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Río Usumacinta – A River Trip of a Lifetime


Río Usumacinta – A River Trip of a Lifetime

Words and Photos by Levente Gal

General Information:

The Río Usumacinta, nicknamed the “Sacred Monkey River” after the Howler monkeys present on the banks, is a beautiful jungle river flowing on the border between Mexico and Guatemala in the heart of the Mayan jungle. There are ancient ruins to be explored, beaches to camp on and swim at, and an incredibly diverse collection of wildlife, from beautiful jungle trees to Howler monkeys. This trip guarantees an experience that will be remembered forever and is perfect for anyone looking for an adventure, no experience required. On top of the amazing, remote scenery, the river also contains incredible whitewater, ranging from class II – III.

This river trip is a self-supported trip, meaning that all of the stuff you bring are stuffed into dry bags and strapped into a raft. Once the rafts are put onto the water, you cannot go to a store to buy food or clothes, and there will be no towns throughout the duration of the trip that you can stop at. Guides will pack all of the food that is needed for the entire trip, and drinking water is distilled from clean streams. In addition, a portable toilet seat and “cooking appliances” such as dutch ovens and mini stoves are loaded up. Most nights, the group sleeps on beaches next to the river. This trip covers 142 km (88 miles) of river.

There are also exciting adventures to be had in the region of Chiapas before and after the river trip. If you are an avid kayaker, you can find amazing class III – V rivers and waterfalls in the area, most notably the Agua Azul waterfalls. However, you can enjoy your time in the Chiapas as a tourist as well. There are plenty of restored Mayan ruins and temples to be explored, most notably the ruins of Palenque.

River Log:

In the winter of 2019-2020, Patrick Griffin, Levente Gal, and Thomas Pollard went down to Chiapas, Mexico to work an 8 day client-based river trip on the Río Usumacinta. This blog details a river log written by Levente, as well as an essay and video detailing his experiences.

Day 0 (12/27): We touch down in Villahermosa, pick up the rental car, and load our kayaks onto the roof using yoga pads. On the way to Palenque, we stop for some food, which tasted incredible.

Day 1 (12/29): We meet up with the rest of the group and meet the guides we are going to be working with. Patrick and I are safety kayaking to ensure that nothing bad happens to the clients. We help load all of the gear into the vans, including the rafts and oar frames, and set off on a 3.5 hour drive with the clients to Frontera. On the way, we stop at some ruins. We finally make it to our destination, the small town of Frontera.

Ancient Mayan Painting

Restored Ruins









Day 2 (12/30): After spending the night in Frontera, we finish rigging the rafts and launch onto the river. We paddle a short distance of about 20km to the ruins of Yaxchilán, where we plan to spend the night. The ruins of Yaxchilán are amazing, it feels like an actual city. We also see some Howler monkeys up in the trees above us, and, well, wouldn’t you know it, they start throwing feces at us. We camp near an airstrip, and a couple of times we heard and saw small planes landing and taking off, bringing tourist to the ruins. That night, at around 12-1 am, we heard the Howler monkeys doing what they are known for, howling incredibly loud.

The Crew Right Before Launch!

Mayan Monolith in the Afternoon Sun

Ancient Mayan Building











Day 3 (12/31): We put back onto the river. There were some slightly bigger rapids today, probably around class II – III. We paddled around 40 km of river, and stopped to distill some water and take a rest. At the end of the day, we camped at a massive beach. We celebrated New Years Eve and a client’s birthday by baking a cake in the Dutch oven!

Beach Campsite

Day 4 (1/1): Happy New Years! We didn’t immediately launch the rafts today, we instead did a sweet hike to a pristine blue lagoon where we swam around. We had lunch and then put on the river, and we paddled a short distance, about 15 km, to some Mayan ruins. Our trip leader checked in with the military, who patrol the border, and also bought a turkey from the local caretakers of the ruins, which we ate for dinner. We set up a more long-term camp, as we are spending the following day at the camp site.

Day 5 (1/2): Today is a nice relaxing day. We hung out at our little beach at the edge of the jungle and we explored the ruins in the jungle. We saw huge jaguar claw marks on one of the trees, and I also saw a really old tractor?? I also saw a huge colony of fire ants, so I made sure to steer clear. Patrick and I went on a run later in the day and got a little lost in the jungle. Patrick also fell and hurt his ankle a little bit, but nothing serious happened.

Our Layover Campsite

Day 6 (1/3): We left our layover campsite today. The highlight of today was a series of waterfalls that fell directly into the Río Usumacinta called the Cascadas Busiljá. We stop for about an hour to explore the waterfalls and the stream above it, and to jump off of the waterfall! Patrick and I also find a tributary of the river called the Río Chocoljá and hike our boats up to run the last couple drops. After the pit stop, we set off again and entering a gorge, hitting a couple of the bigger named rapids: La Linea (III+), Baluarte (III), and Whirlpool (II+). This stretch of river was about 35 km, and we then set up camp once the river widened again.

