Class: III; Ave. Gradient: 4 m/km; Portages: none; Length: up to 29km; Time: up to 4:30
Season: June to October; rafts? no; Highlights: Callejones canyon; Crux move: sneaking across an international border
Water Quality: ok; Water Temperature: medium
PI: Finca La Vega Grande (elev: 880m); TO: San José bridge, or Vado Ancho bridge
Description: (click here for general notes about my descriptions)
The top section of the Río Lempa is a hidden gem tucked away in the tri-border area. It circles Mt. Montecristo's cloud forest as it runs from Guatemala to Honduras down to El Salvador. The scenery in the valley has a drier, Western (U.S.) feel though. Its highlight is the 8 km-long Callejones canyon, one of the most spectacular gorges accessible to intermediate-level paddlers in MayanWhiteWater-land.
The river starts out quite flat. Note the river-right entrance of the Río Atulapa early on which helps the flow. After half-hour the canyon walls rise up and you enter an almost-unbroken cliffed-in gorge which lasts 1 to 1.5 hours. A half hour into it you may notice the Honduras border marker (small, white, concrete). The river stays mostly flat, with a class II to III rapid (maybe a III+ at high flows) coming regularly every 1 to 2 minutes. (Despite the cliffs, portage options exist at the bigger rapids.) There are some neat waterfalls caroming off the sculpted rock walls.
Eventually the walls recede and you enter the upper Ocotepeque valley. In total it is 13.5 km and about 2.5 hours to the car bridge on the San José access road, which leads 1 km up to the highway. This is the TO for the short trip.
The river continues 15.5 km down to the Vado Ancho bridge, staying closer to the highway now. The gradient remains gentle, and the rapids II to III, with a few III+'s in the first half at higher flows. Note that just over halfway is the Concepción car bridge, about 300 m from the higway, which offers another TO option.
Below the Vado Ancho bridge, the river continues another 11 km with similar gradient and open topography down to the El Salvador border and the upper Lempa run. I have not run this section, maybe no kayaker has. The best TO's seem to be a couple hammock bridges to the west of Antigua Ocotepeque just before the border.
Flash Flood Danger: high in canyon, put on early.
Descent History: My 1st descent was in September 2007, my 2nd descent was in September 2008.
Flow Notes: There is an on-line gage downstream at Citalá across the El Salvador border, shown below. I have historical data from the past couple years in a graph below that. Flows can vary widely in the rainy season and the river can be run at most of them. I have run the Callejones canyon at 200 cfs (mostly III-) and 1000 cfs (some III+).
Shuttle Notes: The shuttle is easy, except for the border crossing. Tourists don't need a stamp at this border so sneaking across by river and playing dumb works pretty well. But note that the car owner must accompany the car when officially crossing, which usually means you either 1) need separate shuttles for PI and TO, or 2) have a PI shuttle and bus it back to the border on the highway (where you need to hitch the 2 km from the Honduras border station to the Guatemala side). The TO's are close to the highway, it's only a 1 km walk from the San José bridge (junction is 2 km north of the Río Frío highway bridge), and less from the downstream bridges. To get to the PI, turn east at km 226.6 (7 km from the border), and follow the road 3 km to a bridge.
For those not willing to sneak across an international border, there exists a half-hour hike-in on the Honduras side that misses the first part of the canyon. Find a ranch entrance 7.5 km north of the Río Frío highway bridge, work downhill, hop a small creek from left to right in a flat area, and follow a faint path down, keeping the creek and its waterfall in view.
Accommodations: hotels are close by in Esquipulas (Guatemala) and Nuevo Ocotepeque (Honduras).
Nearby Tourist Attractions: Esquipulas cathedral pilmigrage site.