Day 0: Thur, May 23: Getting There
The strip of sky above me flickered like a faulty florescent tube, and yet there were no resounding booms of thunder. Rain seemed unlikely and I had pitched my tent on a beach quite close to the shrunken river. With the coming wet season, it would soon be unrecognisable.
Impressive towering walls rose above me, their orange varnish resembling sandstone and reminding me of the Colo, but if you looked carefully there were obvious solution features that gave the limestone away.
The waterfall Aguacero (which translates as downpour) cascaded down one side quite close to me. The spray creating a small green oasis compared to the arid landscape I had traveled through to get here… It had taken longer than expected, and I’d actually planned to camp a couple of kilómetros downstream.
From the capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla, I’d spent quite a while wondering around looking for a bus to Ocozocoautla… The reason it took so long is that the buses are actually signed as going to “Coita”, so I’d likely missed a few before questioning a helpful local.
I walked out of Ocozocoautla on the 190. I had $9.50 pesos and didn’t really want to break the 700 I had left – that was hopefully enough to get a boat ride on the other end in a weeks time.
I had seen a colectivo for Aguacero in town, but none past now so I started sticking my thumb out. After maybe an hour a couple gave me a lift in the back of a fairly modern ute. They wouldn’t except any money and I was soon walking down the dirt road past rows and rows factory chicken prisons. It was hot with little shade, luck was with me and I quickly found a palm sombrero in good shape. It fit well. (Having lost my hat in San Luis Potosí a month? ago, I was going to buy one, but instead hoped to find one in the canyon. I hadn’t expected to find one so quickly!)
I took my time resting on the rocks and enjoying the views when the gorge opened up in front of me (one bird I stopped to listen to, sung a melody to rival rival any lyre bird!).
I wandered down through the gate after five [6?]. I’d hoped the boletería would be abandoned, it wasn’t. And furthermore they want to charge me an additional 100 for camping (136 pesos total). I tried explaining that I just wanted to see the falls and wasn’t planning to camp at them (I’d be continuing down the river). But they wouldn’t let me enter saying I’d need to return tomorrow. A little annoyed, I turned around and headed back up the road. Time for Plan B.
Just before the gate, I dropped down through a couple of cliff lines, picking up a drainage that led to the edge of the gorge and avoided most of the prickly vegetation. I could hear the falls clearly now (before I wasn’t sure if I was confusing it with the wind). I crawled under a barbed wire fence and continued traversing the rim. I had to fight my way through dense prickly scrub… Perhaps ‘fight’ is the wrong word, because I also had to stay silent… I was close now. It was impossible with the dry leaf litter, but I tried as best as I could, weaving one way, then another. Carefully moving this branch aside, ducking another, moving back a little when my sleeping mat caught. Again, luck was with me. A chainsaw started. I synchronised my movements with it, hoping it’d help me go unnoticed.
I crossed a dry drainage, was that a cave entrance below? I kept moving. The scrub thickened, sometimes forcing me to crawl. Progress was slow, but I had to be close! Eventually I saw the lookout ahead. I’d made it! “Don’t get your hopes up. Don’t get excited. Move carefully. Quickly. Efficiently.” I snapped a few photos, glancing back towards the sound of the chainsaw. I wasn’t home yet, I had to pass a small cafe. I paused beside it. The windows were shuttered, and I couldn’t hear anyone inside. On the other side, steps going down. That’s where I needed to go, but they also went up, and I could see numerous small buildings through the narrow gap. Spurring some speed, I made a run for it and was soon safely distant from any watchful eyes. I relaxed, slowing my pace and letting my heart settle. In a way it was fun!
Neat concrete steps lead nearly all the way to the bottom of the gorge. A short distance upstream I found the waterfall. Earlier, I’d planned to camp downstream to save the 100 pesos. Now my my rebellious self decided that that the inconvenience, and lost time entitled me to camp smack bang at the bottom of the falls. I set my tent up on the beach, stripped off my clothes and went for a shower. The water was too powerful and stung my naked skin, moving, I slipped on the traventine before reaching the perfect hole-for-one hollowed out in a rock.
