The Marañón River

A little-known river in Peru is a place of superlatives
River trip through the Grand Canyon of the Marañón River in the headwaters of the Amazon River, Peru.

It's day 10 on our 14-day raft trip down Peru's Marañón River when Grand Canyon river guide (and chemistry professor) Paul Smolenyak hails me from his raft and yells, “Did you see the giant river otter?”

“What, no way!” I yell back. The giant otter, sometimes called the lobo de rio (river wolf), can grow to over 5 feet long and is a rare and endangered animal. I was amazed at the sighting because this was a repeating pattern during my trip down the Marañón. Each day on the river revealed something new, something unexpected. Photographically, I was documenting all aspects of our journey, but most of my photography time on the river was studying the character and mood of the river itself, which happens to be the longest free-flowing river in the world.

My wife and I joined about 10 of our rafting buddies on this guided trip with the river conservation group Sierra Rios, headed by river explorer and scientist James “Rocky” Contos (sierrarios.org). We learned that the Rio Marañón is the biggest, baddest, coolest river we had never heard of but have known about since we were kids. You see, the Marañón is the hydrological source (measured by water volume) of the Amazon. It seems the Amazon is big enough to have several sources. Since 1971, the source of the Amazon was believed to be the Apurimac River (measured as the farthest source from the sea), but this is contested in a recent article published in the British Royal geographical journal Area by James Contos and Nicholas Tripcevich. Incidentally, a great adventure read is Running the Amazon by Joe Kane, about an expedition descending the Amazon from the known source (Apurimac) to sea.

The Marañón is a river of superlatives. It originates among 20,000-plus foot peaks and flows off the eastern ramparts of the Andes from the Cordillera Huayhuash (a mountain range popularized in Joe Simpson’s mountaineering and survival epic, Touching the Void). As the main hydro-source for the Amazon River, the Marañón can be called the Upper Amazon. Fun facts: when the Marañón reaches the confluence with the Ucayali River and is renamed the Amazon, its volume rivals the flow of the Mississippi. When the Amazon reaches the sea, its volume is eight times bigger than its nearest rival, the Congo River. Annually, the flow of the Amazon amounts to 15 to 20 percent of the world's fresh water.

We rafted the 180-mile middle section of this 343-mile-long river that is called the Grand Canyon of the Marañón, where the river cuts through a gorge with a view of mountain ridges that rise up to 10,000 feet on both sides of the river. To put that in perspective, the canyon walls through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in Arizona reach a height of 5,500 feet. On the banks of the river, we visited Incan and pre-Incan sites, as well as farms and villages growing mangos and papaya.

Having the opportunity to spend 14 days exploring the river by boat and photographing the magnificent canyons, I felt very privileged, since fewer than a thousand people have rafted down this river. As a comparison, the Grand Canyon in Arizona was first run commercially in the early 1960s, and today 24,000 people annually run the river. The Marañón didn't see its first commercial river trip, organized by Sierra Rios, until 2013.

Today, the almost unknown Marañón is threatened by a massive hydroelectric power scheme. The Peruvian government, in making plans for its economic future, as well as powering new mining projects and being spurred by neighboring Brazil’s growth and demand for energy, set in motion plans for building 20 massive dams, several over 500 feet tall, on the Marañón. On a map, the dams would reduce the world's longest free-flowing river into a string of reservoirs. The repercussions in moving ahead with this current hydro project on the headwaters of the world's biggest river would be immediate and manifold and still not clearly understood downriver for the Amazon system as a whole.

One thing is for certain: Just as the Marañón is beginning to be discovered by Peruvians and the world to be an extraordinary river journey on par with the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, that future could be snuffed out for short-term gain. Imagine Peru today if Machu Picchu had been dismantled for practical purposes and used for building stones before the site’s discovery and assessment in 1911 by historian Hiram Bigham. Today, 1.2 million people a year from around the world visit Machu Picchu. Bringing more public awareness about the unique qualities of the Marañón is an important step to addressing how this river can best serve the people of Peru and visitors.

In 2012, Rocky Contos made an exploratory raft and kayak trip down the entire length of the Marañón to the city of Iquitos, Peru. That trip convinced him to offer regular guided trips through all three sections of the river. He wrote in American Whitewater magazine in August 2013: “I personally descended the entire 1,750 km length of the Rio Marañón last year in kayak, raft and passenger boat over the course of about two months. I discovered the most distant source of the Amazon River last year (Rio Mantaro), and as part of my exploratory expeditions, in part sponsored by National Geographic, I paddled all of the headwaters of the Amazon (Rios Marañón, Mantaro, Apurimac and Urubamba). One of the most important conclusions of all my studies is that Rio Marañón is by far the most precious of all these rivers: it is beautiful, unpolluted, raftable, holds monumental stature as the hydrological source of the Amazon, and is an extreme joy to experience.”

As photographers, we have an obligation to document and bring attention to places like the Marañón and other threatened natural areas in the world. David Brower, an environmentalist and director of the Sierra Club for 18 years, had one great regret in life, and that was he did not stop the Glen Canyon dam project on the Colorado River. This is not a regret he would repeat; he worked hard to defeat two additional dams keeping the Colorado River intact and free flowing through the Grand Canyon. The Sierra Club's “Don't Dam the Grand Canyon” campaign involved bringing public awareness to the river via river trips and photography. I still cherish my copy of The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, photographed by Eliot Porter. On the back cover of that book, David Brower writes, "Remember these things lost. The native wildlife; the chance to float quietly down a calm river, to let the current carry you past a thousand years of history, through a living canyon of incredible, haunting beauty. Here the Colorado had created a display that rivaled any in the world. The side canyons simply had no rivals. We lost wholeness, integrity in place…a magnificent gesture of the natural world."

The image here is our river camp on a massive beach typical in the Marañón's Grand Canyon section. What you can't see in the photo are the high winds that sweep this beach. It made for a miserable night’s sleep, but if we wanted a good night’s sleep, we would have stayed home. Grab your camera and a paddle, and get down to Peru and see the Marañón yourself. Adventure on.

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.

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