Peru is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, with virtually every outdoorsy activity on offer in every type of climate and landscape imaginable. White water rafting is particularly good, with a practically limitless number of rivers to explore, and many excellent opportunities all across across the country suitable for both beginners and experienced rafters. Here you’ll find our favorite white water rafting options for all experience levels.
To better understand the challenges posed by each river, make sure to familiarize yourself with the International Scale of River Difficulty. Here is a brief description of what to expect from each classification:
- Class I: May contain some fast-moving water and small waves. Requires little or no maneuvering. (Difficulty level: easy)
- Class II: Contains some rough water with rocks and medium-sized waves. May require some simple maneuvering. (Difficulty level: novice)
- Class III: Contains moderate waves, fast current and possible drops of 3-5ft. Requires significant maneuvering but actual danger is limited. (Difficulty level: intermediate)
- Class IV: Large waves and turbulent white water rapids with considerable drops possible. Requires sharp, skillful maneuvering and there is considerable danger for swimmers. (Difficulty level: advanced)
- Class V: Rapids can be long or exceptionally turbulent. There are large waves, dangerous obstacles and a high level of danger for even expert swimmers. This is the highest level of difficulty that is still considered runnable. (Skill level: expert)
- Class VI: Runs of this classification are considered to be extremely risky or impossible, with a high likelihood of injury or death for those who attempt it. (Skill level: extreme)
Keep in mind that a particular run’s classification level can change depending on the season and water level of the river. In general, the best time to raft is from May to September when water levels are lower and more navigable, but this can depend on the river. Make sure to ask your tour agency about the river’s current difficulty class before you depart.
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With that said, here are our top places to go white water rafting in Peru.
Chili River (Arequipa)
Arequipa is the second-largest city in Peru and an essential stop on the so-called gringo trail. Thousands of visitors flock to the city every year to enjoy its charming colonial ambience and to explore the area’s incredible natural wonders such as Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world. The nearby Río Chili provides an excellent place for white water rafting, with runs reaching classes II, III and IV depending on the season. At only twenty minutes from Arequipa’s central plaza, it’s also quite convenient to combine a day of rafting with other activities and tours in the area.
Mayo River (Tarapoto)
Leaving from the northern jungle city of Tarapoto, a half-day white water rafting trip on the Río Mayo is a very popular excursion for families or rafting beginners visiting the area. The difficulty level only gets up to class III here, so it’s a great way for all types of people to have some fun and enjoy the lush jungle scenery all around. At the end of the run you’ll arrive at a sandy beach where you can relax a bit or have some fun swinging on tree ropes.
Cañete River (Lunahuaná)
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Located just a few short hours away from Lima, the small town of Lunahuaná is a great departure point for several stretches of river rapids. River difficulty can range from class I all the way up to class V, making this one of the best all-around options for groups, since there’s a little bit of something for everyone. Other activities in Lunahuaná include pisco and wine tours, the impressive Incahuasi ruins, as well as trekking in the nearby Yauyos-Cochas Natural Reserve.
Urubamba River (Cusco)
The Río Urubamba flows right through the Inca heartland, passing near many iconic sights and attractions in the Sacred Valley such as Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. Many portions of this important river are suitable for white water rafting, and it’s a great way to take in the outdoors or see local people all while experiencing a thrilling adrenaline rush. Popular runs include the Cusipata and Chuquicahuana sections (featuring class II, III and IV rapids), the famously dangerous Pongo de Mainique, and the more reasonable Quillabamba section starting in the town of Santa María. The Urubamba River is one of the best options for rafting in Peru and can be combined with all sorts of other activities and tours.
Apurímac River (Cusco)
The Río Apurímac, which means “the god who speaks” in the Quechua language, is one of the most exciting options for white water rafting in Peru. Excursions generally last around 3 days and bring adventurous rafters through rapids of class II, III, IV, and even V difficulty. This route showcases the area’s incredible natural beauty, with abundant wildlife and geological formations like canyons and gorges encountered along the way. Each night you’ll prepare a campsite and sleep underneath the spectacular unobstructed night skies of the southern hemisphere. Apurímac is ideal for experienced rafters who truly love the outdoors.
Tambopata River (Puno)
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This is a supremely adventurous option and is only recommended for serious white water rafters and trekkers. Starting in the cold, windswept altiplano of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, you’ll descend through the cloud forest and into the jungle, passing all manner of incredible wildlife along the way. The trip can take up to ten days and brings you past rapids of class III and IV difficulty. Eventually you’ll wind up at the famous Tambopata Macaw Lick where brightly-colored macaws and other parrots are known to gather in large numbers. From here, you’ll head to the jungle outpost of Puerto Maldonado where you can catch buses and flights back to Cusco or Lima. This rafting trip can also be combined with a stay at a jungle eco-lodge; make sure to inquire about all your options when booking the trip.
Cotahuasi River (Arequipa)
Considered one of the world’s best white water rafting trips by true connoisseurs, this route takes you through the deepest canyon in the world, passing by gorgeous waterfalls and barely-explored Inca and Wari ruins along the way. You can descend down into the canyon by vehicle or by following an ancient network of Inca trails to the bottom. River rapids range from easy class II all the way up to dangerous and difficult level V, so this trip should only be attempted by experienced rafters. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who dare to try it and very few people have actually done it, making it all the more unique and special.
As you can see, one of the things that makes Peru such a paradise for outdoors enthusiasts is the sheer number of different climates and landscapes which exist within the country. If you’re interested in white water rafting in Peru, you can have your choice between the frigid mountains, the steamy lowland jungle, and everywhere in between. That’s what makes white water rafting in Peru such an exciting and unforgettable experience. Start planning your adventure now!
Header Image: Modified from Flickr / Moth Clark