By Lisa Tucker McElroy:

Two days into our luxury rafting trip, I’m sitting on a giant rock, looking out at a mountain called the Three Nuns. I’m a little confused, so I ask my Chilean guide, “Are you sure it’s three? I see about seven peaks.” As he’s been doing all week, though, the guide assures me that he’s in the know about all things Chilean, and three nuns they are. But however many nuns, or peaks, or whatever, there are, it’s sort of beside the point. The fact is, this particular mountain is just about as breathtaking as anything I’ve ever seen (and please ignore the fact that breathtaking is a word that travel writers are taught in Travel Writing 101 is cliché-sometimes it’s just the right word). I’m in Patagonia, Chile, on Earth River Expedition’s luxury adventure of a lifetime-a white-water-rafting trip down the Futaleufu River, known as the world’s premier destination for thrill-seeking rafters. And this trip is the crème de la crème-no other company does it as comfortably, or with guides and food this good, or with an itinerary to beat all the rest.

But let’s start at the beginning…

LAN Airlines to Santiago

Travel writer or no, I have never gotten used to overnight flights. Even years of falling asleep in rocking chairs with fussy babies never accustomed me to sleeping upright. No, I’m a horizontal kind of gal. That said, if you have to sleep upright, the way to do it is on one of LAN’s new planes, complete with individual screens at each seat and remote controls designed to be game devices as well as TV controls. The seats recline in a really cool way that actually makes you feel nominally like you are sort of lying halfway down. And the blankets and pillows come hermetically sealed in their own packaging, allowing you to feel OK about using them. Nice! Between Philadelphia and Santiago, spiffy and friendly flight attendants serve two quite decent meals.

I will forever be an economy traveler, but if you are fortunate enough to be able to spring for business class, go for it-those seats look particularly swank.

Arriving in Santiago

The Santiago airport is quite easy to navigate: My husband, Steve, and I get off the plane, retrieve our bags, pass through customs and immigration, and head out to the taxi stand in less than 40 minutes-the fastest I’ve ever gotten through! The only surprise (and, actually, it shouldn’t have been, it was right there in Earth River’s information materials) is that it costs $135/person to enter Chile. Paying up is just a tad painful, but as my husband pointed out, what can you do?

For this trip, we’ve headed to Santiago a day early, a plan I highly recommend. It’s nearly impossible to make the connections necessary to get to Balmaceda in time if you try to do it all in one fell swoop, and frankly, I don’t think you’ll want to-though two in our group did just that. Having a day to acclimate to Chile time and explore the city a bit is just too tempting. If you do decide to stay in Santiago, I cannot stress highly enough how much you will enjoy the Santiago Marriott. It’s swank, it’s gorgeous, it has amazing views, and it’s located in a lovely neighborhood right next to the coolest open-air shopping mall I’ve seen in a while.

We ask for and receive early check-in on one of the executive floors-and let me tell you, these rooms are worth the extra expense. Not only do they have sweeping views of the mountains (do not-I repeat, do not-miss the sun setting or the moon rising-it’s stunning), but they give you access to the concierge lounge, where you’ll find more great views, an amazing breakfast (most welcome after our all-night flight), snacks all day, cocktails…you name it. Because I need to get some work done, I spend a chunk of the afternoon hanging out there with concierge Emilio, a true rock star of guest services.

We also spend a couple of hours lounging by the pretty pool and soaking in the hot tub. Next trip? I’ll schedule a massage to help me get over the jet lag.

The only tiny downside of the Marriott is that it’s a bit of a hike from the airport. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that Santiago seems to have the highest taxi fares on the planet. For a 20-minute ride, budget US$50 each way. Yes, that’s right, $50. Ouch!

One other small note about the Marriott: It was among the hotels damaged in the February 27, 2010, earthquake (more on the quake to come), but we’re glad to hear it’s back up and running at full capacity now.

Balmaceda and the Hotel Pangue

After a great night’s sleep at the Marriott, we’re up super early to continue our trip, traveling about 1,000 miles south to the Patagonian town of Balmaceda. If you’re flying domestically, take note: The Santiago airport is both slow and fast. It is incredibly fast because they do not check ID at check-in or security, nor do they require you to remove your shoes or take out your computer at security. You can breeze right through, leaving plenty of time to get a coffee and a muffin at one of the airport cafés before your flight.