Cascadas Busiljá

Hangin out at Cascadas Busiljá









Day 7 (1/4): Today we paddle through the most gorged out part of the river and we will be hitting the largest rapids, Jocécito (III), San José (III+), and White Wall (II-). After that the river became flat again, and we paddled a bit of flat water. We were pretty lucky with the weather, but we got hit with really hard rain while we were paddling. After a couple hours of paddling the flat water, we got picked up by a motor boat and got towed to the take out, which was a unique experience! After 7 days on the river, it felt good to be on land again.

The Gorge

Raft Chain Being Towed









Day 8 (1/5): The clients are going to visit the ruins of Palenque, so Patrick, Thomas, and I decided it was a perfect day to check out the Upper Tulijá river. This was world class class IV whitewater, and was the perfect cool off after a week on the river. That night, we went to a restaurant with the clients and saw some fireworks.

Day 9 (1/6): Today is the day I run my first waterfalls! Patrick and I are meeting up with Rocky Contos, who was our trip leader, to run Agua Azul, a world famous stretch of whitewater containing 5 30+ waterfalls. It was the experience of a lifetime. I ran everything except for the large 60-70 footer, and I will never forget it. My skirt imploded on the final 40 foot drop, but Patrick and Rocky rescued me!! We also met up with the clients, who rafted the river that the Xanil River flows into.


Double Drop on Agua Azul

The Final 40 Footer








This river log only has very vague and basic information, but it is up to you to experience this for yourself! Book the trip, visit southern Mexico, and get on the river! More information can be found at the very bottom of this page.

Additional Media:

Below is an essay Levente wrote detailing his experiences during the river trip. Also linked is a video from Agua Azul, Río Tulijá, and Río Usumacinta.

It felt like I was falling in slow motion, but as I looked down to spot my landing, the water rushed up at me surprisingly fast. As I tucked forward to reduce the impact, the freezing water hit me like a brick wall. A cold shock overcame me, and I suddenly realized I was out of my boat, being pushed under by the force of the water coming down on me from 40-feet above. Time seemed to slow as I struggled underwater until I re-surfaced, gasping for air. Patrick and Rocky fished me out of the water and we could finally pause to marvel at the beauty of the cascade of turquoise waterfalls we had just descended. 

In the winter of 2019, I was invited to work as a safety kayaker and guide on a commercial raft trip in Mexico by my boss, Patrick, and his friend Rocky, the expedition leader. Enticed by the opportunity to work in another country, as well as the potential to run huge waterfalls, I eagerly accepted. One of the best parts of these multi day raft trips is that they are self-supported. One must give up the comforts of a civilized life, usually taken for granted. Clients can only bring what can fit on the rafts: a few sets of clothes, a tent, a sleeping bag, and food. People quickly learn the value of every drop of fresh water and every crumb of food. While the guides and safety kayakers ensured the safety of the clients on the river, four hired armed guards protected all of us against potential violence and kidnapping that has plagued this part of Mexico. The   River is the border between Mexico and Guatemala and a place where migrants cross under the protection of the jungle, often stalked by human traffickers. It was humbling and almost shameful to see how privileged a life I lead in the US. Our group lived on the islands of the Usumacinta River for ten days, and it was the most fun I’ve had. Sleeping on the edge of the jungle with monkeys calling out at all hours of the night, I had plenty of time to reflect on my experiences. Interacting with the local guides and sharing our passion and knowledge of kayaking, as well as cooking, cleaning, and navigating the rapids was very rewarding. At first, I felt out of place as a 15-year-old among adults. But even as a younger member of the team, my experience was still valued and everyone readily accepted my advice and input during different situations. I knew I was a valued contributor and leader.

During this trip I hoped to improve my skills as a whitewater kayaker, since my goal is to compete on a national level. Before arriving in Mexico, Patrick and I researched how to run Agua Azul, a sequence of waterfalls famous for its five biggest drops, including two 60 footers. Running waterfalls requires exquisite technique, and opportunities to learn are limited. The stroke at the lip must be gentle but strong enough to pull you over the edge of the waterfall at the perfect angle. The paddler must spot their landing to ensure they don’t accidentally land upside down, while simultaneously protecting their face and body by tucking forward. I kayaked every waterfall of the cascade with perfect precision until I was thrown from my boat running the 40-foot waterfall, just before my dream 60-footer. The skirt of my kayak imploded due to the force of hitting the water, so I decided not to paddle the 60-footer with unsafe-gear. Balancing the urge to pursue such an exhilarating experience with the inherent risk of doing something so dangerous is challenging and must be learned by every whitewater kayaker, because Mother Nature is not forgiving. Still, to this day I hear the 60-foot waterfall calling for me.