Futaleufú: White-Water Rafting and More

View of the Futaleufú river winding through the mountains.

The Futaleufú river in southern Region X (Los Lagos). Photo © Zachary Collier of Northwest Rafting Company.

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Northern Patagonia

With its reputation for world-class white-water rafting (some say it’s the best), Futaleufú draws outdoor recreationists like a magnet. In addition to several Chilean operators, international rafting and kayaking enterprises run elaborate summer camps in this tidy village, allowing visitors to enjoy its namesake river, spectacular natural beauty, cleanliness, and isolation.

The March 2000 Whitewater Challenge World Championships brought rafters and kayakers from 14 different countries. Fly-fishing has also had a substantial impact on the local economy.

The “Fu” remains one of the world’s cleanest rivers, but the unfortunate introduction of invasive Didymosphenia (the so-called “toilet paper algae”), first detected in 2010, now threatens the clear waters in some of its tributaries. Another threat is Endesa, the powerful Spanish electric utility company, which wants to build three massive dams here. The 2008 eruption of Volcán Chaitén, which left substantial amounts of ash in and around the town, also stopped construction on a new road from Chaitén that would have left the valley open to such hydroelectric development. Both foreign and Chilean operators hope to kindle local and national enthusiasm for preserving the river and its surroundings, but the 1,200 or so who live here may be living on borrowed time.


Only eight kilometers west of the Argentine border, at the confluence of the Río Espolón and the Río Futaleufú, the village is 155 kilometers southeast of Chaitén via the Carretera Austral, Ruta 235 from Villa Santa Lucia, and Ruta 231 from Puerto Ramírez.

Futaleufú’s plan is a rectangular grid whose focus, if not its precise center, is the manicured Plaza de Armas. On the plaza’s south side, Bernardo O’Higgins leads east toward the Argentine border, while Arturo Prat, on the west side, leads south toward westbound Ruta 231.

Recreation in Futaleufú

White water is the major attraction, but hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding are also grabbing attention. Several U.S. rafting/kayaking operators maintain summer camps (Oct.–Apr.) in the vicinity.

The Class III Espolón is a good starter river, though the 2008 eruption of Volcán Chaitén has affected it more than any other river here. Even parts of the Fu are suitable for those with limited experience, but rapids like the Class V Terminator can challenge even top professionals.

According to former U.S. Olympic kayaker Chris Spelius, who runs a camp here, “Big water can be forgiving to a certain extent, but this river’s so big that it can take a normal human being with a life jacket and hold him under water longer than he can hold his breath.” Even on commercially rafted Class IV stretches there are “Death Spots” that need a professional guide to be avoided. According to Lawrence Alvarez, another U.S. operator, about 10 percent of Fu rafters become “swimmers” at some point.

For a half-day Class IV descent on the Fu, figure about US$100 per person, though some Chilean companies might do it for as little as US$70; this involves descent of the river “between the bridges,” a nonstop succession of Class III–IV rapids; novices get out before tackling the Class V Casa de Piedra rapid.

For hikers, one of the best trails follows the Fu’s south bank, starting on an undulating oxcart road opposite the Expediciones Chile camp about 10 kilometers west of town; ask for directions at Expediciones Chile (Gabriela Mistral 296, tel. 065/721386). The trail continues past peasant homesteads above rapids like the Terminator before continuing through southern beech forest so dense that in mid-afternoon on a sunny day, it’s as dark as dusk. The trail eventually emerges onto a terrace with new trophy houses; a nearby bridge re-crosses the river to Ruta 231.

For river rafting and other activities, dropin visitors can try local operators and offices including Cara del Indio (Ruta 231 Km 35, tel. 02/1964239), which has a camp and cabañas on the Fu 35 kilometers west of town; Cóndor Fu (Sector Nordeste No. 1, cell tel. 09/8579-5242), which has drawn praise from overseas operators; Futaleufú Explore (O’Higgins 772, tel. 065/721527); and the U.S. operator Expediciones Chile (Gabriela Mistral 296, tel. 065/721386).

For horseback riding, contact Rancho las Ruedas (Piloto Carmona 337, tel. 065/721294), in the woods at the north end of Arturo Prat.

Accommodations in Futaleufú

Futaleufú has more and better accommodations than any other place its size on or along the Carretera Austral. While most are utilitarian, several have both character and style.

Just south of town on Ruta 231, prior to crossing the bridge over the river, Aldea Puerto Espolón (Ruta 231, cell tel. 09/9447-7448, puertoespolon@gmail.com, campsites US$8 pp, tepees US$20 d, domes US$24 d) has shady campsites with grass, clean toilets, and hot showers. It also rents two-person tepees on the ground and domes on elevated platforms.

