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Peru: the Lower Urubamba and the Pongo

November 14, 2009

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On our first trip through the Pongo de Mainique, getting there was quite the chore.  This pongo, one of several such geological features in Peru, is a great slot through which the waters of the highland rivers burst through the mountains in a mighty torrent into the flat lowland jungles.

First we took a regularly scheduled flight to Pucallpa, transferred to a Peruvian military transport prop plane to Sepahua – many hours late in taking off and full of outboard motors, sacks of unidentifiable goods, people, and other gear stuffed into the aisles, the result was which we sat on top of baggage rather than in a proper seat.

From Sepahua we secured passage on a motorized dugout for the twelve-hour trip upriver on the Urubamba.  The ride through the primary rain forest was interesting, if excruciating in its duration.

We did not make fast enough time to reach Timpia, our ultimate goal, a village that sits just downriver from the Pongo and which hosts a rotund Catholic priest who does not appreciate hippie heathens. So we put in at a Piru Indian village, where we were given crude quarters in their guest house, told to mind our own business, and be gone by sunrise.  Good enough, especially considering that the dugout’s motor had been seizing and stopping in the pitch-black of the river night, leaving us to drift helplessly downstream through the inky darkness.

But we eventually reached the outpost at Timpia and were rewarded with some of the most spectacular jungle scenery I have ever witnessed.


1) dusk near Timpia


2) rain forest through the mist

At Timpia, our plan was to attempt an ascent of the Pongo.  The currents, whirlpools, waterfalls, and remoteness of the location all combine for a trip into a different world. The Machiguenga Indians who live there believe that their souls go into the canyon as a final resting place after they die.


3) Killing time on the trip; better to sleep than to think about the fearful journey ahead


4) Parrot clay lick just downriver from Timpia, without parrots. They scare easily, not that I blame them

Once in Timpia, we were greeted with the sight of a small Peruvian plane disgorging its load of NGO workers and locals returning to their families.


5) plane unloading in Timpia


6) chakra downstream from the Pongo


7) Caño bravo, from which the Machiguenga used to make their arrows, grows in profusion along the river banks.  The entrance to the Pongo is visible in the background


8) Inside the Pongo: a lovely waterfall, I thought, zooming by at breakneck speed, preparing to have the canoe flip the dugout and drown the whole crew. I held my hands to the gunwales; it’s a miracle I let go long enough to snap the pic

pongo1369) Closer to the same set of waterfalls


10) Deep in the Pongo. Our pilot and guide died near here a year later when his boat flipped

We managed to travel about half-way through the chasm.  In the end, our pilot decided to beach the dugout in a relatively calm spot and turn around.  In his judgment the waters were running too fast to continue upstream.   But we saw enough to give us a sense of the place, and to appreciate its power.


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