Rio Vilcanota-Urubamba raft/kayak expedition: 9 days, 200 km, class III to IV; JOIN US!

RÍO VILCANOTA-URUBAMBA: Sacred Valley of the Incas

200 km (124 miles), class II to III-IV, 9 days (7 paddling)

Anytime of year; rendezvous in Cusco. RESERVE

This special trip is a multiday journey through the heart of the former Inca Empire. Paddle through two of the most popular sections of whitewater in Peru, enjoy some fine camps, and stop to visit all the major Incan sites near Cusco, including Moray, Salinas, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu. You may wish to continue with us down into the jungle on the lower Urubamba if you have enough time, making a complete traversal from the highlands to the Amazon. All are welcome - rafters, kayakers, IKers and passengers.



Río Vilcanota-Urubamba is one of the classic rivers of the world that has captured the attention of the paddling community for decades. It's main attraction is that it flows through the heart of the Inca Empire in the Valle Sagrado ("Sacred Valley"). Also, it was formerly considered the source of the Amazon (from ~1900 to 1950), until it was realized that Río Apurimac was longer. The upper Vilcanota is one of the most popular sections of river in Peru for day-trip rafting. We will be taking our time paddling down the entire Sacred Valley from Sicuani to Chilca, camping or staying in hotels along the way and stopping for visits to the Incan ruins at Moray-Salinas, Pisac, and Ollantaytambo. This trip is ideal for those with and without paddling experience: several rafts, kayaks and IKs will be available. The river is generally class II, though sections at the start (Chuquiquihuana), middle (San Salvador and Huaran) and end (Ollantaytambo) contain class III and/or IV rapids. At the end of the trip, we'll hop on the train portaging a class V-VI section of river and ending at Machu Picchu: the most popular tourist destination in South America. A continuation paddling journey on the lower Urubamba will commence shortly thereafter, so you can make a complete descent of the Urubamba from ~3400 m elevation to near sea level in the Amazon basin .

The trip occurs at high elevations in tropical latitudes. April-May is at the end of the rainy season in the Sacred Valley, so during this time we will experience green vegetation, medium-high water levels (~100 cms/3500 cfs), and abundant morning sunshine. Days will generally start out warm and sunny (highs 20-25oC/68-77oF) but with clouds building in the afternoons. We may have some thunderstorms which bring winds and rain. Nights will be cold (lows of 2-10oC/36-50oF). Come prepared for a cool trip if you can (drysuits or dry pants + drytops). It is best to bring a warm sleeping bag and tent in addition to ground pad/Therm-a-Rest.

Peru is a travel-friendly country that readily offers tourist permits for up to 180 days. Flights would be into Lima or Cusco. To get to Cusco from Lima, there are usually flights available for <$100 each way (1hr). Bus rides (20hr) can cost as little as $25.

Health considerations:
You should be vaccinated against Typhoid and HepatitisA. If you plan to travel into the jungle areas, plan to get the Yellow Fever vaccine and consider anti-malaria medication. You may experience some light-headedness due to the high altitude of Cusco and the initial parts of the river (~3400 m /11000 ft), so it is best to give yourself ~2 days in Cusco before the start of the trip to acclimate. You can consider taking acetazolamide to help with the acclimatization process the first few days. It is best to avoid potentially dirty food before the trip, since many foreigners suffer from gastrointestinal distress from the food in Peru. We will take extra care to keep the food and water we prepare safe and clean, but we do have some meals in restaurants. We will have antibiotics and anti-diarrhea medication, but consider bringing some yourself.

You should be able to get along with a group of paddlers for a week. You do not need whitewater experience to enjoy this trip, but it helps. The tougher parts of the Vilcanota are commonly rafted (with guides) by inexperienced people, and we will gladly guide several such folks on our rafts. You don't need to be bilingual but it is helpful.

The trip leader will have main authority when it comes to decisions for the group regarding river progress, camps, and other group decisions. The river is near road access every day so if there are problems, it is easy to leave the river trip and/or obtain help.

One of main attractions of this trip are the side excursions to the ruins in the Sacred Valley. These include:
Pisac, the first of three high terraced Incan citadels along the river. It is located above one of the main towns in the valley by the same name; see also Pisac Lonely Planet description;
Salinas, a salt-works that is a short hike from the river;
Moray, with circular terracing that was thought to be an agricultural experiment station for the Inca; it's a good 8 km hike to the site; it is possible to rent bikes in Urubamba and ride there or get a taxi; we'll decide later
Ollantaytambo, the second of three Incan terraced citadels; located above a charming colonial town that would be nice to spend the night at; see also Ollantaytambo Lonely Planet description;
Machu Picchu is the third in the line of citadels along the river. We will not paddle to it because the river is class V with many portages after Chilca. Instead, at the end of this trip, a group of us can head down to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu either by taking the train or hiking down along the train tracks. After a night in a hotel there, we can spend the day visiting the ruins. We can also enjoy the hot springs in town. If you want to paddle some more of the river into the jungle, the river journey will continue from Santa Teresa down to past the Pongo de Mainique, another 1- to 2-week long trip starting at class IV-V and then getting progressively easier.

