Rio Usumascinta – Agua Azul: Chiapas, Mexico
Río Usumacinta: The “Sacred Monkey River”
A beautiful huge jungle river flowing through the heart of the classical Mayan world in a deep impressive “Gran Cañón” but is now threatened with dams. Experience the river yourself on a rafting/kayaking expedition as we tour Yáxchilan and Piedras Negras, camp on giant pristine beaches, listen to howler monkeys, and navigate the big-water rapids of the Gran Cañon de San José. This is a family-friendly as well as an ideal first trip – no experience required.
The Usumacinta river trip is one of the classics in the world and not to be missed. Relax in the hot winter sunshine on giant beaches, swim in warm clean water, traipse through the tropical jungle to spot toucans and jaguar tracks, shriek from the dinosaur-like gaspy roars of howler monkeys, visit two major Mayan archaeological sites, and paddle through a some exciting whitewater in the canyon. Everyone is welcome: kayakers, IKers, oarsmen, and raft passengers. We plan to have several rafts to support our group, so even beginners can take a shot at paddling a kayak. We’ll have at least two local Chol-speaking guides along with us for positive interactions and safety. The pace is relaxed, with one layover day planned. We have a full set of rafts, catarafts, kayaks and inflatable kayaks available and guides to cater to all groups needs.
Show your appreciation of a free-flowing Río Usumacinta and oppose the five dams that continue to be pursued by CFE (Comisión Federal de Electricidad). Please sign this petition against the dams and spread the word to garner more opposition!
DAY 0: fly into Villahermosa; transport to Palenque (1.6 hr); night in Hotel Lacandonia or other
DAY 1: service begins; drive Palenque to Frontera (3.5 hr); visit Bonampak; finish rigging; bungalow Frontera; 0 km
DAY 2: paddle to Yaxchilán; tour the ruins Yaxchilán; class I; 20 km
DAY 3: Chicozapote (III-); Big Springs; to El Playón ; class II-III; ~45 km
DAY 4: paddle to Piedras Negras; LAYOVER; explore Piedras Negras, play in the water, RELAX
DAY 5: LAYOVER; explore Piedras Negras, play in the water, RELAX
DAY 6: Cola del Diablo; Cascada Busiljá; Río Chocoljá; enter Gran Cañon; La Linea; Whirlpool; class III; 38 km
DAY 7: finish Gran Cañon; San Josecito; San José; class III; de-rig (2 hr); dinner in Palenque; 26 km [service ends]
DAY 8: visit Palenque ruins in the afternoon; dinner at El Panchán; Don Mucho live music
DAY 9: raft Río Shumuljá and visit Agua Azul
DAY 0: You should arrive to Villahermosa this day or earlier. Transporation will be provided to accomodations in Palenque. There are ATMs available to get Mexican pesos (MXN).
DAY 1: This is the departure/launch day. Most groups will rendezvous during breakfast at Hotel Lacandonia at 8 am where we’ll load into the van for the 3.5-hr drive to Bonampak, where we’ll eat lunch and then visit this site with its incredible murals. We then arrive to Frontera Corozal (our put-in on the Mexican side of the Usumacinta) and finish rigging, adjust kayaks, have a safety talk, and then a restaurant dinner. Camp or stay in bungalow. Restaurant dinner. 0 km
DAY 2: We will spend the morning paddling to Yaxchilán where we’ll have lunch and set up camp (we have a special arragnement with the park). The afternoon is spent touring the ruins of Yaxchilán. We’ll have a traditional Mayan/Mexican feast for dinner. Tamales/burritos. ~20 km
DAY 3: In the morning we’ll paddle through the first big rapid of the trip (Chicozapote; class II-III), have lunch and stop at Big Springs where we’ll refill water, bathe and swim, and make it down to the giant El Playón beach for camp. Steak/salmon. ~45 km
DAY 4: In the morning we’ll do a hike into the jungle to a pristine lagoon and go for a swim. After lunch back at El Playón, we’ll continue downstream past Arroyo Jerusalen and through the Rapidos Caribe, then stop and swim at the Cenote Tumbado spring just before arriving to Piedras Negras camp. Fajitas/burritos.
