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Exploring the upper canyons of the Río Puesco

Exploring the upper canyons of the Río Puesco

Written By | Santiago Sandoval 

Photo by Pablo Casado 

I have been living in Pucon for the past 5 years, but the first time I visited town I must have been just 14 or 15 years old. I was absolutely determined to go check out the rivers I had grown up watching in Bomb Flow videos. Over the years, running local classics like the Nevados, the Palguin and the Puesco have become some of the biggest achievements in my kayaking career.

Upper Palguin | photo by Domingo Sandoval

Because many people, such as myself, come to paddle these rivers every year, Pucon has become one of the most popular destinations for whitewater kayaking over time. Search “Demshitz” or “Middle Palguin” on Google and the amount of footage from different people you will find is quite amazing.

The interconnection between rivers and the quality of the runs, combined with the town’s vibe and its people, makes Pucon a true paradise (and siphon) for paddlers to spend a season.

First explored in the early 1970’s and further exploited by different kayaking crews since then, nearly 50 years later there aren’t many basins in the Araucania that haven’t been explored yet. 

So when Lj Groth made the call to do an expedition on the upper Puesco, I didn’t think twice before I said "I’m in."

Lj has been living in Puesco with his girlfriend, Kelsey, for a few years now. They run a company called Escape and each year they bring people from different parts of the world, taking them kayaking around Pucon. They teach them a bit about the local Mapuche culture and show them a little piece of paradise in their property in Puesco. 

Las Peinetas | photo by Santiago Sandoval

Lj has several first descents in Chile, knows most people in Curarrehue and has become a true local in Puesco town. To most people here, he is “Gringo John” or “EL G” (nothing related to a drug cartel, but from people struggling to pronounce the J).

His house lies in the middle of one of the best, most continuous and sickest runs in all of Pucon. El Puesco is a 6 km section of super fun class V, filled with boofs,  tight lines, fast moves and no portages. 

Going down the Puesco | photo by Leo Zapata

The put in for the Puesco is located right at the entrance of Villarica National Park, where the headwaters of two of the rivers that give life to the section we paddle are.

Momolluco and Puesco, converge 300 meters downstream from the put in; both small creeks but with heavy potential.

I had scouted Momolluco myself once, but due to logging industry back in the day, most sections of the river were infested with logs, and in the end, it felt more like doing a sketchy hike rather than kayaking.

Puesco, on the other hand, had not called my attention as much, mostly because the parts of the river you can see from the trails of the National Park seemed very much un-runnable.

Views to the river from the Quinquilil Trail | photo by Santiago Sandoval 

Lj mentioned his intentions to go explore the upper canyons of the Puesco a couple times, but we never really gave it much attention. So, for years we just dedicated ourselves to running the regular section, which you know, is pretty damn good after all.

This spring, the snowpack that accumulated through the winter has provided a really good season for kayaking and most of the classic rivers have been running with good flows for weeks This, combined with warm sunny days, opened up a window of ideal conditions to go check out the upper canyons of the Puesco. After some thoughts, Google Earth scouting and heavy motivation from Lj, we gathered a crew of locals (and not so locals) and decided to give it a shot.

On Sunday, November 22nd, Lj Groth, Aniol Serrasolses, Isidro Perdigues, Domingo Sandoval and myself started the walk from the bottom of the Quinquilil trail on Parque Nacional Villarica, which is the way to “Colmillo del Diablo” (Devil’s Teeth) and Finish/Start of the Villarica Traverse (depending if you start from Palguin, Puesco or Pucon). 

We loaded our boats with breakdown paddles, food, and safety gear and started the 5km hike to the put in. The trail is especially beautiful at this time of the year; different tones of green from the Roble and Coihue tree and explosive red covering the forest from the Notro blooming, made us feel like we were in some sort of magic tale.

Domingo on the steepest part of the hike with Las Peinetas in the background | photo by Pablo Casado

Scouting from the trail | photo by Pablo Casado

After almost two hours of hiking we got to the put in. Excited and a bit nervous, we looked at the river, which seemed to have way more water than usual even though it was completely flat at this point. Since we had no parameter, we decided not to give it much attention and concentrate on what we came to do.

Put in gathering brunch | photo by Pablo Casado

Starting at almost 1,400 meters above sea level, we were paddling down the river right next to 100 year old Araucaria trees. The landscape was shaped by still snowy peaks, high elevation prairie and bushes that a few kilometers downstream turned into the most thick and impenetrable forest.

The first few rapids had tight moves but were all runnable. It felt like the deeper we were getting into the gorge, the steeper the rapids would get. After five or six rapids, we found ourselves portaging for the first time that day.

Domingo boofing on rapid number 2 with Araucaria in the background | photo by Isidro Perdigues

Although they were very much un-runnable, most portages were a beautiful manifestation of the power of rivers and their capacity of shaping the water basin. Some of the craziest rock formations were lying between the walls of the canyon and somehow the water managed to make its way down, always flowing.

