Saturday, January 2, 2016

Mayan Whitewater Adventures part 1

The impetus for our recent trip to Chiapas was severalfold:  I first heard about the Rio Usumacinta over 20 years ago, as the biggest river between the Mississippi and the Amazon and a hundreds-of-miles long jungle river trip that had unfortunately been "closed" for decades due to the locals' (Zapatistas) unfortunate recognition that their 1990's insurrection against the Mexican government would (correctly) get more attention if they attacked gringo river runners but had been recently "re-opened" and was being successfully navigated by our great friend Rocky Contos, the Rio Agua Azul is globally famous for it's big-but-friendly waterfalls, and the other associated rivers in Chiapas were equally good.   Ostensibly we went down to run the Usu, but I decided to go down a few days early and get some excitement on some class 4-ish whitewater before we embarked on the mostly-flatwater Usu. And I got some excitement, both on the rivers and off them.

Rain.  It rained a lot when I lived in Oregon, but not so much in SLC, and it's easy to forget what "real rain" really means.  Whenever I go to the tropics, I am reminded of the power of rain:  in Ecuador I saw rains that made rivers flash to 10x their size in minutes, in Vietnam last year we rode through rains that felt like we were getting waterboarded, and on a work trip to Bangkok I watched the city pretty much go underwater in a day.  But when I saw that rain was in the forecast for Chiapas I didn't think much of it:  "oh good, there will be some water in the rios!"  Little did I know....

When I arrived in Palenque, the tourist capital of Chiapas (due to the big Mayan ruins there) it was raining, and coming down hard.  It really takes seeing tropical rain to fully appreciate the accumulation of it, and when we got to the first river's put in -where the river was brown and roaring past at about 10 mph  - I got a good reminder.  Our first day was on the Rio Trujilla, which started at a "natural bridge"; a place where the river went fully underground and the opportunistic Mexicans had built a road over it.
right below us the river simply ends, and then starts up on the other side

There's a new river guidebook for the Chiapas area and fortunately my good pard Rocky had written the book's description for this run, and it (he) recommended a flow of 300-500 cfs.  We guessed that there was probably 2000 cfs in the river, so we knew it would be exciting.
Clearly, I have a sense of what I'm getting myself into....
Despite the copious notes from the guidebook author we still took a bit of time and conversing with the locals to find a viable way back down to the rio after paddling 100 feet and taking out above a 35 foot waterfall
"Yo amigos, is el rio nearby?"
but with a bit of jungle bashing we got to the river.  We slid in and got on the brown freight train of a river, blasting along through the jungle in the middle and hoping that there were no trees around the many blind corners.  Despite us both taking a good beatdown in a big hole that "looks like we can punch it" all went well that day, and the next on a fun run  - also with booming flows - near Palenque.  I didn't take too many (any) pictures on these runs because I was too busy hanging on and staying in the middle!

Our third day we decided to hit the Rio Chich, with a put in on the Rio Canela.  In typical Rocky fashion, our plan was to do three consecutive "runs" in one day, with the assumptions that a) the high flows would enable us to go fast, b) the class 4+ rating at 500cfs (this run had been done by Rocky's guidebook-writing partner Greg) would not be "that bad" with 4-6x the water, and c) that's what Rocky does.  The first couple of hours went according to plan, with really fast water, some fun class 3's, a coupla 4's, a big limestone ledge that was essentially a natural weir with one barely punchable line up against the bank, and a fun 15' waterfall that was enabled by the high water just barely going over a boulder that typically is far out of the water.

Downstream, however, things got a bit real.  A rapid that was likely a "normal" class 4 was a class 5 ripper with a phat hole at the bottom, and we decided to portage, which necessitated a time-consuming rappel to reach river level again. Shortly thereafter we encountered a super-stompin' class 5+ that led directly into a vertical-walled gorge with multiple horizon lines, and since it was by now 4:30 (with full darkness looming at 6) we elected to take our chances hiking out in lieu of taking higher-risk chances on the river.  So we stashed the boats and paddles, stared up into the seemingly-impenetrable jungle looming above us on a 45 degree slope, took a deep breath, and plunged upward.
One nice thing about Latin American rivers is that you are never far from someone's small farm, and after an hour of serious thrashing through the jungle (I saw that there's a reason local Mexicans are rarely seen without a machete!) we popped out at some cultivated fields and a couple of shacks.  The locals mostly spoke the local language (Chol?) but fortunately we found one guy who spoke Spanish, and he informed us that it was a 3 hours' walk out to the highway.  Well, we better get going then!

Darkness fell was we trudged up the path that eventually turned into a double track, and from what we could tell we ascended to a ridge and then started plunging down.....back down to the river?  Right about the time we were getting fairly convinced that we were about lost a small sedan packed with guys came chugging up the "road", got stuck, the guys piled out and gave it a push up to where we were, and informed us that we were within a few hundred meters of the highway.  A half an hour of trying to wave cars down and we were finally in a truck and were shortly reunited with our kind shuttle drivers, who were just hunkering down for a night's sleep in the van.

So that was our on-river adventure; little did we know what was to come!  After a day of checking out the Palenque ruins, I convinced Rocky to stay in town and prep for the river trip leaving the next day and we got fellow river tripper Brian (coincidentally, also from SLC/Sugarhouse; an old-time river rat who was keen for some adventure), Andres (chain-smoking, gringo-looking but non-english speaking Argentinian), Eeta (Mexican), and German ("Her-man"), our gentle giant, Isis-bearded river rat from Mexico City to help me retrieve the boats.

