the flora, including everything from snakes, caimans (crocodiles with overbites) and jaguars to monkeys, parrots and tapirs (a member of the elephant family). “It is a very remote area,” adds Ugarte. “Animals come to the Tambopata Valley from all over as a retreat because they feel safe here.” That, of course, is what gives the Tambopata its name, which means “Resting Place.” And that is exactly what you’ll feel like doing once you reach the Explorer’s Inn when all is said and done.