Believe me when I say you will need plenty of time. At the Dunkin’ Donuts near our gate it takes a good 20 minutes to receive two coffees and two muffins. I’m not kidding: The woman behind the counter takes the milk out, steams it, makes one coffee, and then puts the milk back in the fridge. She then sets the coffee on the tray. Next, she removes the milk, steams it, makes another coffee, and puts the milk away. She then sets that coffee on the tray. And so it goes. I am normally a patient woman, but when it is 4:30 a.m. U.S. time and my husband, who conveniently does not speak Spanish, is comfortably relaxing on his own, giggling about something on his computer, while I stand in line, all I want to do is grab my coffee and inhale. I’m not sure whether it’s a Chilean thing or an airport thing or a Dunkin’ Donuts thing or what, but getting coffee takes time. Be prepared.

But once we board, our flight to Balmaceda is uneventful, and we arrive in the tiny Patagonian airport to be met by Maria, the Earth River guide. Boarding the Earth River bus, we drive about five hours to the wonderful small Chilean city of Coyhaique and then through central Patagonia’s spectacular Quelat National Park, known for its rainforest wilds, clear raging rivers, snow-capped peaks, and unique flora and fauna. After a long and dusty bus ride, during which we get to know many of our fellow travelers (as well as the best bushes for bathroom breaks), we reach the comfortable Hotel Pangue on beautiful Lago Risopatron, where we spend the night.

Dinner is amazing: savory tamales, tender steak, and cake. Abner, who will be our trip’s head guide, raves about some other dessert, but the cake “with seeds” (Abner’s words) is incredibly tasty. Equally tasty are the Pisco sours: The unofficial national drink of Chile tastes something like a margarita. Steve becomes enamored… much to my concern and amusement later in the trip.

During dinner, Abner tells us about what we’ll be doing all week: rafting, kayaking, traversing a gorge, rappelling, zip-lining, hiking…. Not on the list? Horseback riding. “Why not?” I ask. “The website says that you have horseback riding.” Abner looks confused, then a bit nervous. He whispers something to his colleague in rapid Spanish. He’s satisfied with the response, and he smiles. “And horseback riding,” he says. We’re not sure what just transpired, but we’re psyched that we’ll be riding-however he’s going to make that happen.

After a couple of Pisco sours and an awful lot of cake, we’re off to bed-tomorrow’s a big day on the river.

Kayaking the Futaleufu River and Hiking to the Terminador Camp

One thing that’s great about Earth River Expeditions is that it’s truly all-inclusive and seriously eco-friendly. Camp amenities have been added in such a way as to not take away from the wild nature of the river and expedition. Sleeping bags, flannel sheets, pillows, and thick sleeping pads are included at no additional charge. With the exception of massages (a masseuse accompanies most expeditions) and a professionally shot and edited DVD of the trip, everything from the day you arrive in Balmaceda until you’re back to Balmaceda at the trip’s conclusion is included in the cost.

One other important point to make here: Earth River provides an equipment list of things to bring with you. Steve and I didn’t have everything on the list, and because we travel on a serious budget, some of the recommended items (like $150 canyoneering shoes and $200 paddle jackets) were simply outside our price range, especially when multiplied times two. We got by just fine with stuff we already owned, like Keen water sandals and rain jackets from L. L. Bean. In other words, if you can afford the fancy equipment and think you’ll use it again, go ahead and buy/bring it-it will make you moderately more comfortable, but not much. Whatever your budget, just be sure to bring quick-drying clothing (no cotton) and plenty of layers.

On the first morning of the outdoors portion of our trip, we drive about three hours to our inflatable kayak put-in on the Class II (beginner level) lower Futaleufu River. It’s a relief to actually hit the water after spending the better part of two days traveling by plane and bus to get here. After a kayak training lesson, we paddle the stunning teal-colored river for a couple of hours. We have lunch at the take-out, then break out the rafts.

I’m itching to hit the white water right away, but the staff needs us to learn the ropes. After a rafting safety talk, we begin our raft training by doing a swim test and flip drill in a calm spot on the river. Our raft guide, Juanito (we’ll find out later that he’s the South American kayaking champion and refuses to get married because he loves living on the river so much), pushes us hard, teaching us what to do if our raft hits rapids at the wrong angle and how to help each other survive-seriously. We then run a series of long, powerful Class IV+ rapids including Puente Colgante, Mundaca, and Alfombra Mágica. Steve’s in the front of the raft, and he’s getting seriously hammered. I’m near the back with Juanito, so the waves break a bit before they reach me. Still, it’s a thrill like none other-it seems that a Class IV rapid on the “Fu” is tougher than the wildest Class V we’ve rafted at home.

