Class: III+ & V; Ave. Gradient: 8 m/km; Portages: usually several; Length: 11 & 24.5 km; Time: 2 & 6 hours
Season: May to December; rafts? upper part; Highlights: scenery, challenging rapids in lower part; Crux move: class V lower gorge
Water Quality: poor; Water Temperature: warm
PI: Jupilingo bridge (upper run, elev: 490m) or Jocotán bridge (lower run, elev: 408m); TO: Jocotán, or Zacapa dam
Description: (click here for general notes about my descriptions)
This page describes 2 connecting runs which can be combined into a long day. The river changes names along the way when it passes larger towns; by the end it is known as the Rio Grande de Zacapa. The upper section is shorter and easier, the lower section presents some fun challenges. The water is coming from a scenic hill area of the Guatemalan-Honduras border with pine trees rooted in colorful soils which means that the river runs brown all season long, or even red if certain creeks are up.
The logical PI for the upper section is at the Jupilingo bridge on the El Florido border crossing road. While there is another 15km of river above this point up to the border, there are no interesting rapids there. Below the bridge there is a nice sequence of III to III+ bouldery rapids. The biggest rapid is actually a class IV, but is easily portaged so I prefer to classify the run a class III (though as usual take my ratings with a grain of salt, I've only run the upper section once). Rafts can manage this section, but will want to try to catch higher-than-average water since some rapids are a bit shallow. After about 1 1/2 hours of rapid navigation, you enter the wide Camotán valley, right at a rustic hot springs resort on river left by the road. You could take-out there, or paddle another 45 minutes or so easy whitewater down to Jocotán.
The longer kayak-only advanced section starts below Jocotán. 15 minutes into the run you enter a cliffed-in area; the entrance is marked by a hammock bridge with unique colonial-era (?) supports. This 1st gorge is pretty tame but leads quickly into a deep V-shaped canyon with a sequence of meaty rapids formed by huge boulders. You can expect about 6 scouts or portages here (a couple rapids I would call class V+), evenly spaced out. The final hurdle is a shallow narrow box canyon. The rapids and the dramatic surroundings are a perfect complement to each other. Plan on 3 to 4 hours through this section, which you don't want to be caught in in a flash flood.
From here the river calms down. Next is a substantial stretch of flat water, then you pass another lesser canyon with wide class III rapids. Soon after, the smaller San José river comes in on river left. Intermittent easy rapids continue for quite a while down to a wide low-head dam which is your TO.
Note: there is an upstream run on the Copán river in Honduras, as well as on the San José river.
Flash Flood Danger: high, in the lower gorge, so get an early start.
Descent History: The upper part was first run by a Maya Expeditions crew in 1987. I (Greg Schwendinger) made it through the upper and lower parts in July 2003. My other run, on the lower part, was in 2007.
Flow Notes: The only semi-useful online gage is downstream on the Río Motagua at Gualán, though the Zacapa is only a fractional part.The Zacapa has a longer season than average, and reliable kayak flows season-long. My impressions are from 2 descents where I have seen 1000 cfs and 1600 cfs at Jocotán.Rafters will need to choose the rainer periods,
Shuttle Notes: The shuttles here are easy and paved. The lower TO at the Zacapa dam is just off the Chiquimula road south of Zacapa. At km 53.9 you will find a short dirt road taking you right there. To find upstream access, drive past Chiquimula about 10 minutes to the left turn at Vado Hondo where signs are pointing you to the El Florido border crossing. Follow this winding mountain road about 25 minutes to find the turn to Jocotán where you can ask for the non-trivial way down to the bridge. Camotán is a further 5 minutes down the main road, and the Jupilingo bridge an additional 5 minutes.
For those without a car, the frequent Chiquimula and El Florido buses will pick you up on the roadside.
Accommodations: Jocotán village has some basic but pleasant hotels. Lying along the lower shuttle route, Chiquimula has varied options.
Nearby Tourist Attractions: Copán Mayan ruins across the Honduran border; Esquipulas cathedral pilgrimage site an hour away.