A put-in covered in knee-deep mud and fire ants was the cherry on top of a wet first day in the jungles of Southern Mexico. Thirteen of us had gathered on the banks of the Usumacinta River, which creates much of the border between Mexico and Guatemala, to embark on what we hoped would be a relaxing seven days on the water. So far, our first day was anything but—neither relaxing nor on the water.
As foreigners, we were banned from entering the town of the typical put-in, Frontera, due to “competing local business interests.” We were now 50 kilometers farther upstream, in a tiny village called Lacantún, covered in mud and hours behind schedule. There was no way we were launching today as planned.
As if the skies knew that we all needed a good shower, the clouds emptied onto us before we had so much as a table set up. Amidst our attempts to build a kitchen in the dark, a shirtless man carrying a green bucket passed by. He mentioned something in Spanish that made our guide, Johnny, light up.
“¿En serio?” Johnny responded, “He says we can come to his house and cook.”
Without hesitation, we hustled our soaked supplies up the hill and under our new friends’ cooking shelter, greeted by a family of roughly a dozen and three times as many ducks, chickens, turkeys and dogs. We expressed our sincerest thanks and quickly began preparing our meal.
We were a long way away from our cushy lives as guides on the Snake River in Wyoming. But none of this mattered as we ate our spaghetti under protection from the incessant rain. The turkey sitting next to me in a cardboard box was, I believe, equally appreciative of a dry perch. We thanked our gracious hosts profusely before venturing back to our damp sleeping bags.
My first night (ever) as part of a multi-day rafting trip was more miserable than idyllic. I felt like a rookie all over again: Way over my head, a bit angry, and shockingly wet. I couldn’t help but think I was not cut out for this lifestyle. Guiding day trips on the Shenandoah and Snake Rivers taught me how to row a boat but offered little else in preparation for the Usumacinta. Hell, I had only slept in a tent roughly a dozen times before this trip. I had quickly gone from the guide to the guided.
Despite all this, I knew that there was nowhere I would rather be. I had spent the past three years listening to stories from colleagues of adventure on rivers near and far. I was chomping at the bit to be invited on one of these trips I had heard so much about. When the opportunity to float down the Usumacinta River for seven days presented itself, I had no option but to sign up.
I had agreed to this trip, knowing next to nothing about the river; I hadn’t even heard of the river before. The recommendation of a few friends and a handful of pictures was all the convincing it took. Sandy beaches, stunning ruins, monkeys, canyons and fun whitewater. This sounded like the perfect introduction to a world I was so eager to become a part of. It was only that first morning in Mexico on our drive to the put-in, when we heard stories of the attacks in the ’90s, that we learned why almost no one floats this particular stretch anymore.
Our on-land guide, Miyaya, had been shot at, robbed, and left for dead when she worked as a river guide on the Usu in the ’80s and ’90s. This happened on several occasions and led to all outfitters abandoning the river. It was only in 2011 that regular trips started up again. All commercial trips now have armed security follow along for several days as a precaution.
The rose-tinted glasses of adventure had come off, and the reality of my situation was certainly indicating that this stretch of the Usumacinta was maybe not the perfect introduction to multi-day trips that I had been hoping for. But it was far too late to back out now, and I arose the next morning swollen, sweaty and excited to finally push off into the murky brown water.
Pulling into the ruins of Yaxchilán on the afternoon of day three, the biting insects of the jungle greeted us with full gusto, and the typical landing area was entirely underwater. After 70+ hours in Mexico, we had become accustomed to the miseries of the jungle and began our journey through the bat-filled corridors granting access to the ruins with just a hint of forced confidence.
Emerging from the main plaza, it was hard not to feel like we had just entered a new world. Howler monkeys peered down from the trees above. The ancient city sprawled out in all directions. Each lintel and stelae offered a new puzzle to try and decipher, telling tales of battles for control over the Usumacinta in glyphs and illustrations.
The city felt like a sleeping giant beneath our feet, and we explored each new building with a childlike wonder. No rangers were currently stationed at the park, and we were fortunate enough to have the place entirely to ourselves. Standing at the base of the most beautiful staircase I had seen, I thought how insane it was that boating had led me here. “Welcome to the world of whitewater my friend. It’s a good one,” a now close friend told me my first summer in Jackson.