In between rapids, we float, drill, chat (Juanito says many times, “Lisa, !“), and check out the Patagonian scenery. Steve tells me he feels like we’re in an IMAX movie. No, I tell him, it’s more like one of the 360-degree movies they have at Epcot. The mountains rise above the river, and everything’s green and quiet-until we hit the next rapid, that is. After an afternoon of rafting, we drive 15 minutes to the Terminador Camp trailhead and hike a mile into the camp’s interior. Especially cool is the ox cart, complete with Chilean ox driver, that “carts” our stuff into camp for us.

The first of Earth River’s four stunning private camps on the Futaleufu, the Terminador Camp has a mile of private riverfront and sits on a dramatic bluff over the raging river. A beautiful trail winds through the trees the entire length of the camp, offering stunning views of the mile-long rapid that churns the water into every imaginable shade of azure, white, and turquoise.

Hidden in the trees are 14 private two-person hand-hewn wooden cliff dwellings, each with beds and a bird’s-eye view of the surging flow, which creates dozens of waterfalls as it spills over giant sculpted white granite boulders. What’s especially neat about the dwellings is that they are three-sided, so you have a little door for privacy on the camp side, but the front side of the dwelling is open to the river. You fall asleep and wake up to the sound of the rushing river-nice!

Steve and I are lucky to be assigned a cliff dwelling not too far from the main camp-important if you’re exhausted. After driving and kayaking all day, it’s really nice to have just a short way to carry your stuff and then settle in.

Located near the center of the camp is an 18-person wooden hot tub with a cypress deck and a view. The deck is scribed around trees and giant rocks and tucked behind a truck-size boulder that acts as both a screen from the river and a natural veranda. Sitting or standing, a person is above the top of the rock and sees an unimpeded view up and down the entire mile-long rapid and surrounding canyon. A stove heats the water, meaning that we need to “stir” it with our bodies pretty regularly to keep it the right temperature, but it feels amazing after a long day of buses on unpaved roads and kayaking on the river.

It’s also great to have a “home-cooked” meal. Earth River provides tons of food, and it’s some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in the great outdoors. Because the company owns the campsites along the river, they have a full kitchen set up somewhere that we can’t see. Then, as we hot tub, they bring us beer, Pisco sours, and guacamole. Afterwards, they break out spaghetti and steak, stuffed peppers and chicken. We gorge like wolves attacking their feed. Every night it will be something different, and every night is better than the last.

White-Water Rafting and the Earth River Cave Camp

We wake up on the morning I turn 42-yes, there’s nothing like rising to hear “Feliz cumpleaños a usted” over coffee around the campfire-and hike half an hour out to a dirt road to our put-in on the river. Today’s the day for Class V rapids, and I can hardly wait, even though Steve’s a little apprehensive. Juanito has spent hours teaching us what to do in dicey situations-this river has super-long rapids full of rocks-but in the front of the raft, Steve can feel every “pothole” in the water.

Soon we enter the wild, sheer-walled Class V Infierno Canyon. Racing between imposing walls, hundreds of feet high, the pulsing river boasts some of the most impressive commercially run rapids in the world, including Infierno, Purgatorio, and Escala de Jacobo.

Luckily for Steve, each rapid in Infierno Canyon is separated by a swift pool that allows enough time for rescue and recovery if necessary-they’ve got cata-rafts out there with lifeguards to pick us out of the water if we flip. As it turns out, there’s no need; Steve has heeded his training well. In the early afternoon, everyone rafts down to Campo Casa de Piedra, running one challenging Class IV rapid, Son of Zeta. And it’s during this especially crazy ride that our friend Frank, sitting next to Steve at the front of the boat, goes overboard backwards. Just before he hits the water, though, as he’s hanging by one foot in a backbend over the side, Steve reaches over, grabs him by the life jacket, and pulls him back in. Looks like Juanito knew what he was talking about when he said that we needed to have our safety skills ingrained to the point that they were automatic-Steve tells me later that he never had a conscious thought about saving Frank; he just did it. That experience engenders the kind of confidence that we need for the rest of the trip, not only in our own abilities, but in the staff’s high-level skills and attention to safety.

After rafting, we head to camp. The 1,000-acre Earth River Cave Camp is the most exotic and diverse river camp in the world. Not a cave in the true sense, but a massive overhanging white granite slab that rests on two boulders, the main stone shelter is referred to by the locals as the House of Stone. There is a sand floor, two large natural skylights, and a giant centrally located fireplace in the rear wall that draws smoke through a crack. With an interior space of over 1,600 square feet, this natural wonder is large enough to ride a horse inside and can keep the entire group warm and dry under any conditions. We’re also glad to learn that the camp has flush toilets and hot showers, something I’ve never experienced on any other outdoor adventure trip.

