Whether you paddle as a small group any time of the year or in the annual festival, the Ruta del Palena, with other travelers, locals, celebrities and reporters, paddling down the mighty Palena River from La Junta, to its outtake in the fjords near Raúl Marín Balmaceda is a once in a lifetime expedition.
The landscapes that accompany you on this voyage are both beautiful and awe inspiring. As you paddle down river your biggest challenge will be to maneuver the eddies and currents that rise in your course, but imagine the first brave adventurers who dared to paddle this river like you, but moving upward, against the current, with huge hopes of finding good lands to settle with their families.
This way of transport was not only important during the settlement of the valleys around La Junta, it remained critical for the connection of settlers with the outside world for the better part of 8 decades! The river substituted as the main road in and out of the central valleys, absolutely critical for movement of supplies like livestock, building materials and food. Navigating the river in chatas was hard, strenuous, dangerous work, and several settlers lost their lives in the waters of the Palena. But, their work and sacrifices were a key factor for communication and development during the first decades of settlement in the region. In fact, river transportation remained quite common until 2009, when the road between the interior of La Junta and the coast of Raúl Marín Balmaceda was finally connected.
Remembering that importance and celebrating that heritage, were the inspirations for the realization of the first Ruta del Palena festival, in 2010, and it’s been growing in popularity ever since. This grand event, which takes place the first weekend in February of each year, includes a two-day, group 80 km descent of the Palena River, from La Junta to Raúl Marín Balmaceda. There is camping mid-way and a big party at the end.
The event starts near La Junta at the bridge over the Rosselot River, which joins the Palena in a few kilometers more. Participants can descend in canoe, kayak, raft, cataraft or row boat, or any other option of human propulsion. The river has a tranquil, average flow, with some rapids and quite a few logs in the first 5 kilometers. Puerto Bonito is about the half-way mark of the route. It’s uninhabited, but has some thermal baths that you can access within a 30 minute walk. It is a great place to end the first day.
The second day, the river continues at an increasingly slow rhythm, meandering between the thick forests, and yielding a spectacular view of the Melimoyu Volcano and its gigantic glacier. The final 10 Km stretch changes in intensity due to the influence of the tides and the sea winds. Finishing up in Puerto Raúl Marín Balmaceda, is much easier via the Garrao Channel, easily identifiable by a bridge, which detours participants into the peaceful Piti Palena Fjord, where it’s common to run into Austral Dolphins. Punta Palena, to the northwest of Raúl Marín Balmaceda, offers a great place for camping afterwards, with beautiful semi-protected sandy beaches.
On average you’ll paddle about 6 hours per day during the two-day event (did someone say biceps?). In addition to great scenery, great people and great fun, the physical exercise has another reward. The organizers of the Ruta del Palena reason that the best way to recover strength after a few hard days of physical effort is with a giant feast, starring a pair of Aysén gastronomic traditions: Asado al Palo (think Spit-roasted lamb) and Curanto (think Patagonian shellfish bake). Arriving in Raul Marin, it’s time to leave the boats behind and celebrate the heritage of this great river, old and new friends, and in general, being part of an amazing occasion like this.