Story: Rebecca Jones
Photos: Rebecca Jones, Tim Burne and Amie Burne with Mark Skirrow
I’m not going to lie, Mexico was never really on my to do list. If you had asked me six months before where my next paddling trip was going to be I would definitely have said the Zambezi. However, a chance text message from a friend and a boyfriend refusing to grapple with crocodiles meant that the invite was accepted. So in November 2014 Tim and Amie Burne, Mark “Skiz” Skirrow and myself headed off to Heathrow. We had booked flights with a vague plan to spend two weeks travelling around the states of San Luis Potosi and Veracruz. Mexico is a really varied paddler friendly country. Yes, there is gnarl but there is also something for everyone.
After arriving in Mexico City at 5am we set off on the bus leg of our journey. The bus companies are super helpful with kayaks and they were never really a problem as long as you turned up first in line to get the luggage on board. It’s many miles to get from Mexico City to Ciudad Valles so after spending pretty much the entire day on the bus, when we arrived at the bus station we walked across the road to the nearest hotel we could find. Ciudad Valles is an industrial town so there isn’t a great deal of accommodation choice.
So after a night in an interesting hotel we were picked up by a driver and taken to the Cascadas Micos. There is no other way of describing this than Disneyland for kayakers – especially with the queues of Mexican adventure tourists waiting to jump off the falls. I cannot get across in words how beautiful this river is. The water is a tropical temperature, bright azure blue and crystal clear. What follows is a series of super happy fun slides and drops that range in size from about eight to 25 feet.
Tim Burne Top River Experience:
“The others might lynch me for saying this, but the most memorable river for me was probably the Santa Maria. Not so much for the quality of river – there were some nice rapids, but there was an enormous flat section and some of the more meaty rapids were a little hard (and siphon filled) for our small team meaning a fair share of portages. However, the stunning takeout followed by the adventures trying (and for a long time failing) to find our driver made for an entertaining story – in retrospect at least. I love a good dose of drama!”
The travertine is a bit weird. We kayaked the Micos when it was considered to be high which meant more water was flowing over the travertine than in the guidebook pictures, which is no bad thing. This opens up a variety of lines and means that you can walk on the slides and drops without slipping. However, as Skiz found out some of the holes at the bottom of the falls are a little bit sticky.
We hired some camping pods at the Aldea campsite which went down a treat for Skiz and I who had earlier in the year enjoyed the hospitality of the Hairy Lemon, Uganda. It’s a similar idea, food at regular intervals and beautiful riverside surroundings at the bottom of the cruisey section of the Micos.
Mark Skirrow Top River Experience:
“I really enjoyed El Salto especially the step rapid, which I pinned my boat on and swam down. ☺”
With our jet lag kicked in to touch we were really keen to do the Tampaon. This is the classic Ciudad Valles rafting section so it’s pretty easy to take a lift up to the put in with a rafting company in exchange for some safety kayak cover.great deal of accommodation choice.
The common theme to Mexican rivers is the astounding natural beauty. The Tampaon winds its way through the forested countryside before being funnelled through a rather boily gorge. However, it is classic grade 3 kayaking throughout and is a lovely warm up run. You’re rewarded with a spectacular natural land bridge spanning the entire river, which disappears underneath. We had freeloaded with a less organised outfit and got a bit stranded at the take out, this proves to be a common theme to our trip.
Something I was not expecting in Mexico was the chilly weather. The day we paddled the Tampaon was decidedly cold and I had packed for much warm weather – so take thermals kids!
Another day another river, we managed to agree a lift with a more reliable driver and took a ride up to El Salto. At the put in, the river has been faffed with to the point where it is diverted through a power plant and the put in is the outflow. We had read that there was poison ivy at the put in and as we didn’t really know what poison ivy looked like opted for seal launch straight in to the swift flowing narrow channel. Fortunately being Brits, we felt quite at home in the tree jammed ditch, which cruises down to the start of another travertine beauty where the river joins its natural course.
Amie Burne Top River Experience:
“The Micos was definitely my boating highlight of the trip. Although some of the horizon lines looked terrifying from above, they were all really fun friendly.”
El Salto is not as spectacular as the Micos but is definitely more varied and probably more fun. There is a mixture of bigger volume falls at the start but as everything is portagable it is definitely worth it for less able boaters. The travertine forms little dams and it is always worth looking back upstream to see the fishbowl like windows where the travertine has collapsed. The take out is a must-make above El Salto del Meco, which has been ran but was less than successful and made the Rider of the Year Carnage Reel!
Tim and I were pretty keen to do the Santa Maria so we headed back to accommodation in Ciudad Valles. We used Patta del Pedro – a dog themed hostel that is pretty boater friendly and dirt-cheap. Locating a driver is not that easy in Valles as the area isn’t as commonly paddled as Veracruz but we found our chap in the form of a jolly Mexican called Nico.
Much to Skiz’s disgust we arranged a very early departure and bought some river food from the supermarket in the form of tortillas, cheese and salsa. We were aware that the river was a pretty long day but perhaps with hindsight you will probably agree we should have given this more thought.
Mark Skirrow Top general Mexican experience/general travel tip:
“The absolute highlight of the street food was a dirty pulled and deep fried pork and cheese sandwich – discovered in Valles.”
