The 80km trip up the FUTALEUFÚ VALLEY is one of the most enjoyable diversions off the Carretera Austral. Heading east from the drab crossroads settlement of Villa Santa Lucía, south of Chaitén, you first skirt the southern shore of Lago Yelcho for 30km, before arriving at a fork in the road. The right turn goes to the quiet border village of Palena, while the left branch follows the turquoise Río Futaleufú for 17km through towering gorges, lush forests and snow-streaked mountain peaks to its namesake town.
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Sitting on the Río Futaleufú, near its confluence with the Rio Espolón, and surrounded by forested, snowy peaks, Futaleufú more than earns the grandiose slogan – “A landscape painted by God” – coined by its early inhabitants. With its big “explosion waves” and massive “rodeo holes”, the Río Futaleufú is regarded by many professional rafters and kayakers as one of the most challenging whitewater rivers in the world, with sections of the river known as “Hell” and “The Terminator”. A number of Chilean and US operators offer rafting trips down the river, a body of water which runs through a basalt gorge known as the Gates of Hell, and boasts over forty class IV–V rapids.
An attractive little town, Futaleufú serves as a popular summer base primarily for rafting, though there is still a shadow hanging over it in the form of the Spanish energy corporation ENDESA, which has plans to construct a dam and to build a hydroelectric plant on the river; the plan currently faces concerted opposition by locals, tour operators and environmentalists.
Most people come to Futaleufú for the whitewater rafting and kayaking, though you needn’t stop there: the area around Futa lends itself to a range of outdoor activities, including hiking, horse-trekking, mountain biking, fly-fishing, floating (drifting down a river on an inner tube) down the tamer Río Espolón, canyoning (abseiling down canyons) and canoeing. A number of experienced local outfits offer these activities.