Three weeks in the state of Chiapas, a place of lush jungles, little known rivers, and drastic mountains. A land known as ‘Forgotten Mexico’ due to a history of government neglect and outright abuses of the prominently indigenous populations throughout the region. It took years of social unrest and the Zapatista uprising to finally draw attention to the area, and only recently has the government begun to invest in basic infrastructure and health services for the people of Chiapas.
The name seemed fitting on a personal level as well, as it’s been several years now since I was able to travel for any significant amount of time. This was my first extended trip (relative to life as I now know it) since I switched my world all around. It was certainly nice to sink into something different for a while.
The basics were broken up into two parts: a river trip down the Rio Jataté, part one; and a bunch of traveling around, part two.
The whole idea for Chiapas started back in the summer. I knew I wanted to do an extended river expedition somewhere in the world in the December time frame. I didn’t really have any strong opinions as to where, just how long and when. I knew I wanted to run some whitewater and sleep in a tent for a while. And I wanted to do something with Sierra Rios, an outfitter with the potential to operate in various spots across the globe. The owner is a guy named Rocky Contos, and Rocky runs trips, organizes trips, and outfits trips. The company also works to raise awareness of river issues around the world, though it seems like a lot of times it’s often running rivers for the last few times before they die behind inevitable dams. I started talking to Rocky in August, checking out the website calendar, and viewing the potentially available trips. In the end, the Jataté, which I’d never heard of, seemed the best option. And I think it certainly was.
The Jataté (pronounced something like hah-tah-te) is a guides’ river and an expedition style trip. Most of the folks that sign up for these trips are small groups of guides or kayakers, and Rocky puts them together with one or two of his guides that know the stretch. The company provides requested gear, and organizes all logistics of food, transportation, and safety (which became a major issue in the 90s due to civil unrest in both Chiapas and Guatemala).
When committing to the trip Rocky asked me to try and promote the trip. I told him it was unlikely I would find any interested individuals, but in the end my awesome friend Emilie E., who I met on the Kongakut River a couple years ago, decided to fly down from Fairbanks and join. Her presence is what made the trip super special, and it probably wouldn’t have been nearly as fun without her around. In the end it was she and I, a group of three Hungarian kayakers, two guides from Mexico, and another kayaker from the States that’s working on guiding for Sierra Rios seasonally. Emilie, myself, and German rowed gear boats while the other five kayaked.
The trip was everything I wanted it to be. It was eight days total, though lots of travel and sitting around for a couple of those days on either end. After a slow relaxing start, the canyon and rapids began on day four, and the whitewater continued until the morning of the last day. And there was a lot of whitewater. The run was mostly Class IV, but there were a few more difficult rapids, two of which we portaged—an arduous time-consuming process, but part of what makes the trip an expedition. What also makes the trip an expedition is that things are probably going to go wrong, requiring boaters to use skills they may have only trained with in the past. Things certainly got hairy in several places. Rope skills, mechanical advantage systems, quick thinking, and teamwork were critical in a couple of those situations.
Most of the rapids in the first canyon are very technical, with a lot of precision moves leading into sizeable drops. One right after the next. On day five we were seriously running and scouting rapids for seven hours. It was amazing. At the end of the first canyon things opened up and the confluence with another river significantly increased the flow, changing the nature of the rapids to big water runs with huge waves and holes to crush or avoid at all costs. The run was at the extremes of what Emilie had done previously, but even though she was anxious throughout (we later determined she got five years of experience in five days) she killed it with a smile. As for me, I wrapped a boat (for the first time in my life) in the second rapid; I got an unexpected vicious tube suck in another rapid, was ejected from the boat, and broke a fiberglass oar in half with my ribs (still not healed) on my way out—my first swim in years; I also got surfed hard in a sticky hole above a nasty strainer… But the only really bad line I had everything turned out to be just fine.
The following blocks of photos courtesy of Attila ‘Bivi’ Hubik. Thanks Bivi!
The day after the trip Emilie and I hung out in Palenque all day. Ate a mellow breakfast, drank local coffee, went and visited the famous ruins, which were under construction somehow, walked around in the jungle with the amazing Pablo, an 11-year-old self-proclaimed guide, and finished it off with a feast of traditional Chiapan food. The following day we said ‘for sure a next time’ and went our separate ways. Emilie flew to Colorado and I spent the day busing it over to the capital of Tuxtla Guitierrez.
Part two of the trip was meeting up with a girl from Globe, renting a car, staying in nice hotels, eating a lot of wonderful food, and freewheeling it around the western side of the state for a week. Started the run with a boat ride into Cañón del Sumidero, spent a night in the cool little pueblo of Chiapa de Corzo, headed over to San Cristóbal for a couple days where we walked and biked, climbed down a couple hundred stairs to El Aguacero waterfall and then back up, spent several days on the beach of Puerto Artista, took a boat into some mangroves, took a boat over to Boca del Cielo for dinner, made the journey to the Zoque ruin site of Iglesia Vieja and had the place completely to ourselves for the afternoon (actually after leaving San Cristóbal we were often the only people around), swam in the Pacific, strolled in the sand, rode a 4-wheeler miles down the beach, spent a night in Tuxtla and danced to live marimba music in the park.
We finished the trip with a day and night in Mexico City where I met up with Isaac, an online Spanish tutor that I’ve been talking to a couple times a month. He showed us some of the sights and then we ate a memorable lunch up on the rooftop patio of Hotel Zócalo Central. This is probably one of the best times to be in the big city as the weather is nice, everything is lit up and decorated for Christmas, there’s live music in the plaza, and happy people everywhere.
Once Isaac went home, we headed over to the Templo Mayor ruin site and museum, listened to mariachi music in Plaza Garabaldi, walked through the huge park adjacent the Bellas Artes building, browsed Chinatown, and called it a night. The next morning we admired the sun rising through the smog while we ate breakfast on the same rooftop, took a cab through empty Sunday streets to the airport, and flew back to Tucson. There it was a goodbye hug in the economy lot and back to disparate realities. Asi es la vida…
And that was it. Forgotten Mexico and remembering what the authentic self feels like at its best.
¡Feliz Año Nuevo 2023!