Packrafting Rio La Venta: exploring the limestone underworld of Chiapas, Mexico.
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
*This write-up does not aim to provide a detailed river description. It is an overview that will give prospective parties enough information to decide if this trip is appropriate while sharing the basic logistics to help your expedition launch smoothly. While the guidebook write-up for this river does offer some rapid, portage, and possible camp descriptions, it does not fully capture the character of La Venta. It is better to expect the unexpected on this wild expedition trip and enjoy the many surprises that this river has in store.
Why La Venta:
While I have left a number of rivers thinking Wow, that might be the most beautiful river I have ever paddled, at the end of our trip in December of 2019, I knew this was true for Rio La Venta. I don’t think this is hyperbolic. La Venta does not just have a few standout moments, it is consistently stunning with a grand finale of scenery in the final days that includes paddling through a kilometer-long cave. This river flows between vertical limestone walls draped with beautiful jungle foliage and travertine waterfalls gushing from a countless number of springs. In addition to the mind-numbing scenery, the river offers caves to explore, a plethora of birdlife and consistent whitewater.
The first descent of La Venta was completed by canyoneers in 1991. Since then, many groups have descended the canyon on foot while using innertubes to float flatwater sections between the rapids. During the rainy season, kayak and raft descent happen occasionally, but the risk of flash flooding is high and a number of rapids become unscoutable and unportagable. In recent years, this river has seen some increased interest from packrafters. While you can almost be assured of having this river to yourself, packrafts have extended the runnable season by making low flow runs more viable (or less miserable) than in kayaks or rafts. That said, for class V expedition paddlers, this river would be a blast to kayak with more flow. The real upside to packrafts is eliminating the hassle of navigating taxis and planes with kayaks, creating more space on the motorized boat ride across the reservoir to allow for more people and a reduced cost, and by making the short but steep descent into the canyon a little easier.
Depending on the season and levels, this trip can range from a class V expedition paddling experience to a canyoneering adventure. For us, we sought a happy medium that permitted fun whitewater without eliminating the possibility of portaging. Early November usually marks the end of the heaviest part of the rainy season in Southern Mexico, so between then and mid-December seems like the best time to catch this run with water while reducing the risk of a flash flood. Flood events are always possible, and a week after completing La Venta we were flooded off a different Chiapas river in a rather terrifying manner. In the dry season (January-June), this trip is done in more of a canyoneering style with some parties using innertubes for the long calm sections that require swimming.
I have been disappointed to see this river misrepresented in terms of difficulty and exposure to risk. It cannot be overstated that the limestone environs have created an endless supply of sieves and undercut features that dramatically increase the consequence in many seemingly straightforward rapids. I would recommend this trip only to groups with class IV skill and expedition paddling experience. Parties should be comfortable running lots of class IV, some of it manky, or allowing for extra time in the schedule for portaging. While at a medium-low flow, most of the rapids seemed portagable, the portages are generally a slippery scramble over sharp rock. La Venta also has a couple of rapids that are manky, sievy class V, and one that seems unrunnable. While easy to identify and portage at low flows, these rapids have lead-ins that would be very consequential at high water. The geology of this river makes most of the rapids feel steep with plenty of horizon lines that require lots of confident boat scouting. Above all, it is not possible to hike off this river. Here is a write up from a group of packrafters who were extracted by helicopter from La Venta during a high water event. Be safe and smart to ensure future boaters continue to be granted access to this gem.
Flights: Flying to Tuxtla Guttierez is the closest option. Tuxtla is Chiapas’ industrial hub and biggest city with over a million inhabitants, however, it is not on the tourist circuit and therefore has no direct flights from the U.S. Fly through Mexico City with Delta or AeroMexico and continue on with AeroMexico. From the airport, it is about a 30-minute cab ride into town (300 pesos in December ‘19). Direct flights from the US go to Villahermosa (about 3 hr. bus) and Cancun (about 10 hr. bus).
Lodging in Tuxtla: You likely to be finalizing logistics when you arrive in Tuxtla, and if you don't speak Spanish, you might consider finding a hostel or a hotel that is used to arranging tourist activities. Though we didn't stay there, the hostel owner of Casa del Jardin has helped groups in the past by driving them to the river and helping arrange permission to paddle.
Getting Permission: This is really important. In order to descend La Venta, you must get permission from a woman named Lupita. Lupita works for Biosphere Reserve Selva Ocote, which La Venta bisects, and she is the gatekeeper for all parties accessing the river from the Aguacero put-in. You must either contact her by phone or meet her at the office in the town of Ocozocoautla de Espinosa, which is on your way to the put-in from Tuxtla.
Here is the address: Carr. Internacional, A Cintalapa s/n, Cruz Blanca, 29140 Ocozocoautla de Espinosa, Chis., Mexico
Due to a few eventful trips down La Venta (refer to the Men’s Journal article), Lupita seems more hesitant to grant groups access and initially told us that we needed to hire a guide. After sharing our credentials as guides and demonstrating the safety and communication gear that we had, Lupita gave us the OK and had us sign waivers. One of her main concerns was that we would use our inReach device to text friends or authorities in the U.S. in an emergency rather than first contact her or park officials. This was the case in the October 2019 rescue, and Lupita lamented the headache it caused. We promised to use her as our emergency contact and check in with her once we had finished our trip. All of our conversations with Lupita were in Spanish and I can imagine that gaining permission as well the other logistics of La Venta would be challenging without a Spanish speaker in the group.
Aguacero: While there are a number of possible access points we recommend using the access at El Aguacero. After demonstrating you have received permission from Lupita you will be able to pay the entrance fee of 36 pesos per person. Once in the park, you have to descend 700+ stairs to the river. Make sure you walk five minutes upstream upon reaching the river to explore the impressive travertine falls.
Ride to the put-in: We had our hotel in Tuxtla contact a driver for us. Some taxis might refuse to drive you given it is an hour outside the city. The final stretch of road to the Aguacero is doable in a sedan but a little hard on the vehicle. El Aguacero is a day-trip destination, and with some research, there may be outfitters to hire with larger vehicles.
Boat from the take-out: Lupita was also extremely helpful in securing us a lancha (boat) ride from where La Venta enters Lago Nezahualcoyotl to the road system at Rauldes Malpaso. She contacted a boat operator directly, and we paid 50% to her upfront to pass along to the driver with the remainder to be paid when we met him in person. The logical meeting place was at El Encajonado, the ranger outpost where La Venta enters the reservoir. If you are still wearing your wrist band you receive as proof of your entry into the biosphere, you can wall around the grounds or camp at this location as well. The boat ride was 2000 pesos (~$100 USD) for the 40-minute transit. Don't even bother trying to paddle the lake. It is a long way with poor camping and potential for heavy wind.
Mayan Whitewater Chiapas and Belize: While we found some of the descriptions of the whitewater and potential campsites in the La Venta write up helpful, the annotated map in the book is not reliably accurate. We relied on Gaia GPS on our phones with the Mexican topo layer downloaded. The main detail that the book omits is that you will need to gain permission to access the run at Aguacero as mentioned in the logistics section.
Rope Wiki: This resource has a good map and pretty accurate coordinates for major landmarks along the river. Keep in mind it is written from more of a canyoneering perspective than a boating perspective. Some of the logistical information is already out of date including Lupita's phone number.