Jan 3-9 of this year we were part of a “scout” trip on the the Rio Jatate in Chiapas that was put together by Rocky Contos and the Southern Mexico portion of the Sierra Rios/Global Grand Canyons team. At one time the Jatate was one of the most famous whitewater runs in the world, but it has now been nearly 30 years since political unrest and the Zapatista movement shut outsiders from the high jungle valley of the Jatate region of Chiapas. Our scout trip was immensely successful and we were well received by all the villages and people that we came across – although we were asked for a small “collaboration” of $200MX/person ($10USD), which we found to be completely reasonable.
The Jatate was first mapped and outfitted by US kayaker Cully Erdman in the 1980’s, but Far Flung Adventures actually did 6 different commercial trips mostly led by Bill Blackstock and Tommy Moore in the early 90’s just before the unrest made commercial access to the area impossible. Of some note, kayaker Josh Lowry went along as safety for a few trips. In the last 25 years or so only a handful of stealthy kayakers or very fast rafts have made the decent, but no rafting groups of any real size have been down since the early 90’s. We had two gear boats (16′, 13′), a paddle raft (13′), and 3 kayaks on our trip.
Our success in that regard was due almost entirely to the contributions of Daniel Ellsworth and his wife Maria of Comitan, Chiapas. Because of their connections in the Jatate area from Maria’s medical work and Dan’s organic coffee and cocao business they were able to secure permission from the communities along the upper/middle river corridor (once in the canyon there are no people). The locals were happy to have us come through and offered us river access locations, camping and food if needed.
Once the stronghold of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, it is now a new world in the Jatate valley: There is a significant road
system (albeit a dirt, pothole filled, slow one) and 2-4 large, commercial vehicle bridges span the river. Some communities such as Las Tasas have populations exceeding 6,000 people. And, as barefoot young children ran along the rivers edge laughing and filming us on their smart phones I have to say that I felt as though the rougher edge of Zapatista sentiments have for the most part become a thing of the past.
The travertine style rapids of the Jatate canyon are some of the most spectacular, exciting and challenging in the bounds of commercially viable whitewater in the world. There are between 50 and 60 class III and IV rapids, plus 2-3 class V/V+ type situations (all are easily lineable/walkable/portageable). The canyon is a tight, pristine jungle canyon and is nothing short of spectacular. The camping is often in close quarters but is good and the clean water flowing from the limestone cliffs is in abundant supply (we still treat it anyway).
Some of our group finished at the traditional takeout at La Sultana bridge and some of us continued another 3 days to a bridge on the Lacantun river at the town of Amatitlan. Below La Sultana the river is in a wide and gorgeous jungle valley and has some of the bigger and more traditional Class III/IV whitewater that we saw, as flows double or triple from tributaries coming in and the river stops creating travertine formations. Paso Soledad was the most significant of that section, which many of us walked. Of the two rafts that took a sneak line down river right one flipped but all parties involved were fine. Actually those of us that walked might have had it worse because all of us got chiggers from slogging through some swampy mud (I am still itchy).
After Paso Soledad and a few subsequent class III/IV rapids the river widens, mellows and becomes a scenic float trip for a few hundred kilometers (we only did a portion of that this time). The lower valley there is nice and has good campsites, great views of jungle peaks and some interesting snapshots of rural farm life. At one camp the locals caught and cooked us fish, brought us homemade tamales and tortillas and gave us a bottle of scotch!
Lago Miramar is a popular tourist destination close to the river there and we saw a few motor boats transporting tourists up and down the river. We arrived in Amatitlan in the afternoon and, due to our ride being delayed by a flat tire, found the community very welcoming and helpful. We had dinner and found last minute transport for our gear to the Ellsworth’s hostel in Comitan, a few hours away.
The trip was amazing and we will be working to put more trips together there later in 2021 and early 2022. The Jatate is one of the best whitewater multi-days in the world, and the river can even be taken all the way down to the Usumacinta in what could be a 14-18 day river trip – which is something we are also considering.
For anyone interested in some reading about this area there is a great book by Christopher Shaw called Sacred Monkey River that details his full descent of the Jatate down thru the Usumacinta in the mid-90’s and gives some great insight on the region’s long and fascinating history from the Mayan empire thru Spanish conquest and up to contemporary politics.
In short, we are very excited about this trip and can’t wait to do it again!
– Will Blackstock