The Usumacinta Wilderness Secured

By Rocky Contos
2249 words

Wilderness boating has its dangers. What it conjures up in most people's minds are threats of bears or, in the event of mishap, potential death from exposure to the elements or starvation. However, one threat that has plagued wilderness river-runners for millenia continues: unfriendly humans. The idea seems a bit like an oxymoron - the point of wilderness is that there are no people, right? However, as waterways have been trade routes since time immemorial, the ill-intentioned have laid siege from the wilderness. Just think of the threat of Native attacks on all the early Spanish river exploration parties, and even the Powell party as they ventured down the Green and Colorado.

This threat continues in many wilderness river areas of the world. Particularly hard hit with the problem were rivers in Guatemala and Chiapas. Assaults on rafting parties actually ended up completely stopping the burgeoning rafting enterprise on the famed Río Usumacinta in 1996 and later on the Jataté. The stories of assaults spread and instilled horrifying fears in anyone thinking of venturing on these rivers again. In fact, the river raft traffic on the Usumacinta went from probably over a thousand folks a year down to zero after 1996.

For many years I let fears of assault dissuade me from paddling in the Usumacinta drainage or even stepping foot in Chiapas. Yet after completing explorations of nearly every other major river in Mexico, I have to venture into the Usumacinta, if only to reassess the danger situation.

As I arrive at Frontera, the normal put-in for the main Usumacinta run, I know that downstream there would be no easy access out of the river for ~90 miles as it passes through mostly tropical jungle wilderness. I agonize over the decision to continue down through the main Usumacinta. I fully expect to run into bandidos at some point, probably where most assaults had taken place in the past - between Piedras Negras and Cañón San José. To avoid them in this section, I am considering paddling the river during the twilight and night hours. That plan has its downsides. Aside from being extra dangerous from not being able to see the big water rapids, it would defeat much of the purpose of my trip: to document all of the river features again. However, it does give me enough temerity to venture down the river, apparently where no paddlers had gone for more than a decade.

I arrive at Yaxchilán late in the afternoon and pull my boat ashore just as the last panga is departing. Nobody is around. I have a ticket to visit the ruins, so figure I have the right to explore on my own. They are fascinating. I enter through an enclosed cave-like passageway with bats and emerge in the main plaza area where I can see all the major structures and stelae. I climb up a high flight of stairs but retreat due to the impending darkness. I wonder what this civilization must have been like over 1000 years ago - with the revered jaguar, human sacrifices, maize cultivation, and frequent war.

When I return to my kayak, one of the caretakers is waiting for me (Felipe). We chat a while and he invites me into their compound for supper. The delicious caldo de pescado (fish stew) they serve me was based on a huge fish caught in the river. Felipe tells me that at one point about 10 years ago, the bandidos came to Yaxchilán, lined up all the tourists, and one by one took all their valuables. They then fled back into the jungle. He says that non-motorized rafts stopped passing about 14 years ago, but large motorized boats continued down for several more years, until one of those was robbed. He mentions how a guy named Scott (I imagine Scott Davis) still comes there most winters at low water and camps on the beach with friends before retreating back upstream to Frontera. I plann to camp, but he warns me of jaguars – their tracks were seen by the compound recently, and one had accosted a “gringo loco” camper there in the past. Well, maybe there actually are some other wilderness dangers that I should be worried about on this trip!

Felipe’s warning has the intended effect of conjuring up demon terrors in my mind that night. Although nothing molests my tent, in the morning I find a banana missing from my kayak. I chuckle at the thought of how a small monkey might have spooked me so much! I then remember a passage in Tom Robey’s book that suggested the caretakers here sometimes exaggerate the crocodile and jaguar threats. In the morning, I confirm that Felipe was only jokingly trying to shake me up a bit – no jaguars had actually attacked campers there. He does say they have seen their tracks in the past, but not recently.

I take off and paddle the rest of the way around the Yaxchilán peninsula where the river makes almost a complete circle. Soon I am enjoying some big water class II action. The rapids die down before reaching one of the biggest beaches on the river near a place called Desempeño. I check out the beach and confirm it would be an excellent place to camp. It is hot out, so I swim in the warm river. The thought crosses my mind to hike to some pristine lakes in the jungle (this was common layover day hike), but I don’t want to leave my boat unattended, so just press onward.

Downstream where the river enters another gorge, there are many people along the Mexican banks – near the village of Arroyo Jerusalén. I do not look directly at the women washing clothes or kids playing and don’t stop, even though I notice a few of the villagers are interested in my boat and me. Several kilometers farther along there are no humans to be seen and I know I am near Piedras Negras, but am worried that I may accidentally pass the site. I look for a big rock cairn ruin and beach that supposedly mark the location. I don’t see the rock but do come to some big beaches in the gorge, and since it is late anyway, I stop to camp. Howler monkeys screech with their breathy metallic monster calls as I spend the night wondering if I will make it through the trip unmolested.