I’d made it! I always tell people that the hardest part of an adventure was starting. Don’t spend too much time planning. You’ll never be 100% ready. I knew I sure wasn’t. What would go wrong on my trip down the 70km of Rio La Venta? And once I reached the end at El Encajonado I still didn’t really have a solid plan for getting back to the highway… Maybe I could get a lift with a fisherman? I had a back up walking route planned – but that would a couple of days at least!
I forced myself to finish the horrible mac & cheese, hoping my lack of appetite wasn’t a sign I was still sick (probably from drinking the water in Chorredero several days earlier).
Birds (swifts?) were careening around the falls, hopefully catching any nasty bitey insects… When I woke in the night, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing for a moment. The sky looked like the white noise from an untuned television (the roar of the waterfall continued the metaphor!). Thousands of the birds were flying around obscuring the sky. Perhaps they roosted in the nearby cave?
Day 1: Fri, May 24: Aguacero to Just Past La Conchuda
I woke a little late in the morning, the first group of tourists arriving before I’d finished repacking my gear, and another as I was about to set out. I eyed their wristbands a little guiltily and headed downstream, quickly getting my shoes wet in the river. I soon discovered uncomely dots and arrows painted on the rocks, seemingly to mark the route of least effort, but it didn’t really seem to be the case, and I tended to stick to the sandbars and walking in the shallow river. I’d worn the wrong shoes and sand was a continuous problem, I could feel hot spots forming. I tried taking my socks off for a while, and even went bare foot for a few(?) hours until sharp rillenkarren (eroded inverted scalloping?) became too much.
At this point this point I had already inflated my inner tube (250 pesos from a vulcanizadora). It wasn’t really worth it in terms of energy as I would move slower having to stick to the river and not cut corners, but it had been necessary as my pack had all-of-the-sudden become too heavy. I’d wrapped my cordina around the tube several times creating a sort of net where I had tied a dry bag full of food. It worked well. Surprisingly well actually, and the tube floated well in the ankle deep water without bottoming out.
I reached my goal of La Conchuda and paused there to snack whilst watching the water cascade down. Judging by the calcite deposits, the waterfall could swell to over double the width.
Whilst a pleasant enough camp spot, Mexicans’ general poor management of their rubbish left much to be desired (Mateo from Groupo Jaguar later told me that his club just cleaned up the spot a few weeks earlier!). A little annoyed, I tried not to let it affect me.
A few hours(?) on, I found a nice beach and set up camp. I can’t say the evening went very well. First my stove refused to work (the night before I had blamed its poor performance on the new fuel). It looked like the jet was blocked. I dismantled it as best as I could, but didn’t have a tool to remove the actual jet. I tried my wire gate crab (something else too?), wishing I’d brought my small mallion that works well as a shifter. I also didn’t have a jet cleaner. I looked for a small twig but made the problem worse. I needed something finer. Where were all the thorny plants when you needed them? The fern looking ones had plagued me most of the day… I eventually found one by treading on it! Pulling the thorn out of my foot (and one many days later!), I tried unblocking the jet. It seemed to be working! Then it snapped. It was no use. Plan B: I’ll light a fire. I gathered some kindling and had it all ready to go… but no. My lighter decided to take this moment to run out of gas! What to do? My stove! Oh, wait… I was getting a little frustrated. The light was failing, and the blasted midges were out to get me, glancing down at my legs, I could see small pricks of red where they had drawn blood. Eventually something went right. Using my sewing needle, I pressed the valve on my downward pointing canister, and doused some toilet paper in butane/propane (careful not to freeze your fingers!). It took the spark from my spent lighter and with the smell of singed hair I tended the flame and soon had a small blaze alight. Begone midges!
Stoking the coals, I boiled some water for noodles. I think it must have been the heat playing with my matabolism… normally I could easily eat two packets, but I couldn’t even finish one. I’d been eating a lot less of late.
Tired, I headed to my tent. Again, I found it hard to sleep. Even nude, it was hard to too hot and I tossed and turned. I wondered if I’d actually use my sleeping bag?
