Rio Marañon #1: The Plane Ride to the Put-in at Chagual
It was still dark when the alarm began to buzz. But I was already awake. My excitement for the day ahead had make it hard to sleep. I jumped out of bed and was dressed in minutes. Joe knocked on the boys’ door, next to ours in the Hostel Colonial in Trujillo, Peru, and they were already up, too: our two boys, Ben and Ethan, joining us for their winter break from college, and their college friend, Will. It wasn’t long until we were climbing into our pre-arranged taxi outside the hostel, and driving through the dark to the Trujillo airport. When we arrived, we were the first ones there—even before the airport workers! Ah, well. Better than being late.We set up camp on the few chairs along the hallway, next to the ticket counter for domestic flights, which consisted of two airlines. Larry, a trauma surgeon and river rafter in his sixties arrived a few minutes later. He had been struggling to get to Peru for nearly a week, fighting cancelled flights and lost luggage due to a LAN airlines strike. Another member of our group, Glenn, had also lost his luggage because of the LAN strike. Glenn, Jane, Chris, and Hal had gone to the river put-in by truck yesterday with our Peruvian guides, Pedro and Freddy, to begin the rigging for the trip. Glenn had pieced together enough borrowed gear to get by for our 14-day trip, but it had been a big distraction and stressor for him. Larry, fortunately, had received Glenn’s luggage at his hostel at 1:00am the night before, so we celebrated how happy Glenn was going to be when we arrived at the put in with his gear. Less fortunate was Larry himself, whose luggage was now lost, as well.
Soon the other three members of our group, Steve, Rachel and The Dude, arrived at the airport, and after hugs and greetings, we got in line at the ticket counter. SierraRios had arranged our flight to Chagual, near the put in for the Grand Canyon section of the Rio Marañon. The original plan was for our group of nine to fly in together on the first flight of the morning. But by the time we realized we needed to get in line at the ticket counter, there were already five local people in line ahead of us. As a result, we had to split our group into two flights. We four Greiners took the first flight with half of Glenn’s luggage, and the other five would take the second flight one hour later with the rest of Glenn’s gear.The plane took off smoothly into the morning coastal clouds, which we broke through in short order, and then we banked toward the Andes, which towered to the east. The little plane was as full as it could be and labored higher and higher as the mountains loomed close. We cleared the first range with at least a thousand feet to spare, and climbed for about another 10-15 minutes as we soared over range after range, many mostly obscured by clouds. Jagged peaks poked out of cottony cloud banks in the distance. Shades of blue and gray and white and shadow surrounded us, with occasional green and brown when the sun managed to reach through the clouds to the ground. And then the descent began. The clouds loomed closer and closer and then we were inside them. All those mountains all around but we couldn’t see a thing! I fervently hoped the pilot had a very good sense of where he was. A few tense moments later, we broke through the clouds and got our first view of the Rio Marañon, stretching out below. We were already in the canyon, still high, but dropping steadily. The little plane floated smoothly, not a bobble. But my heart pounded. In the next few minutes our little plane would execute what was reported to be one of the most dangerous approaches and landings in the world. Gulp. And yet, my heart soared, too. It was beautiful. Stark, desert beauty, for there is no jungle this far up the river drainage. Steep brown and blue-green slopes and crags surrounded a wide brown river dotted by large sand bars. We dropped still more. Then the plane banked into a smooth, wide turn, straight toward a sloping mountain. We soared close over the top of it, still banking until 360 degrees had been achieved, then leveling out.
We could feel the engine slowing still more…and then the decisive drop toward the runway, which had just magically appeared in front of us—right in front of us. Mountains to either side, cross the river, and there began the impossibly short runway. And yet, the pilot brought the plane down smoothly, with barely a bump, and slowed to a serene stop before the embankment that signaled the runway’s end. Wow! What a thrill, and yet, what a gorgeous trip. And here we were, at the river.
We had been warned about the no-see-um gnats in this river canyon: that we wouldn’t feel them biting, but we would get red welts. Being particularly susceptible to swelling and itching from such bites, I made sure I was covered from head to foot with permethrin (insect repellent)-coated clothing, including socks, gloves and bandana. The others sprayed themselves with DEET within minutes of our exit from the plane. We hung out by the tarmac for a few minutes. The temperature was pleasant and a thin layer of cloud helped keep the equatorial sun from feeling too hot. A few minutes later a black pickup truck pulled up and the driver said he was our ride to the put-in. Never mind that we had never seen the man before and that we were in the middle of nowhere. We clambered aboard and he drove us up a dirt road for a couple of miles, where the river and a colorful array of boats and river gear lay splayed out on the beach. We had arrived!
We exchanged hugs and hoorays with the group members who rode the truck over the Andes, and I felt glad that I took the plane rather than having to sleep in the truck during the long crossing of the Andes. We had the pleasure of watching Glenn’s face light up when he saw that we had his lost luggage. We began to help with the rigging, which was a figure-it-out-as-you-go proposition since we rented all the gear from SierraRios, making it unfamiliar. We had five rafts and a cataraft, all different rainbow colors. In about an hour, the rest of our group arrived from the second plane trip, and we learned that as they waited the extra hour for their flight, Larry’s bags arrived at the terminal in Trujillo! Well, his most important ones anyway—one bag containing his medical supplies remained missing. But he had enough gear to comfortably make the trip. Whew! We made it. Now it was time to get rigged and get on the river.