Nestled humbly against the rugged backdrop of Chilean Patagonia lies an adventure of unprecedented reward. Carving its way through the southern tip of South America, is the Futaleafú River— a river that boasts crystal clear water, abundant fishing, and some of the most impressive class V rapids in the world. Its technical, steep whitewater makes this raging river a staple on every adventure enthusiast's bucket list.
Unfortunately, for most, its remote location and wildly overpriced commercial price tag mean that this enchanting river remains nothing more than an unpursued dream.
As a river guide, I refused to believe that $5,000 would be the one thing standing between me and a river I’d been lusting about since I was 10. So, together with my best group of dirtbag adventure buddies, we vowed to make our river dreams come true. It wasn’t necessarily without incident or sleepless nights but I’m here to tell you, If you are willing to forgo hot tubs and pre-planned itineraries, it can be done. It’s going to take a little more work and flexibility on your part, but at the end of the day, you’ll be on the river.
While a budget trip to this Chilean wonderland can manifest in a few different ways, there are some core principles that will ensure a successful D.I.Y. expedition. By booking your guided trip locally, renting a camper, and living off empanadas de queso, you’ll find yourself spending seventy-five percent less than that of a traditional Futaleafú packaged tour.
The first thing you need to know is that booking your trip online is not an option if you want to keep this adventure low-cost. It might be daunting to travel thousands of miles without a tour set in stone but trust me on this one. The quaint mountain town of Futaleafú is chock-full of local outfitters, willing and ready to give you exactly what you are looking for at a cost that is nominal compared to what you’ll pay the companies that advertise online. Go in with a plan, stick to your budget, and shop around— keep in mind that the prime rafting season is late December through March, so arriving during these months is paramount.
The next component to think about is transportation. Your flight to Chile is going to be pricey, around $900-$1,200 round-trip, there’s no way around that. However, you do have a say in what you spend on domestic travel. While you can fly from Santiago (the capital city of Chile) to the town of Futaleafú, it’s much cheaper to rent a vehicle— especially if you are able to split the cost amongst your companions. If you rent a car with a sleeping set-up, your costs go down even more.
I recommend flying into Puerto Montt, the gateway town to Patagonia, where you can then rent your vehicle and begin your drive. The drive itself is not to be glossed over, as it is absolutely stunning. Be sure to get the proper papers for border crossings, as the easiest route will take you through Argentina.
Once you’ve reached the town of Futaleafú, you’ll have some planning to do. The river, although often sold as a multi-day trip, is actually broken into three sections that can be run as day stretches. If massive death rapids aren’t your thing, there are plenty of stretches that offer a more mild introduction to the Futa. The lower Bridge to Bridge section is jam-packed with Class III-IV rapids and is short enough that you can easily run it twice in one day. If you are feeling confident after those runs, tack on the next stretch to experience two rambunctious Class V’s; Casa de Piedra and Más or Menos.
To understand the true beauty of this mighty river, I highly recommend finding an outfitter that offers the opportunity for an overnight trip in the Middle Canyon. You’ll start on serene flat water, perfect for tossing a fly or two, then spend the night at a picturesque riverfront property. The following day sets you up to run the most infamous rapid on the river, Terminator. A class V mega rapid, this bad boy represents everything that the Futaleafú is known for; giant holes, steep gradients, and highly technical lines— a trifecta that is sure to invoke some serious excitement.
The last stretch you need to know about is Inferno Canyon. Not for the faint of heart or inexperienced, this section of whitewater offers 4.5 miles of relentless class IV-V rapids. To top it all off, you are surrounded by steep canyon walls that offer no sanctuary for those who find themselves in the water. These towering walls create hydraulic systems and keeper eddies, meaning that you most definitely will have a long deep swim. However, if you can muster the courage, this section will likely be the highlight of your trip.
Once you’ve planned your perfect itinerary, you’re in the clear. From this point on it’s just you and that glorious river— the river that will ultimately give you more than you ever knew you needed. But, it’s a river that also needs us. No stranger to the threat of dams, the Futaleafú is quite literally fighting for its life. Beyond saving a little bit of cash, your support of the local economy will inevitably have a positive impact both on the river itself and also for those who call it home. Once you see this place for yourself, there will be no doubt in your mind why it must remain wild.