Day 2: Sat, May 25:
In the morning I discovered what I hoped would be the end of my bad luck – my palm sombrero had vanished – thinking back, it prob blew into the river and was carried away the day before (while I was swimming*). I was hopeful I’d find it. I was due some good luck now surely!
Finishing the remains of my noodles, I headed off.
The days began to blend together, the river taking its toll on me. The scenery stayed the same impressive limestone cliffs, usually just on one side. Caves just out of reach possibly hiding relics from the Omegas, the ancient people who used to inhabit the region (see video at end). Now they were accessible mainly to the birds with their of which there was an impressive variety. I’m no birder, and could still identify many unique species; several water birds with their long feet, some parrots (one green one eyeing me from a small opening on some overhanging cliff the following day). Possible kingfisher, swallows with their waterfront nests… If it was easier to access I imagine many would likely visit for the birdlife alone…
After lunch, I was filling my water bottle when a group of people began approaching. I ran into more sporadically into the following day (looking at the dates now, it coincided with the weekend, but I’m not sure there is a connection). They were all young men (and some boys) from the nearby pueblos, (these first ones probably from Absalòn Castellanos Dominguez) traveling in small loops in the upstream direction to catch fish (easier fishing? certainly harder travel). Most had white bags hang over their shoulder, the bulge reflecting their success. Some used green netting to catch the fish, but more popular was a slim metal rod, imagine a giant needle, to which a loop of strong elastic was fitted. Extending the elastic, they would dive into the water, looking under rocks, releasing the spear toward the unsuspecting fishes. The largest I’d seen was maybe 10cm, but they caught some approaching 20cm. But in general I think it was overfished, and most of their catches were surprisingly small. It seemed like there was no size discrimination.
As always, in times like this, I was in conflict between wanting to learn this survival skill, the other half urging me it was unvegetarian.
As the day became really sunny, I found another hat, this one a cap/gorda. The flow in the river seemed to have become more favorable, but sand in my shoes was a constant issue and my feet were becoming noticeably sore. I was also getting some bad chaffing.
This day was one of my longest. When I grew weary and selected a spot to camp (just after the large boulder field at the Rabasa put-in). I checked my location and was surprised to find I’d reached further downstream than expected, just past the Rabasa put-in: the end of the rd on the East side. The large area to the East of the river is designated reserve: Reserva de la Biosfera Selva El Ocote, probably to protect its rugged karstic landscape (apparently its hard to find water). Despite this, looking at the satellite imagery, illegal clearing appears to go un-policed. Overpopulation seems to be a present issue in Mexicò. Some towns I’d visited were already without water (Mexico City’s total population is comparable to the total population of Australia!).
Day 3: Sun, May 26: Rabasa Put-in to Unidad Modelo Put-in
On the third day exhaustion hit me. I guess trudging through thick sand and shallow water had taken its toll. On the up side, my new system for tying the net was working well, wrapping the cord twice around and back through the middle (similar to a clove hitch). This locked it and also allowed good tensioning. Moving from one side to the other in a star pattern, the shadow looking like an old motorcycle wheel.
I also seemed to have found a better solution for the sand. Adding my think pair of socks had helped the day before, but what really made a difference was tying my laces around my ankles like a small belt.
Towards lunch time I got my first deep pool and started using my inner tube to lay on.
I’d planned to make it the cave and camp near the entrance (if possible), but when a nice beach presented itself (just after the Unidad Modelo Put-In), I decided to call it a day. It was already around 4pm; this was a good spot; there was still 2km; maybe there wouldn’t be good camping at the cave… the decision was made. with a few days practice setting up camp went rather smoothly. I was surprised I still had hair on my hands to singe!
I began calculating how much time the trip was going to take… my initial estimate had been about 6 days… but now thought a couple more was more likely. Looking at my food, I figured I could stretch it out.
Day 4: Mon, May 27: Cueva
I coaxed the fire back to like in the morning and boiled some water for breakfast. I’d slept well and only had a couple of k’s to reach the cave. Looking around, I admired the greenery. Comparing it to where I had started, the canyon now had a very different character. The transition had been slow and gone unnoticed until waking one morning. I could no longer use green as a sign of an entering tributary.
