Class: IV+ (IV lower); Ave. Gradient: 12 m/km (6 lower); Portages: maybe; Length: 16 km (18 km lower); Time: 4-8 hours (3-4 hours lower), longer for rafts
Season: year-round; rafts? yes (class V); Highlights: beautiful travertine falls and canyon; Crux Move: not agitating the locals
Water Quality: good; Water Temperature: cool
PI/TO: Las Tazas (530m) to La Sultana bridge (lower: La Sultana to San Bartolo)
Description: (click here for general notes about my descriptions)
The Jataté is Chiapas' signature run, a jade-green river stairstepping through a remote and stunning canyon. This is your jungle river paradise postcard come to life. The middle section is the most famous and prettiest part, but after driving so far you should take in a 2nd day on the lower also. Note that the upper section and way upper section are described on another page.
The middle run starts at the Las Tazas canyon. Put-in at Las Tazas or Abiyanal (5 km further down the road where it starts to climb away from the river) or anywhere in between that looks good*. From the Santa Cruz confluence, 30 km above Las Tazas, to Abiyanal, the river is flat, meandering through a wide valley. (Note there is an alternate longer-trip PI on the Río Santa Cruz. From where the road from Ocosingo crosses the Santa Cruz to its confluence with the Jataté, there are 3 km of low volume class II to IV rapids, some quite constricted but passable by rafts when it's been raining. Most give it a pass, however, prefering to bypass the long stretch of flat water that follows.*)
Below Abiyanal you enter the magical canyon, which starts narrow and gradually widens during the day. At times the cliffs come down all the way to the river, with springs bursting from the rock. The top third of the canyon I call the warm-up section, with basically normal rapids, often inviting one in with a big green tongue and throwing up percussion waves in the runout. Soon the rapids become more ledgy and by the middle third of the canyon the drops are taller with some meaty lines. The bigger rapids are often a choice between the class V meat in the folds of the travertine and a class IV slide over the travertine itself. Beware of the hydraulics at the bottom of those drops. In the bottom third the still-tall drops have become true travertine works of art in a wider river bed and you've gotten quite comfortable choosing your preferred line over the ledges and now sometimes through the chutes.
For the sake of history, here are some notes on the names of the rapids: In the top third the biggest rapid is called Slaughterhouse. About the middle third, Cully Erdman writes "The biggest rapid is The Slide, which looks like Class V but is really a IV once you run it. Rock Garden (above) is the toughest, and Ski Jump is probably the most unique, a big slide with a kicker at the bottom that launches you airborne into the pool below." (Ski Jump is about where the bottom third starts.) In any case you can count on scouting a dozen times or so as you progress through the canyon's unending series of horizon lines. The travertine gives good traction and walking around on the shallow bits is fun in itself.
If you're a kayaker and you get an early start you will make it to the road bridge near La Sultana before dark. There's an army base here on river-right. If you're sticking around for the lower section the next day, you could camp in this area (or further down). Or try your luck with the La Sultana hospitality*, in which case float down another 500m and hike up to the town on river-left.
The lower run starts below the bridge. For the first 3 km you've got some travertine mazes, then the extra volume of the Tzaconejá enters on river-right. The river loses its travertine character at this point, and the rapids start getting farther apart but there are still some long and meaty ones. You can count on scouting about 5 times, mostly in the second half of the run. You may recognize the "humpty dumpty" rapid in a short gorge (at the 1:30 to 2:30 mark depending on current) where you fight through some good-sized wave-holes before the river bends to the right. The next major rapid 2 km below is the crux move for rafts. It's a long, technical, and rocky rapid that rafts usually choose to portage, requiring a bit of grunting over the rocks. Downstream is another group of good-sized IVs but it's not long before you make it to the hammock bridge at San Bartolo.
Below San Bartolo the river and road continue 25 km to San Quintín, and the river another 36 km to the Río Lacantún, but there are few rapids down there. Most prefer spending the afternoon in a truck back to Ocosingo.
*note* This run is marked politically sensitive due to some confrontations with Zapatista communites in the area. Most of the people in the area are friendly but there are some who remain leery of river runners' interests and visitors should be aware that some tension exists. Tecojá is one such community near the river on the way to Las Tazas. In 2002 some rafts floating past were forced to shore to face questioning and paddled away only after cutting a tow rope. In 2003, paddlers from a Tukon club were forced off the river and detained in the same area. In 2007, a shuttle driver returning from dropping off kayakers at Las Tazas was stopped and questioned. Discussions have been held with Las Tazas leaders regarding permission (and in La Garrucha at the regional Zapatista administrative headquarters), and while most leaders say they want to encourage tourism, nothing has really been settled. However most attempts on the middle have been successful. I recommend making quick work of your PI river preparations. If you insist on asking for access permisison expect to be denied.
In another troubling incident, in 2009 a group of Mexican rafters was denied access to the river at La Sultana, despite kayakers having been received well there in the past.
Flash Flood Danger: normal.
Descent History: Cully Erdman led the first descent of the middle/lower Jataté in 1980 along with fellow kayakers Eric Evans and Cathy Hearn. In 1981 they returned to film the river for ABC American Sportsman.
Flow Notes: The closest on-line gage is way downstream on the Río Lacantún, shown below. The middle Jataté has about 10% of that flow. Perhaps the best time to go is November-December, but the run is available year-round. From January to mid-June it can get a bit scrapy though, and rafts should probably avoid it February to June. Also I don't have reports of runs at high water levels so be extra careful in September-October. My impressions are with 2000 cfs in the middle section and 3000 cfs in the lower section. Here I also show historical data from INEGI, which has gages near the PI and TO of this run:
click here for the height graph
Shuttle Notes: The roads to the Jataté are long and rough. A 4wd/high-clearance vehicle is required. To get to Las Tazas, you take the road out of Ocosingo past the Toniná ruins, taking the left fork at km 3.4 (0.5 km past the Pemex gas station), and generally stay right at any fork after that. About 35 km on you pass the right turn to Santa Rita (but don't take it), 3 km later is another fork right, and 3.5 km later is the bridge over the Santa Cruz (longer-trip PI). The right turn to Las Tazas is 500m after the bridge. Las Tazas is 25 km down this road, passing Tecojá and getting close to the river at several points. Take a right turn at the village entrance down to the new bridge. (you could put on at Abiyanal, 5 km past Las Tazas, with river access just before, but you will be questioned by the locals if you hang out there.)
Access to the TO and lower section is on a different road. Out of Ocosingo take the right fork instead of the left fork at km 3.4. 5.9 km later (passing the way-upper Jataté TO bridge) take the left fork at the big curve. From there keep following the main road which eventually turns to gravel. All told it's about 88 km/4 hours from Ocosingo to the La Sultana bridge. After La Sultana the road mostly stays within sight of the river; it's 19 km past the bridge to the San Bartolo access.
For those without a car, know there is no regular transport to Las Tazas. There is irregular transportation on the San Quintín road though (about 5 buses, micros, and/or trucks daily from Ocosingo).
Accommodations: The closest formal accomodations are in Ocosingo.
Nearby Tourist Attractions: Toniná Mayan ruins; Laguna Miramar near San Quintín