Rio Tambo raft/kayak expedition: 6 days, 101 miles, class IV; JOIN US!

RÍO TAMBO: Atacama Delight

165 km (101 miles), class IV, 6 days

launches: Apr20 (2016) RESERVE

Río Tambo is a coastal river in Southern Peru that runs through the heart of the Atacama desert just south of Arequipa. It is close to and can be considered the third crown of a trio of ríos in the area including the Colca and Cotahuasi. On this kayak and raft trip, you'll be challenged by numerous class III-IV rapids and explore interesting side hikes as you camp on beautiful clean beaches. This is an ideal trip to warm up for the tougher Ríos Cotahuasi and Colca, which are also based out of Arequipa and is an ideal alternative when regional rivers are high.

SPOT (latest GPS position)


The first full descent of Río Tambo was done in 2013 by Rocky Contos and two friends from Arequipa (Gustavo Rondón and José Zeballo). The river has road access to a point approximately 1800 m above sea level. From there, it is all class III and IV runnable whitewater (except for one class V+ drop by a road bridge) for the 165 km to the ocean. Our group will challenge the desert rapids of the river, spending the first day with light boats and camping by our van. The next several nights we will enter the Mars Canyon with an eerie other-worldly landscape where there are no roads and difficult access. We may bring a small raft along to carry group supplies and food.

Río Tambo flows through one of the most beautiful canyons in the world and deserves more popularity among kayakers. Paddling this river is also ideal in the sense that access is relatively easy and the river is less challenging than the neighboring Cotahuasi and Colca. Thus, it is an ideal river to do initially before tackling its more popular and tougher brothers to the north. We plan to schedule trips on the Colca and Cotahuasi after the Tambo descent so you can have a full lineup of running these amazing Atacama Desert rivers!

Kayakers joining the trip should be class IV boaters and have a solid roll. If you are not comfortable or are swimming too much on the first day, you may have to stay behind for the rest of the trip (no refund) or ride on the raft. Although this trip is primarily geared toward kayakers, we welcome a few rafters along. Prior river rafting experience is recommended before join this trip due to its technical and difficult nature. All participants should be comfortable camping and you should have an easygoing attitude in order to get along with a diverse group on a multi-day trip for an extended period. If you are concerned about this issue, consider arranging a private guided trip - or if you're an experienced group, contracting our outfitting services.

Everyone joining SierraRios trips should have an interest in river conservation and help us on our mission to document the river further, talk to residents, publicize the planned dams, and help train local guides. You should be in good physical condition. You should plan to help facilitate the trip in any way possible, including transport of some gear down to Peru and to the river if necessary. You don't need to be bilingual but it is helpful and more fulfilling to communicate with local residents when we meet them.

The policy we will take on the trip is that the trip leader will have main authority when it comes to decisions for the group regarding river progress, camp, etc. If a participant has overestimated their ability to row or kayak, he/she may be mandated to ride on a raft and or be assessed other penalties. Trip leader decisions can be vetoed by a majority vote of the group. Any participant always has the right to leave the trip if they so desire.


AREQUIPA: The main rendezvous point at the start of the trip will be Arequipa. You should arrive 1-2 days before the launch date. To get to Arequipa from Lima, you can fly (1.5 hr) or take a bus (15 hr). Flights are operated by STAR, LAN, PeruvianAir, and/or LC Peru. We will arrange transportation for the ~8 hr drive to the put-in near the pueblo of Quinistaquillas, to be driven the day before we start paddling day. Arequipa is a beautiful colonial city at 2200 m elevation in the Atacama desert but high enough to get a bit of precipitation. You might consider doing several days hiking/trekking before the trip, such as up one of the nearby volcanos. You can also test your kayak and make modifications to it by running Río Chili (class III-IV), the popular commercial raft run that ends in the city. To get to Arequipa from Lima, you can fly (2 hr) or take a bus (16 hr). Flights are only operated by STAR, LAN, PeruvianAir, and/or LC Peru.  

Other Sites/Excursions: Arequipa is a beautiful colonial city at 2200 m elevation in the Atacama desert but high enough to get a bit of precipitation. You might consider doing several days hiking/trekking before the trip, such as up one of the nearby volcanos. You can also test your kayak and make modifications to it by running Río Chili (class III-IV), the popular commercial raft run that ends in the city. There are other things to see/do in and around Arequipa. Consider visiting the plaza and churches/covents/museums in the main city [one of which houses a mummified pre-Incan "Juanita" woman found at the top of one of the local volcanoes (Ampato)], paddling a day trip on Río Chili, climbing some of the many volcanoes in the area (Misti, Chacani, Corpuna, Sabancaya), or visiting the most distant undammed source of the Amazon (Mt. Mismi). You should also consider lengthening your stay to do another expedition before or after this trip - on the Tambo and/or Cotahuasi (special lower rates if two trips are done sequentially). Furthermore, Arequipa is fairly close to two very popular destinations in southern Peru: Puno (6 hr by bus) - a charming colonial town on the shores of Lago Titicaca where most tourists visit the floating islands of Uros and other sites in the area, and Cusco (10 hr by bus or <1 hr by flight), the former Incan capital near the Sacred Valley of the Incas and Machu Picchu.

