Travelling over 2,000 km from Santiago to the incredible whitewater of Rio Baker near the town of Cochrane sounds like a daunting mission, especially considering it involves taking three ferries and driving half the length of Chile entirely on unpaved roads. Even though the distance is great, the beauty and wonder make this long journey into the heart of Patagonia well worth the experience.
Before embarking on the longest of three ferries from the waterside village of Hornopiren, the picture begins to come into focus. As the ship departs the terminal and takes you deeper into the untouched wild of this amazing place. Time stands still and the nearly 9-hours of ferries seems to fly by as you become entranced by the sudden appearance of care-free dolphins and gigantic waterfalls pouring off the sides of lush, green mountains. All the while it becomes hard to comprehend that this is only the beginning.
Upon reaching the end of the ferry trip in Caleta Gonzalo, a steep earthen road surrounded by dense jungle and sheer drop-offs gives you the impression that you’ve truly entered the frontier. Besides the occasional glimpse of a car, cyclist or group of hitchhikers, the first true signs of civilization come when you reach the paved roads leading through the port town of Chaiten. What lies ahead once you depart are some of the most amazing scenery this road has to offer.
As the road begins to climb, views of the glaciers and the snow-capped Andes begin to come into focus. With each twist and turn, the valley opens up to expose natural wonders of Parque Nacional Corcovado, Reserva Nacional Lago Rosselot, and Parque Nacional Queulat that line the road. After reaching Puyuhuapi, the road hugs a narrow path between the towering mountains and a pristine fjord. Countless switchbacks take us higher to the most spectacular panoramic view imaginable of the landscape which lies ahead.
Further we head into this untouched land. Camping out at night provides a unique perspective, an opportunity to admire the tranquility of this place – alone – as it is illuminated by the stars. At first light, the chirping of birds descend upon its waters to take from its plentiful bounty of fish.
A few more kilometers later and the Rio Baker, comes into sight. Backed by glaciers, the waters of the river take on the bright blue color of the snow melt that feeds it. After days of travel behind us our anticipation builds for the first sight of the rapids. At first glimpse, the beautiful smooth blue water of the Rio Baker looks calm and inviting, almost tranquil. But first looks tend to be deceiving. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the river is flowing and flowing fast down towards the massive gorges below. Undoubtedly, this flow coupled with the gradient downstream will translate into gargantuan whitewater, but that is what we have come for, the giant rapids hidden within the gorges of this remote river. Hundreds of tons of water race past per second as we scout the entrance to the gorge.
At the confluence of the Rio Baker and Rio Nef is Nef Falls we put on. It’s here the river shows its true colour – and the reason for its reputation as one of the most intense class five sections on the planet. The water changes from a beautiful welcoming blue to an evil milky brown to add to the mystery.
We are greeted immediately by an imposing two-step drop with the power and features that would tear the head right off of a kayaker who dares get off line. Safe to say it gets our hearts pumping as we drop into the gorge. Further downstream we encounter countless rapids, bigger than either of us have ever seen, lying in wait for anyone ballsie enough to attempt to run them. Boils surge into jagged canyon walls, continuously threatening to throw you offline and into deadly river features without notice.
Vertical walls box the river in, meaning any attempt to navigate the main rapids of the Rio Baker is combined with the commitment of being completely unable to escape. There are no second chances here. The power and fury of this river is intense, as we travel further into the gorge it intimidates us more. With no way out but down we have no option but to continue. Waves tower above us, throttling our tiny plastic boats and throwing us everywhere. Slowly and steadily we fight against the monstourous rapids, working our way through the puzzle of the Baker.
Kilometres later the gorge walls begin to subside, and the road returns to the river bank. We’re granted a welcome relief from the ferocious whitewater. Only then can the intensity of the moment be transformed into adrenaline from having run this beautiful beast of a river, and only then could we truly take in the surrounding tranquillity of the humbling space. We’d done it, we’d survived the turmoil of the Baker.