DAY 5: LAYOVER. We’ll check in with the military and caretakers at Piedras Negras and spend the day hiking around the ruins, the dry cenote, and jungle, then playing in the water, practicing kayak rolls and other paddling techniques, or simply relaxing in camp. Lasagna or enchiladas; ~15 km
DAY 6: We’ll pass El Porvenir then enter a class II gorge with Cola del Diablo and several other rapids, and arrive at and explore the beautiful travertine waterfalls of Cascada Busiljá that drop directly into the Usumacinta. After lunch, we continue downstream, sometimes stopping to explore/kayak the final few drops on Río Chocoljá (if there are interested kayakers on the trip; to do so requires a paddle/hike upstream). We then enter the main Gran Cañon de San José and paddle through several big rapids: La Linea (III+), Baluarte (II-III) and Whirlpool (III-). We’ll set up camp a more open section before the next gorge and big rapids. Lentils / fish or other. ~35 km
DAY 7: We’ll paddle through the final part of the Gran Cañon San José with two of the biggest rapids the river has to offer: San Josécito (III) and San José (III+), and then the final rapid, White Wall (II). The remainder of the river has no rapids as it goes through the final gorge at Boca del Cerro, but we may still stop at a crystal clear side stream for a swim and/or explore a cave where the gigantic Boca del Cerro/Tenosique dam is to be built. We’ll then arrive at the take-out around mid-day, de-rig, clean and dry items (~2 hr), and drive back to Palenque (1.5 hr). Restaurant Palenque; ~30 km
Return to Palenque. Folks will generally stay at a hotel in Palenque or in cabañas at El Panchán. Optional excursions to Palenque ruins and/or Agua Azul often are scheduled the days before or after the main river trip. The group usually gathers for a restaurant dinner the day after at Don Mucho’s to listen to live music, dance, and enjoy the fire show. It is possible for participants to depart.
DAY 8: PALENQUE RUINS: Often folks like to relax the morning after the expedition, but usually this day we plan a visit to the magnificent ruins of Palenque either in the morning or the afternoon.
DAY 9: SHUMULJÁ/AGUA AZUL: Most visitors to Palenque also plan to visit the Cascadas Agua Azul, which are incredible to see especially when the water is blue-turquoise. We generally like to arrange a raft run of Ríos Shumuljá (class III) this day for some fun turquoise-water rapids and to visit the final most impressive falls of Agua Azul.
DAY 10+ (Optional): Other rivers in the area can be paddled as day-trips, including the Chacamax (class III), Chocoljá (class II-III), Lacanjá (III-IV), and Paxilhá (IV-V).
Cancún (CUN) airport has international flights from just about everywhere, is serviced by most international US carriers, and generally is the most inexpensive to fly to. Although it is pretty far away (~10 hr by bus to get to Palenque), you would get to see more of the attractions on the Yucatán peninsula, including it’s famed beaches, cenotes, and various post-classic Mayan sites (Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Tulum, for example) before or after the trip.
Tuxtla Gutiérrez (TGZ) airport is approximately a 5 hr drive from Palenque. The route between Tuxtla and Palenque passes San Cristóbal de las Casas, a charming colonial city very popular with tourists, and the Cascadas Agua Azul, another of the major tourist destinations in the region.
Villahermosa (VSA) airport is a 1.6 hr drive ride from Palenque. VSA is serviced by United, American, AeroMexico, Volaris, VivaAerobus and other Mexico-based carriers (also as partner airlines).
Our launch date is scheduled for Dec. 27th. This means that you should plan to arrive to Villahermosa the prior day to allow for travel time to Palenque and to get oriented with the crew. Please be sure to be mindful of departure and arrival dates as they may vary.
