Rafting isn’t regulated in Peru – literally anyone can start a rafting company. On top of this, aggressive bargaining has led to lax safety by many cheaper rafting operators. The degree of risk cannot be stressed enough: there are deaths every year. Rafting companies that take advance bookings online are generally more safety conscious (and more expensive) than those just operating out of storefronts in Cuzco.

When choosing an outfitter, it’s wise to ask about safety gear and guide training, ask about the quality of the equipment used (ie how old are the flotation devices) and check other traveler comments. It’s essential to book a top-notch outfitter employing highly experienced rafting guides with first-aid certification and knowledge of swift-water rescue techniques. Be wary of new agencies without a known track record.

In terms of locations, there are a number of rivers to choose from. Rivers further from Cuzco are days away from help in the event of illness or accident.

Río Urubamba

Rafting the Río Urubamba through the Sacred Valley could offer the best rafting day trip in South America, but Cuzco and all the villages along its course dispose of raw sewage in the river, making for a smelly and polluted trip. Seriously – close your mouth if you fall in.

Despite its unsavory aspects, the Ollantaytambo to Chilca (class II to III) section is surprisingly popular, offering 1½ hours of gentle rafting with only two rapids of note. Huarán and Huambutio to Pisac are other pollution-affected sections.

There are a variety of cleaner sections south of Cuzco on the upper Urubamba (also known as the Vilcanota), including the popular Chuquicahuana run (class III to IV+; class V+ in the rainy season). Another less frenetic section is the fun and scenic Cusipata to Quiquihana (mainly class II to III). In the rainy season, these two sections are often combined. Closer to Cuzco, Pampa to Huambutio (class I to II) is a beautiful section, ideal for small children (three years and over) as an introduction to rafting.

Río Santa Teresa

Río Santa Teresa offers spectacular rafting in the gorge between the towns of Santa Teresa and Santa María, and downstream as far as Quillabamba. One word of warning: the section from Cocalmayo Hot Springs to Santa María consists of almost nonstop class IV to V rapids in a deep, inaccessible canyon. It should only be run with highly reputable operators. Be very aware, if considering a trip here, that guiding this section safely is beyond the powers of inexperienced (cheaper) rafting guides. This is not the place to economize. It’s not a bad idea to raft another section in the area with your chosen operator before even considering it.

Other Rivers

Run from May to November, the Río Apurímac offers three- to 10-day trips through deep gorges and protected rainforest. Apurímac features exhilarating rapids (classes IV and V) and wild, remote scenery with deep gorges. Sightings of condors and even pumas have been recorded. Four-day trips are the most relaxed and avoid the busier campsites, although three-day trips are more commonly offered. Camping is on sandy beaches, which have become increasingly overused. Sand flies can be a nuisance. Make sure your outfitter cleans up the campsite and practices a leave-no-trace ethic.

An even wilder expedition, the 10- to 12-day trip along the demanding Río Tambopata can only be run from May to October. The trip starts in the Andes, north of Lake Titicaca, and descends through the heart of the Parque Nacional Bahuaje-Sonene deep in the Amazon jungle. Just getting to the put-in from Cuzco is a two-day drive. The first days on the river are full of technically demanding rapids (classes III and IV) in wild Andean scenery, and the trip finishes with a couple of gentle floating days in the rainforest. Tapirs, capybara, caiman, giant otters and jaguars have all been seen by keen-eyed boaters.