Class: IV; Ave. Gradient: 3 m/km; Portages: 1 or 2; Length: up to 62 km; Time: up to 15 hours/3 days
Season: June to February for rafts, kayaks year-round; rafts? yes; Highlights: remote jungle scenery, hot springs, nice multi-day, big volume; Crux moves: Rock-n-Roll rapid and Chulac Falls portage
Water Quality: decent; Water Temperature: cool
PI: Chichún bridge (aka Yutbal, on the Río Lanquín, elev: 212m); TO: Tamax bridge (1-day) or Cahaboncito bridge (multi-day)
Description: (click here for general notes about my descriptions) (thanks to Maarten Bleijerveld for his contributions)
The Cahabón is MayanWhiteWater-land's premier accessible multi-day river trip, and even the 1-day trip is one of the more scenic rafting trips around. In fact it was listed in Paddler Magazine's top-12 jungle river trips in the world in 1998. Nowadays there is increasing evidence of human habitation and farming, but it's still a gorgeous valley. The river can be split up different ways depending on your taste. The most commonly-run stretch is the upper section from Chichún to Tamax. The most common 2-day "expedition" is from a lower PI above or below Tres Hermanas rapid all the way down to Cahaboncito, stopping at the Takinko portage. 3 days gives ample time for rafters to complete the whole river. In-shape kayakers can do the whole thing in 1 long day when the water is up, but 2 days is more enjoyable. Car access at key points means it is not necessary to self-support, or sometimes even to portage on foot.
The biggest rapids are in the first day (3 to 5 hours). The Chichún PI allows for an easy III- warm-up on the Lanquín, after which you enter the flatter Cahabón at Los Encuentros (with access via a short but steep trail from the road down to a foot bridge). 5-15 minutes of flat water brings you to the 1st sequence of rapids called "Skull Canyon" which is class III with some big swirly eddy lines and pretty waves. Another 10-20 minute paddle brings you to the river's biggest rapid, "Rock-n-Roll." This multi-drop rapid deserves a scout by all, and at high water rafts often prefer to portage. The final drop, with a large pyramid rock middle-left, is the biggest, though despite its propensity to wrap rafts and flip boats of any type, there have been no serious injuries reported.
The same cannot be said of the next rapid, "Entonces," which comes up quickly around the corner and doesn't allow much Rock-n-Roll rescue margin. Potential Rock-n-Roll swimmers should be cautioned to swim to the right-hand shore, as the left lines in Entonces are the most problematic; the usual line is middle-right. Entonces has a wide shallow rocky entrance which funnels down to a large pourover near the bottom with more large rocks behind it. That pourover has dealt out some serious injuries to rafters over the years. Kayakers have several lines to choose from; rafters may choose to line their boats at low water.
With those tall rapids out of the way, boaters can start appreciating the scenery a bit more while getting their whitewater fix in smaller doses. It's at least 30 minutes down to the next major rapid, "Tres Hermanas", 3 good-sized drops (plus a lead-in drop) with a nasty pour-over on the right side of the 2nd one; once past that you have a nice tall curving wave-train with some easily-avoidable rocks at the bottom. Below here the river is quite calm until you reach the Tamax bridge.
Note that between Entonces and Tamax there are several access points along the river left road, mostly used as PI's for a leisurely 2-day run to the bottom. One point of note is the first right bend below Entonces, where the community of Saquijá has their rafting operation and bungalows.
From Tamax to Oxec (2 to 4 hours), there are no big rapids. In the first half you face intermittent III. The best part is the 2nd half, where the valley sides close in tighter and the banks form a shallow rocky gorge with the class III+ rapids packed closer together. The scenery and remoteness of this "Oxec gorge" section give it a wilderness feel.
The Oxec to Cahaboncito stretch (3 to 6 hours) is split in half by the portage at Takinko/Chulac Falls. The gorgey rapids of above continue for 15 minutes or so, then become more intermittent. It takes 1 to 3 hours to reach Chulac Falls, which is a steep and powerful multi-drop rapid with a series of keeper holes that has never been run top to bottom (except by a dog). At high water a far left channel opens up which may be partly navigable. In any case the water-level portage is river-left or on the boulder island. Rafters will find it easier and safer to shuttle by vehicle, which means you need to identify the Takinko TO just upstream, which is on river right marked by a "rancho" shelter 10 to 15 minutes below a ruined hammock bridge. If you are planning on camping at Takinko, calculate your time carefully, you do not want to be searching for this TO in the dark! If you pass the steel cable hung over the river about 200m above Chulac Falls, you've gone too far.
