The River of the Sacred Monkey

One of the “Warm Up” waterfalls at Aqua Azule.

“Hi Cully ! I finally finished college and I’m in dire need of an adventure. Do you have anything going on?

“As a matter of fact, I do,” He replied with a somewhat ominous chuckle. “I’m running a trip on the Jataté in Chiapas, Mexico in January, and I’ll give you a trip for my cost if you help guide. It’s a seven day trip down a remote jungle river that is in the middle of the most pristine jungle in the world.

I did the first descent a few years ago and it turned out to be a real classic. The run is mostly class III and IV, but there is a little bit of class V and one very challenging portage, so your climbing skills might come in handy. The clients are a German kayak club, and they claim to be class V boater.” He added.

Cully Edman whom I prefer to call “Indiana Erdman” was one of the first adventure kayakers. He had explored numerous rivers in Asia and Central America and had been featured on “The American Sportsman” TV series. He was also the owner of an adventure company called “Slickrock Adventures”. I had met him through the incredibly small world of extreme kayaking, and I was hoping to join him on an adventure.

“That’s just what I need!” I replied very enthusiastically. “When do we go?”

“The trip is in mid January, but I’m driving down at Christmas.” He replied. “You would need to meet me in Palenque, Mexico by January 16th. You can get a flight to Villahermosa, and take a bus from there. The bus ride is about three hours. How is your Spanish?”

“Not very good, but I do know a few words. I can usually get where I want to go.” I replied.

“Bueno! Sounds like you can survive.” he replied with another chuckle. “The cost for food and shuttle is $190, and I need a check before I leave. The kayaks are down there already, but you’ll need to bring personal gear,” he added.

“Count me in. I’ll send the check tomorrow. Where will I find you in Palenque?”

“I usually stay at the Mayan Lodge. It’s a good cheap place and they’ll know where to find me. Happy trails! I’ll see you there.”

It had taken 20 years, but I had finally graduated from college and desperately needed an adventure. This sounded like an awesome opportunity to explore a new place with one of the world’s greatest kayak explorers, so I sent the check and prepared for the big journey.

The airport in Mexico City was chaotic, but I managed to find my flight and rushed out of the smog before I suffocated.

Villahermosa is a very busy inland city and not quite as beautiful as the name implies. It is also the capital of the state of Tabasco, and a business center for the very large oil industry that is rapidly trashing this jungle paradise.

It was late at night when the plane landed, and I finally got a chance to test my Spanish. “I need a cheap hotel close to the bus station.” I tried to tell the taxi driver in my limited vocabulary. He was quite impatient, and the kayak paddle did not fit very well in the small taxi. The first hotel that he tried was a bit too expensive, so he reluctantly drove me to his second choice. This wasn’t great either, but I could sense that his patience was waning and my Spanish wasn’t working very well, so I decided that it would be good enough for one night. The bed was a bit soft, and my back was still recovering from engineering school, but the arduous day of travel had left me weary enough to sleep soundly.

“Buenos Dias Senoir.” Greeted the friendly hotel manager, as I wandered into the lobby in the morning.

“Bienvenida Amigo, Como estas?” I tried to return the welcome, and inquired about a good place for breakfast. “Donde Esta bueno restaurante por desajuno?” I had a very small vocabulary in Spanish, but my accents seemed to be OK, so the locals could understand my questions, but their response was very rapid and difficult to understand.

“I speak very little Spanish, so please talk slowly.” I replied in my broken Spanish, but luckily the place that he recommended was near, so a bit of pointing and a few simple words were adequate. The city looked a lot better in the early morning light, and I wandered out to explore the neighborhood. The climate was very mild, and the recommended restaurant had a beautifully decorated outdoor patio. The waiters were decked out in formal Mexican attire and soon I was enjoying a delicious breakfast of huevos rancheros while I watched the city awaken. It was a great way to get rid of the minor jet lag and I was enjoying a very good mood, as I watched the neighborhood awaken, and mentally prepared for the great adventure that was awaiting. The business men rushed by in their pinstripe suits and uncomfortable shoes which looked very awkward in this jungle climate, and a myriad of other locals strolled by and looked much more relaxed in their sandals and colorful native dress.

The bus station was only a few blocks away, so I loaded my meager gear and ventured down the street. Gringo kayakers were not a common sight in this jungle city, so my paddle attracted quite a bit of attention. I tried to explain to a few inquisitive locals what I  was planning to do, but they shook their heads in awe and continued on with their daily lives.

Mass transportation is fabulous in almost every country in the world (except the US) and I was elated to find out that the next bus was leaving in 15 minutes. It was very crowded, and the seats were not comfortable, but the atmosphere was a bit euphoric, and the culture was fascinating. The bus was only a few minutes late, and soon we were bouncing along on an exotic jungle road. The rough road, and the uncomfortable seat was a challenge for my sore back, but the journey was short, and I arrived in Palenquie before noon. The hotel that Cully had recommended was quite comfortable, so I decided to take a badly needed siesta. I was just starting to dream about my old college girlfriend, when a loud knock brought me back to reality.