We have all topo maps of the entire river and knows where rapids, camps, and sites of interest are located. When you sign on to the trip, you will gain access to them so you can view and print out a copy for yourself.

Pollution: Unfortunately, the main detractor to this trip is the pollution in the lower half. Although the upper half of the river is fairly clean, after Río Hualmay (the tributary from Cusco) enters and more large towns are passed, the water quality in the river deteriorates and trash is visible on the banks in places.

Day 0: Cusco: meet group for dinner
Day 1: Arrive to put-in either on Rio Salcca or near Sicuani; rig; launch; ~10 km; class II (Vilcanota) or III (Salcca)
Day 2: Chuquiquihuana section; class IV ; ~30 km
Day 3: Mostly class II; III past Andahyalillas and near San Salvador; ~30 km
Day 4: Class II paddle down to Pisac; walk into town, restaurant dinner; stay in hotel for the night; ~30 km
Day 5: Visit Pisac; relax in town; hotel for the night; 0 km
Day 6: Reboard the rafts and paddle through Cañon Huarán (long class IV then III) to Urubamba; hotel; 40 km
Day 7 : Salinas hike; paddle to Moray camp; class II; ~20 km
Day 8: Layover day; hike or bike to Moray; camp; 0 km
Day 9: Paddle past Ollantaytambo (class III) to Chilca; de-rig; night in Ollantaytambo
Day 10: Visit ruins at Ollantaytambo; take train to Machu Picchu (Agua Caliente)

Day 11: Visit Machu Picchu; night in hotel
Day 12: hike downstream to Santa Teresa; board rafts to camp Cocalmayo Hot Springs; class IV+; 20 km
Day 13-28: Lower Urubamba into jungle past Pongo de Mainique

The main rendezvous will be in Cusco. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire and has the most colonial buildings in Peru, as well as numerous Incan ruins nearby. It is well worth spending 1-2 days just seeing the sights in and close to the city. Starting from Cusco, we will arrive to the put-in by car or van (<2 hr drive). All our gear will be transported. Whether we depart early morning or later will be decided later. We can stay the night near the put-in at a hot springs by La Raya. It is also possible to arrange trekking around the source of the Urubamba for 5 days before the rafting begins.

If interested in joining a trip, start a discussion by sending Rocky a note ( stating how you found out about the trip and a little background info about you and your paddling experience, what dates might work for you, and what sections of the expedition you are most interested in joining. Once you get the go-ahead from Rocky, you will need to provide a deposit to reserve your place on the trip ($1000 for full trip). The balance must be received prior to trip commencement. See PAYMENTS for payment options.

A minimum of 8 particpants will assure a general SierraRios trip occurs, while our maximal limit is 20 on any trip. We may allow trips with fewer folks or private groups depending on circumstances. The current boats available allow for two full trips at a time. If interested in doing a trip on a date not listed, send Rocky a message about optimal scheduling for you, as well as a little info about you. We may list the launch date, and if enough folks sign up by the 3-month cut-off, we'll organize it.

(1) Rocky Contos, the trip leader, is fluent in Spanish and paddled nearly the entire Vilcanota-Urubamba in 2012 (~400 km), as well as the entire Mantaro (800 km), Apurimac (700 km), and Marañon (~850 km) as part of his Headwaters of the Amazon expedition. He also continued on descents of the Ene-Tambo, Ucayali, lower Marañon, and Amazon to the ocean. Since Rocky discovered that Río Mantaro is the true source of the Amazon and he did the first descent of most of the river, he has claim to the First Full Descent of the Amazon. Rocky has also explored nearly every river in Mexico including >100 first descents covering ~8,000 km of river and ~55,000 m of drop. Rocky has guided and organized dozens of multiday expeditions. Several articles have featured Rocky (American Whitewater; Kayak Session; Canoe & Kayak). Rocky has a Ph.D. in neuroscience (see CV), but hasn't worked in a lab for several years since taking over as full-time director of SierraRios. Rocky will likely will be rowing a raft with gear and passengers, but may safety kayak if competent rowers are availlable.

(2) Other guides will be found from Peru depending on our group size. They may include Adolfo Campana, Pedro Peña, Julio Vargas, Victor Vargas, Victor Memdivi, or Romel Campana.

