Río Usumacinta is 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 very 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, shreik from the horrifying gaspy calls of howler monkeys, visit two major Mayan arqueological sites, and demonstrate your whitewater skills by surfing waves, running the small falls on Río Chocoljá, and successfully negotiating the giant whirlpools in the Gran Cañon de San José. 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. Bring your own boat or use one of ours (planned availability). It may be possible to join a Lacanjá trip beforehand for a 18-day jungle adventure!
Show your appreciation of a free-flowing Río Usumacinta and oppose the five dams recently proposed to be built starting as early as 2014. Please sign this petition against the dams and spread the word to garner more opposition!
|Even if you don't join a raft trip, help support our campaign to Save Río Usumacinta and train local river guides with a donation. Your donation could be applied toward a future river trip if you so wish!|
Río Usumacinta is the most voluminous river in all of Mexico and Central America and forms part of the border between Chiapas and Guatemala. The river averages ~3000 cms (~100,000 cfs) in the rainy season and 800-1500 cms (30,000-50,000 cfs) in the drier winter months. Although it is generally flat moving water, there are a number of class II and III rapids, at least four of which rate III or III+. Due to the reliable big water, canyons, Mayan ruins, rapids, and other interesting aspects along the river, it became one of the ultimate rafting journeys in the world, and a prime winter destination of many Grand Canyon guides starting in the 1970s. The rafting industry calmed down during the Guatemalan civil war when militants took refuge in the jungles near the banks of the river and sometimes robbed rafting groups. Now well after the war, the dangers have subsided. Guatemalan soldiers and caretakers stationed by Piedras Negras keep the region safe. SierraRios has run eight raft/kayak expeditions down the river between 2010-2014 safely - see summary slideshows of some of these trips at: Usumacinta2011a and Usumacinta2011b. See an article Rocky wrote about one of the recent descents published in American Whitewater. Read some comments from participants. [For an excellent book discussing all aspects of this river including the assaults, rapids, the Maya, trade routes, ruins, plans for damming, and wildlife, see Christopher Shaw's Sacred Monkey River.]
TENTATIVE ITINERARY (Dec-May):
DAY 0: fly into Villahermosa; transport to Palenque (2 hr); night in Hotel Lacandonia or other
DAY 1: This is the launch day. Most groups will eat an early breakfast at rendezvous of Hotel Lacandonia at 7 am where we'll load into the van for the 3-hr drive to Frontera Corozal (our put-in on the Mexican side of the Usumacinta). At the put-in, we'll finish rigging the rafts, have a safety talk, and launch, getting downstream 6-20 km. Note that you can leave valuables either at the SierraRios depot in Palenque or in the vehicles, which should be safe with our shuttle drivers in Frontera until the day we take-out. Spaghetti. ~20 km
DAY 2: We will paddle to and spend several hours at Yaxchilán ruins. In the afternoon we either camp at Yaxchilán or arrive at a beach camp 6-25 km downstream. We'll have a traditional Mayan/Mexican feast of tamales this evening. ~20 km
DAY 3: We paddle through the first big rapids of the trip (Chicozapote; class II-III), pass Big Springs where we'll refill water, and make it down to at/near the giant El Playón beach, where we may lunch and do a hike to a laguneta. We'll continue down, pass the village of Arroyo Jerusalén, negotiate more class II rapids in a scenic gorge, and set up camp at the beach by Piedras Negras. Steak/salmon. ~40 km
DAY 4: 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 rolls and other paddling techniques, or simply relaxing in camp. Lasagna! 0 km
DAY 5: We'll pass El Porvenir then enter a class II gorge with Cola del Diablo rapid, and arrive at and explore the beautiful travertine waterfalls of Busiljá that cascade directly into the Usumacinta. After exploring the side stream, we'll have lunch and then continue downstream. One possible excursion is to explore the final five drops on Río Chocoljá (if there are interested kayakers on the trip; we would walk upstream to paddle them). We then enter the main Gran Cañon de San José and paddle through several big rapids: La Linea, Baluarte and Whirlpool. We'll set up camp in the Gran Cañon de San José before the next big rapids. [We may skip the Chocoljá excursion paddle depending on the group and timing.] Fajitas. ~35 km
DAY 6: 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), 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. ~30 km
Service for the trip ends upon return to Palenque. Folks will generally stay at a hotel in Palenque or in cabañas at El Panchán. The group usually gathers for a restaurant dinner - possibly Don Mucho's, Maya Cañada or Las Tinajas. It is possible for participants to depart.
DAY BEFORE OR AFTER: Often folks will want to visit the ruins of Palenque or visit Cascadas Agua Azul, which are fun and more economically arranged as a group. Also with advance notice and approval, it may be possible to arrange kayak/raft runs of Ríos Shumuljá (class III), Agua Azul (class IV-V), Chacamax (class III), Chocoljá (class II-III), or other rivers in the area.