We were picked up by Nico in a Chevy AKA a Vauxhall Corsa. We’d had a lost in translation moment and Nico didn’t realise there were four boats to take. However undeterred we tied our boats on and piled in to the little car. Nico babbled on to us in Spanish talking mainly about tequila and played La Cucaracha on the radio. I don’t think we could have had a more stereotypical experience unless of course he had a Chihuahua. The Santa Maria is a fair drive away and Nico wasn’t always sure of the way and had to stop for directions… several times. This delayed us further on what was going to be a long day.
We made the put in which was in the middle of a tiny village way off the main road, this river was by a long way the most remote we paddled in Mexico and for the majority is a long way from the road. However, it again is stunning with many grade 3 and 4 rapids, which are scoutable and portagable for the most part.
We were making pretty good progress and decided to stop for lunch ahead of the more challenging gorge. Unfortunately our progress was less good from this point in. The levels were not ideal for running the sieve laden grade 5 and there were a few very visible siphons, which were very much in play. As time was pushing on we made the decision to portage, which was a bit of a mission in itself. However, happily back on the water we continued through beautiful steep boulder gardens more than aware we needed to make it to the take out with daylight left.
The Santa Maria take out is easily the most beautiful I have ever seen. The Cascada de Tamul joins from the left in the form of a 300-foot cascade of the Rio Gallinas in to the main flow and you take out at the base. Unfortunately what follows is one of the grimmest hike outs I have ever experienced. Zambezi style ladders… very large spiders… a river crossing… no driver… in the jungle… and in the dark. Just at the point where I was ready to put my ‘just in case’ dry clothes on and bed down in the emergency shelter we saw the headlights of a Vauxhall Corsa appearing out of the black, Nico had saved us. I don’t think I have ever been so pleased to see a Corsa in my life! We treated him to midnight tacos and beers at Taco Richard in Valles ,as we had also not eaten since lunch and we owed him a pretty big thank you. Quite the day trip adventure, which despite the sense of humour failures, sweaty climb out and 5k walk back to the road I would actually do again tomorrow.
Nico dropped us off at the bus station complete with bracelets as presents for Amie and I. He was the kindest stranger you could ever wish to meet. We had also learnt the meaning of, “Proper preparation prevents ‘cough, cough,’ poor performance!”
To get to Tlapacoyan from Valles is a further day’s travel and as we had pretty much exhausted our paddling options with the current water levels we decided after the Santa Maria epic to head over to Aventurec and some R&R. A day’s bus ride to Veracruz followed with some pretty tasty gorditas. The last bus driver was really helpful and for a small tip dropped us off on the doorstep of Aventurec. We were very pleased to find a well stocked bar, a pool, sunshine and comfortable accommodation in the form of little jungle facing bungalows. Tim headed off to do the Roadside Alseseca but we were still in bits from the carry out so opted to sun bathe and stretch!
We hitched a lift with the Aventurec rafters and paddled Rio Filo-bobos, initially unaware of another hot, long and jungle walk in. You can pay locals to carry kit down (‘cough, cough,’ Tim Burne got an old lady to carry his boat ‘cough, cough’) but this river is a real grade 3 treat. No real flat sections and lots of play waves and boulder gardens but some of the sections might be less than fun in low water.
Tim and I stayed on for the lower section and got the opportunity to visit the Totonac ruins. These are only accessible by kayak or on horseback by crossing a river. There is a sacrificial (ball game court) palace and a pyramid. It seemed pretty strange to be wandering around ruins in kayaking kit and no other tourists, as it was late on a Sunday evening.
The Roadside Alseseca section
Unfortunately Tim hurt his back so Skiz and I had to latch on to another group to run the Roadside Alseseca section. This is a short fun steep run where most things can be portaged which was lucky as I certainly did not fancy Sticky Hole and S turns but it was great to watch Julian run it.
I was pleased we had locals with us who were familiar with the run as it is horizon line after horizon line. Some need a look (and maybe a cheeky portage) but most go without too much trauma.
Amie Burne Top general Mexican experience/general travel tip:
“The highlight of my Mexico trip was releasing baby turtles into the wild during our non-paddling week on the coast in Oaxaca.”
The water in the Alseseca is known to be a bit grim and we didn’t want to risk getting ill before going home so we used the local cure – tequila and lime. Spectacular end to a wonderful trip!
Tim and Amie had a paddling free week in Oaxaca and took an internal flight. Skiz and I had a day spare just before our flight and the hotel we had found were really accommodating. Not only had they allowed us to drag kayaks through their pristine reception, given us a free late check out, fed us the best steak we’d had all trip but let us put our kayaks in to the airport shuttle bus for free. It is well worth having a tourist day in Mexico City at the end of the trip and we really enjoyed the day at Teotihuacan, topped off with some sun bathing by the pool and a beer before our flight back home.
Tim Burne Top general Mexican experience/general travel tip:
“The street food. It’s freaking awesome. Take any opportunity you’re given to sample as much of it as possible. Find a busy stand (the ones outside bus stations always seem to do a roaring trade) and get involved! To be fair all Mexican food, although somewhat different to our idea of Mexican food, is pretty outstanding.”
What made our trip such a fun time were the people we met along the way and helped us out. Big shout out to Nico, Raft Huaxteca, Aventurec staff – especially Terry the Chihuahua for living up to the Mexican stereotype. Finally to Pyranha for the discounted boats and quickly making me a medium Burn. Whilst Mexico is known for its large cascades, do not under estimate the fun that can be had on the cruising sections. The Burn was playful and yet reliable when I needed it the most.
Discover Mexico – it rocks!