Day 0: rendezvous in Arequipa; meet trip leader
Day 1: take bus and/or vans toward put-in near Quinistaquillas; maybe paddle a bit; camp by river
Day 2: kayak and possibly raft upper section; portage Dos Puentes Gorge; ~30 km; class IV; camp by van
Day 3: rig raft and paddle into Mars Canyon; possibly line one rapid; camp; class IV; ~20 km

Day 4: continue through Atacama Desert; hike up side canyon; class IV; ~30 km
Day 5: visit some pre-Incan ruins; continue downstream to end of canyon before road; class III-IV; ~40 km
Day 6: final section down to near mouth; derig; ride back to Arequipa; class II-III; ~50 km

Expected Progress:
We will generally paddle from ~9 am to 4 pm with some stops for side hikes and at interesting locales. The main expedition part of the trip will last 6 days and involve paddling from the 1800 m elevation point all the way down to the ocean (if the group is motivated enough). We may or may not have a raft along for support in this section. If we do not, you will be advised on packing camping gear and food into you kayak.

Members can access maps of the river HERE with appropriate pass codes. SierraRios has all topo maps of the entire river marked with rapids and potential beach camps. If you would like access to these, you can sign up as a member of SierraRios specifying you're interested in the Cotahuasi map/book/video, and you'll receive immediate access to the maps (book/DVD later). [also note links at top left column of this page and at TOPO MAPS on the main homepage.]

The trip occurs at tropical latitudes in desert country and at moderate to low elevation. Average annual precipitation is <150 mm (5 in) from the start at 1800 m elevation (~6000 ft) and decreases to almost nothing at the coast. Expect warm sunny days and cool evenings on most of the trip (highs of 23oC/74oF and lows of 15oC/60oF are common), with humidity and fog increasing close to the ocean. There is almost never any rain from 1500 m elevation and lower, but higher elevations may have a little rain in the rainy season (Dec-Apr). On most of the river the water is usually cool (15-20oC) so a drytop is recommended. Rafters will be comfortable with splash pants and a paddle jacket or drytop which can be removed when hot out.

UV rays from the sun are intense so it is recommended that you use sunblock liberally. Note that in many camps there are annoying biting gnats and sometimes larger biting flies. Use repellent or wear light clothes that cover your body in camp. Mosquitos are almost non-existent. Other critters to beware of are spiders, scorpions, snakes, and centipedes. You should especially be cautious of the assassin bugs which can bite and trasmit Chagas Disease, a malady endemic to the area (i.e., best prevention is to sleep in a tent!).

This trip is being run because it is one of the most incredible in the world and more paddler visitation is needed to help raise awareness. More ecotourism income to the region and appreciation of the natural resource will help stop the river's destruction with dams.
This trip is primarily for kayakers but some rafters are welcome to join as well. Note that if you join a sequential trip based out of Arequipa you will get a significant discount on the second trip. Our general pricing guidelines are found at the following link: Contribution guidelines: General

Once you get the go-ahead from Rocky, you will need to provide a deposit to reserve your place on the trip ($500). Full contribution must be received before the trip. See PAYMENTS for payment options and cancellation policy.


(1) Rocky Contos (scheduled trip leader on at least part of all 2014 launches), did the first complete descent of Río Tambo from 1800 m elevation in May 2013 and paddled most of Ríos Cotahuasi and Colca in 2014. Rocky also has paddled the entire Río Marañon and led several month-long expeditions on it. In 2012, he also paddled all of Ríos Apurímac, Mantaro, and Urubamba as part of his Headwaters of the Amazon expedition. He discovered the most distant source of the Amazon [see articles C&K, Outside, Nat.Geo, FoxNews, LaRepublica]. He has explored nearly every river in Mexico including >100 first descents covering ~8,000 km of river and ~55,000 m of drop. Rocky is fluent in Spanish and has organized many Grand Canyon length trips. Several articles have featured Rocky (American Whitewater; Kayak Session; Canoe & Kayak). While attaining his Ph.D. in neuroscience (see CV), Rocky worked as a kayak instructor and guide for UCSD's Outback adventures from 1993-1996 and gained valuable trip planning skills for large groups. Although primarily a kayaker, Rocky started rafting in the mid-1990s in order to introduce more people to the wonders of river travel. Since then and throughout his years as a postdoctoral research associate, he organized numerous large group raft and kayak expeditions, including five through Grand Canyon (18-22 days), three on the Salmon River (4-10 days each), two on Río Mulatos-Aros (8-11 days), five on Río Usumacinta (7-8 days each), and dozens to destinations such as the Salt, Kern, Rogue, Deschutes, John Day, Thompson, Similkameen, and Baja California (2-6 days each). Rocky had dreamed of rafting the Marañon for over 10 years and has all the maps and information. Rocky founded SierraRios with the goal of conserving the rivers of Latin America, and hopes that increased awareness and enjoyment of the resource will lead to protection. He is organizing all aspects of the trip. He likely will be rowing a large cataraft with gear and passengers, but may safety kayak if a competent rower is availlable.

