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Guatemala with a taste of Mexico

Guatemala by andy holt

By Andy Holt

“As I sat there the man approached and purposely took off the safety catch on his gun. Welcome to Guatemala” Did Andy Holt make it… Read on…

In October myself, James Fleming, Matthew Brook and Tony Becker embarked on a 17- day trip to Guatemala in Central America. Why Guatemala? Well I love exploration and I wanted some Jungle boating in South or Central America away from the norm, so Guatemala came to my attention through a website, http://www.mayanwhitewater.com. The author of this website is Greg Schwendinger, an American who has been living in Guatemala for 10 years and who is responsible for many of the first descents in the country. After numerous Email conversations with him on logistics the trip was on.

Guatemala by andy holt

James on the Cabuz

The hardest part was getting there, as you can’t fly into Guatemala city with boats and there are no hire company’s or kayak suppliers anywhere in Guatemala so that wasn’t an option either. We eventually came up with the plan to fly into Cancun in Mexico through Virgin Airlines with our boats, hire a jeep and drive down into Guatemala – over a day and half.

After spending a night in Cancun from our nine-hour flight, the jeep was loaded and it was time to hit the road. Unfortunately after about 12 hours of driving the jeep got sick and was losing power, so we forced to limp the car into Valamosa city in Mexico and got a dodgy fuel pump replaced. With a day lost the rest of the drive down went according to plan until we hit the Guatemalan border, which we were all dreading!

I think we had scared ourselves with the internet before the trip on stories like people having been shot at the border, you are going to get robbed, never get out the car etc, etc. So when we arrived at the Mexico/Guatemala border, a crowd of Guatemalan men blocked the car and were demanding money left right and centre from us. These guys are the fixers who sort out your paperwork to get you through the border quicker and of course four gringos with kayaks in a hire car are easy targets to squeeze as much money out of you as they can.

Guatemala by andy holt

Andy next to the death wall at Chichen itza

For me this was very intimidating and looking at James and Tony’s face as well, they felt the same but Matt who’s had this experience before in his travels in India said I will deal with this and calmly stepped out of the car to start the negotiations. An hour later we finally had our passports stamped and about 40 dollars of negotiation fees we was on our way. Looking back at this for the fixers this is the norm they are not there to kill you they are just doing a job and as long as you stay calm, smile and haggle a fee then everybody’s happy but it does annoy you that the officials are sat there turning a blind eye to it all.

Our first few days we stopped in a hotel in a town called Malacatan in Guatemala and even though this was a fairly pleasant town it became apparent that there is a lot of hired security around. Every bank or shop that sold high value goods had an armed guard on the door; taxis are how most people get around. The infrastructure is still not as good as it could be yet as there is a lot of rubbish around, buildings are roughly constructed with no regulations, roads are bad and the water supply is not drinkable – bottled water is the norm. Of course in the bigger cities it’s a lot better and almost normal but out in the sticks it’s almost third-world, people living in shacks with no electricity or water supply and eating off open fires. Saying that though we found the Guatemalan people very friendly towards us and they loved the phrase “we are from Grande Britannia,” which would always get a smile and thumbs up and even a handshake off the local police.

Guatemala by andy holt

Planning portages on the Occisito

So after three days of travelling it was time now for what we came for. A phone-call to Greg advised we start on the River Cabuz lower section a 12km class 3/4 run. I can only describe the lower Cabuz as a cross between French and Austria water, very Alpine and quite fast with some volume – a great first day paddling in 30 degrees. The second day it was off to the middle Cabuz. At 11km, this run is a river of two halves – the first half with fantastic pool drop action with boofs slides and boulder negotiating class 4/4+. The second half has a major tributary coming in and doubles the volume to make a big bouncy class 3/4 wave trainy none-stop 5km run out.

After three nights in Malacatan it was time to move further east to a town called Reus where we would meet Greg and his friend Neils for a weekend of some deep jungle boating. We all met in a hotel that evening for beers and planning of the next two days. Unfortunately for James and Matt, sickness and diarrhoea was about to rear its ugly head. The next day Greg suggested the Occisito a deep jungle basalt gorge run at about grade 4/4+ low volume, tight and technical.

James and Matt were not looking good that morning having spent most the night in the toilet but still found enough energy to come for a run. This started off with a 2-3km gorge, which required a boat lower down and assisted hand-line to get into it. Some great grade 3-4+ boating followed in a unique jungle setting with vines dangling and big spiders running across the gorge walls. The whole run was about 9-10km with a couple of portages where the whole river disappeared down cracks with siphons and undercuts – not a place you would want to be. It was great to paddle with Greg and Neils and we finished the run off with traditional man hugs and high fives American style – even James and Matt had perked up a bit.

Guatemala by andy holt

with Greg and Neils and we finished the run off with traditional man hugs and high fives American style

The next day Greg suggested that there was a new descent in the area called the Soledad a 4-5km tributary to the river Xab, a similar run to the Occisito. Of course we were all up for that except Tony who I think had suffered the day before with the heat and humidity and needed to re-hydrate and chill for the day and for what was about to come – he made the right decision.

The run started off great with some tight one-boat eddy-hopping down technical slides and drops. Spirits were high but after about 600m, the first of many portages started due to landslides off the 300m high-sided jungle sides, which had choked it with wood. These portages got harder and harder having to haul boats up, around and through log jams and progress was slow especially in 30 degrees heat and 100% humidity. It was about 3pm by now in the afternoon and we had only done about two out of four kilometres – then the rain started and in a tight jungle creek you need to get out quick as we knew it was about to flash flood.