When I more-or-less accidentally became a guide three summers prior (the hazard of Googling “outdoor jobs”), I never imagined the doors to adventure that would open for me. From the Shenandoah to the Snake and now to the jungles of Mexico, it’s incredible where inflatable rafts had carried me in only a few short years. Slapping at the pinch of a mosquito, I couldn’t help thinking the beauty of the ruins of Yaxchilán was an indicator that the tides of the trip were turning.
After a brief foray into the world of crocodile wrangling with our security team, we made landfall at our new home for the next two nights, Piedras Negras. Each day reminded us more and more why we all fell in love with boating. The flat farmland had faded into a lush, mountainous jungle. Exotic birds and monkeys were now our only companions. The coffee-brown river ambled peacefully downstream, and the skies had remained clear for several days. We were through the uncomfortable adjustment period, fully adapted to life on the river and ready to experience what Piedras Negras had to offer.
Once a rival city of Yaxchilán, Piedras Negras was now almost entirely covered by impenetrable jungle. Much less funding has gone into these ruins than Yaxchilán, and it is significantly less unearthed. It also sees significantly fewer visitors, roughly a hundred per year. We were surprised when a boat pulled onto the beach during breakfast, unloading a dozen or so people. After greetings and salutations, the group made their way into the ruins.
Rounding a corner deep into the maze of Piedras Negras around an hour later, we found the group from earlier gathered around an impressive fire, which produced a sharp, nutty smell that was impossible to ignore. As we tried to pass by, they asked if we wished to join their ceremony. We immediately accepted. For just shy of an hour, we stood by the fire, colored candles in hand. We walked in circles, held hands, threw seeds, chanted, and shared our thanks with these strangers who had invited us to witness what we gathered to be a celebration of a new marriage, the coming of age of one young man, and a tribute to our ancestors before us.
“Yea, this has never happened before,” Johnny told me as we laughed and chatted with the group after the ceremony.
We packed up camp, returning to the river for our final two days, curious about the rapids ahead. Up to this point, we had felt more like our own scenic guides, rowing nothing but flatwater. Only a few miles downstream, we would enter the main canyon of the Usumacinta. Rafting trips down this stretch are rare, and most go in the spring when the water rests around 30,000 cfs and the river is a calm Class II-III run. We were sitting somewhere around 100,000 cfs, and no one was quite sure what to expect. “The biggest whirlpools you’ve ever seen” was the extent of the beta prior to launch. We were rigged to flip and eager to see what the Canyon of the Maya had in store for us.
Around four in the afternoon, we caught our first glimpse of limestone walls jutting thousands of feet above the riverbanks. All 100,000 cfs of muddy brown water funneled into a chute no larger than a few boats wide. If the beginning of this story was defined by misery, then the final chapter was perfection.
The sun turned the canyon walls a beautiful yellow. A slight tailwind guided us through the rapids. We swirled around what were, in fact, the biggest whirpools we had ever seen, screeching like children. A wave train here and a whirlpool there offered a nice change of pace from the monotony of days of flatwater. All of our anxieties abated in the canyon’s splendor. The river soon returned to its familiar calm. Each boat quieted as everyone craned their necks upwards, attempting to cement experience into memory.
The sun was setting just beyond the canyon walls at our rear when Johnny played his flute, thanking the river for our safe passage. The water was now smooth as glass, our faces dopey with amazement. Nothing existed outside of that one perfect moment.
When I first read stories of river expeditions, I never understood how a person could end up living such a life. The technical know-how, the community, and the opportunity to go on such excursions all seemed out of reach, with no clear indicators of where to start. My first multi-day trip was an eye-opening and humbling experience. But so was my first trip on the Snake, my first trip on the Shenandoah, and my first whitewater trip when I was ten years old.
There are many rivers I hope to experience in my lifetime. A trip down the Usumacinta is no remarkable feat in the grand scheme of things. Yet, it instilled confidence in me that those lofty goals of adventure are far more achievable than I initially believed. In time, I am sure I will look back on this experience as yet another building block. But as of right now, the Usumacinta lives in my memory as a perfectly miserable way to spend a week. A week that has undoubtedly shaped me in ways I cannot see quite yet. And it proved my friend entirely correct: the world of whitewater is an incredible one to be part of.
Guest contributor Nick Bahamonde grew up doing everything but boating and has since fallen for it—hard. Between guiding on the Shenandoah (West Virginia) and Snake (Wyoming) rivers, Nick uses his love of photography and videography to share and inspire adventure. Follow his adventures on Instagram.