“Hola Juan! Welcome to Palenque! Glad to see you made it!” exclaimed Cully. “How was the journey?”

“I almost suffocated in Mexico City, and the bus ride was very exciting, but I made it. What’s next?”

“Half the crew is here, and the clients are arriving tomorrow, so let’s go have a beer and lunch a discuss the logistics.”

Palenque, is a small tourist town that neighbors the famous ancient Mayan ruin of the same name. It is surrounded by the gigantic Lancandon jungle which was once one of the lushest rain forests in the world. Much of this area has been clear cut to support farming, but a few pristine areas remain and support many endangered species including Red Macaw, Tapir, Spider and Howler Monkeys, and Swamp Crocodiles. There are also a few Jaguars, but their sitings are extremely rare. Chiapas shares a long border with Guatemala and is probably the most primitive state in Mexico. This whole area has a grand history as a center for Mayan culture, and the local villages are very interesting. It is also home to the famous Sapatistas, who have been fighting the oppressive Mexican government for decades. These natives are usually friendly to tourists, but they have been fighting for their lives against the evil government and a few tourists have managed to get in their way. Cully had chosen Palenque as his meeting place because it was a fun tourist town that was close to a famous Mayan ruin and some great whitewater. His actual base camp was “Aqua Azul,” a nearby national park with a decent campground and a variety of travertine waterfalls and pristine swimming pools. It was very similar to Havasupai canyon in the Grand Canyon of the US and was a very pleasant place to stay. The waterfalls varied from ten to more than fifty feet and offered a great opportunity to test his clients and the boats before they ventured into the class V jungle canyon. The pools were often filled with lovely touristas from all over the world who were exploring Central America, and offered much greater adventures than any river.

Cully’s collection of boats was a bit antique, and the clients got the best ones, so I started the adventure with an old Hollowform. This boat had been designed in 1972 and was one of the first plastic boats on the market. It was about 12 feet long with round edges and very high volume. I had used a similar boat on the Bio Bio in Chile in 1985 and had enjoyed the experience. The new tiny boats are easier to paddle, but the old long ones surfed quite well and were great for endos. There aren’t very many waterfalls in Colorado, so the fifteen footer seemed big to me. But, the stream above was technically quite easy and there was a deep pool to land in. It seemed a lot like ski jumping, so I took a few deep breathes and paddled bravely toward the edge of the abyss. The fifteen feet of air was just enough to raise my adrenaline to a pleasant level and the landing felt quite smooth, but I couldn’t help but notice that my boat was suddenly filling up with water. I managed to paddle to shore, only to discover a twelve inch crack in the hull. This would have been a disaster in the jungle gorge! I dragged the broken boat back to Cully’s warehouse, and chose an old Perception Mirage that seemed to be in a bit better shape. After two days of practicing on the local waterfalls, we ventured down stream on a very steep creek that merged with the Rio Shumulja. This was a much larger volume river with interesting vistas of the surrounding farmland and a few Class III rapids. The ten mile voyage offered some fun, but easy white water and great vistas of the surrounding jungle.

The next portion of our expedition would involve seven days of easy to somewhat extreme boating in a very remote and steep walled jungle gorge. All of our gear and food needed to be carried in the kayaks, so we packed very carefully. Everyones gear somehow managed to fit in Cully’s van and the enthusiastic group headed up into the jungle mountains.

The somewhat boring cowtown of Ocosingo on the way to San Christobal was hosting a traveling carnival and it provided an evening of amusement that helped to reveal the character of the locals. I was very happy to greet my old friend Paul Sharpe and a fellow companion from Aspen named Greg Poshman. They were joining the group a bit late and met us in the small village. I had paddled numerous rivers with Paul, including a film trip on the Bio Bio in Chile in 1985, and it was great to join him for another expedition. The full team was assembled for the first time, and we shared a few beers while we discussed the logistics of the journey. Paul and Greg were partners in the adventure movie business and were eager to film this remote canyon, and Paul was also a very solid kayaker who would be a strong member of the expedition. Markus Schmidt (The Mad German) was one of the best kayakers in the world and a very solid member of the team. He had been chosen by Cully to guide and translate for the trip. Markus had a very warm personality that made it vey easy to gain his friendship, and he carried a good luck charm from his girlfriend that he named the  5 Tiger Duck. It was a small floating duck with Tiger colorings, and he tied it to the stern of his kayak. It floated bravely behind him, and kept him safe on the voyage. Another very sturdy paddler named Matt Gains would also guide, and Paul and I would be assistants. Matt was an exuberant wild man from California who was a highly skilled boater. His open personality added very positive energy to the group dynamics. Greg had just recently started kayaking, but he probably held the record for the most challenging and interesting apprenticeship. He and Paul had been offered an opportunity to film a “Project Raft” trip in Siberia the year before. It was a chance to paddle and film a remote river in Siberia with an international team, but good kayaking skills were essential. Greg had almost no previous experience with the sport, so he took a crash course from the local Aspen kayak school and passed with flying colors. He survived the high volume Siberian river in great style, and was eager for his next test.

