This post is part 1 of 18 in the series Carretera Austral Travel

In the language of the Indigenous Mapuche people, the word futaleufú means big water or large river and they’re not kidding. The Futaleufú River offers some of the most exciting and technical rapids in the world making the town of Futaleufú (which everyone just calls Futa) in southern Chile a magnet for professional kayakers who use the Futaleufú River for training and for professional competitions. But you don’t have to be a pro to enjoy this river. The Fualeufú River is also considered to be one of the most advanced and exciting rivers in the world for commercially-run guided whitewater rafting trips. Here’s what to expect during some radical whitewater rafting in Futaleufú.

Futaleufu River

A safety kayaker (front, red) and a safety oar boat (back, yellow) flank a blue passenger raft as it passes through a relatively calm section of the lovely and challenging Futaleufú River in southern Chile.

Whitewater Rafting in Futaleufú

We’ve done some serious whitewater rafting before and during our Trans-Americas Journey, including a multi-day descent of the Dudh Kosi River in Nepal during first-flush when the water level is highest and a 2-day rafting trip on the Pacuare River in Costa Rica. So we figured a day spent rafting on the Futaleufú River–which a few intrepid kayakers began running the ’80s–would be exciting and adrenaline-filled. It was absolutely exciting and adrenaline filled….and then some.

Rio Futaleufu Whitewater rafting

Whitewater rafting on the Futaleufú River is one of the most exciting adventure travel activities in southern Chile.

The Futaleufú River is a 65 miles (105 km) stretch of crystal clear jade-colored water, sheer rock walls, small pebbly beaches, and lots of twists and turns below the Futaleufú Dam. Geographical quirk: the Futaleufú River is one of only two rivers that make it over the Andes that form the border between Chile and Argentina.  In certain sections of the river’s length, conditions are just right for the creation of whitewater rapids which are officially classified from one to five (noted in Roman numerals) with five being the biggest and most challenging.

Whitewater rafting Rio Futaleufu

Our guide, Jorge, sat in the back of the raft and used two oars to navigate the raft while shouting commands to the rest of us who provided the horsepower to get through rapids.    Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

Around the town of Futa, this river produces many, many, many Class IV and Class V rapids which are the upper limit of what can be navigated in a commercial raft.

We did the Bridge to Bridge + Macal half-day trip with Rio Futaleufú Rafting (see why we chose them in the section below). All told, this trip, which covers the most popular guided section of the river, is a 6-mile (10 km) section with a nearly continuous daisy chain of 15 rapids, mostly Class IV and Class V.

whitewater rafting instructions Rio Futaleufu put-in

Our peaceful put-in on the Futaleufú River.

Our trip started at 9 am at the office of Rio Futaleufú Rafting in the center of Futa. After a 30-minute van ride, we arrived at an open-air structure on the riverbank where we all suited up in wetsuits, helmets, and life vests.

Guided rafting trips on this river, which started in the early 1990s, are very popular. To avoid congestion on the water, tour companies send rafts out on a staggered timetable so things don’t get crowded or dangerous. This meant that we were the only group suiting up and getting into the river.

Entrada rapids Rio Futaleufu

Our raft enters the Entrada rapid with a safety kayaker and a safety oar boat in attendance.    Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

After meeting the Rio Futaleufú Rafting river guides (all bilingual), we got into rafts in a calm section of water just above the Zapata Hanging Bridge. We hung out in this calm section of water just above the bridge and practiced maneuvers for about 20 minutes to go over rafting commands and safety measures including what to do if you get bounced out of the raft, what to do if the raft flips, and how to get back into the raft (or help someone else back in).

Following a quick and clear description of the first rapid of the day, Entrada (Class IV), our river guide, Jorge, manned two long oars at the back and began navigating us downriver while shouting commands for the passengers to follow with our own single oars.

bridge to bridge rafting rio futaleufu

Navigating through the Entrada rapid, our first introduction to the awesome power of the Futaleufú River.    Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

From the start, there was lots of water volume and water speed and we quickly got better at following Jorge’s commands (forward! harder! stop! left! right! back!) and synching our strokes to better handle the raft. Jorge was in charge of steering at the back of the raft, but it was up to us, the passengers, to provide the horsepower based on his commands.

Immediately after passing under the bridge, we arrived at Entrada which we managed to handle with optimistic caution. One rapid under our belts, we, and the four other people in our raft, relaxed into an excited rhythm as the river propelled us forward.

world-class whitewater rafting chile

Our guide, Jorge, valiantly navigating us through the Mundaca Class V rapid.    Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting Rafting

This relatively “easy” first rapid was followed by short rapids, long rapids, big rapids, and enormous rapids like Mundaca, a Class V tumbler that even the guides seemed to pay extra attention to, and Tiburon (Shark), a Class IV rapid named for the shape of the rock that marks it and made more tricky by the existence of a submerged cave. Then there was the Class V (and aptly named) Last Wave is a Rock rapid.

class V whitewater Mundaca Rio Futaleufu

The Mundaca rapid did its best to flip us but we got out with everyone still in the raft.    Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

For the next two hours, we made our way down the river through a steady stream of calm eddies and churning rapids, raising our paddles in a rafting “high five” after successfully navigating each one as a team. But we stayed humble. Even in calm water, it was easy to feel the power of the river–its unchanging and unforgiving nature, and just how little we puny humans can do in the face of it.