This following section seemed more remote, deeper waters and larger fish – making the lack of fisherman surprising (water too deep?). The canyon walls seemed to be pressing in a little more…
I checked my map a couple of times before deciding to explore a dry creek entering from the left. It was roughly in the right place according to the pin I had. It seemed fairly undisturbed, but a couple of rocks seemingly smoothed in a couple of spots by feet, and some stray fabric that looked like the popular cordura for making cave suits kept me going. I reached the base of the cliff, It looked like there was a hole 20m up… and was that a slight draught of cool air I could feel?
I managed to clamber up to the right and was soon in the middle of a sizable entrance with an obvious draught. Stalactites and stalagmites were plentiful, and as I wondered in I was delighted to explore the giant rim stone pools. They were all empty with the exception of one. Where was all the water? This must be a cool spot in the wet season!
Negotiating the rim-stone pools, I found a handline descending down a muddy slope. It dropped me on top of a large flowstone formation with many tiered layers. It was steep but the sparkling crystalline structure made it easy to climb. The roar of water now audible. It obviously has a fair bit of water flowing over it much of the time, as there there were next to no signs of human passage.
At the bottom, another short fixed line (as well as a couple of bolts placed along it – for aid climbing from the bottom). Ascending a muddy slope, I past a large stalagmite, crossed over the large pile of breakdown and was soon looking at a waterfall cascading from a hole in the rock several meters up.
Looking around the large room, I quickly found a rope leading up into the river passage above. But without a harness, it seemed foolish to climb. Furthermore, I was alone in a remote cave. Best play it safe. I’ll have to come back and explore this cave another time. The through trip takes about 3 days starting from the upper entrance.
I explored the breakdown trying to get down to the stream, finding some decent size breakdown rooms, but no way on. Eventually I headed back out into the heat. It had taken a lot less time than expected.
Continuing down stream I soon found a pleasant beach for lunch, complete with a resurgence escaping from between the bedding planes (its interesting how horizontal all the bedding planes seem to be).
I had enjoyed the day, and gradually decided that I deserved to rest early (just after 1pm I think). I felt that the military pace I’d been setting left me too focused on move forward efficiently and continuously. I was here to enjoy myself and decided to shorten my travel time a bit to appreciate my surroundings more.
Water had been getting into my food drybag. Cleaning my gear, I found a spoilt packet of mac and cheese at the bottom.
Day 5: Tue, May 28: Wow!
The next morning, after an hour or so of travel (passing an abandoned raft or inflatable kayak), he walls started to press in on me. Soon I was paddling through some amazing canyon. The fish seemed friendlier and some I saw were around 30cm long. I also spotted a catfish. I tried filming them, but the limestone blue of the water meant that visibility wasn’t great and my footage was pretty ordinary. Soon I approached the General Cárdenas cascades. I was beginning to see why many people just ran the lower section of the river.
I experimented taking video of myself by setting my camera up on my pack and dragging it behind me. The result was acceptable.
Soon I approached an obvious change in the river. The river turned, but the canyon walls didn’t seem to continue with it. I guessed I was approaching Arco del Tiempo (the Arch of Time). Sure enough, the top of the canyon began to close, birds above taking advantage of the natural shelter.
The Arco del Tiempo, or “Arc of Time”, the highest natural arch in the planet, 158 meters high, 255 meters long and 35 meters wide, is more than 87 million years old.
On the other side of the water became more shallow and an irresistible campsite soon came into view.
A waterfall was dropping down at the far end. When I went to collect water, the rope groves carved into the rock were obvious. Commercial groups use this drainage as an entrance (exit?) to access the natural bridge.
As I was getting settled in and probably photo pfaffing, I heard a strange roar. Turning around I watched the first rain drops reach the ground. It didn’t happen that often that I could watch rain like that. The birds seemed to love the rain, that was at least my interpretation of the ruckus that started above.
A leaf fell down from above the arch, I watched it for nearly a minute as it casually succumbed to gravity and hit the top of the waterfall. The thunder boomed magnificently.