The clients consisted of a German kayak club who had planned a big Central American expedition and had hired Cully to guide them and organize the logistics. Their skills were a bit weak for this type of an adventure, but this is often true in the commercial expedition business, and the guide to client ratio was one to one. The starting point of our journey was only a few miles away, so we finished our beers and headed out of town.

Our camp was in the lush jungle next to the river and the gently ripple of the moving stream lulled me quickly to sleep. The next morning involved some packing challenges, but all the gear managed to fit, and we prepared to head downstream in the overloaded boats.

“This looks like class I to me,” remarked Matt Gaines somewhat sarcastically. “We’ll get to the action soon enough,” replied Cully. “I’m actually really glad this flat water is here. These old heavy boats handle like logs and it will be great to have 2 days to warm up.” The current was strong enough to make the paddling easy and the scenery became ever more exotic as we gradually dropped into the jungle gorge. The steep canyon walls had prevented clear-cutting and the vegetation of the untouched rain forest was pristine. The camps consisted of rare occasional flat spots in the narrow canyon and usually needed about an hour of intense machete preparation. We were usually somewhat shocked when Cully told us where we were camping, but a bit of preparation provided comfortable camps and the vistas were stunning. At dusk the jungle would suddenly awaken a myriad of creatures, and their chirps and sometime screams were very entertaining and sometimes frightening. The local bugs  6 looked really scary, and we saw some Tarantulas that were as big as a kayak paddle, but we didn’t have any negative encounters with them. We did however, keep our tent openings securely fastened.

On the third day, Cully’s mood became very intense, and the dried breakfast ended with a speech from our fearless leader. “This is where the action starts!” He exclaimed. “Most of the rapids are reasonable, but it’s going to be continuos whitewater for the next few days. We are in a very remote canyon, and the walls are steep, so please don’t swim. It’s really hard to catch a boat, and hiking out would be a miserable adventure at best. Each client will team up with a guide and stay with them. Let the guide go first, and then follow a safe distance behind. If a guide eddies out, be sure to follow him. Any question?” The meeting ended with a quick review of safe river practices and standard river signals. The mood was filled with apprehension as we crawled into our boats and shifted into a very serious mode. The mellow jungle river suddenly dropped into a narrow box canyon and the rapids became much more intense. The teamwork strategy worked, and we enjoyed a pleasant morning of edie hopping down to a big horizon line drop. Cully and Marcus were in the lead, and we could see them waving the signal to stop. “This is one of the biggest rapids of the trip, so we definitely want to scout it, and some people may want to portage! exclaimed Cully, as we pulled our boats up on the pleasant beach. “Let’s eat lunch before we scout, so the food can digest. Please keep your helmets and life jackets on!” He added.

I had just found a comfortable spot to enjoy my lunch, when I heard the scream! “Mine bout!” Exclaimed the German banker as he dove back into the raging river. He had failed to pull his boat far enough up onto the bank, and it was suddenly heading down stream. He jumped in before we could stop him, and was already over the edge of the deadly rapid. Markus was up in a flash and bravely jumped into his boat and chased him into the rapid. The banker bounced through the rocky rapid, but luckily it was short and Markus managed to drag him and his boat to the safety of a small eddy. Cully’s policy of wearing our helmets and lifejackets during lunch probably saved his life. The canyon walls were nearly vertical and covered with slimy plants and bugs, so an escape without a boat would have been extremely difficult.

