Class: every; Ave. Gradient: 0 to No Way!; Portages: oh yeah; Length: up to 60km; Time: as much as you got
Season: year-round; rafts? small bits ; Highlights: waterfalls; Crux move: portaging around them
Water Quality: ok; Water Temperature: warm
PI: wherever you dare (top elev: 700m, bottom elev: 185m); TO: hopefully with your paddle in one piece
Description: (click here for general notes about my descriptions)
The Río Santo Domingo enjoys legendary status as the keeper of remote impassable canyons and unbelievably turquoise water. Many kayakers have seen the jaw-dropping waterfalls on videos, but few have actually ventured close enough to see what it's all about. Those that do are rewarded with the ultimate in canyon scenery, and may even enjoy the small bits that can be paddled. Visitors also encounter a jungle alive with exotic plants and birds like toucans, black-bellied whistling ducks, and many others.
These crazy canyons are formed by the folding of the fringe of Yucatan's limestone shelf as it butts up against Central America's continental divide and Pacific plates. The Río Santo Domingo zig-zags through this unique topography looking for passageways east. The early kayak explorers numbered eight major canyons, split between the upper section and lower section. My impressions are from explorations during the dry season (April) and from reports from others during the late rainy season (December/January); earlier in the rainy season things undoubtedly get even juicier.
Nowadays the paved highway that curves along the Guatemalan border between Palenque and Comitán gives easy access to the river. Let's break it down canyon by canyon:
Canyon #5. ("Santo Grial") This canyon starts just below the 1st highway bridge (coming from Comitán) at km 381.0, named the Puente Santa Elena. This is the craziest and most videoed canyon. The steeps are concentrated in two sections, above the main confluence, "5-A", and below it, "5-B". 5-A drops 150 m in 400 m of river (a mere 1900 ft/mi), with the 1st 2 falls dropping about 80 feet each. All the drops have been run, some only once. Straightforward portage routes are unavailable on the big drops, so you must be prepared with a lot of rope and technical rapelling gear. Plan on 8 to 10 hours your first time through 5-A.
5-B drops 115m in a 1.2 km-long gorge with the drops being less vertical but still V to V+ in difficulty. The scouting/portaging in 5-B is at river level, at least at lower water levels. The canyon ends with a 400 m-long series of slides and holes. At the bottom the river braids through the jungle, so take the left channel to hit the next TO. Plan on about 4 hours to get through 5-B.
There is a lookout point on the highway which gives you a good view of the confluence, and there is a hiking trail down to between the steep sections which gives you a good view of 5-A. For experienced canyoneers willing to give these bad boys a go, my suggestion is to do 5-B first: hike down the trail to the 5-B PI, with a quick hike up to to look at 5-A. On a subsequent day you can decide whether to give 5-A a try (taking-out at the bottom of that same trail).
Between #5 and #6. This section takes you to the Guatemala border. River-left access is available below #5 at Parque Ecológico Sacch'en, and above #6 at San Pedro Yutniotic. In between you have 10 km of mostly flat water, broken up by a class II to III- travertine drop every 5 minutes. At San Pedro Yutniotic there are 2 bridges, the first referred to as "Benito Juarez" and the second 30 minutes later at the (uncontrolled) Guatemalan border.
Canyon #6 ("Río Azul" or "Lost Guatemala"). This crazy 4km stretch drops 80m in total and has a top, middle, and bottom. All the big drops in here are awaiting first descents despite having been surveyed by some studly kayakers. 1.5km below San Pedro Yutniotic, after some easy rapids and a long pool, you reach the top. Here the river disappears into a sink hole and reappears below a large rock outcropping and above a long class V+ rapid which gradually steepens and ends with two tall (~40 foot) drops. The portage route in on a trail starting near the sink hole that goes over the river-right ridge and brings you back into Mexico. The middle starts with a V+ (V- at low water) rapid that is hard to get into without running the top. Then there are a few easy slides before you hit the bottom where the river falls 70 ft through a crack in the ridge, simply called "La Cascada" by the locals. Again the portage route is over the river-right ridge. Here you will be close to village of Plan Río Azul, but the easier TO is 2.5 km downriver at the new "camino San Pedro" bridge. Figure on 4-6 hours to get through here, including picture taking.
Between #6 and #7. 6 km of class II takes you past the Nuevo Matzám bridge to the Nuevo Huixtán access on river-left (just before the river-left Río Dolores confluence), the last access before #7.
Canyon #7 ("Jabalí"). From the Nuevo Huixtán access you paddle 1.5 km on mostly flat water. Then you take a right turn into the ridge and the 2km-long 60m-total-drop canyon. This is a spectacular canyon to portage/paddle through at low water. In the first half, you must negotiate (read: portage) 2 sections of angling drops into narrow pools, each of which funnels down and disappears under a "rock bridge." Each time the water re-enters curiously under the surface of small pools. In between are a class IV and a class V rapid. The second half starts with a couple easy rapids, then the last burly class V which takes you to the 2nd highway bridge at km 358.7. At high water the last part of the canyon may present some severe portage difficulties. I recommend taking play boats because there is some play in there, plus they're easier to carry. Figure on at least 3 hours for this canyon.
Between #7 and #8. It is 12 km from the 2nd highway bridge to canyon #8. It starts with some nice little travertine which doesn't last long, followed by a 10 km-long lake. After 2 hours or so you pass the village of La Fortuna Gallo Giro on your left where there is a small resort with some rafts and kayaks. 5 minutes later a 10-minute stretch of class III starts, ending at the top of #8; you can take-out river-left at the Causas Verdes cabins. Parts of this run are offered to package tourists. Be careful venturing too far down since there are some siphons in the area, not to mention some good-sized falls at the start of #8. I heard that in 2010 some rafters flipped here and one died in #8.
