We learned of Futaleufu, Chile from a fellow traveler we met in Mendoza. It didn’t take very long for us to be convinced that this was a place we wanted to visit. The name alone is reason enough, especially if you say it with a thick French accent. Go ahead and try it (Foo – TAh – lay –foo), I dare you not to laugh.
We arrived to the minuscule village, just 1700 residents, in the midst of a summer storm that soaked us with freezing rain, and left the surrounding mountain tops dusted in snow. In just under 36 hours the tide had turned and we could see that we had chosen wisely. Futaleufu is situated in a valley that is truly jaw-dropping.
Huge, lush mountains give way to the most spectacularly turquoise blue, crystal clear river I have ever seen.
It’s the river that draws people from around the world to this little dot on a map. The Rio Futaleufu boasts some of the best rafting and river kayaking in the world, ranking in the top-5 by most accounts.
Much of the town’s industry is built around river trips, and it’s an easy task to find a company ready to take you on the ride of your life. We promptly signed up for a full-day excursion.
We’ve been rafting before, though only minimally on supposed class III and IV rapids, but we were assured that if we were fit and could swim that we would be just fine on the prominent class IV and V runs.
The day we set out on our adventure was bright and warm, a perfect day to get soaked. We ended up with seven people in our raft – Justin and I, a man from our hospedaje, and 4 other girls (two of which had never been rafting). We were outfitted with wetsuits, lifejackets, and helmets and given the whole safety spiel. After a bit of paddle practice at the put-in, we were off!
The storm had delivered a healthy amount of water to the area making the river swollen and quite high for the season. The first set of rapids was fast and furious, and we made it through them clumsily, but successfully.
As we approached the next stretch of white-water, a set of three class V+ rapids, appropriately named The Terminator, our guide made it clear that this section was difficult and that we needed to give it everything we had and follow his directions exactly and immediately. It was essential that we hit our line or we would be in serious trouble. This section of the river is riddled with ‘holes’, which are basically whirlpools of a sort that can suck you in and just keep you spinning underwater. These holes can be up to 80 feet deep, and are very dangerous places to get stuck in.
The apprehension was palpable and a few moments later we came around a bend and were all of a sudden right in the thick of it. It was as if we had no control over the raft. Sometimes the waves rocked the boat so high that as we went down to paddle there was nothing but air beneath us. It quickly became clear that we had not made our line and we could see that we were about to hit a huge obstacle in the middle of the river.
My side of the raft got pushed up vertically on a rock as the opposite side got sucked into the hole just in front of the boulder. I felt myself falling, and had about a hot second to think “Oh shit!” before I hit the river.
The roar of the water was deafening, and the only thing I could see all around me was bubbles. It felt like ages before I broke the surface and was able to take a small breath. I tried to look for the raft, but there was only water and before I knew it I was going under again. Have you ever been inside a washing machine on the ‘super’ cycle? Me neither, but I bet being in that river was similar to what it might feel like. I was tossed around, sucked along, turned upside down and smashed into rocks. Despite being more terrified than I have ever been, I made a valiant effort at keeping my feet in front of me and trying to get to the surface but it seemed like I had very little control over my movement. When I realized I was out of air I did my best not to panic, and just plugged my nose and covered my mouth to try and keep the water from forcing its way in.
Eventually I came to a slightly calmer spot and I was able to see the safety kayaker motioning me to swim over to the side. I made it to a little pool area and was momentarily relieved thinking that the raft or the kayak must be coming over to fetch me.
I watched uncomfortably as the raft passed me on the opposite side of the river, and my panic increased ten-fold when I realized I was being sucked back towards the middle and into the second part of the Terminator rapid series. I clawed desperately at the closest rock in a last-ditch effort to stay in calmer waters, but I only accomplished ripping off two of my fingernails.
I remember very little from that second set of rapids, only that I kept thinking “Justin must be freaking out right now” and “keep your mouth shut or you will drown”.
I was in the water for less than ten minutes, but it felt like ages and was so thoroughly exhausting that by the time the raft found me I couldn’t even lift my arms to try and grab onto the safety rope. The man from our hostel, Celestino, hauled me into the raft by my life vest and I had about 30 seconds to recover before I was handed a new paddle as we entered another set of rapids.
I was still shaking from the adrenaline nearly a half hour later as we went up to shore for a lunch break. I was nervous and on edge for the rest of the trip, and I was happy to be back on solid ground at the end of the day.
Being in that river was easily the most terrifying moment of my life, and another clear example of the tremendous force that water holds.
Despite the scare, Futaleufu has earned a spot as one of our favorite destinations from this first three months of travel, and if you’re into rafting and gorgeous scenery, we’re sure you’ll love it just as much as we did.