The Usumascinta expedition will end on January 2nd and we will be traveling back to Palenque, however we intend to spend two days exploring local ruins, paddling opportunities, and seeing the cascades at Agua Azul. Return trips are generally scheduled for Jan. 5th or later.
You will need to pack appropriately for spending an extended time out in the wilderness. Although it will generally be quite warm on most trips, it can get cool at nights and during thunderstorms. Sometimes river water is fairly cold. Other times it’s quite pleasant (and even gets to >80°F on the Usumacinta March-April-May). The list below shows what you should pack.
The standard rates do not include personal camping gear or paddling gear. These items are listed below and can be rented.
River items to bring:
-Shorts+shirt (or swimsuit) – what you’ll generally be wearing on the raft on warm days
-Paddle jacket (+ light wool/polypro shirt: for when it might be raining/cold; can be rented)
-Water shoes (preferably amphibious type to wear on the river and hiking)
-Hat and sunglasses (with retainer)
-Water bottle (preferably with a carabiner to clip onto a raft)
-Sunscreen, lip balm
Camp items to bring:
-Tent (a 2-person tent can be used by an individual) [can be rented]
-Pad/chair (e.g. Therm-a-rest mattress/chair) [Therm-a-rest or Paco Pad+chair be rented]
-Sleeping bag (on most trips a 40oF-50oF bag is fine; often possible as RENTAL)
-Basic camp clothing (shorts, light pants, light long-sleeve shirt, fleece/sweater, t-shirt, 3X underwear)
-Camp shoes (these can be the same as your river shoes or a different dry shoe)
-Headlamp (plus extra set of batteries)
-Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, lotions, etc)
-Special medicines (anti-fungal cream, anti-cold, antibiotics, antimalarials)
-Lighter/matches (remember to check it if flying)
-Pocket-knife (remember to check it if flying)
-Insect repellent (REPEL recommended; very important for comfort in camp on some trips)
Special paddling items to bring (these items can be rented):
-Drybag (such as Bill’s 2.2 DryBag or the NRS Duffel)
-PFD (Personal Flotation Device or “life jacket”) – must be type III or type V
-Helmet (paddling type – WRSI may the best and most comfortable)
-Sprayskirt (if kayaking)
-Paddle jacket (several usually are available to rent if you don’t have)
-Personal safety gear (if you are in charge of a raft or kayak, consider a throwbag/biner/pully, tow line, or flip line)
Guides trained in wilderness first aid will provide medical attention to those suffering illness or injury. We will have one major first aid kit. Our first aid kit will have some pharmaceuticals such as anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, aspirin, paracetamol), anti-allergy pills, immodium/PeptoBismol/Tums, and antibiotics, as well as items/implements to treat wounds and other injuries. If you think you might suffer from something in particular, please bring your own pharmaceuticals. Probably the most common ailment folks suffer from is gastrointestinal distress or traveler’s diarrhea. You should try to minimize chances of contracting it by avoiding potentially dirty foods before the trip. During the trip, we employ NPS-recommended sanitization methods in all our food and water preparations/treatments. If you do end up suffering diarrhea, vomiting, and/or nausea for more than a day, you should consider taking ciprofloxacin for a few days (this often makes the problem go away quickly).
Río Usumacinta is located in the jungles of Chiapas with certain health risks. We recommend that you read the CDC page regarding travel to Mexico and to Guatemala (because the Usumacinta runs along the border of both countries), consider the health advice, and visit your doctor before your trip. In general, visitors to the jungle areas of Chiapas should be vaccinated against Hepatitis A and possibly Typhoid. You might consider getting Rabies immunization as well. Although the area has had cases of Malaria, we generally encounter few mosquitos on the trip and you can protect yourself with repellent, clothes and by sleeping in a tent. To be extra cautious, you might consider anti-malarial medication.
In the event of a critical injury, we will raft the person to the nearest road access and contract a ride out. We will carry a cell phone, satellite phone, and/or SPOT device for communication regarding emergencies and changes of plan. Evacuation and medical costs are the responsibility of the participant. We therefore highly recommend that all participants obtain a travel insurance policy such as those offered through Squaremouth, Tavelguard, or Travelsafe.