In front of the main stone shelter is a beautiful spring-fed pond/lake called Laguito Azul (Little Blue Lake). Set within a bowl of massive granite towers as high as 300 feet and surrounded by lush vegetation, Laguito Azul resembles a giant Japanese garden. Its brilliant blue water is so clear you can see giant German brown trout and salmon of up to 24 inches swimming 30 feet down.

A few hundred feet beyond Laguito Azul rages the most spectacular rapid on the river, Zeta, a Class VI Z-shaped flume cut into solid granite. Just downstream of Zeta, carved into the granite by the river in higher flows, is a heart-shaped three-foot-deep water-filled pothole, which the staff heats to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. With smooth 45-degree sloping walls to lean against and fresh water every day, this chemical-free stone hot tub comfortably fits 12 people. The smooth granite ledges around the tub are ideal for relaxing and slope gently into the calm aerated blue pool below Zeta, making the transition from hot to cold water extremely easy. Soaking at night with the brilliant stars overhead is something we’ll never forget.

In the vicinity of the cliff dwellings is a large cliffside dining area, an 18-person wooden hot tub, and a second spring-fed swimming pond. The cliff dwellings, hot tub, and dining area are all well hidden from the Futaleufu, yet through the trees they command the river’s most impressive camp view. Once again, Steve and I feel like we score the best dwelling, near the meeting area and hot tub and right over the Zeta gorge. Steve, who has sleep issues at home, tells me that he wishes he had a tape recorder to capture the sound of the roaring water-it’s the perfect white noise to block out my snoring.

After a birthday party of steak, potatoes, and lots of Pisco sours, Steve and I are off to sleep-tomorrow will be the toughest part of the trip for me.

The Tyrolean Traverse and the Tree House Camp

We wake up to hot coffee and eggs and the promise of a sunny day. For Steve, who is terrified of heights, it’s also a morning full of anxiety: We’re going to cross Zeta gorge on a dramatic Tyrolean traverse above the river. Each wearing a climbing harness attached to a pulley, we pull ourselves across a rope stretched between sheer granite walls over the heart of Zeta rapid. Although it’s not risky or particularly strenuous, hanging and then crossing over the Class VI rapid is extremely exhilarating. Even Steve is able to make it and admits that it was not so bad; I love it and beg to do it again.

But there’s no time. Upon reaching the other side, we begin climbing out of the inner canyon. The moderately strenuous (for most, but super hard for me) 1,500-vertical-foot hike takes us past a beautiful 100-foot tributary waterfall and breathtaking views of the river and Cave Camp with dramatic peaks rising above it. After several hours of uphill hiking, we crest the top of the inner canyon and enter a wonderful old-growth hardwood forest.

Tucked away in the center of this enchanted moss-draped land of giants is the 10-acre, 50-foot-deep Lake of the Frogs. Cut out by the glacier, the lake drops straight off the edge like a giant, bottomless swimming pool. Surrounded by native old-growth forest on three sides, with dramatic mountain views on the fourth, this intimate body of water offers wonderful opportunities for swimming and canoeing (there are two canoes). A natural wood deck and a handmade 16-person hot tub sit on the edge of the lake.

I’m ready to leap into the tub, but Abner tells us we have to jump in the lake to get any sweat off before hitting the hot tub. The water is so cold that my teeth hurt, but the tub makes it worth it! Steve just misses landing a killer belly-flop on his dive into the lake. We all get photos of him stretched out in midair, and for the rest of the trip we’ll beg him to repeat it.

Above the main camp area, 35 feet up in a majestic closely knit stand of old-growth giants, are eight wonderful hexagon-shaped tree houses, hand-crafted by a Chilean master carpenter. They are connected like the spokes of a wheel from one central tree and a circular staircase. Each tree house is designed to be self supporting, and not a single nail is hammered into the trees. Steve and I choose one away from the others, overlooking the lake, and Steve lies down to sleep off last night’s Pisco sours. When the guides offer the option of swimming and relaxing in the hot tub or taking a short hike to the breathtaking Tree House Camp Canyon Overlook, I decide to head to the massage tent for a post-birthday massage. I deserve it after that hike, and it’s well worth the $40 cost.

We spend the evening above the lower canopy with stunning views of the lake, surrounding forest, and mountains. Most of us head to bed early just so we can get as much time in our tree houses as we can. After all, how many people get to say that they have slept in a tree house?

