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Río Urubamba region: From Cusco to Pucallpa

From Cusco to Quillabamba - Kiteni - Pongo de Mainique waterfall - Sepahua - Atalaya - Pucallpa / Satipo-Lima

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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from: Dilwyn Jenkins: The rough guide to Peru; Rough Guides, New York, London, Delhi; 6th edition September 2006; www.roughguides.com

The trip down from Cusco to the Amazon basin along the Urubamba river - civilization damage

Traditionally the home of the Matsiguenga and Piro Indians, the Río Urubamba rolls down from the Inca's Sacred Valley [with Machu Picchu aside] to the humid lower Andean slopes around the town of Quillabamba, little more than a pit stop, and at the end of the rail line from Cusco (though due to a landslide this is likely to be out of operation between Machu Picchu and Quillabamba for the foreseeable future).

For the next eighty or so unnavigable kilometers, the Urubamba is trailed by a dirt road to the small settlement of Kiteni, where it meets with the tributary Río Kosrentni, then continues to the smaller settlement of Monte Carmelo.

From here on, the easily navigable Río Kiteni becomes the main means of transport, a smooth 3500km through the Amazon Basin to the Atlantic, interrupted only by the impressive Pongo de Mainique - whitewater rapids, less than a day downstream, which are generally too dangerous to pass in November and December.

Unlike the Manu Biosphere Reserve, most of the Urubamba has been colonized as far as the pongo, and much of it beyond has suffered more or less permanent exploitation of one sort or another for over a hundred years (rubber, cattle, oil and, more recently, gas). Consequently, this isn't really the river for experiencing pristine virgin forest, but it is nevertheless an exciting and remote challenge and a genuine example of what's going on in the Amazon today.

Tour operators in the Urubamba valley

Far fewer tour companies operate in the Río Urubamba region than do in Manu or Madre de Dios, but as the political situation continues to improve, and entrepreneurial optimism revives further around Cusco, it seems likely that more (p.563)

adventure tours will become available in the lower Urubamba and that the area will open up further to organized river-rafting and forest-trekking (p.564).


Take a bus or a colectivo (combi) in Cusco to Quillabamba

Buses from Calle Huascar in Cusco terminate by the market and Plaza Grau side of town (p.565); 2-3 buses per day (most days) go via Ollantaytambo to Quillabamba, a trip of 12 hours, or 2-3 buses per week are going also via Calca Lares to Quillabamba, a trip of 24 hours (p.568).

colectivos from Calle General Buendio, by the San Pedro railway station in Cusco, or the plaza in Ollantaytambo, terminate near the market in Quillabamba, as do trucks (best picked up from the plaza in Ollantaytambo) (p.565).

Coming down the Urubamba valley

Coming from Cusco, the initial section of road is a narrow gravel track along precipitous cliffs, notoriously dangerous in the rainy season, but after a few hours, having traveled over the magical Abra Malaga - the main pass on this road - the slow descent towards Chaullay starts.

From here on, you'll see jungle vegetation beginning to cover the valley sides; the weather gets steadily warmer and the plant life thickens as you gradually descend into the Urubamba Valley (p.564).

The main town [Quillabamba] is a stiff climb from the river and the train station, over a bridge then up a series of steps, though the station is presently defunct due to a landslide (p.565).

Quillabamba: market, fountain statue, Sambaray beach, Siete Tinjas waterfall

A rapidly expanding market town, growing fat on profits from coffee, tropical fruits, chocolate and, to a certain extent perhaps, the proceeds of cocaine production, QUILLABAMBA is the only Peruvian jungle town that's easily accessible by road from Cusco, and the main attraction here for tourists is a quick look at the selva.

Your first sight of the town, which tops a high cliff, is of old tin roofs, adobe outskirts and coca leaves drying in the gardens. It's a pleasant enough place to relax, and you can get all the gear [luggage] you need for going deeper into the jungle; the market sells all the necessities like machetes, fish-hooks, food and hats. Just ten minutes' walk from here, the Plaza de Armas with its shady fountain statue of the town's little-known benefactor, Don Martín Pio Concha, is the other major landmark.

Other than that, though about 4km away, the once attractive river beach at Sambaray is a bit of a dump these days; much nicer and quite a popular resort is the nearby waterfall area of Siete Tinjas (p.564).

Accommodation in Quillabamba

Hotel Cusco
Jirón Cusco 233, T. 084-281161 near Plaza Grau and the market square
is somewhat run-down at present though it suffices.