All participants on the expedition will be required to sign a liability release similar to those for any outfitter. As guides, we are there to help get you safely to the river, down it, and back out, but due to the inherent risk of whitewater expeditions, we cannot guarantee against accidents, espcially if you are in control of your craft. If you are concerned about the whitewater or other aspects on this river, it is ultimately your responsibility to make appropriate decisions whether to run the rapid or not and to stay close to someone who can watch and oversee you (if you desire that level of protection). If an accident occurs, we will do all in our power to help you, see that proper care is rendered, or evacuate you if need be. Other problems may occur that are out of our control. Again, we highly recommend that all participants obtain a travel insurance policy (see Squaremouth, Tavelguard, or Travelsafe). You are responsible for personal equipment loss, missed flights, and evacuation/medical costs.
The Usumacinta is generally a safe place these days, owing to the facts that the Guatemalan civil war and Zapatista uprising are distant memories, caretakers/guards/police are stationed at the Mexican reserves, and the Guatemalan military is now stationed by Piedras Negras and regularly travel up and down the river. Thousands of tourists travel down the river each year on motorized lancha to visit Yaxchilán. Although we have never had assaults or problems on any Usumacinta trip run by SierraRios (a total of >25 trips run between 2010-2018), we continue to take several precautions to avoid any problems, including (a) having local Chol-speaking guides along on our trip, (b) selecting safer camps, (c) avoiding areas that might be prone to bandidos/assault, (d) knowing the current situation in the area, and (e) paying for special security. We strongly recommend against anyone venturing down the river without taking such precautions.
You might be concerned about the violence in Mexico surrounding the drug war that has been in the news a lot in the past decade. This violence is generally restricted to drug traffickers (narcotraficantes) and those associated with them, including law enforcement. As such, we are not likely to be harassed or molested in any way related to the drug war. For further discussion of the drug war and safety concerns, click here.
Dec-Jan are semi-dry times of the year with usually warm temperatures but some chance of storms. In general, highs can be expected to be 24-33oC (76-92oF) and lows 17-24oC (62-76oF). When there are northern cold fronts blowing through, the highs can be as low as 70oF and it can be quite rainy. The water temperature in the river from Dec-Jun generally reflects the average temperature of the air.
You should take precautions against bug bites. Midges (aka no-see-ems; jejenes), chiggers, and mosquitos are the most frequent culprits. PROTECT YOURSELF and you won’t suffer so much! Put on repellent (REPEL works extremely well) at the put-in and as soon as we land at camp or the take-out, and also in the morning after getting out of your tent. Wear light airy pants and long-sleeve shirts. Choose Bugs-Away clothing or make your own by soaking your clothing in permethrin. Avoid walking around grass where cattle are common and chiggers hang out.
Note: if you’re not immunologically adapted to the area, the midge bites often lead to very itchy red welts!
Water levels on the Usumacinta are generally medium in Dec-Jan, and low Feb-May. Low water is nice in the sense that more beaches are exposed, the river runs clearer, and there are more features in rapids such as surf waves. The river can be done any time of year though, and most of the river is not much more difficult at high water, though bigger whirlpools develop, swims in the rapids can be very dangerous, and some camps will not be available (be extra careful in the Gran Cañon de San José, where huge whirlpools can develop at high water and flip even 16′ rafts!).
Historical flow hydrographs for the Usumacinta be viewed at the following link:
that more beaches are exposed, the river runs clearer, and
Breakfast: always available are: coffee, tea, milk, cereals, and fruits. Sometimes we’ll have yoghurt and orange juice. Many mornings we’ll prepare something special such as oatmeal, pancakes, breakfast burritos, french toast, or eggs, toast, hash-browns, bacon and/or sausage.
Lunch: Items typically available are trail mix, dried fruits, energy bars, chips, cookies, and sandwiches. Sandwiches can vary: ham/turkey, cheese, avocados, tomatoes, lettuce, mustard, mayo; later maybe tunafish; always PB&J. Sometimes something different will be prepared (tabouli, pasta salad, chicken cous-cous, burritos, or various leftovers).