We returned to finish our lunch and most of the group decided to portage the big rapid. The canyon became even narrower and the feeling of intensity and remoteness increased as we encountered a large waterfall that needed to be portaged.  7 “We need to set up a tyrollean traverse here, and you’re the best climber.” Exclaimed Cully, as he handed me a few slings and a throw rope. “We need to get around this one 30 foot waterfall. It’s possible for the kayakers to climb with a belay, but we need a fixed rope for the boats. The rope came loose on our last trip, and we had a real fiasco. We managed to catch all the boats, but it took all day and we ended up camping on that tiny ledge over there. This has been the biggest challenge on our past trips, so I hope you can help out.” The gear that he gave me was a lot less than what I really desired, but I scrambled carefully along the slippery rocks and managed to fix the rope. The rest of the team quickly attached the boats to the rope and I pulled them across the short abyss. The kayakers quickly followed, and we paddled downstream to another scenic camp. The environment of this astonishing jungle canyon was growing on all of us and we enjoyed a very relaxed evening in the lush paradise. We were totally isolated from any civilized life and the sounds and smells of this pristine paradise were mesmerizing. The next day brought fun and exciting rapids including a 15 foot waterfall with a somewhat sketchy landing. I was still somewhat inexperienced at this new challenge, so I decided to protect my ankles by taking my feet off of the foot braces. I was happy that I had made this choice, because my boat landed abruptly on a rock. I crushed my dried dinners, and ended up neck deep in my boat, but I survived without injury. The thrilling day ended at a classic old ranch house, and Cully had permission from the owner to camp, and I can still remember a giant strangler fig tree. This is a fairly common tree that grows in jungle environments.  It starts it’s life as a vine, and needs an existing tree for it’s origin, but it eventually strangles that tree and can then become a gigantic tree. This one was more than a century old, and the remnants of the old vine were obvious. This was also the only place where insects were a problem. The rancher had destroyed the pristine forest to raise cows, and the ticks had followed the cows. It was a very interesting visit, but we were very happy to return to the native jungle.

This also marked the end of the extreme upper gorge, and a big celebration was in order. We still had 3 days to travel, but the lower canyon was less extreme, and our chances of survival had suddenly increased. The lower canyon was just as pristine as the upper, but we were entering terrain that what a lot safer, so the mood of the group relaxed and we thoroughly enjoyed the thrills of the whitewater, and the pristine beauty of this natural paradise. The air was filled with the sounds of exotic birds and the healthy smell of the plants was euphoric.

Marcus Schmidt! The lead guide on his first horseback ride.

Engineering school had put me in a tense mood, but nature had suddenly cured it and I smiled from ear to ear as we drifted along.    8 “We’re going to stop for lunch and visit a remote Indian village.” Exclaimed Cully, as he signaled for a stop. “I’ve only been here once before, and they were fairly friendly, so be very polite, and we’ll see what happens.” We wandered carefully up to the village, and were instantly greeted by a throng of children. The small village consisted of mostly woman and children, and we could only assume that the men were busy working, but the atmosphere was very relaxed. Cully had brought pencils and balloons which were happily accepted, and the locals stared in awe at the strange kayakers who had suddenly invaded their world. They seemed somewhat friendly or at least curious, and we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon of trying to communicate with gestures and smiles, and the interaction was very memorable. We bid them farewell, but they followed us back to the river and watched as we feasted on a meager lunch of dried fruit and jerky. They waved goodbye as we paddled away, and some of them tried to follow us, but the steep terrain stopped them very quickly. The rest of the day was filled with incredible jungle vistas and some very enjoyable whitewater. It was just hard enough to be exciting, and we were all grinning from ear to ear when we arrived at camp. This one was a large sandy beach, and we didn’t need to clear it with our machetes.

“Have you ever had any trouble with the locals?” I asked Cully, as we sat around a warm camp fire. “Only once, and please don’t spread the word. We were actually held hostage by Guatemalan refugees on the Usumacinta a few years ago. It was a multi-day trip on the section that borders Guatemala, and they were hiding in the jungle when we pulled over to camp. It was just a bunch of local natives and they were running away from the Guatemalan army, and feared for their lives. They did not harm us in any way and after two days of negotiations, I managed to convince them that we wouldn’t tell the authorities, and we also gave them a small bribe. The clients had exciting stories to tell when they got home, but it’s not in our brochures.”

John and one of the German bankers in the local watercraft.

Once again the jungle became alive with strange sounds and this night was more intense than usual. A loud and very shrill scream sent an echo through the canyon and shivers up our spines. “Jaguar!” exclaimed Cully. “There aren’t very many left, but that one sounds close. They are extremely shy, so don’t worry, but it really makes you realize where we are, and I’m glad we got a chance to at least here one.” The canyon walls gradually subsided, and we started to notice a few primitively garbed locals along the river. Most of them were trying to net fish and some of them were poling their way along the river with very primitive dug out canoes. Most of the  9 whitewater action was over, but we still found a few intermittent drops to fuel our adrenaline addiction, and the scenery was excellent. The last camp was a small island in the middle of the stream and we were greeted by a pair of young locals. One of them paddled his dugout to our camp and we tried our hand at poling it. It was very unstable and quite challenging to maneuver. While he was there, another young lad showed up on a horse. I had grown up on a small ranch, so I was eager to ride the frisky horse that happily trotted around the small island. Marcus had never ridden a horse, but he was game to try, and his endeavors were very entertaining. The next day brought us to another small village, and a road that would take us back to modern civilization. It was a bit sad to leave this jungle paradise, but new adventures were awaiting, as we bounced down the jungle road to Palenque.