The Pongo is a gorge on the lower Urubamba river an Amazon tributary. In 1964 Tony Morrison, Mark Howell and two colleagues - Hugo Echegeray and John [Johannes] von Trapp made the first filmed journey by raft and rubber boat through the Pongo for BBC TV. They were looking for a pristine wilderness and some 400 year old Inca ruins lost in the forest

October 30th 1964 - Vol XXIV No. 1245 - Hugo Echegeray guide and riverman from Quillabamba a town beside the river, in the Pongo.

The same Inca ruins are accepted today as Vilcabamba, the final refuge of the Inca and the Pongo's isolation has gone. Hundreds of settlements break up the once pristine forest and the spectacular gorge is little more than a bus ride down the river from Machu Picchu. Starting with Mark Howell's 1964 report in the Peruvian Times, the Pongo and its legends are brought up to date.

The Urubamba The source is at about 4300m in the mountains of southern Peru and in the space of 200kms the river descends to less than 500m. On the way it passes below Machu Picchu and a small town, Quillabamba - alt 1031 m. The final part of the descent is filled with massive rapids of increasing ferocity and the Pongo de Mainique is the final cut through the mountains.

Back in the 1960s the Pongo was legendary. Before Tony and Mark made their journey there were few clear accounts by modern travellers [1911, 1956 and 1960 [for details] and there had been one notable accident in June 1932 when a British geologist, 68 year old Professor John W.Gregory drowned and was buried beside the river. Today is rather different and a road leads from Quillabamba to within a few miles of the gorge. Settlers have moved in and on the southern side - the upstream, direction forest clearance is obvious everywhere.

1984 The Pongo from the northern end with dense montane rainforest covering the rocky limestone sides.


1964 The northern end. Legend says an Inca bridge once spanned the gorge from the rocky outcrop in forest on the left of the picture

Aerial mapping images reveals the changes -1950's - 2006

1950's The forest is untouched south of the Pongo seen as the line through the outlying range of the Andes. Such was the isolation before the road building.Google Earth 2006-09-14 Apart from the beach near the mouth of the Pongo, unchanged in fifty years, the red patches in the green are cleared forest. A road on the west side of the river reaches within 8kms of this spot

The road has opened the way to this wilderness. The changes and the reason are obvious. The river is much the same though with more detritus from the upstream settlements and the growth of tourism in the valley above Machu Picchu. The Machiguenga who lived in forest clearings now have land assigned to them east and west of the Pongo - to the east their land is contiguous with the Manú National Park. A Machiguenga Centre with a small airstrip has been developed for tourism near the Timpia River 6 river miles / 9.6 kms below the Pongo. All the bookings can be made online.

1964 Young Machiguenga women sorting and grinding wild cacao [cocoa] 'beans' using traditional stone pestle at a settlement upstream from the Pongo. The house is built with materials taken from the forest. Boulders at the riverside upstream from the Pongo are covered with 'drawings' petroglyphs - markings made by hammering the suface with a smaller stone. They are not uncommon and are known across all Amazonia.
Hugo Echegeray on the balsa raft in one of the rapids above the Pongo. Mark and John were in an inflatable rubber dinghy - another but smaller rubber one person life-raft was used to carry some of the gear and supplies.
Mark leads the way into one of the rapids above the Pongo and [right] the view from the balsa raft as it entered the gorge
Hugo Echegeray with an aircrew life-jacket stands on the rocky side of the gorge and watches Mark and John as they approach in the dinghy. The sides are not sheer and in most places are weathered limestone inclined at about 45 degrees - an account of the geology was published in New York in 1916.
The river flows quickly and although swirling gives a smoother ride than in the rapids upstream. The northern or downstream mouth of the gorge is impressive with some steeper cliffs. Tony Morrison writes "Two incidents have stuck in my mind - Mark's remarkable survival - the account is below - and in the chaos I lost my Rodania watch a treasure from our first expedition together . The strap broke and the watch slipped between the balsa logs into the river - maybe it is still ticking...".
In 1964 like other travellers before them, the team made their first camp on a beach on the west side. Below the Pongo the river opens out and seems to flow slowly though there are more rapids over the next 50kms. The the Urubamba cuts through numerous shallow outliers of of the Andes before reaching the lowlands of the Amazon basin. These are visible clearly on Google Earth.


Peruvian Times October 30th 1964 -The Urubamba [Verbatim]

Journey from Urcos by Inflatable Dinghy from Urcos to Atalaya down the Vilcanota and Urubamba

Tony Morrison and Mark Howell are on their third visit to Peru, making travel films for BBC Television. Last year they spent nine months in Peru and Bolivia making seven films, and Howell's book of that expedition "Journey Through a Forgotten Empire" has just been published. They have recently returned to Lima from an expedition by boat down the Urubamba from Urcos to Atalaya and this is Howell's account of the trip [Only the account of the Pongo is included here]


By Mark Howell

One of the most difficult questions to answer, about the journey Tony Morrison and I made down the Vilcanota and Urubamba rivers * — from Urcos to Atalaya is why we did it. "Well " one starts, " It was like this..." And then one tends to find oneself at a loss for any succinct and satisfactory way of going on. Broadly, it was an attempt to find out whether it was possible to travel by boat from a source of the Amazon down to one of the generally accepted upper limits of navigation, and if so to film the descent. Another dubious distinction we could claim, would be that we were the first people to navigate the Pongo de Mainique in a rubber boat. Probably one of the best reasons, though is curiosity; to visit the almost unknown areas of the valley below the Pongo is possible only by river.