(2) Other guides/trip leaders are to be decided, but likely will be selected from Rocky's Peruvian guide friends - Pedro Peña, Julio Baca, Victor Baca, Alonso Campana, Victor Memdivi (Bacteria), or others from Apurimac Explorer.

(3) All oarsmen will be experienced river runners and raft captains guides with extensive experience. Non-experienced and less-experienced participants are welcome to join as raft paddlers/passengers and will have the opportunity to kayak easier sections of the river.

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A major aspect of safety on this trip is prevention of sickness and accidents. It is of utmost importance that you take all precautions necessary to avert sickness and complications while on the trip. For example, it is a good idea to be vaccinated against Hepatitis A, Typhoid, and Tetanus [however, no vaccines are required].

All participants must assume responsibility for themselves and sign a liability waiver before the trip. We cannot guarantee against accidents. If you're an inexperienced boater, the trip leader and guides will advise you on saftey issues. If you are an experienced boater in control of your craft, you must accept the responsibility for what happens to you on the river. It is the experienced boater's responsibility to make appropriate decisions whether to run the rapid or not and to stay close to someone who can watch and oversee you. A certain level of freedom will be provided, but each such person must abide by trip leader requests, which may mandate not paddling certain rapids. If an accident occurs, we will do all in our power to help you, see that proper care is rendered, or evacuate you if need be.

We will have an Inmarsat satellite phone ($1.50/min for calls) and SPOT device. Anyone can see the latest SPOT position of the SierraRios trip.

Río Tambo generally has about half the volume of Río Cotahuasi and has a similar season with its highest levels from Jan-Apr, which is the rainy season when the river often floods from rains in the mountains. During May through November the river is generally stable and slowly dropping. Average flows on Río Tambo are shown below (~1/3 of Río Ocoña). It is best run between January through May but can be done June through August in most years at low levels.

river Ene Feb Mar Abr May Jun Jul Ago Sep Oct Nov Dic - Avg
Tambo (near mouth) cms 40 72 71 40 16 12 10 9 7 6 6 9 - 25
cfs 1300 2300 2300 1300 600 410 350 320 250 210 210 270 - 800
---------------------------- ----- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- - --------

[current list available]


"The Marañón resembles the Grand Canyon of Colorado in many ways with its rapids, beaches, side canyons and deep cacti-studded gorges.  Both rivers offer numerous side-hikes and waterfalls.  Like the Canyon, the Maranon is ideal for a long multi-day boat trip where a person can forget the grind of everyday life... However, the Maranon offers much more.  Unlike the Grand Canyon, the Maranon is free flowing and its character can change overnight by the whims of nature. Its navigable section is much longer than that of Colorado and its canyon is deeper. Some Maranon beaches are big enough to accommodate small villages. The Maranon offers more and greater variety of rapids that are overall more challenging to navigate. Its continuously strong current makes it possible to easily cover 30-40 miles per day in a raft, assuming one does not stop for side hikes. The jungle area of the lower Maranon has no equivalent on the Colorado... I cannot think of another river in the lower 48 States that offers the same kind of experience."

Boris Trgovcich, class IV rafter/IKer and former raft tour operator in N.California. [2013Sep Marañon trip participant]
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"I found the river trip labeled the "Grand Canyon of the Amazon" to be completely comparable to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in most respects, and it exceeded my expectations in every way... In the 1980s I paddled the Bio-Bio as a participant on one of the first commercial kayak trips in Chile [with] Chris Spelius. While [the Bio Bio's] destruction was abominable both environmentally and culturally, the size and importance of the Bio-Bio's destruction was but a small warning shot compared to the potential disaster planned for the Marañón/Amazon."
Kelly Kellstadt, class III-IV kayaker and former guide/instructor in New Mexico. [2013Sep Marañon trip participant]
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"I need to do another expedition!!!!! I'm already jonsing for one .... The Marañon trip was one of kind that I will never forget ... the perfect combination of big water, gorgeous scenery and a taste of rurual Peruvian lifestyle! ...  I would do this trip again in a heart beat ... It really is amazing how helpful some people have been along the way. Going way out of their way in order to help..."
Amie Begg; class IV kayaker on 2012 Marañon trip

"The Marañon trip was a magical journey. Big, clean water; big canyons and expansive natural beauty; and big-hearted, friendly people who made us feel welcome along the way, while sharing with us their fears of imminent dams, mines, and petroleum drilling. I hope we can find a way to help them protect this incredible treasure and their ways of life."
Barbara Conboy; SierraRios board member and rafter/kayaker on 2012 Marañon trip