The rain didn’t reach my camp at first, but I slight change in the wind carried it in towards my tent. I moved further under the arch and built the fire up a bit more.
As I relaxed in my tent – I even watched a film! – crazy flying insects began to accumulate. I later found out they were probably a termite. Those that somehow found a way into my tent seemed to loose their wings and loved to crawl on me…
Getting up later in the night I spotted lights on the wall: bioluminescence. I wasn’t sure if it was another new Mexican critter, but it didn’t really matter. I watched it for a while and tried taking some photos; eventually becoming frustrated with the flying termites.
Day 6: Wed, May 29: Arco Del Tiempo to El Encajonado
Leaving the bridge at a leisurely pace the next morning, one of the first obstacles was the Derrumbe portage. In high water maybe this is more of a challenge. It seemed pretty straight forward to me, and a lot shorter than the large boulder field near the Rabasa put-in. I floated some of the sections in between.
The canyon seemed to loose a little of that special splendor that had been present.
I stopped to have a look at a large cave opening on the right. Wading across the river it was an easy 10m climb to the entrance. I went in a little way, soon realising I’d have to return with my headlamp. Descending my shoulder brushed a small tree, I soon became painfully aware that it had been covered in ants. I got numerous bites down both arms and my chest. At first I thought they simply bit like the green ants in the north of Australia, but they quickly swelled up like large mozzie bites, and later a large bulge formed on my left forearm.
Large passage dropped down to a sump. With my light, I couldn’t tell if it was diveable. I thought that was the full extent of the cave, but decided to check out a lead at the top the breakdown. To my surprise there was going passage. It seemed to be terminating, but then opened back up; I could hear water ahead!
Soon I was in front of a beautiful flowstone waterfall. I spent some time admiring it before skirting around it to the left and into some muddy passage way that didn’t proceed far. On the way back I climbed down through a hole… I was disorientated at first… it looked like I was at the top of the waterfall… but I’d climbed down. Descending the falls, I found myself in a larger chamber below the first, complete with a larger waterfall. This too ended in a sump. Happy with my finds I headed back out. Exploring another passage, I discovered smaller passage leading to another entrance that emerged from the canyon wall about 50m downstream from where I entered. Inside the cave I could hear water that was almost certainly the source of the resurgence a little downstream.
The canyon started to very slowly become wider and wider, the walls moving away and like the beginning of the trip, there was often a cliff on only one side. I met half a dozen hunters, with maybe three rifles. They were friendly enough. I hoped they weren’t poaching. A long sweeping bend with crescent beach. In the distance three distinct turns… As it turned out the final one was the confluence of the Venta with Negro (or its other 2 names that I’ve seen on other maps). Negro seemed an apt name as the clear waters of the Venta immediately turned a dirty brown.
The water looked deep, and I hoped to float the rest of the way to the junction… as it turned out the poor water clarity was hiding a shallow bottom, and all the way to Presa Nezahualcóyotl (Malpaso lake), the water was around shin deep. Small streams were hidden in the dirty water, and I could often float short sections before bottoming out, forcing me trudge through the sand and inconveniently deep water until I found the next deep slip stream. My hopes of getting a lift with a fisherman quickly faded.
Just downstream from the junction was a small pointed peak formed by a billabong that reminded me a lot of a nunatak.
I was looking out for El Chorro del Sol de Piedra, a fairly long cave (nearly 3km) that was supposed to be on the left side of the river, but I never spotted an entrance. Without it I wasn’t sure how far I’d traveled and was soon getting very tired. I pushed on, beginning to look for good places to camp… there wasn’t much.
Further on, I found some large sand bars, but they were quite vegetated, far from ideal. I felt like I should be close so pressed on for something better. Around the corner I spotted the old rangers hut. It took a while to reach it, but I was happy I did. Perched on a small limestone cliff it provided great views over the lake. I must have arrived during Blue Hour, as the light was fantastic!
In the distance, I could see powerlines marching across the hills that were mostly devoid of forest. As it darkened the fireflies that had accompanied me most nights now alternated white and red, as they zipped across the sky. Civilization was close.