Hostal Quillabamba
Avenida Prolongación Miguel Grau 590, T. 084-281369, very close to the market
offers modern rooms that are comfortable, also has a car park, swimming pool, hot water and a good restaurant

Hostal Señor de Torrechayoc
Avenida Grau 548, T. 084-281553
modern, clean rooms with or without bath

Hotel Don Carlos
Jirón Libertad 546, T. 084-281371
relatively luxurious, newish hotel just up from the Plaza de Armas, coy, friendly and popular with Peruvians. Rooms are smart and the place has a pleasant garden courtyard. It's also a good place to make connections for organized (though relatively costly) overland trips to Kiteni, and river trips onwards from there.

Hostal Convención
[Jirón] Pio Concha 212, T. 084-281093
is a basic but quaint place with a communal bathroom and no hot water. It's also the base for the Yoyato Club Tourism Adventure run by Sr. Rosas (May-Sept), who takes tour groups to Sambaray, the Pongo de Mainique [waterfall] or Espíritu Pampa (p.565).

Eating in Quillabamba

Restaurant Los Amantes
along the first block of Jirón Cusco
inexpensive little restaurant, serving decent set meals including the usual estofado de res [stewed venison], caldo de gallina (hen soup) or chicken and chips dishes.

Restaurant La Estrella
along the first block of Jirón Cusco
inexpensive little restaurant, serving decent set meals including the usual estofado de res [stewed venison], caldo de gallina (hen soup) or chicken and chips dishes.

Restaurant Don Cebas
Jirón Espinar 235, on the Plaza de Armas
serving snacks and drinks

Bar-restaurant Peña La Taverna
close by the Restaurant Don Cebas at Jirón Espinar 235, on the Plaza de Armas
offering good cool drinks and usually decent chicken and rice; it's downbeat and pleasant.

Restaurant El Bucaro
on the third block of Grau, just off the Plaza de Armas
is a spit-and-sawdust place with a nice, very jungle frontier-like atmosphere and very cheap set meals.

Jirón España 207, on the corner of the Plaza de Armas and Libertad
is a popular, cool place to while away an hour or two, with good snacks and wonderful ice creams.

Chifa El Oriental
[Jirón] Libertad 375 on the other side of the Plaza de Armas
serving surprisingly good Chinese meals.

Snack-restaurant Punto-y-coma
[Jirón] Libertad 501, over the road from the Heladeria
is very popular for its tasty and cheap set lunches.

Tourist information of Quillabamba

-- Banco de Credito on [Jirón] Libertad for changing dollars and travelers' cheques
-- Banco Continental, on the first block of Jirón España
-- cambistas on the street outside
-- change in the better hotels.

Telephone calls
-- at Telefónica del Perú, [Jirón] Bolognesi 237-249
-- or there's a smaller company at Jirón Cusco 242 (p.565).

From Quillabamba back to Cusco

Heading back to Cusco, the Hidalgo bus leaves Quillabamba from the market area several times a week, as do the bus companies Turismo Ampay and the less reliable Carhuamayo; trucks (from block 5 of [Jirón] San Martín) are more frequent, but slower, and there are currently no trains (p.566).

Kiteni and the Pongo de Mainique waterfall

Take a bus or truck for Kiteni

To get to Kiteni, buses (the Alto Urubamba service) and colectivos (trucks start at $3; faster estate cars up to $10 per person) [or combis?] leave [from Quillabamba] from [Jirón] Ricardo Palma, close to the Plaza Grau, every day from 8am to 10am. The road does go beyond Kiteni these days, as far as Monte Carmelo (almost to the Pongo de Mainique), though this frontier is constantly moving - trucks sometimes go on the Cumpire and Tinta at the very end of the road, which keeps more or less to the course of the Urubamba, but these little settlements offer nothing much for the independent traveler (p.566).

Little Kiteni mule town

By the time you reach KITENI, five to eight hours deeper into the jungle, the Río Urubamba is quite wide and, with the forest all around, the valley is hotter, more exotic and much greener than before. Still a small poblado [village], until over twenty-five years ago Kiteni was a small Matsiguenga [tribe] Indian village. With its ramshackle cluster of buildings, all wooden except for the schoolhouse and the clinic (where you can get yellow fever shots if you haven't already done so), it is still a one-street town, with more mules than cars (p.565).

Accommodation in Kiteni

On arrival, trucks and buses stop at a chain across the dirt track. Here you have to register with the guardia [police]  in their office on the right before walking into the town. About 100m straight down the road, at the other end of town is the basic dormitory-type hostel, the Hotel Kiteni - a friendly place, attractively situated beside the bubbling Río Kosrentni, and serving good set meals; there are no locks on doors so don't leave your valuables lying around. Next to the Hotel Kiteni there's an oroya (stand-up cable car) for people to pull themselves across the river; a ten-minute stroll on the far bank takes you to an albergue [hostel] that has been officially closed for several years but still occasionally rents out a few rooms for trips organized in advance by agencies or groups from Cusco; it offers seclusion, an English-speaking staff, and excellent food for only a few dollars a night (p.566).