Aniol at the first portage | photo by Sanitago Sandoval

The rapids in between the two biggest gorges resembled little creek sections such as the Nevados or some of the rapids in the Palguin, although a bit more manky and tight. 

After some little portages and more mank, we finally found some good runnable rapids and waterfalls. By this point, Lj had suffered a heavy hit on his ribs and decided to hike out.

There was 4 of us left and we were hungry for some whitewater. 

The following canyon was amazing, with two beautiful waterfalls that led into a massive slide that made us feel like we had found what we came for. After some scouting, we determined that the drops were good to go. Isidro went first and styled his line, followed by myself, then Domingo and Aniol.

The slide looked runnable but we were concerned about the logs halfway down, as they put an extra (and un-necessary) consequence to the rapid. Aniol decided to run the bottom part and flew off.

Isidro scouting the first waterfall | photo by Santiago Sandoval

Isidro Perdigues and Jennifer Kalila on the jawn | photo by Aniol Serrasolses

Deep in the thick Puesco Bush with logs blocking the top part of the slide | photo by Domingo Sandoval

Aniol running the bottom part of the slide (Esleid) | photo by Domingo Sandoval

By the time we thought we were getting into the rhythm of get out, scout, and run / portage, we found ourselves on a blind corner that Aniol suggested was not good to go. It seemed like a simple move but after the rapid the whole river got completely boxed in. Isidro decided to go first and see if there was a way of portaging at river level, but after a couple minutes he gave us the whistle sign and we helped him hike out of the un-runnable and un-portagable canyon.

Domingo, Isidro and I hiked out on river left and started portaging, while Aniol gave it a shot on river right. From what we could see, the gorge must have been 300-350 meters long and walking around it sounded like no problem, but once we got our boats out of the water, we found ourselves carrying our kayaks through the most dense and impenetrable forest. It took us almost two hours in between bush and Colihue (Chilean bamboo) to walk past the canyon and into the river again.

Dealing with frustration seems like a big piece when doing missions and I realized that the right crew can change the whole vibe in minutes. Although we were deep into the thick Puesco bush, we were still joking around and helping each other to get through the suffer fest. Once we managed to get back to the river, we all thought there was no more portages and we were ready for the final section which seemed like a chill part according to Google Earth. Just as Dorothy messed up in trusting the wizard would get her home, we still had a long way back to cold beers in the car.

Within the first few meters of paddling after getting back on the water, we found ourselves portaging again, but this time, there was no way around the canyon walls and we decided that due to hours of light, the best option was to rappel down into the next pool and around the big siphon we had found.

"Alright, alright, alright, I don’t want to see another portage again," I thought to myself after almost 8 hours on the river.

We worked together to get boats and ourselves back into the river, just to get out again and scout a few meters downstream. But this time, there was no portage. Instead, what we found just proved that the mission was completely worth it and even if we suffered a little bit, these kind of things never go smooth like butter.

The gorge that we had just entered had beautiful drops, flowy rapids that needed almost no scout and smaller walls that made you appreciate how beautiful and colorful the landscape around us was.

Even though we had paddled the lower section of the Puesco many times, it felt like being in a completely different place. Knowing that we were exploring a new section of river in the backyard of our home, filled our souls (and by then empty stomachs) with joy and love.

After a kilometer or two of good boogie rapids, the river got lost on the horizon line and big logs were sitting on the river bank. There was one massive boulder in the middle that divided the water into two channels. We got out of our boats and managed to balance ourselves on the logs and into the boulder on the middle.

What we found left me speechless; the whole river dropped about 50 meters into cascades on both sides, the Peinetas on the back guarding the whole valley and the forest blooming in different tones of green, red and yellow. It was a true cathedral of nature, a priceless spectacle that not many had witnessed, right in front of us.

That moment made me feel lucky and extremely grateful, that one day I was introduced to kayaking, to the community, to the places it takes me, and to everything that comes with it. 

The unmatched beauty and power of the place made us forget for some minutes that we had to portage again. Although after that view, I think we were all pretty damn stoked to walk for the last time that day.  So, we roped our boats and hiked out, once again, of the last canyon of the upper Puesco.

Tired and a bit hungry I had never been more happy to see flat water in my life. We enjoyed the last kilometer of river by taking in the amazing views that the valley offered and got some decompression strokes all the way down to the “Puente Puesco."

Flatwater views, the stoke after the show | photo by Santiago Sandoval 

Overall, I’d say that if you could connect all the runnable sections together, this river would become a true classic such as most of the runs in town. However since there are quite a few stout portages, if you are thinking about going in there, make sure to bring proper gear, food, and the mindset for a full day on one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever paddled.

Also, water levels can be a big part. Too much water might mean hell in there, and too low could take you out for the mankiest run of your life.

Respect, protect and value your rivers as they are!


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