Dinner: Meat will always be prepared separate and there are always appetizers. While almost anything is possible, typical dinners are the following:
General (turkey, steak, and/or salmon; mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, gravy)
Mexican (tamales, chile rellenos, tacos, or burritos; with beans/tortillas/guacamole; chips/salsa or soup to start)
Italian (pasta with marinara or pesto sauce; sauteed squash/chorizo/meat/parmesan; salad or soup/garlic bread)
Indian (curried vegetables, lentils and/or various Tasty Bites; couscous or rice)
Chinese (rice and stir-fry veggies/meats; raman soup appetizer)
Thai (panang or curry with vegetables/meats; rice; tom yum soup appetizer)
Greek (kebabs, falafel, dolmas, pita and/or rice; olives, feta, Greek salad)
Peruvian (lomo saltado/ají de gallina/estofado with rice/soup)
Desserts: There will always be some form of sweet to eat – cookies, chocolates, flan, brownies, etc. On trips with large rafts, we will bring a Dutch Oven and often prepare brownies, cookies, cakes, and/or corn bread.
A standard range of prepared beverages is provided on all trips, usually consisting of milk/tea/coffee/juice/hot cocoa in camp, and Gatorade, iced tea, other drink mixes, or sodas in the afternoon and evening. Alcoholic beverages and canned beverages are not included in the quoted rates for trips. However, we can carry some for you – in general there will be a standard “alcohol/drink addition” that can be selected and paid for on a trip [usually including wine, canned beer and sometimes cocktails, though other canned beverages are possible]. On trips with large rafts, we will likely have a dedicated ice cooler to chill some general drinks and canned beverages (though on longer trips, ice may completely melt away).
We will bring filters and treatment products and provide safe drinking water on the entire expedition. Our standard is a Katadyn Expedition filter (0.2 um ceramic unit). We always collect and purify CLEAR WATER. Rivers often run with a lot of silt and other contaminants and take more effort to convert to clear drinking water than many of the clear side streams. Arroyos with little or no habitation contain pristine water that is usually much safer to drink and doesn’t clog filters. Thus we will usually collect water from springs and clear side streams. To assure clean drinking water, the most common method we use is to filter the water and then also treat with hypochlorite. However, we may also boil, use iodine, or use just filtration or just hypochlorite. Water will be transported in 5-gallon containers. You should bring your own water bottle (or two).
Water for dishwashing and sanitation will be collected from clear sources if possible. If silty river water must be used, often we will have alum along that allows silt to be settled out. This clearer water can then be treated with a bit of hypoclorite and used for washing/sanitizing (see below).
TOILET AND BATHING
Bathing: The river and side streams are often warm enough to use on these trips. You also can bath directly in the river using biodegradable soap. Sometimes we may also have a solar shower, which may be preferable as the soap goes into the dirt and decomposes there instead of in the river. We may be able to heat water on the fire for bathing as well. Please wash and bath with a minimal amount of soap/shampoo and try not to leave foamy residues for others in the camp to find.
Toilet: Urinating should be done directly into the river or away from camp and out of sight of others. We will generally be bringing a toilet, but it will be set over an excavated latrine hole away from the camp and protected from view. We use a paddle to indicate if the latrine is occupied. If no paddle visible by toilet path, it is occupied; an upright paddle indicates it is not [carry the paddle to the toilet and use to toss a little sand in the pit when done]. TP and a TP bag will be by the latrine. TP should be placed in the bag for later burning. A handwash station will be nearby. Always wash your hands after bathroom use. The latrine will be covered with sand/dirt in the morning before we take off on the river.