Zip-Lining, Cliff Jumping, Tower Climbing, and Rapelling

The next morning, the coffee tastes especially good, particularly because I know we have to hike back down the mountain. It’s easier than going up, but not much-I’m not great with balance, so I have to walk slowly and carefully. Still, it’s a perfectly sunny day, and from the trail we can see aerial views of the river, surrounding canyon, and the majestic Tower of the Winds. Most exciting for me? The trail ends at a 250-foot zip line. It’s like a giant “fun ride”: We take turns holding a loop handle attached to a pulley over our heads and leap off a 25-foot cliff, shooting 250 feet down an angled rope and letting go into the pool below Zeta rapid. We spend the night at the Cave Camp, where one of our group members gets incredibly sunburned and another jumps off a cliff into the water, making for a great scrapbook photo and an enormous bruise on his seat.

Camp Mapu Leufu

A short float the next morning takes us to unrunnable Throne Room rapid, where the boats are pushed through empty (ghost boated). The next couple of hours are spent running a series of long Class IV+ rapids, until lunch on a beach at the confluence of the Futaleufu and turquoise Río Azul. After lunch, we paddle some more exciting Class IV+ rapids down to the Earth River Mapu Leufu Camp.

Situated on a secluded bluff, 120 feet above the river with dramatic 360-degree views, this 300-acre camp has over two miles of private riverfront. Hand-hewn wooden cliff dwellings offer breathtaking views of granite towers rising from the turquoise river. At this camp, the hot tub’s on a cliff, and the flush toilets and showers are up the hill. There is also a tributary stream with waterfalls and deep pools. In the afternoon, Abner makes good on his promise, and four of us head to a local farm, where we take a guide-led horseback ride through the Chilean countryside. As it turns out, Earth River hadn’t known ahead of time that the folks on this trip would want to ride, so they hadn’t prearranged it. To Abner’s credit, though, he came through, a perfect example of the Earth River “we aim to make this your best vacation ever” attitude.

That evening we have a traditional Chilean asado (roasted sheep over a fire) prepared by our local neighbor, Sugundo.

Best River Rafting in the World

The next day offers some of the most impressive commercial rafting in the world. Within minutes of pushing off, we enter Class V+ Terminador rapid, the most demanding rapid on the river. Immediately downstream of Terminador are the 15-foot waves of the Himalayas. In this stretch the rapids flow together, making nearly a mile and a half of nonstop Class V action. After the Himalayas there is a series of giant Class IV+ rapids (some nearly a mile long) and two Class V rapids: Cojín (the cushion) and Mundaca.

And it’s here that it finally happens: We flip. Heading into the Himalayas (well named because of their high vertical waves), Juanito predicts that we have a 50-50 chance of staying afloat. Several in our group choose to get out, but I’m game: It looks like fun! And fun it is. We go over in a spectacular splash on the third hill of water (a flip memorialized by the trip’s professional videographer), and then I swim to a cata-raft, easy enough because I’m wearing a wetsuit and a life jacket and the sun is out.

But that’s it for me. Juanito tells me that the water’s low, the rocks exposed, and the last two rapids are just too technical for a beginning paddler like me. Steve and I hike the rest of the river and watch the truly expert rafters make their way through two of the most difficult Class V rapids on the river, Más o Menos and Casa de Piedra. We’re impressed, but not sorry to be on dry land-we’re just glad for a nice rest on a warm rock in the sunshine.

In the early afternoon we take out in a meadow and have lunch together for the last time. This is where we have to say goodbye to our guides, the men who have worked so hard to show us an amazing time and also worked so hard to keep us all safe. We cannot say enough about them-it is obvious how much they love the river and how professional they are. Everything that they do looks so easy, demonstrating the enormous amount of time and attention given to planning the trip.

We are bussed south to the Hotel Pangue (where we spent the first evening of the trip) and have a few hours to enjoy Lake Risopatron. That evening there is a farewell dinner celebration at the hotel restaurant.

Return to Civilization

The next morning, the group wakes up before dawn to take the long bus ride to the Balmaceda airport. We’re sleepy and sore, and all we want to do is get on the plane, head home, and put on some dry, clean clothes.

But this is not to be. About three hours into our bus ride, we receive word that there has been a major earthquake in Santiago. In fact, as we learn several hours later, this quake is the biggest one in 50 years, registering an 8.8 on the Richter scale. Getting home turns out to be pretty darn tough, delaying us for six days, but, hey, it’sa all part of the adventure!

And what an adventure it was. The take-away? It was the trip of a lifetime, with challenges of every kind, from hiking straight up a mountain to flipping in a Class V rapid to getting stuck due to an earthquake. But Chile and Earth River Expeditions impressed us so much that we can’t wait to return-after checking the geological charts.


This trip courtesy of Earth River Expeditions

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