We made the 2 hour drive back to where Rocky and I had reached the highway, then turned off onto the steep double track and proceeded to take about as long to cover the 12k/7 miles and reach the little ranchito as it took for us to walk out due to the burliness of the "road".  Once at the ranchito, we were surprised that about a dozen people came out, and it became pretty clear that they were not happy; apparently it was hard to grasp the fact that gringos could be so stupid as to go down a flooded river and then so scared that they would get out, what the hell was a kayak plastico, and by the way the last gringos who were down here poisoned the river and killed all the fish (?!?).  A woman nursing a baby was our main protagonist and after an hour of German's patient and professional explaining and apologizing for his loco gringo, she abruptly said "OK" and the villager we had met on our escape was kind enough to lead us down a trail to the river that we had unfortunately missed on our exit.  Getting the boats out was still a challenge (we had to work back upstream to the locals' trail on a steep, jungly bank) but finally at sunset we ended up back at the village, tired and beat up but happy:
we had mostly changed out of our sweaty, muddy clothes, and thought we were "done".....
Not surprisingly, the locals didn't want their picture taken, but one of them was willing to take this pic of our crew; little did I know that this simple photo would contribute to our later travails....

We made our way slowly back up the trail in the truck, and after about 20 minutes we stopped for one of the cattle gates, and another group of locals came out to talk to us, and the same explanation ensued.  By this time it was dark, and suddenly a vehicle appeared out of the darkness and a bunch of guys piled out.  "What a coincidence!" I thought "another car down here today?"  But in the fading light I saw the colored lights on top of the truck, their matching hats and black shirts, shiny boots, and belts laden with the various items that police the world over typically carry, and realized that a) it wasn't quite a coincidence that there was another vehicle in that valley, and b) our adventure was just beginning.

After a lot of animated talk in both Spanish and Chol (the local language) suddenly there was some resolution and I got shoved back into the back of our truck, only this time without my buddies and with only the policia and a couple of the locals there to keep tabs on me.  We bounced back up the road until we hit a muddy spot that  -on our descent  -we had barely made it through and now  -climbing - we got stuck.  Everyone piled out of both trucks, and I was relieved to see that not only was German still driving the truck but my other amigos were still at least in the convoy, just under the supervision of the police in their truck.  We all heaved ho to get the little truck out of the mud, and I took a bit of pleasure as I watched the policia get as absolutely splattered with mud as the rest of us, which took a bit of luster off their polished boots!

After another hour of bouncing along the "road" we hit the highway, and I was disappointed but not surprised to see that we turned the wrong way and started driving through the night.  It was around this time that I started to wonder if this little soiree was going to turn out well!

After an hour we ended up in a town, and of course at the police station.  We were shepherded in, made to wait a while   -as mud-splattered ragamuffins  -until el commandante showed up, and then had to wait for another guy to show up from the state's ministry of tourism who had been alerted of our shenanigans.  Finally those two, the five of us, most of our "captors", and a few locals all were stuffed into the commandante's office and yet another animated discussion ensued, and again enough of the local language was spoken enough so that we couldn't really figure out what was being said, but the body language and volume indicated to me that they couldn't quite decide whether to throw us in jail or let us go, and even the locals seemed to be arguing between themselves; I think that the guy who showed us the trail was saying "these guys are legit and meant no harm; they are just idiots" but an older guy still kept gripping his machete too tightly and staring at me malevolently between bouts of yelling at the cops. And I was able to glean that they were furious that we had taken a photo; what was up with that?  what was El Gringo going to do with that photo? (German patiently explained that was sort of a gringo "thing").   I still wasn't sure how this situation was going to end up.  The thought occurred to me that a photo of this scene could be priceless  -and the ministry of tourism guy did actually get a couple of cell phone pics of the accused and the accusers, I think to get documentation of such a nutty situation - but in a brief moment of clarity I decided against busting out my camera again, which German later confirmed was a good move, or we'd likely still be there.  

Finally el commandante pounded briefly on his computer and printed out 5 copies of a state-letterheaded document that basically said "we are absolute idiots, we are so sorry we trespassed on your river and land, and we will get permission next time."  We all signed our own personal copies, and then German asked "do you have 500 pesos?" (about $30).  I immediately busted that out, handed it with as much deference as I could muster to el commandante, who then passed it to the locals, and instantly everyone got up, shook hands, and we were done.  So it goes in the southland!  (ironically, I had offered the villagers 100 pesos earlier for helping us get to the river and get the boats, but they wouldn't take it??).  A long drive finally delivered us back to our beds in Palenque in the wee hours.

Basically, this was a minor version of the Zapatista uprising that had plagued the region in the 90's and early 2000's; basically the rural locals felt threatened by outsiders and were tired of being picked on, so they revolted; fortunately this one ended peacefully instead of violently, as had happened in years' past.

And thus is the tale of  -as German then called me for the next week on the Usu - the (gringo) Bandito De Rio Chich.   I can't thank my crew and German in particular for their hard work, support, and patient, articulate defense of el gringo stupido in my hour(s) of need!

next up:  the tale of the (far more mellow, thankfully!) trip on the Rio Usumacinta.....