There was plenty of fire wood at hand. With the low water, I wasn’t really concerned someone would come and question my presence (there were no signs saying I couldn’t camp there, but I wasn’t sure it was allowed).
The hut boasted a functioning solar setup complete with inverter, so I could even charge my phone.
At first I thought water was going to be a problem, but as it turned out the entire floor of the building was a reservoir and could be accessed through a small hole in the floor.
With the luxuries, I stayed up late watching a film.
Day 7: Thur, May 30: El Encajonado to House
In the morning I spotted a boat, and man cutting wood where the river spilled out into the lake. They had no interest in me if they had noticed me.
I eventually packed and headed to the edge of the lake. I was going to try floating 5km to the second peninsula (2km + 3km). There I had a planned walking route. Thinking about what I was about to do, I happily noted I had a favourable breeze and soon pushed off. I mostly drifted. It felt a little like space travel, floating in the current/wind. Bouncing between the trees to correct my path. Hands like small boosters.
A man checking what I assumed were fish traps marked with PET bottles, stopped to see what I was doing. He offered a boat ride, but $2k pesos was a bit rich for me.
An obvious cave entrance was visible in the first bay (Matteo later told me it was actually an arch).
I made it to the first peninsula and stretched my legs a bit before pushing off on the longer 3km section. The dead trees protruding from the reservoir told me the water wasn’t overly deep. Birds enjoyed them and most had several birds perched in the bare white branches.
I eventually made it to my destination and walked a couple of k’s to the houses nestled in the bay. Pulling out my GPS, I checked the route I’d planned and headed towards the buildings. Avoiding the ones with dogs that were already barking at me, I headed to the smaller closer one, and quickly found a trail heading into the hills on the other side of a gate. Exactly what I was looking for! Looking back, I couldn’t see anyone around and headed off. Passing through several more gates, a couple more dwellings I quickly realised that what I thought was going to be a primitive road was actually more of a horse and cattle trail.
It was hot, but I set a good pace. It wasn’t far to the next community. A girl riding a horse in the opposite direction passed me. She was returning from school.
After another km, I larger group appeared in distance. I talked to them for a while, going through options on how I could get back to the highway. Not all of them seemed sure on the route themselves, and to my amusement, they discussed it amongst themselves. Eventually I decided to accept their offer to spend the night with them and take a boat across to the launcha tempranito in la manana.
I could just keep pace with the horses and we were soon back at the group of houses were they all lived.
I headed into one, and met the family, and extended family. Some cousins from Tuxtla soon arrived, and many kawamas soon emerged. The music, singing and talking went well into the night. Having to leave early the following morning, I eventually excused myself, but with the heat, music still playing I couldn’t sleep. Even when it became quiet, the mosquitoes plagued me all night. I think I got about 4hrs.
Fri, May 31: Boat off Lake
I walked down to the lake shore with the family veterinarian who had also been visiting. Another man there was already prepping the boat for us. We were soon motoring across the lake to the far side.
After half an hour or so the boat from Malpaso arrived and I piled in with all the locals. The cool morning breeze was great!
Before docking, everyone had to pay their $90 pesos. We then got a motortaxi into town for $15 pesos, followed by a collectivo to Tuxtla, $80 pesos.
All of the sudden I was back in the city. What next?
Things that worked, and things that didn’t:
- Didn’t really use my sleeping bag. too hot.
- Stove failed, no repair kit
- Lighter failed, no backup.
- with bug spray, no need for a tent. Tent mainly for insects. If raining, would have to plan camps better though.
- I think I wouldn’t do the upper section again in low water.
- Tube worked well. I used an R17. I don’t think I’d go smaller. Brought a bicycle patch repair kit, but it wasn’t needed. It was generally more comfortable with the valve pointing down.
- The cord for the inner tube was essential. I found my 16.7m cord to be a good length.
- Can catch boat from launcha for $90 pesos. Much better than a custom one for $2k – unless you have a large group.
- Drybag leakages. Lost food. Could have been an issue.
- Need to enter at Aguacero earlier if you want to enter more legally