December 2019 was not only the close of the second decade of Northwest River Guides LLC and eNRG Kayaking business ventures in Oregon, but it was capped by one of the most fulfilling organized international river adventure in our 19 years of business (with 33 multiday international trips in 23 countries under our belt).
The idea was born out of a conversation with an old college friend (taking a year-long family sabbatical) about Europe, and quickly shifted to the best international “family oriented whitewater river expedition” in the world. The Rio Usumicinta has been on my hit list for years as it flows through a Grand Canyon on the border of Mexico and Guatemala. Containing class I-III+ whitewater, howler and spider monkeys in the trees, tropical birds, and reptiles on the banks and in the river, combined with Ancient Mayan ruins accessible only from the river made in my mind the ideal entry level “international family whitewater river expedition”.
Four families (7 children from ages 7-16), adventurous parents, a 73-year-old grandma, a safety kayak doctor, and a retired cop rounded out our group for our first trip down. Working with the local outfitter (our partners- Sierra Rios), the trip doc, x cop and I headed down to Chiapas early to do a 3-day river rescue certification course for local guides. Flying from Mexico City south and east 1.5 hours we landed in Villahermosa, and drove two hours east to the ancient Mayan town of Palenque. Our guide training took place with low water, and a large language gap and challenged my 200 level Spanish vocab. Thank goodness for our spectacular interpreters German & Rocky- the training turned out to be a great cultural exchange and a chance for us to experience the aquamarine waters and limestone geology in the area.
Shortly thereafter our group from Oregon arrived, and we started prepping for a visit to the Palenque Mayan Ruins (a UNESCO world heritage site) prior to a 7-day jungle camping river trip (with 5 rafts, 2 kayaks and a SUP), and a visit to the world-famous Agua Azul waterfalls afterward. It didn’t rain on us in any significant way the entire trip despite scheduling it at the tail end of the monsoon season. The river level was a low to medium, the white sand beaches plentiful (we lost half our beach the second night due to an up-river rain surge which surprised us and required us to move our tents and the kitchen in the dark). We fell asleep most nights to howler monkeys, and watched spider monkeys climb over our kitchen more than once. Toucans, tarantulas, American crocodiles, and iguanas were all sighted on the trip. The biting bugs weren’t too bad, and the San Jose Canyon was a highlight of the trip with walls towering 1800 feet off the river and “Devil’s whirlpool rapid” offered us our highest adventure moment with one of our intrepid inflatable kayakers doing some “downtime” in a large whirlpool (after getting knocked over by the safety kayaker- me (whoops)! Check out the video here.
The last days of our trip were reserved for a trip to the world renown Agua Azul waterfalls a short drive from Palenque, and mother nature unleashed a tropical deluge the night after our last riverside camp (when we were back at the hotel) that resulted in a flood never seen before by locals. The flood waters spilled over the banks of Agua Azul and into the adjacent streets. Our planned day of rafting and waterfall kayaking turned into experiencing cascading torrents of flood waterfalls hurtling at freight train speed down the steep riverbed. After purchasing some curios at the souvenir stands, and some local coffee and organic chocolate we agreed that indeed we will be back to Chiapas, and the Rio Usumicinta. We are currently planning our next trip to the “Sacred Monkey River” in March of 2021.