We will help arrange to get you back to the Villahermosa airport if you need to, but it's not covered in the price of the trip. It is a 1 hr 40min drive. Generally, a taxi is 900-1200p; ADO offers a convenient bus service at 278p and there are collectivos that can take you there for ~200p most times of the day.
Palenque (PQM) airport is small and only serviced by Interjet to/from Mexico City (flights several times per week). If you're based in Mexico City, this is a convenient option. If you are flying from the USA or Europe, it is much easier to find flights into Villahermosa.
Villahermosa (VSA) airport is a 1.8 hr drive ride from Palenque. VSA is serviced by United, American, AeroMexico and other Mexico-based carriers (also as partner airlines). If several of the group are arriving at VSA airport, we can arrange to pick you up (a little extra fee), but you can always get a taxi from there to Palenque (1300p) or take the ADO bus service (278p; generally departs every hour from 7am - 9pm). If you have a vehicle, you can meet us in Palenque and possibly get a discount for use of your vehicle in shuttle.
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.
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. If you have a group arriving to Cancún, we might be able to arrange a special van to take you to some of the peninsular sites and then to Palenque and the river.
We strongly encourage potential participants to offer the general contribution rate (some discounts may apply). Special discounts are sometimes offered to folks on our email list, so you are encouraged to sign up (Email List info).
A trip will definitely occur with a minimum of 4 full-paying participants but sometimes less. Other launch dates can be arranged for groups of 4 or more. For small groups wishing to minimize costs by sharing expenses and with a certain launch date in mind, we can list the additional launch date here to see if others might be interested in joining to make a full trip.
To make a deposit and/or payment, click PAYMENTS.
The policy we will take on the trip is that the trip leader will have main authority when it comes to decisions for the group regarding river progress, camp, etc. If a participant has overestimated their ability to row or kayak, he/she may be mandated to ride on a raft and/or be assessed other penalties. Trip leader decisions can be vetoed by a majority vote of the group. If you are concerned about this issue and are an experienced boater, consider arranging your own group with our outfitting services.
(1) Rocky Contos, often the trip leader, is fluent in Spanish, explored nearly every river in Mexico, solo kayaked the entire Jataté-Lacantún-Usumacinta in early 2010, successfully led raft/kayak trips down the Usumacinta in Dec2011, Jan2012, Dec2012, Jan2013, Mar2013, Dec2013, Mar2014, Dec2014, May2015 (2X), Dec2015, Jan2016, co-authored the guidebooks to Chiapas and the Sierra Madre Occidental, and is preparing guidebooks for the rest of Mexico. In Mexico, Rocky has ~200 probable first descents covering ~8,000 km of river and ~55,000 m of drop and has paddled nearly every river in the country. He has paddled over 160 multi-day journeys on rivers, with dozens in the range of 5-22 days. While attaining his Ph.D. in neuroscience, Rocky worked as a kayak instructor and guide for UCSD's Outback adventures from 1993-1996 and gained valuable trip planning skills for large groups. Although primarily a kayaker, Rocky started rafting in the mid-1990s in order to introduce more people to the wonders of river travel. Since then and throughout his years as a postdoctoral research associate, he organized numerous large group raft and kayak expeditions, including five through Grand Canyon (18-22 days), two on the Salmon River (4-10 days each), and dozens to destinations such as the Salt, Kern, Rogue, Deschutes, John Day, Thompson, Similkameen, and Baja (2-6 days each). Rocky founded SierraRios with the goal of conserving the rivers of Mexico, and hopes that increased awareness and enjoyment of the resource will lead to protection. Rocky is certified in swiftwater rescue (RRC-Pro from SierraRescue3) and WFR (Wilderness First Responder). He is the primary organizer of this trip and will either be safety kayaking or rowing/captaining a raft.
(2) Sunción Lopez (Local Chol guide). Sunción will generally help guide and/or lead all future Usumacinta trips. Sunción came on a January 2013 Usumacinta trip and learned much about the river and rowing. He was a natural. His Chol bilinguality and familiarity with residents along the river adds safety to any trip and he provides additional information on points of interest and the flora/fauna of the jungle. Since that first trip, he's helped guide 8 more Usumacinta trips, a Lacanjá-Lacantún trip, Shumuljá trips, has paddled several rivers in central Mexico, and continues to aspire to be a great guide. Read more about Sunción here.
Below are averages for Estación Chajul (near Frontera, though the climate is similar for Tenosique; a bit less rain overall as one progresses down the Usumacinta):
Historical flow hydrographs for the Usumacinta and some upstream tributaries can be viewed at the following links:
Historical flow: Usumacinta (Boca del Cerro)
"Hi Rocky, Thanks again for a sensational and unforgettable trip. You did such an amazing job organizing. I especially am psyched to have met you and to have another kayak friend/guide to work with. You guiding me off the waterfall was a big highlight... Erik." [2011b Usumacinta trip]
"The trip on the Usumacinta was great, I am very happy that I paddled the river and did not sit on the raft." [2013a Usumacinta trip]
"Thanks for everything, Rocky! What a blast that all was. When's our next trip?!! -Suzy" [2011b Usumacinta trip]