NRS: “Rafting Mexico’s Rio Lacanja”

Rio Lacanja

It was the end of the world, according to the Mayan calendar and I found myself once again in the land of the Maya; preparing to row a gear boat for an exploratory commercial descent of the Rio Lacanja. My love of boating in southern Mexico started in late 1990’s when I was part of a team that ran the Rio Agua Azul with paddle rafts and inflatable kayaks. That journey so long ago on the breathtakingly beautiful travertine waterfalls of Agua Azul left a lasting impression on me and it changed my perspective on what could be done with rafts and other inflatable craft.

The Rio Lacanja was described as a miniature version of Agua Azul, with many of the same type of travertine waterfall drops in a jungle setting. So last winter when I was offered the opportunity to run my small cataraft in support of an expedition down the Rio Lacanja, I was thrilled to participate. The Lacanja area is similar to Agua Azul and is dominated by the same limestone geology. As the river cuts its way through the jungle, it encounters dozens of travertine waterfall drops ranging from 2 to 50 feet high. The minerals from the limestone turn the river an amazing bright turquoise color and the dense jungle creates an almost impenetrable river canopy. The scenery is spectacular and exotic, like nothing we have in the USA. Macaws and parrots glide through the jungle canopy while howler and spider monkeys frolic on tree limbs. All manner of insects and lizards inhabit the rainforest, some of which can definitely bite. The elusive jaguar roams the dense forest around hidden Mayan ruins. On occasion you may even see a crocodile lounging on a downed tree in the river. Very few individuals have boated the upper reaches of the Lacanja and only a handful of boaters have run the lower stretch down to where it meets the Rio Lacantun.

The Rio Lacanja is in the heart of the Selva Lacondon (Lacandon jungle) and borders the large and very important bioreserve known as Monte Azules. There are very few pristine jungles left in Mexico and this reserve is one of them. The way the Mexican government has chosen to protect the area is as unique as the natural environment. Several years ago giant tracts of land were given to the native Lacondon tribe to oversee. The tribe is entrusted with the preservation and safekeeping of the Montes Azules Bioreserve and limit access to the area by non-tribal people. The Lacandon leaders literally have the power to determine who can or cannot float the Rio Lacanja. All boaters must secure permission from the Lacondon tribe before they are allowed to run this river. This can be a complicated procedure, as we found out on this exploratory trip.

We arrived at the put-in, inflated the NRS raft, my Sotar cataraft, and the NRS and AIRE inflatable kayaks, and were almost ready to take off down the river when a local Lacandon tribal member approached. He explained that the tribal chiefs wanted to speak with us because we did not have the “proper” permission to put on the river. Our trip leader and our local Mexican liaison were led away for a meeting with a few of the local Lacandon chiefs to discuss permission to access the river. I was surprised, but not too worried as I had experienced this sort of delay several times attempting to run remote Mexican rivers. Others in our group were a bit more nervous as they had never experienced the need for this type of permission etiquette. There was little to do except seek shelter under the palapa of a local Lacandon restaurant, have a few beers, relax, and wait out the process. In the end, we were allowed to float the river if we included a Lacondon guide; hence, Adolfo (and his trusty machete) joined our intrepid group of river runners. By then we only had an hour or so of daylight so we traveled downstream a few miles managed to find a small clearing in the jungle, just barely big enough for our group, and settled in for the night.

the talented machete welding Adolfo

The next day we were on the water early, trying to make up for lost time. The first part of our day consisted of running dozens of travertine waterfalls ranging from 2 to 10 feet tall. My technique for running the drops in the cataraft was to approach the lip as slow as I could, stand on the scout bars to check out the best line over the drop, adjust position, start pushing hard on the oars to get speed, and give a final push over the edge to hopefully hit the bottom waves and holes straight on and with some momentum. Quite often though, I would get to the lip of a waterfall and discover that the water at the top was too shallow for my cataraft tubes. Just as I would push to drop over the lip, one of my tubes would catch on the sticky travertine, turn me sideways and send me over the brink at the wrong angle, often sideways, sometimes resulting in a flip. I think I flipped twice that morning.