Rio Futaleufu rapids

Time to get serious as we work our way through the Casa de Piedra rapid, an infamous Class V churner with many boulder obstacles.    Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

The most challenging rapids, however, were still ahead of us. The Macal section of the Rio Futaleufú is home to three back-to-back doozies: Class V Mas o Menos (More or Less), Class IV Right Turn, and Class V Casa de Piedra. All three are infamous churns known for power, water volume, and technical elements. For example, Casa de Piedra (House of Stones) got its name because the whitewater is punctuated with enormous boulders that create physical obstacles and serious water challenges, like hydraulics, through the entirety of this large rapid.

whitewater rafting Chile

Our guide, Jorge, navigating carefully through a few of the boulders that give the Casa de Piedra (House of Stones) rapid its name.    Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

The Casa de Piedra rapid has to be scouted by the guides and safety paddlers carefully and sometimes it can’t be run at all. The day before our trip, for example, this rapid was deemed too big to run.

casa de piedra Rio Futaleufu

Not only is the Casa de Piedra rapid a tricky big water monster, but it’s also a long and wide stretch of whitewater.    Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

During our trip, however, water conditions had changed enough to run Casa de Piedra. This required entering the long, churning, expanse of whitewater at the correct angle to allow us to navigate to the right, bounce the front of the raft off a boulder, oar into a small eddy, reposition, then navigate through the rest of the rapid around boulders and through hydraulics which pushed, pulled, titled, and lifted the raft.

Rio Futaleufu Casa de Piedra rapids

The water in the Casa de Piedra rapid was big, but everything seemed fine until…Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

At one point we encountered a tall standing wave that carried the front of our raft up, up, up to an almost vertical position. Somehow, we didn’t flip, though it felt like a flip was inevitable. Next came a hydraulic that soaked us all in walls of water, one of which knocked Karen out of paddling position and into the center of the raft (check that out at minute 10:25-10:55 in our video, below).

Casa de Piedra rapids

…we went from having a thrilling ride to almost disaster in the space of just a few seconds…   Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

class V Casa de Piedra rapids 2x

…and before we knew it, a wall of water nearly flipped us–that’s Karen on the right side of the raft being pushed back into the passenger behind her by the sheer force of the water.   Photo courtesy of Rio Futaleufú Rafting

We reached the end of the adventure just as arm fatigue and a slight chill from the frigid were setting in. Jorge steered us into a large calm eddy and up to a small beach where we got out of the raft to stretch our tensed-up legs and shake out our cramped-up arms. A table was set with snacks, water, beer, and sodas. Rafts, kayaks, and safety boats were loaded onto trailers as we changed out of our wetsuits and back into our clothes.

After a short van ride, we were back at the Rio Futaleufû Rafting office in Futa by 2 pm, tired and exhilarated. All in all, this trip provided just the right mix of feeling like you’re in experienced and safe hands with a true rush of adrenaline.

Get a taste of what it’s like to go whitewater rafting on the Futaleufú River in Chile in our video, below. This video is a combination of GoPro video from our guide Jorge’s helmet, some footage Eric took of another group going through the Mundaca rapid, as well as drone footage Eric took of another group starting out at the Entrada rapid and going through Casa de Piedra at the end of the video.

How to pick a rafting company in Futaleufú

With such a stellar reputation among whitewater enthusiasts and its standing on just about every list of the world’s best whitewater, it’s no surprise that there are many whitewater rafting companies Futa offering trips on the Futaleufú River. Visit tour company offices in town and shop around. You will notice different prices, just remember that you get what you pay for and the whitewater rafting in Futa is a serious undertaking.

Mauricio Rio Futaleufu Rafting

Mauricio, founder and owner of Rio Futaleufú Rafting, manning the safety boat during a guided whitewater rafting trip on the Futaleufú River.

Here are a few important questions to ask each rafting company in Futa. We were impressed with the answers we got from Rio Futaleufú Rafting and we also loved the fact that Mauricio, the company founder, is from Futa and was among the first local kids who learned how to raft from the first wave (get it) of international kayakers who pioneered this river in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mauricio now runs the company with his wife Sharon and a stable of employees, some of whom he’s known since childhood.

1. How many people will be in each raft? Some rafting companies cram eight passengers into each raft. Rio Futaleufú Rafting limits the number of passengers per raft to six so that each raft guide has fewer passengers to keep track of and keep safe.

2. How many safety kayaks and safety boats do you provide per raft? The operators of Rio Futaleufú Rafting believe that a safer ratio is one safety kayaker and safety boat per raft, however, some rafting companies only provide one safety kayak and one safety boat for multiple rafts.

3. Are snacks and photos or video footage included in the price of the excursion? Rio Futaleufú Rafting includes snacks and photos and video in the price of their trips, but many rafting companies advertise lower rates, then charge extra for things like snacks and images from your adventure.

Gear is also important. The Futaleufú River is cold and we were grateful for the insulating inner shirt provided by Rio Futaleufú Rafting. This, along with booties and spray jackets, kept us comfortable even after hours on the river. We also appreciated the fact that Mauricio and Sharon rotate their river guides between duties (raft guide, safety kayaker, safety boat guide) to keep them fresh and engaged and reduce burnout.

K+E rafting Rio Futaleufu

Us suited up and ready for adventure at the start of our Futaleufú River whitewater rafting trip.

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