Back from Kiteni to Quillabamba
The last transport (mostly combis) from Kiteni to Quillabamba generally leaves at 3-3.30pm daily (a 6hr trip) (p.566).

Waterfall Pongo de Mainique

Kiteni's main draw - beyond its small jungle-settlement atmosphere - is as a staging point for the awe-inspiring Pongo de Mainique, possibly the most dangerous 2km of (barely) navigable river in the entire Amazonian system, made famous by Michael Palin in his TV travel documentary. The road from Quillabamba towards the Pongo passes through Kiteni but ends a few hours further on at the village of Ivochote. Traveling down the river, just before you reach the pongo there's a community at San Idriato.

The people here, known as the Israelites, founded their village around a biblical sect; the men leave their hair long and, like Rastas, they twist it up under expandable peaked caps. Not far from San Idriato there's a basic tourist lodge, again now out of general use, right at the mouth of the rapids - a wonderful spot. Across the Urubamba from San Idriato the small community of Shinguriato, upstream from the Río Yuyato mouth, is the official entrance to the pongo itself.

The dangerous Urubamba river rapids of Pongo de Mainique - rafting

You'll have heard a lot about the Pongo de Mainique before you get there - from the boatmen, the local Machiguenga Indians, colonos and the Israelites. The rapids are dangerous at any time of year, and virtually impossible to pass during the rainy season (Nov-Jan). As you get nearer, you can see a forested mountain range [chain of mountains] directly in front of you; the river speeds up, and as you get closer, it's possible to make out the great cut made through the range over the millennia by the powerful Urubamba.

Then, before you realize, the craft is (p.566)

whisked into a long canyon with soaring rocky cliffs on either side: gigantic volcanic boulders look like wet monsters of molten steel; imaginary stone faces can be seen shimmering under cascades; and the danger of the pongo slips by almost unnoticed as the walls of the canyon will absorb all your attention. The main hazard is actually a drop of about 2m, which is seen and then crossed in a split second. Now and then boats are overturned at this dangerous drop, usually those that try the run in the rainy season - although even then natives somehow manage to come upstream in small, non-motorized dugouts.

Beyond the pongo the river is much gentler, but on all major curves as far down as the Camisea tributary (about 2 days on a raft) there is whitewater (p.567).

Settlements along this stretch are few and far between - mostly native villages, settlements of colonos or missions (p.568).

Nearby accommodation

Hostal La Casa de los Ugarte
just downstream on the west bank

Tourist Lodge at the Mission and Machiguenga Indian village of Timpia
upmarket [high level]

Hostal Pongo de Mainique
in the village of Ivochote, located at the end of the road from Quillabamba and Kiteni (p.566).

Further going

The way back from the Pongo rapids to Kiteni - or further down to Sepahua

If your boat is going straight back through the pongo to Kiteni, you'll have to make a quick choice about whether to try your luck going downstream or return to the relative safety and luxury of town. If you decide to go further [down the river], the next significant settlement is SEPAHUA; between here and the pongo there are just a few Machiguenga missions and a presently empty, massive oil- and gas-exploration camp near the village of Nuevo Mundo ["New World"].

Sepahua: Sepahua has a few places to stay, including the Hostal Sepahua and the Hostal Vanessa, a few shops and bars, and a runway with fairly regular flights to Satipo (for the road connection with Lima). However, the settlement is a good two or three days downstream by motorized canoe from the pongo (depending on the type and size of motor), or four to five days on a raft: to be dropped off in between could mean waiting a week on the riverbank for another boat or raft to hitch with. To be on the safe side, you'll need food for at least ten days if you're going to do this.

From Sepahua to Atalaya - and to Pucallpa or Satipo-Lima

From Sepahua, it's another couple of days downstream to ATALAYA, where the Río Urubamba meets the Río Tambo to form the [Río] Ucayali [for Pucallpa]. Run mainly by local Ashaninka Indian leaders (following successful development and land-titling projects), it's a small and relatively isolated jungle town with a reputation for lawlessness. For a place to stay here, try the Hotel Denis or the cheaper but less pleasant Hostal d'Souza.

For moving on, there are weekly flights to Satipo, Pucallpa, and less frequently, to Lima; information on these can be obtained from the TANS office near the airport. By boat, it's another few days from here to Pucallpa, and at least five or six more to Iquitos. To get to Lima, you can catch a boat (generally daily) for a day's travel along the Río Tambo to Puerto Ocopa [Ocopa port], after which it's a few hours along a dirt road to Satipo, then ten to twelve hours by a new, surfaced road to Lima, via La Merced and Tarma; several buses daily cover this route, plus there are colectivos between Satipo and La Merced (p.568).

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