Rio Tehuatepec, Mexico – First Descent

Lacey strolling one of the big sandy beaches along the rio

Rocky had done the initial research of the Rio Tehuantepec and had discovered the river looked good for an initial run. During the summer of 2011 Rocky Contos and Lacey Anderson were doing river explorations in Mexico. In October of that year Neil Nikirk and others were able to join them for the first descent of the Tehuantec in the state of Oaxaca. Alfredo and Marcelo from Ecuador Adventure, Justin from Southern Explorations, and others they knew joined the river exploration for what was intended to be a 4 day trip with hopefully nothing over Class IV to deal with.

When the group got to the put-in, they realized the water was a bit low, but there looked to be enough to make it down successfully given what they had seen in the satellite images (Google Earth). There looked to be one spot where the river split around an island that would probably be the crux of the run. This would definitely prove to be the case. 

The first day was a pleasant float through a broad valley where the river meandered peacefully and there really was nothing of concern except for weirs made of sticks, rock quarries, and the occasional tree (strainer) in the channel. They camped on a broad sand beach and enjoyed dinner, music, and wine that first night. Everyone slept soundly and anticipated what lay ahead in the canyon

Rocky Contos enjoying one of the many fun rapids -

As they entered the canyon the river was confined between steep walls with occasional rapids formed by large boulders. Nothing over class III. Even with the low water, this first descent was looking pretty easy. As they entered yet another rock garden of massive boulders, they realized that the river was being split by a major island. This had to be what they had seen on the images. 

Lacey went through the first slot and then pulled out on the rock island to get a better look at what lay ahead. It was not pretty! There were several slots to negotiate, some of which dropped directly onto exposed boulders, none of which were really wide enough for the catarafts. The slots were followed by a somewhat tricky ferry where they would have to move left for the final drop of about 1.5 meters over mostly exposed rocks. The cats would have to be carefully negotiated through most of the rapid because it was too tight to be rowed easily. Possible even portaged. 

Teamwork in Island Rapid

While everyone was scouting, Rocky ran through in a kayak. Lacey went next. She ferried to the left above the entrance drop and pulled into a micro-eddy, where her boat could be unloaded and the gear portaged to below the last drop. Turned out it really wasn’t too bad to get her little custom mini-Legend cataraft through the slots as it was just a few inches wider than the slots and very light. Next up was Neil’s larger cat which is a few inches wider than Lacey’s. Neil ran the slots while Rocky assisted with the rope and lifting. Neil’s larger cat got stuck a bit at the top and slid partly sideways over the drop. A quick high side and everything was fine. It took a bit more effort to get Rocky’s 16 foot cataraft through the slots.  Rocky asked Neil to run his big cat through as he assisted from boulders within the rapid. The big cat had to first be unloaded of all its gear so it would be reasonably light. After unloading the gear Neil began his descent. Once again at the top of the last big drop the boat got caught by a blocked entrance. The big boat started to slip over the huge drop sideways. Words to remember – don’t panic! It took much pushing, pulling, slipping, bumping, and banging the big cat down this challenging rapid, but Neil did it. He safely maneuvered that big beast down. The kayakers came next. Those who chose to run it, instead of portaging, had an exciting run through the narrow slots. 


Down below was another rapid that had the group concerned, but a quick scout determined that this one should be clear enough for the cats and there weren’t any big drops beyond a 2-3 foot ledge at the entrance. After loading the gear back on the cats, they took off. The rapid turned out to be a long boulder garden. Lacey and Neil love this kind of technical water and had great runs. Rocky’s big cat got stuck a couple of times (briefly) but there were no problems. They continued down to just above the next town where they camped on a small beach below a papaya plantation. 

As is often the case, when doing first descents, the groups arrival brought out the locals who had never seen boats on their river before. Those who could speak Spanish inquired about the river below and the answers ranged from bad to worse. The consensus was that the rapids were a lot like the rapids they had just done, but there was probably one place where the entire river went under a rock creating a deadly sieve. 

Farmers truck taking part of the group out of the river

Maybe this first descent was about to get a lot tougher. Justin wasn’t feeling well and the gang from Ecuador preferred some downtime on the beach to possibly carrying rafts and kayaks around unknown rapids, so they opted to hire a truck to get back to their vehicle, with plans to spend a couple days in the beach town of Huatulco. 

Lacey and Neil were game to continue with Rocky to see what was downstream and complete the first descent of the Rio Tehuantepec. The locals fortified them in the morning by delivering several papayas for their journey downstream. 

Neil Nikirk running one of the unnamed rapids

Well, to make this story really knar – you could be told that what lay downstream was ugly class IV, V, and VI and that they had to portage around the rock where the river disappeared, but that would be a lie! 

The truth is they spent the next couple days wondering where that “deadly” rock was as they enjoyed an extremely beautiful canyon filled with mostly Class III to III+ rapids. They even hiked up one of the tributaries to some cool little waterfalls and pools. There are also some warm and hot springs along this last stretch too! It seems unbelievable that no one has explored this river by boat before. 

The first descent of the Rio Tehuantepec turned out to be a beautiful river that can be done by anybody with Class IV or better boating skills and the desire to boat off the beaten path in south-central Mexico. As first descents go, it couldn’t have been nicer. 2013 would be a good time for a second descent, who wants to go?  


Rocky Contos hiking a side canyon - there are hot springs too!

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