* See the Peruvian Times of Feb.22, 1963 for reference to other descents of the Urubamba. The Urubamba above Machu Picchu is generally referred to as the Vilcanota although there is no general agreement as to where the river changes its name. [Peruvian Times editor]

Mark, Tony John [Johannes] and Hugo returned to Quillabamba after a two week walk in the Vilcabamba range to cover a story about a Lost Inca City.

Last Stage on the Urubamba Our return journey took four days and 2 weeks after we had set out from Quillabamba we were embarking on the last and, reputedly, the most dangerous stage of our descent of the Urubamba. We had bought a balsa raft, to be captained by Hugo from which Tony could film the progress of the dinghy in close-up.


Although the river appeared to have changed only in size, closer acquaintance made possible by a rubber boat, showed more disturbing charactersistics. The whirlpools previously small enough to 'skate' over , were now large enough to hold us for minutes on end. They were only avoidable by staying in the main current on the bends where five and six foot waves converged from all directions and permanent spray threatened to fill the boat. At first we were fairly complacent — "well with all this air in the boat we can't sink" — an opinion we modified when we discovered before long that two violently converging currents could surge over our one foot freeboard, and float off with our film in less time than it takes to tell. Sometimes it was possible, by paddling frantically, to avoid an obstacle spotted two hundred yards downstream, but more often it was only possible to utter a heartfelt prayer and emerge from a welter of six foot waves resolving to stop this idiocy immediately. Whereas higher up almost every rock or obstruction seemed to have protective cushions of water around it, below Quillabamba it was not unusual to see the main current dive below an undercut cliff and emerge from the depths in a boiling upsurge many yards downstream. In the course of two days our paddling muscles developed impressively; and our general tacit consensus of opinion, that this was a river to treat with immense respect. Unnerving recollections of the number of unfortunates this river had drowned returned to distract us from time to time.

Seven Great Rapids

The final descent of the Urubamba to the Pongo de Mainique is through a series of seven great rapids, like the treads of a stairway. The balsa raft went through the first with Hugo expertly threading between the spray shrouded rock. It seemed to us in the rear boat to be moving at a frightening speed. Tony standing on the front and holding the movie camera above his head, was submerged to his chest with every wave. Then it was our turn. We swept through the first rapid shipping only a few gallons, and shaped up for the second. It was not until we were twenty yards from it that we realised the significance of a high standing wave blocking half the width of the river. A huge boulder the top of which was perhaps four or five feet below the surface was causing a build-up of water— we had seen several much smaller ones upsteam. The danger was not in the wave but the great hole in the water behind the rock, which was four or five times as deep as the height of the wave. We paddled as we had never had before, but it was hopeless. As we swept up to the crest of the wave I had a momentary glimpse of a hole eight or nine feet deep and then the boat was tossed high into the air and we were ejected from it like stones from a catapult.


Afterwards Hugo told us that the longest a strong swimmer can expect to survive in one of these rapids is about two minutes. As John and I were wearing jackets, trousers and shoes it was a miracle we lasted that long. Somehow John managed to grasp one of the dinghy's life lines, but I was swept away from it and had I not managed to seize a piece of basla wood which had been thrown out of the dinghy with us, I should have drowned in the rapid. As it was I was too exhausted by the violence of the water to be able to swim with any power when I was into the calm but swift section 200 yards downstream. Fortunately, Hugo was able to manouevre the balsa close enough to me to dive in wearing a life jacket, and drag me into the bank. We reached it only ten yards above the next rapid which would have drowned both of us.

Half an hour later when I had recovered enough strength to walk, we found the others some 500 yards downsteam where John had managed to beach the dinghy with an oar he found jammed underneath it. Most of our valuable equipment had been tied into the boat, the cameras and film had been wrapped in plastic sheeting and had not suffered, but our tape recorder, a pair of shoes and a jacket had been washed away. However the gratifying thing was that neither John nor I had been.

The Pongo de Mainique

In an hour we were ready to continue. My own attitude was one of complete resignation; having barely escaped drowning, and still completely exhausted, I should perhaps have resisted the suggestion to continue, at least for a while. But when, ten minutes later I saw the mouth of the Pongo come in sight I summoned a surprising amount of energy for evasive paddling. The water boiled and disappeared into a high, dark, forbidding cut in the hills; I recall a vague impression of a confused white water slope and then we were slipping along on an absolutely calm surface, very fast between high grey walls; we had entered the Pongo of awful repute. This was the climax of our whole expedition; the Pongo had never been filmed and only rarely and inadequately photographed. Usually, merely passing through it had been reckoned an adequate enough achievement. While keeping a wary ear cocked for the sound of breaking water downstream, Tony filmed the dinghy gliding past the sheer grey cliffs iof the canyon. Waterfalls cascaded down in graceful veils. Halfway through the Pongo, we had been warned, was a dangerous rapid with two whirlpools, but we bounced through this hardly shipping a drop. The walls on either side of us climbed higher, probably 600 or 700 feet, and the sky diminished to a narrow strip. Dense, damp, vegetation covered the upper levels of the cliffs, absorbing all sound except the incessant drip of water.