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On full paddle days we will launch around 9 am, stop for lunch around noon, and be at camp around 4-5 pm. On the days with side hikes, we'll budget time for in the morning, lunch, or after landing.

April is at the end of the rainy season in the Sacred Valley, so we will likely experience green vegetation, medium-high water levels (~100 cms/3500 cfs), and abundant sunshine.


You will need to pack appropriately for spending a weeks out in the wilderness. River items and camp items to bring are listed below. Expect a cold trip, so bring warm clothes. Your camp gear will be transported down the river in one large drybag (we can provide). An additional small drybag for day-accessed items is nice to have too. If you bring your own big drybag, the best size is about 3800-4600 (such as Bill's 2.2 DryBag or the NRS Duffel). Do not pack excessively. This sizes are large enough to fit a 2-person tent, Therm-a-rest chair, light sleeping bag, 2 changes clothes with sweater, dry shoes, toiletries, headlamp, reading material, with a little extra space. There are larger drybags out there (e.g., 3.8 cu.ft/ but if you bring one this size, you should expect it not to be full – rather, it should be very easy to close and your additional small drybag should fit inside. It is in your best interest not to overpack your drybag because it often causes lack of proper sealing and consequent leaking if dunked.

River items to bring:
-Shorts, shirt
-Drysuit/dry pants/drytop or wetsuit/paddle jacket (we can provide if you don’t have)
-Water shoes (preferably multipurpose for wear on the river and hiking)
-PFD (if you don't have one, we will provide)
-Kayak gear (only if kayaking: helmet, skirt)
-Hat and sunglasses (with retainer)
-Small drybag for your kayak or on raft (for passengers)
-Large drybag for camp gear (if it is a very large bag (>3 ft3), your small drybag must fit within)
-Water bottle (preferably with a carabiner to clip onto a raft)

Camp items to bring:
-Tent (a 2-person tent can be used by an individual)
-Sleeping bag (consider using your fleece or other item as a pillow)
-Therm-a-rest (chair and bed)
-Basic clothing (t-shirt, shorts, light pants, light long-sleeve shirt, fleece, underwear)
-Camp shoes (these can be the same as your river shoes or a different dry shoe)
-Headlamp (plus extra set of batteries)
-Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, lotions, etc)
-Special medicines/lotions (anti-fungal cream, bug repellent)
-Lighter/matches (remember to check it if flying)
-Pocket-knife (remember to check it if flying)
-Mug (for your hot beverages; we'll have plastic cups for water/wine/etc)
-Reading material
-Bug repellent (not many bugs at these elevations)


16' NRS cataraft
16' NRS cataraft
14' Sotar self-bailer + rowing frame
14' Avon self-bailer + rowing frame

Kayak: Prijon Rockit

Kayak: Pyrahna H3 245
Kayak: Liquid Logic Stomper
Kayak: Liquid Logic Jefe
other kayaks will be available

Inflatable kayaks: NRS Bandit II

You might consider bringing your own kayak or inflatable kayak. If you do, there may be the possibility to sell it at the end of the trip or leave it in Peru for future use.


"Hi Rocky, Thanks again for a sensational and unforgettable trip. You did such an amazing job organizing. I especially am psyched to have met you and to have another kayak friend/guide to work with. You guiding me off the waterfall was a big highlight... Erik."
[2011b Usumacinta trip]
Erik Weihenmayer, blind mountaineer/author and budding kayaker (see )

"You led one of the best trips I've ever been on... and I've been on a lot. " [2011b Usumacinta trip]
Chris Wiegand, former olympic runner and C1 paddler, founder of Sportainability and guide for Erik Weihenmayer

"Thanks for everything man, it was a trip of a lifetime ... We´ll be in touch and I look forward to conquering new rivers in the future. Salud, Eric" [2011b Usumacinta trip]
Eric Bach, Modern Gypsy (see

"Hey Rocky, Thanks for the great trip... Looking forward to another trip down the road. John"
[2011b Usumacinta trip]
John Post, Modern Gypsy (see

"Great synopsis of a fabulous trip. Expect to hear more from Team Weihenmayer in the future... Cheers, Rob. " [2011b Usumacinta trip]
Rob Raker, climber extraordinaire and guide for Erik Weihenmayer (also see here)

"Thanks again for the great tour and the late-night excitement, Greg" [2011a Usumacinta trip]
Greg Scwhendinger, kayak explorer of Chiapas and Central America (see

"Thanks for everything, Rocky! What a blast that all was.  When's our next trip?!! -Suzy" [2011b Usumacinta trip]
Suzy Garren (Oakland, CA), former Grand Canyon trip participant.

[2011 Mulatos-Aros trip]
ike Doktor (Portland, OR), former raft guide for Ken Warren Expeditions