Then, there it was, a river-wide horizon line. My heart began to pound strongly as there was nowhere to pull off and scout. All I could do was slow down as much as possible; the current pulling me ever closer to the edge of the falls. I could only see what most river runners fear, a river wide horizon line with fine white mist drifting up, this meant it was a BIG drop. I stood up on my scout bars and still could not see how big the drop was or the best line. My heart beat even harder as I witnessed the raft ahead of me drop over the falls and disappear completely. As I reached the lip, I could see it was a near vertical drop of about 20 feet. I pushed hard and glided smoothly over the falls; luckily the tubes didn’t catch on the lip. My little cataraft plunged fast, nosedived into the reversal at the bottom, and popped out straight as can be. Whew!! No flip this time. This is why I wanted to run the Rio Lacanja!

Do you see the kayaker inside the falls?

Downstream, the whitewater action continued, but it was interspersed with slow water blocked by trees, logs, bushes, and thick vines. Often we could not push through. Good thing we had 2 machetes, a hand saw, and people who knew how to use them, especially Adolfo. We would hack away at bushes a couple inches in diameter while the talented machete welding Adolfo would choose the biggest trees and get them hacked in half within minutes! The next few days and over 20 miles consisted of this pattern: waterfall drop, calm water blocked by jungle, machete hacking, waterfall drop, calm water blocked by jungle, machete hacking… Progress was very slow, but we had a few welcome breaks along the way. Adolfo had many impressive jungle skills another of which was spotting (indiscernible to our eyes) paths through the dense jungle which lead to rarely visited Mayan ruins. Most of these ruins reminded me of the Disney movie “Jungle Book” because I could hear monkeys howling, creatures slithering, and birds squawking as we viewed the jungle entombed ruins.

This epic adventure was not over yet; there was a reported 50 foot waterfall ahead. Back on the water, a sudden narrowing of the river with a river-wide horizon line signaled the top of a large waterfall. This time there was no mist or spray drifting up, only a smooth pour-over where the river disappeared. Jungle tree-tops were visible downstream; this was a doozy of a waterfall! I quickly pulled back on the oars so as not to get swept over the edge of the potentially deadly drop. We tied off the boats and gingerly crawled as close as possible to the edge of the falls to get a look. It was indeed a 50 foot multi-step drop into a pounding series of reversals, a short brief calm pool and then class IV cascades as far as the eye could see. After a half hour or more of studying the main waterfall drop, the kayakers decided they would carry their boats around the initial class VI drop and put-in just below the biggest reversal. This section of river had only been done a few times before so there were no trails to make portage easy. It was decided that the NRS raft would be “ghost boated” over the falls. To “ghost boat” is to basically push a boat over a waterfall and hope it does not get stuck somewhere in the turbulent water. The kayakers would be ready to help recover the boat at the bottom.

I decided that there was too high a risk of breaking the frame if my cataraft was ghost boated; a portage was necessary. Fortunately, I am used to this kind of adventure and my lightweight cataraft has been customized to make portages easier. Once the expedition gear (dry bags, first aid, etc.) are unloaded my cataraft (tubes and frame) weighs only about 80 pounds! It still was a major undertaking to get gear, a few boats, and people around this obstacle. We had to drag, pull, and with ropes, drop equipment through the dense jungle over uneven terrain. Around 9 PM we were finally done with the trying portage and camped below the last of the major drops.

From obtaining permission from the local Indian tribe chiefs, to great waterfall action and hacking our way through an almost impenetrable jungle just to progress downstream, rafting the Rio Lacanja through the pristine jungle of Montes Azules was a grand adventure in the true sense of the word. All true river adventures have some trying times, the portage was ours! Visiting ancient Mayan ruins covered in vegetation and shrouded in mystery was a real treat. The Rio Lacanja satisfied my whitewater craving for natural beauty, exciting whitewater action (running waterfalls), and exploration of remote areas of Mexico. If I was asked to run another trip down this river next season, the answer would be YES! Next time I may even “ghost boat” my cataraft.

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