Twenty minutes after entering it, we passed through the jaws of the Pongo, two high cliffs jutting into the river, narrowing the gap by more than half. Hugo pointed up and said " 'Once there was an Inca bridge across there ". John and I shouted our disbelief and he shrugged his shoulders eloquently. Then within minutes the river was ten times as wide, slow and widing. We paddled unhurriedly across to a long low playa [beach] which would serve for our first night's camp on this new languid river, glad that we had survived but sorry too, in a way that for the next 200 miles would be just a leisurely unwinding lowland river.

A piece of advice I feel bound to give to anyone wanting to navigate the lower Urubamba, is that to attempt it without a guide would be suicidally dangerous. Although we were unable to obtain any Machiguenga guides, Hugo had been through the Pongo several times, although not on a balsa, and he was an experienced riverman. Had it not been for him one of us at least would probably have drowned. And the already impresssive score of fatalities the Pongo already has to its credit shows that our experience was nothing out of the ordinary.

The Boat used by the Urubamba expedition was a 9-foot Avon Redcrest manufactured in various sizes by the Avon Rubber Co, Melksham, Wiltshire, England. [now Avon plc] Hugo Echegueray the guide on the Urubamba expedition was so impressed by the handling and other charachteristics in the dangerous conditions of the Urubamba that he is planning to set up an agency for importing the craft.

Publisher's note referring to Howell's book ' Journey Through a Forgotten Empire'

" They saw the 'Lines of Nazca', the gigantic calculations astronomers drew on the featureless desert thousand of years ago; they spent some days on the feudal estate of the millionaire Suares; they had the amazing luck to find the unique Chipaya community, poignant living remnant of pre-Inca time two days before 'civilisation' in the shape of dried milk and electricity arrived by courtesy of US AID; and finally in San Antonio de Lipes, a high Andes ghost town, they stumbled upon the crumbling remains of a vast and richly appointed cathedral."

Now to bring the story up-to date...

  • 1967 ' Steps to a Fortune' a book by Mark Howell and Tony Morrison, Geoffrey Bles, London. It includes an account of a meeting with Fidel Pereira the patriarch of the lower Urubamba and an account of the journey through the Pongo.
  • This region of the eastern Andes is noted for its great bio-diversity It is a meeting place of species from the slopes of the mountains and Amazon lowlands. Also their is a movement of species both plant and animal north and south using the mountains as a pathway. The Pongo like a gateway offers free movement especially for birds and insects.
  • Over the past fifty years the road down the valley from Quillabamba has been extended - bit by bit more or less as settlements have required. In the 1960's only the remnant of an old trail led to the Pongo and beyond. The trail was made at the end of the 19th century when this area was part of a much larger 'Rubber Empire' where natural rubber was collected and exported via the Amazon river.
  • In the 1980's Tony has returned a couple of times by air overflights and to the even more remote Isthmus of Fitzcarrald while following the story of Lizzie Hessel an English woman who travelled to rivers just below the Pongo with her husband in 1896. They were employees of Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald an entrepeneur intent on making a fortune in the Rubber Boom / Lizzie- The Amazon Adventures of a Victorian Lady, Tony Morrison, Ann Brown and Anne Rose, BBC Books 1985
  • In recent years the lower Urubamba - above and through the Pongo has become a whitewater rafting destination.
  • The Pongo has featured in several films, notably in 'Fitcarraldo' 1982 written and directed by Werner Hertzog; A BBC travel series Full Circle' 1997 with Monty Python actor, Michael Palin; and documentaries.
  • Modern accounts often say say an Inca bridge exists across the Pongo - they must be incorrect as the bridge was was not there in 1964. If it's there now it's certainly not Inca.

Early accounts

1916 The Andes of Southern Peru Isaiah Bowman / American Geographical Society / Henry Holt and Company, New York. Yale Peruvian Expedition 1911, Hiram Bingham, credited with discovering Machu Picchu was Director of the expedition.

1932 West Coast Leader [Predecessor of the Peruvian Times] July 26th 1932, A report of the death of Professor J. W Gregory.

1953 Rafting the Urubamba Malcolm K. Burke a series of eight stories in the Peruvian Times, Lima, February 3rd / March 19th 1956 - Malcolm Burke was a writer based in Lima and he made raft journeys down the main Amazon tributaries. All reported in the Peruvian Times.

1958 Quest for Paititi, Julian Tennant, Max Parrish , London [1954]

1961 The Cloud Forest, Peter Matthiessen, Viking, New York

And there may be others before 1964 - if so please send an e-mail to the editor - see CONTACT INFO

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