Join Rocky Dec '12 - Jan '13 for a trip on the Usumacinta! click here
(photo courtesy of German Arroyo)
Class: III; Ave. Gradient: < 1 m/km; Portages: none; Length: up to 144 km; Time: 3-6 days
Season: year-round; rafts? yes; Highlights: ruins, nature, multi-day; Crux Move: the San José whirlpools
Water Quality: so-so; Water Temperature: warm
PI: Frontera Echeverría Corozal or higher (elev.: 93 m); TO: Boca del Cerro
Description: (thanks to major contributor Rocky Contos; click here for general notes about my descriptions)
The Usumacinta is a classic adventure and cultural tour traversing the heart of the ancient Mayan kingdoms. It is MayanWhiteWater-land's (and Mexico's) most volumnous river, and measuring from the headwaters in Guatemala, the longest. The lower section passes by the major ruins of Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras on its way through some impressive limestone gorges and large expanses of rainforest teeming with birds, monkeys, and other wildlife. It gained a reputation for being dangerous in the 80's and 90's when several raft expeditions were mugged by banditos but a criminal group was caught by the Guatemalan army in 1999 and the river is reportedly crime-free since then (though the area is a corridor for drugs and tourists should attempt to acertain the current situation). Also in its recent history is a heated debate over government plans for multiple dams along its length (part of "Plan Panamá") which currently are on the back burner.
The Usu forms the squiggly part of the border between Mexico and Guatemala where it is unbridged. Upstream, its three main tributaries branch out among the flat lowlands in the border area: the Río Lacantún in Mexico and the Río Pasión and Río Chixoy in Guatemala. (Btw all three tributaries pass by other lesser Mayan ruins, with the Pasión having the most interesting collection.) The middle branch, the Chixoy, is the longest. From the Chixoy's last bridge at Playa Grande, Guatemala, to the confluence of the Pasión, coming in from the east, it's 230km winding kilometers. The Lacantún comes in from the west 22 km later, and it's 43 km more to the landing at Frontera Echeverría Corozal which is the primary vehicle access until the Boca del Cerro bridge, itself several hundred km's upstream of the Gulf of Mexico.
The 144 km lower section from Corozal to Boca del Cerro is probably of most interest to paddlers. It's described in some detail in the Robey book, including some suggestions for camping spots. The first half has the ruins and some class II and the second half has the canyons and up to class III. The mid-way point is at Busilhá and there is new vehicle access there also.
From Corozal it's 19 km to the first major ruin at Yaxchilán, located mostly on the inside (river-left) of a large horseshoe bend. You could easily spend a whole layover day at this impressive site, described in guidebooks. Above Yaxchilán there are no rapids but below expect some class II from time to time. The other major ruins are at Piedras Negras, about 60 km downstream on the Guatemala side (river-right). 11 km below Piedras Negras is another important river marker, the river-left entrance of the Río Busilhá falling 30m over an impressive series of travertine steps. The boat launch with vehicle access is about 500m before the falls on river-left.
About 16 km further is the next marker, the confluence with the river-left Chocoljá which is the biggest side creek of the trip (and is an alternate entrance to the canyon section). Just below here the first of two fantastic canyons appear, together called the Grand Canyon of San José. Each canyon contains non-technical class II+ to III rapids (about 3 class III rapids in the first section and one more class III rapid in the second section) but also shifting eddylines and whirlpools that may pose significant hazards. Some rapids have outstanding surfing at their heads.
The first canyon is about 9 km long and contains perhaps 3 class III rapids, including the most difficult rapid of the trip near the end of the section after the river makes a sharp right turn. This is the "San José rapid" and it contains strong eddy lines and large whirlpools. It is portageable (at winter flows) but not easily. There is vehicle access in between the 1st and 2nd canyon, at a community named Iturbide 2da Sección on river-right. Explora takes-out here usually. The second canyon is even more visually impressive, but only has one class III rapid right at the beginning. After the 2nd canyon the flat water continues 10 km more to the TO.
Flash Flood Danger: low.
Descent History: The first raft trip was organized by Vladimir Kovalik under his pioneering company Wilderness World in the late 1970's, starting on the Río Pasión at Sayaxché, Guatemala. This is a trip that Maya Expeditions in Guatemala still offers. However the river has been navigated by locals since ancient times. As an important trade route for the Mayans, the Usumacinta has a fascinating history that is still being discovered. Archeologists have found deep rock grooves at several landing and portaging points, and surmise that the Mayans carried cargo upstream at least as far as the Río Chixoy-Copón confluence in Guatemala. The Usumacinta-Chixoy route may have been the water route deepest into the Guatemalan highlands from the Gulf of Mexico which would have had far-reaching implications for ancient trade and settlement patterns. In 1530 a Spanish entrada under Alonso Davila came up against the Usumacinta looking for a NE passage and ended up being the first Europeans to run the lower canyons, in dugouts. Chris Shaw also ventures that log drivers might have descended the canyons in the 19th century. His book Sacred Monkey River gives some fascinating history and cultural background of the area.
Flow Notes: There is a useful gage at the TO, linked to below, with impressively large numbers on the vertical axis. Robey recommends running the river during low water (January to May), and since I have no specific reports from high-water runs, you should regard the previous description as applicable to relatively low flows. I also have historical data from INEGI (El Tigre is upstream of the PI):
click here for the height graph
Shuttle Notes: Frontera Echeverría Corozal is reached via the Fronterizo del Sur highway, about 170km/3 hours from Palenque (25 km past the Corozal turn is the Lacantún bridge, crossing that river 5 km upstream of the its confluence with the Chixoy-Pasión.) To get to the TO the fast way, go back towards Palenque and turn into Chancalá (around km 32) and follow the dirt road to Gregorio Mendez Magaña and then the paved road to Tenosique which crosses the Usumacinta at Boca del Cerro. The better road, for those not in a rush (and you are not), is via Palenque and Emiliano Zapata (1.5 hours from Palenque to Boca del Cerro).
The two intermediate access points are off the border highway also. The turn to Busilhá is about 100 km from Palenque. The access to Iturbide 2da Sección, near the village of Francisco I. Madero, is via Tenosique; check your road atlas and ask directions (Google Earth also shows river-left access there via Chancalá, but I don't know how that road is: instead of taking the through road all the way to Gregorio Mendez Magaña, turn right at Reforma Agraria and take that dirt road about 40km, asking directions along the way.)
For those without a car, there are daily early-morning minibuses to Frontera Corozal from Palenque which may be able to accomodate kayaks on the roof. The return from Boca del Cerro to Palenque involves a minibus/bus change at Emiliano Zapata.
Accommodations: Palenque is the natural staging point and has a wide variety of hotels. There are other hotels closer to the PI on the border highway. I can recommend the economical Camino Verde hotel at km 54 (Ricardo Flores Magón village).
Nearby Tourist Attractions: more Mayan ruins at Palenque and Bonampak.