You can drive into Takinko from the shuttle road (see below). The Takinko road leads directly to the soccer field and continues (river-right) down past Chulac Falls to a metal bridge. The road exists from the 80's when a dam was initiated but never completed; you can see the diversion tunnels on the other side of the bridge.
Below the bridge, watch out for some steel girders from an old bridge (blown out by Hurricane Mitch in 1998). The river soon enters the narrowest gorge of the trip, with 4 fun class III-IV drops. The middle pair of drops is called "Sacacorchos" (corkscrew). After the gorge the rapids quickly diminish in size. But there is a prize waiting: within a half hour you will find a small cascade on river left, coming from a hot spring. You may already be warm, but a quick soak in the one of the pools just up from the bank will always be welcome. Watch out for snakes though. Downstream from this point there are a few more easy rapids and then 30 minutes or more (depending on flow and your motivation) of flat water to the Cahaboncito bridge.
Note that there are 2 upstream runs, the Lanquín (class III & class IV), and more of the Cahabón (Yutbal canyon, class IV, and Semuc Champey run, class II).
Flash Flood Danger: below average. Assuming you get through Rock-n-Roll in the morning, the rest of the rapids do not drastically change in difficulty when rain-swollen.
Descent History: The first descent I am aware of was by a group of 7 led by Ralph Griffin back in 1977. They used 3 small vinyl/rubberized canvas rafts and made it down as far as the Oxec bridge in 3 days, portaging several times and surviving a capsize and runaway raft through Rock-n-Roll. Ralph tells me he heard a rumor that a group of "Israeli commandos" had run the river even earlier. I've heard 3rd-hand accounts of another pair of gringos descending the river in the 70's also.
The first descent of the entire (lower) Cahabon river (and Lanquín river) was done in November 1986 by Guatemalan Kayak and Spelunking Club members Roberto Arimany, Gabriel Dengo, Guayo Portocarrero, Alejandro Alguilar, Edgar Nanny, Santiago Selle, Jens Possardt, along with Max Wilson and Tammy Ridenour (all apparently unfazed by civil war uncertainties at the time). It has been rafted regularly for many years by Maya Expeditions and more recently by Adetes.
Flow Notes: There is no on-line gage, but the meter stick at Los Encuentros is a reference for rafters. The river has been run at a wide range of flows--the 1st day at least as high as 295cm (portaging Rock-n-Roll), the "expedition" at least as high as 340cm. The river has kayakable flows year-round. Raft season starts sometime in June and goes until around February. If the river is high (stick gage more than 165cm), rafts usually portage Rock-n-Roll rapid, and if it is low (gage lower than 125), they might portage Entonces rapid. Very low flows also means the Chichún PI is out so you need to put-in on the Cahabón itself at Los Encuentros.
Shuttle Notes: The main shuttle (dirt) road runs from Lanquín, soon crosses to river left, goes through the town of Cahabón, over the Oxec bridge back to river right, and down to the El Estor road and the Cahaboncito bridge. A high-clearance vehicle is required on these roads. The Chichún PI (aka Yutbal) is about 6km from Lanquín. The Tamax bridge is a one-hour drive further but don't miss the right turn onto the Saquijá road to keep you close to the river (there is an Adetes "rafting" sign here; this road gives close access to several other points below Entonces rapid though it is sometimes in bad condition). From Tamax, another road climbs about 20 minutes to rejoin the main road in Cahabón. The roads deteriorate past Cahabón (and there are no car repair shops). The Oxec bridge is about an hour down the road, avoiding the sharp right turns but taking the easy right turns. The left turn to Takinko is 30 minutes past the Oxec bridge, and it's another 45 minutes to a T at the El Estor road. Turn left there and drive 10 minutes to find the Cahaboncito bridge. (To clarify: the Takinko road is a dead-end; vehicles must return to the main shuttle road after camping/portaging.)
For those without a car, the only regular public transport between Cahabón town and points downstream is a once-daily shuttle between Lanquín hotels and Rio Dulce. How convenient! If you are able to self-support, you can take it in the morning from Lanquín (8:00, Q25) to your PI, and return with it from Cahaboncito (2:30pm, Q200 per person) on your last day. For reservations call Domingo at 5165-3492.
Hitching is (usually) possible from the 1-day TO at Tamax up to Cahabón where there are buses back to Lanquín. Hitching back on the Saquijá road before Tamax is difficult, but those looking for a quick extension to the Lanquín run can take out at Saquijá and hike back 30 minutes to the main road.
Accommodations: Lanquín village near the PI is a major tourist destination that has several hotel options; I recommend the backpacker place El Retiro Lodge right on the Lanquín river. About an hour from the TO, El Estor town has several decent hotels.
Nearby Tourist Attractions: Lanquín caves, Semuc Champey pools.