The next morning I paddle less than a kilometer downstream to the next big beach and see the rock with inscription. I’ve found Piedras Negras! There is nobody around. I walk up a path to explore and find a structure under construction, possibly to house caretakers. I continue on the trails and explore the ruins. I see the old tractor from earlier in the century when university researchers were excavating the site. As I walk along another of the trails, I hear a “plop” next to me as something falls from the canopy. Looking up, I see howler monkeys. Apparently a male has attempted to drop a load of caca (poop) on my head, something they are known to do when disturbed by the presence of other primates. After staying at the site a couple of hours, I return to my boat and start downstream.

I don’t make it far before reaching a massive eddy on the right with a big beach and structure. Some men in fatigues come out and wave me over. I have no choice this time. They appear to be armed. As I approach, my fears are assuaged as I see the sign on the building indicating this is the Guatemalan Army. Soon there are a dozen soldiers on the beach waiting for me. The boss of the compound asks me for identification and says I should have stopped there first before going into Piedras Negras. Unfortunately, I tell him that since I expected to be assaulted, I left my passport and wallet in my truck at Toniná (I actually started way up on the Jataté) and I didn’t know about checking in here. I tell him truthfully my information and exploratory goal. I state that he can verify my identity and everything else on the website. He seems fine with what I tell him but instructs me next time to have ID and check in.

I then ask him about assaults. He says the last one occurred 10 years ago on a motorized raft, at which time they set up this station to protect the ruins and secure the region. They quickly routed all the bandidos and nobody has been accosted since. I cannot contain my joy. I am elated to find them here and express my gratitude. They say that while there have been very few paddling trips passing downstream on the river, a much greater number of tourists and archeologists come to visit Piedras Negras by being motored upstream from Busiljá. They allow me to continue on my journey. I express my gratitude to them once again, then wave goodbye as I paddle downstream.

I am ecstatic! I feel so relieved that I need not worry about being assaulted in this area. Soon I approach Cascada Busiljá. Two trucks are parked a little upstream. There are several guys by motorized pangas on shore. I stop to talk to them. They state that they take tourists down to the falls, up to Piedras Negras, and sometimes all the way downstream through Cañon San José. Apparently these excursions are being promoted in Palenque at one of the hotels. Again, they say that no assaults have occurred in the area for many years despite all the tourists coming there now.

I stop at Cascada Busiljá just downstream, swim in the clear clean water, climb up, and imagine how it would be a fun side-trip to hike upstream to explore the cave that the river supposedly comes out and to paddle back down to the Usumacinta. Back on the river and paddling another 2 hours, I arrive at Río Chocoljá and hike up to explore this intriguing class III-IV tributary with travertine rapids. Only 1 mile downstream of the Chocoljá confluence is one of the biggest rapids on the Usumacinta, called La Raya due to its location by the Mexico/Guatemala border on river-right. It starts with a massive river-wide surf wave before the water boils over additional waves and whirlpools in confused class III currents. I surf the wave a bit but know this would be a place I could stay and play for hours. The limestone canyon is impressive, with walls rising several hundred meters on either side of the river. Additional rapids make for a fun paddle. Soon I pass the villages of Francisco Madero and San José Usumacinta, and stop to camp on a large beach just upstream of Cañón San José.

The next day, I confront the giant rapids in Cañón San José, the biggest of which are San José and San Josito. They are like Grand Canyon rapids with big waves and confused eddy currents. Two rate class III and a few others class II. As I get knocked off a wave surfing one of the last rapids in the canyon, a whirlpool catches my stern and pulls me down. I go back to surf it several more times and every time I come off the wave, my stern gets sucked down into the whirlpool. One time the sucking currents are so great as to actually pull my entire 80-gallon boat under! I manage to maintain enough control to keep my head above water so simply enjoy the experience, but I know such an occurrence would be terrifying to the less experienced.

After 6 miles of exciting whitewater-filled river, the current slows. I hope to encounter one or two more rapids in the canyon as it rounds a right bend to the northeast, but only find flatwater. A cave high above the water invites me to explore. It goes back farther than I am willing to proceed due to the pitch-black darkness. I am told later that this cave-mine is where they were assessing the rock for a proposed huge dam on the river. The take-out bridge is only 2 more miles downstream. I soon arrive, alive and well.

I learn that although the dam was put on hold over a decade ago, there are still plenty of private companies and government officials that want to see the river plugged, and the project may be resurrected soon. Would they really destroy a river canyon as amazing as the Grand? Maybe so. Just in the past 3 years, big dams have flooded Ríos Bolaños, Grande de Santiago, Presidio, and Cupatititzio-Marqués and others are being considered on several other rivers, including the most paddled river in the country (Río Jalcomulco/Antigua). I am confident that the paddle tourism industry on the Jalcomulco will block any pending dam there. However, the Usumacinta is an even more amazing stretch of river, and deserves at least as much use and protection. Thus I feel the need to bring more paddle tourists to this destination. So please take note: the bandidos that plagued river parties on the Usumacinta in the 1990s have been routed. The region is safer now. We need more paddlers enjoying this river! With a paddle tourism industry thriving here again, there will be more reason to preserve it. So please come visit the Usumacinta and show your support of this amazing place.

[If you are interested in joining a raft trip down the Usumacinta or obtaining maps, see the upcoming trips on the SierraRios website ( or contact me (]