We had to make a decision there and then to leave the boats and hike out! So we scrambled up the gorge walls and secured the boats about 10m above the waterline. We then slipped; grappled and grovelled up a 300m steep sided jungle gorge and unfortunately we had to get out on the wrong side of the river, as the other side was too steep to climb. We eventually came out the jungle into a coffee plantation and Greg knew the general direction of the main road, which ended up being an 8-9km hike to a small village where all the plantation workers lived and waited for our driver to find us.

We were not looking forward to the next day knowing that we needed to hike in and carry on with the new descent and that’s if we found our boats again. The trek back in didn’t seem that bad being more refreshed and we got to our boats within two hours.

Guatemala by andy holt

We had to make a decision there and then to leave the boats and hike out!

We geared up and put back in but after another 150m on the river – yet again another portage but this one would be an hour mission to get around. We had to make a hard choice again there and then – either struggle around the portage and carry on knowing that there was going to be more portaging further on or haul our boats out the same way we escaped the day before. I hate being beaten but the latter was the right choice.

It took us two hours of the hardest graft I have even done in my life to haul our boats 300m up out of the gorge using ropes and pulleys until we were in the coffee plantation at the top. Exhausted, dehydrated and covered in mud and jungle fodder, we were very relived to get the boats out of there and started the hike out knowing it would be all over in a couple of hours.

However, there was still a final sting in the tail. After hiking with boats for a couple of kilometres, I was at the front by about 100m and needed to rest a minute, so I dropped my boat and sat in it. As I waited for the guys to catch up I noticed a man approaching me from a wooded shack about 50m away – then I saw his gun! I didn’t move and tried not to make eye contact, he said something in Spanish to me then purposely looked down at his gun and took the safety catch off, here we go I thought game over just stay calm, STAY CALM!

Just then Neils had caught up and saw the plantation security guard and started talking Spanish nervously to him, Neils then said he wants to see our hands and by now all of us had caught up and knew this was a serious situation. Greg having tons of experience with locals on this sort of thing started to cool the situation and eventually got the armed guard to speak to the plantation owner on his mobile phone who knew who we were and why we were there. With the situation diffused the guard let us go and we were on our way out. After two days we had managed 2km of a new descent, about 17-18km of hiking and nearly being shot! I think although the Soledad had its moments – that will be its one and only descent.

Guatemala by andy holt

That evening back at the hotel Greg and Neils said their goodbyes and left us. His final words were, “Well done lads, we didn’t give up, we all pulled through and you are all expedition ready,” which we thought was a nice gesture from him. He also suggested the next place to go to would be the Lanquin area where you have the Cahabon River, listed as one of the 10 best jungle rivers in the world.

So we scrambled up the gorge walls and secured the boats about 10m above the waterline. We then slipped; grappled and grovelled up a 300m steep sided jungle gorge and unfortunately we had to get out on the wrong side of the river, as the other side was too steep to climb. We eventually came out the jungle into a coffee plantation and Greg knew the general direction of the main road, which ended up being an 8-9km hike to a small village where all the plantation workers lived and waited for our driver to find us.

We were not looking forward to the next day knowing that we needed to hike in and carry on with the new descent and that’s if we found our boats again. The trek back in didn’t seem that bad being more refreshed and we got to our boats within two hours.

We geared up and put back in but after another 150m on the river – yet again another portage but this one would be an hour mission to get around. We had to make a hard choice again there and then – either struggle around the portage and carry on knowing that there was going to be more portaging further on or haul our boats out the same way we escaped the day before. I hate being beaten but the latter was the right choice.

Guatemala by andy holt

It took us two hours of the hardest graft I have even done in my life to haul our boats 300m up out of the gorge using ropes and pulleys until we were in the coffee plantation at the top. Exhausted, dehydrated and covered in mud and jungle fodder, we were very relived to get the boats out of there and started the hike out knowing it would be all over in a couple of hours.

However, there was still a final sting in the tail. After hiking with boats for a couple of kilometres, I was at the front by about 100m and needed to rest a minute, so I dropped my boat and sat in it. As I waited for the guys to catch up I noticed a man approaching me from a wooded shack about 50m away – then I saw his gun! I didn’t move and tried not to make eye contact, he said something in Spanish to me then purposely looked down at his gun and took the safety catch off, here we go I thought game over just stay calm, STAY CALM!

Just then Neils had caught up and saw the plantation security guard and started talking Spanish nervously to him, Neils then said he wants to see our hands and by now all of us had caught up and knew this was a serious situation. Greg having tons of experience with locals on this sort of thing started to cool the situation and eventually got the armed guard to speak to the plantation owner on his mobile phone who knew who we were and why we were there. With the situation diffused the guard let us go and we were on our way out. After two days we had managed 2km of a new descent, about 17-18km of hiking and nearly being shot! I think although the Soledad had its moments – that will be its one and only descent.

That evening back at the hotel Greg and Neils said their goodbyes and left us. His final words were, “Well done lads, we didn’t give up, we all pulled through and you are all expedition ready,” which we thought was a nice gesture from him. He also suggested the next place to go to would be the Lanquin area where you have the Cahabon River, listed as one of the 10 best jungle rivers in the world.

Guatemala by andy holt

A massive thank you to: James Flemming, Matthew Brook, Tony Becker, Greg Schwendinger and Neils Saubes for their energy, hard work and positivity in making this trip possible.

Andy Holt http://www.escapetoadventure.com

About thepaddlerezine (577 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler ezine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and WindsurfingUK magazines

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