Affordable accommodations with breakfast and shared baths include Residencial Carahue (O’Higgins 332, tel. 065/721221, carlosespinozapinto@yahoo.es, US$12 pp), which also has one room with private bath (US$40 d), and Hotel Continental (Balmaceda 595, tel. 065/721222, US$16 pp). Wireless Internet–equipped Hospedaje Adolfo (O’Higgins 302, tel. 065/721256, pettyrios@hotmail.com, US$16 pp with shared bath) is a step above the others, though some rooms have low ceilings, and it sometimes fills with laborers on shortterm jobs here.

Hospedaje Cañete (Gabriela Mistral 347, tel. 065/721214, elocovi@hotmail.com, US$17 pp) gets high marks from local operators for their overseas clients who want to stay within a limited budget. Rates include private bath and wireless Internet. Posada Ely (Balmaceda 409, tel. 065/721205, posada.ely.futaleufu@gmail. com, US$24 pp with breakfast) has rooms with private baths.

Hostería Río Grande (O’Higgins 397, tel. 065/721320, US$70 s, US$110 d) has pleasant common areas, a bar/restaurant, and a dozen simple, tastefully decorated rooms with twin beds. At this rate, though, it’s overpriced compared with some cheaper options.

Rooms at rustically styled, family-run Hotel El Barranco (O’Higgins 172, tel. 065/721314, US$151 s, US$182 d with breakfast, with half board and full board options) look into lush woods at the west end of town. In terms of comforts, this is clearly the top choice in town.

Food in Futaleufú

Like the accommodations, the food is a bit better than in most other towns of Futaleufú’s size, though Chilean standards like beef, chicken, and sandwiches are the rule. In addition to the dining room at Hostería Río Grande (O’Higgins 397, tel. 065/721320), choices include El Encuentro (O’Higgins 653, tel. 065/721247, lunch and dinner daily), Escorpio (Gabriela Mistral 265, tel. 065/721228, lunch and dinner daily), and the rather bland Futaleufú (Sargento Aldea 265, tel. 065/9247-5678, lunch and dinner daily).

Sur Andes (Aguirre Cerda 308, tel. 065/721405, lunch and dinner daily) has varied espresso drinks, huge tasty sandwiches, rich desserts including kuchen, and homemade chocolates. It also has good wireless Internet. Though overbuilt for a burg of Futa’s size, the ambitious Martín Pescador (Balmaceda 603, tel. 065/721279, lunch and dinner daily) offers a cozy living-room-style atmosphere for an aperitif, good salmon, and a small English-language library (not a book exchange).

Information and Services

Futaleufú’s Oficina de Turismo Municipal (O’Higgins 536, tel. 065/721241, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. daily Dec.–Mar.) is on the south side of the Plaza de Armas.

For visitors arriving from or bound for Argentina, the border is open 8 a.m.–8 p.m. daily.

BancoEstado (O’Higgins 603), the only place to change money, now has an ATM (MasterCard only). Correos de Chile (Balmaceda 501) is the post office. Telefónica del Sur (Balmaceda 419) has long-distance telephone service, while Ciber Loren@ (O’Higgins 564) has Internet service.

Señora Vicky (Sargento Aldea 273, tel. 065/721276) does the washing.

Getting There and Around

Since the eruption of Volcán Chaitén, services to and from Futaleufú via Argentina are more abundant, but subject to abrupt changes. There is no bus terminal, and companies will either pick you up or tell you where to wait, especially as services often begin in La Junta.

Several companies now operate between Futaleufú and Puerto Montt (US$53, 11 hours) via Argentina: Buses Transaustral (Balmaceda 501, tel. 065/721360), which has larger, more comfortable buses; Feryval (Pedro Agurre Cerda 415, tel. 065/721312); and Lago Espolón (O’Higgins 505, tel. 065/721215).

Transportes Altamirano (Balmaceda 597, tel. 065/721453) goes daily except Thursday to Chaitén, and makes connections for La Junta (US$20) in Villa Santa Lucía Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Buses Becker (Balmaceda 501, tel. 065/721360, busesbecker@hotmail.com) connects directly with Coyhaique US$40, 10.5 hours) and intermediates Sunday at 9 a.m.

Feryval and Turismo Futaleufú (Pedro Aguirre Cerda 436, tel. 065/721458) go to the Argentine border in the morning and afternoon on Monday and Friday, with connections to Esquel and beyond. Otherwise, the only option is a taxi.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.

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