Traditionally the home of the Matsiguenga and Piro Indians, the Río Urubamba rolls down from the Incas’ Sacred Valley to the humid lower Andean slopes around the town of Quillabamba. The river remains unnavigable for another 80km or so, with regular buses following a dirt road that continues deeper down into the jungle via the settlement of Kiteni, where the Río Urubamba becomes navigable again, to the even smaller frontier settlement of Ivochote. From here on, the river becomes the main means of transport, through the Amazon Basin right to the Atlantic, interrupted only by the impressive Pongo de Mainique whitewater rapids, just a few hours downstream from Ivochote. These rapids are generally too dangerous to pass between November and March.
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 – rubber, cattle or oil – for over a hundred years. In the last decade or so, the discovery and exploitation of a massive gas field is changing the river and communities fast, though this is still a relatively quiet and untouristed region compared with Manu or Madre de Dios.
A rapidly expanding market town, growing fat on profits from coffee, tropical fruits, chocolate and, to a certain extent, the proceeds of cocaine production, QUILLABAMBA is the only Peruvian jungle town that’s easily accessible by road from Cusco: the main attraction here is a quick look at the selva. 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 travelled 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.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 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. The nearby waterfall of Siete Tinjas is a popular spot with locals during holidays, and a pleasant natural and peaceful setting in which to while away an afternoon.
Pongo de Mainique
Pongo de Mainique
The road continues down into the jungle from Quillabamba via Kiteni to the village of Ivochote (6hr), the staging point for the awe-inspiring Pongo de Mainique rapids – possibly the most dangerous 2km of (barely) navigable river in the entire Amazonian system – are hazardous at any time of year, and virtually impossible to pass during the rainy season (Nov–March).
As you approach, you’ll see a forested mountain range 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 boat is 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 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 locals somehow manage to come upstream in small, non-motorized dugouts.