Canyon #8 ("Las Nubes"). At Las Nubes, the shortest but perhaps the most dramatic and photogenic of the canyons, the canyon stretch finishes with a bang. Actually, two bangs, par for the course, one at the beginning and one at the end. At the top the river falls into a crack in the middle of the river, then passes through a winding chute ending with a powerful hole. Then for 500 m the river is calm while the walls close in and get taller. Below, the river passes over a taller set of skewed travertine falls, and appears to go through a tunnel in the ridge (hence the local name 'el túnel'), however the two walls don't actually touch. Below there are a few more violent rapids before the water fully exits the ridge. Trails on the left give you several vantage points over the proceedings, and also let you descend to shore just above the lower falls. The total drop through the canyon is 75 m.
Below #8. Around the corner downstream there is a beach on river-left with a track which leads back to Las Nubes village, which also gives access to the start of the next 5km of river which runs to the community of Loma Bonita (river-right) where a path paved across the rocks blocks boat passage. This section of river is mostly flat, with the notable exception of a 10-foot drop in the middle of the run. From Loma Bonita it is 5.5 km further to the confluence of the Jataté which comes in just above the Amatitlán-La Democracia bridge. This section is also flat save for one baby rapid. Below the confluence of the Jataté the river changes name to Lacantún and sports a pretty (and runnable) gorge 16 km down.
These photos probably describe it better than I can:
Flash Flood Danger: high, check the weather maps and forecasts. I would give the canyons a wide berth during the heart of the rainy season (September/October) and other rainy periods.
Descent History: The first descents on the Santo Domingo were large-scale expeditions and well documented. They were organized by Cully Erdman, a pioneer of many Chiapas river runs (and who now runs Slickrock Adventures in Belize). They first explored some of the lower parts in 1983 for TV before there were any roads in the area. In 1993 they went back for ESPN on a project titled "Rivers of the Maya" (on DVD but difficult to find) determined to run everything else upstream, from the upper down through all the canyons. It took them some time but they managed to do most of it, of course portaging as needed, with bolts and anchors where necessary. They stopped at canyon #8 because of time constraints and a large storm that came in.
In more recent years the Santo Domingo has found its way into other kayak videos, notably Hotel Charley 4, where they hucked all of the big stuff in #5. "Santo Grial" means "Holy Grail" and comes from Jesse Coombs' description of that expedition.
Less publicized attempts to run the canyons have also been made. Rumor has it that around 2004 a pair of German kayakers ran most or all of #7, an impressive feat. Shortly afterwards two French kayakers died trying to copy them.
Flow Notes: There is a "Lacantún" streamflow gage way downstream, linked to below; I have not verified its accuracy. The volume in the lower canyons is a fractional part (10-15%?). In 2011, 15,000 cfs gave about 800 cfs in 5-A and almost 2000 cfs in 5-B. Below I also have historical data from INEGI, the first near San Pedro Yutniotic, the second above the confluence with the Jataté. The flatter sections can be run, and the canyon sections admired, up to quite high flows. Be extra careful in canyon #7 at higher flows when straightforward portage routes start to disappear.
Shuttle Notes: Between the first two highway bridges, canyons #5/6/7 are to the south and the highway is on river-left. The first bridge, the PI for 5-A, is signed "Santa Elena" and is at km 381.0. The #5 lookout is 2 km up the road, and the trail down is 150 m back down the road. To reach the 5-B TO at Parque Ecológico Sacch'en, turn at the sign in Pacayal/Nuevo San Juan Chamula at km 372.8 and drive in 4.5km to a clearing.
#6/7 access is on a dirt loop off the highway. To reach San Pedro Yutniotic, turn at km 370.3 and drive 12 km on a good dirt road. At the village entrance you can drive down 1.3 km to the 1st bridge, or continue up the main road 0.5 km and take a right onto a poorer road and follow it 1.9 km down to the 2nd "frontera" bridge. To reach the #6 TO at the "camino San Pedro" bridge, continue on the dirt road 6.0 km past San Pedro Yutniotic (high-clearance required and 4wd recommended). Continuing past the bridge 0.3 km takes you to the Río Plan Azul road--turn left here and go 4.2 km on a better dirt road to reach Nuevo Matzám (alternate #7 PI). Following the road another 6.0 km will take you back out to the highway at km 357.5 (east of the 2nd highway bridge). The better #7 PI is on river-left and from the highway, finding the dirt road leading southeast out of Nuevo Huixtan and following it 4.6 km.
For #8 access, turn at km 359.9 and drive 12 km on a good road via Nuevo Jerusalen to Las Nubes. To get to the beach below #8, turn left on the road north out of Las Nubes, go 3.5 km on a high-clearance road, and find a right turn onto a jeep track leading 2 km down to the river. There is also river-right access to Las Nubes via the Causas Verdes hammock bridge, turning at km 351.4, but there is little advantage to driving in on that side.
The turn to Loma Bonita is at km 348.4; it's 6.5 km from there to the river, and 3.5 km further to Amatitlán and its sister town La Democracia across the bridge.
For those without a car, know that public transportation to any of the villages off the main highway is quite irregular.
Accommodations: There are basic hotels at several of the small towns along the highway (e.g., at Pacayal/Nuevo San Juan Chamula), and near the river at Parque Ecológico Sacch'en below #5 (camping only), Causas Verdes resort in Las Nubes situated right at the head of #8, and at La Democracia across the river from Amatitlán.
Nearby Tourist Attractions: the exquisite Lagunas de Montebello that are on the way in from Comitán.