SANITATION: We will take precautions to make sure all water, food, and plates/bowls/utensils provided on the trip are free of microbes so you should not have to worry about it being the cause of traveler’s diarrhea. We generally follow the NPS Sanitation Guidelines on SierraRios trips. We will sanitize drinking water with filtration and bleach, sanitize all food contact surfaces, require sanitation of hands at the handwash stations, sanitize vegetables that are eaten raw, and sanitize tables and other surfaces. We will discard potentially harmful cooked food that has been sitting out for extended periods. The trip leader (or a designee) will be in charge of making sure the proper amounts of hypochlorite (bleach) are added to:
Drinking water supplies: filtration through a Katadyn Expedition filter, and then 1 drop bleach per gallon; let stand 30+ min; the amount depends on quality/clarity of the water. If no filter is available, we will add 2 drops bleach per liter (~8 drops per gallon).
Hand wash water in buckets (to 100 ppm): ~1.5 mL per liter; or 6 mL per gallon; possibly more for silty water; a syringe will be available for measurement; for a normal 4 gallon bucket of water, we add 24 mL of bleach
Dish sanitizing water SEE HERE (to 100 ppm: ~1.5 mL per liter or 6 mL per gallon); possibly more for silty water; note 5 mL = 1 teaspoon: for a normal 4 gallon tub of water, we add 24 mL of bleach
In some cases we may not have a handwash station set up at lunch. In such instances, we will have alcohol sanitization gel, which should be applied to your hands before handling food/etc.
Also please note that you should always try to minimize your contact with foods that may be consumed by others. In particular, with chips/trail mix, DO NOT REACH YOUR HAND INTO THE BAG. Rather, pour out the quantity that you want – into your hand – and leave the rest untouched for the next person to pour.
Río Usumacinta is in danger of drowning. On a recent Usumacinta trip (March 2013) our friends at SierraRios learned from residents near Boca del Cerro that companies and government individuals had come in to survey the value of the forest that would be drowned. Residents are opposed to the dams. Yet the projects seem to still be planned.
VOICE YOUR OPPOSITION TO THE TENOSIQUE DAM!
Actions to take:
PETITION: sign the petition against the dam and forward to others. “Like” on Facebook, email the link, share!
RAFT TRIP: We invite you to experience the Usumacinta yourself and become familiar with the ruins, jungle, and residents. Launches scheduled Dec-Apr each year.
DONATION: SierraRios can spread the word more and increase appreciation of the river with donations.
LETTER: Write your own letter to Presidente Peña Nieto of Mexico expressing your concern about the river and desire to see this unique Mayan heritage area preserved for future generations.
Use this link to send a message: http://www.presidencia.gob.mx/contacto/
Dear President Enrique Peña Nieto,
The Usumacinta River is one of the wonders of Mexico and deserves protection in its natural state. This river, known as the River of the Sacred Monkey, was a major route of transportation of the ancient Maya. With its forests, ruins, jungle wildlife, beaches, and rapids, it is of the same value to México as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is to the United States. These special places deserve conservation and protection. I was concerned to read that there are plans to build a dam on the Usumacinta River at Boca del Cerro, Yaxchilan, and elsewhere. Apparently those in the CFE proposing these projects do not realize they are going to destroy a magnificent natural and cultural resource with these reservoirs.
As President of the Republic of Mexico, I ask you that you follow the example of President Teddy Roosevelt when he protected the Grand Canyon of the Colorado of the United States as a national park. Please protect Río Usumacinta in its free-flowing state so future generations can enjoy and appreciate it.
James “Rocky” Contos
Total: $1650 per participant
Note that the trip cost includes ground transportation to and from Villahermosa (VSA) as well as lodging while in town and one final meal to celebrate the completion of our trip. Some camping equipment will be provided however personal items such as tents and sleeping bags can be rented at an additional charge. See the “WHAT TO PACK” section and feel free to reach out to us if you are in need of a rental.
This package guarantees you a spot on one of our rafts for the length of our journey. If you are interested in kayaking, or participating in one of our kayak clinics, please reach out to us so that we can discuss further and develop a plan best suited for your skill level. Kayak clinics will be featured as an additional item and more information will be coming to our website soon!