The mighty Río Usumacinta is Central America’s longest and harbors the remains of at least two important Mayan cities along its banks. Ten-day rafting trips once made their way down this waterway starting at Yaxchilán and putting out at the Mexican town of Tenosique, but these have been suspended for the time being because of robberies.
The robberies seem to occur downstream from Yaxchilán on a very remote stretch of the river on the way to Piedras Negras. It’s really a shame, as the stretch harbors some truly spectacular banks of riverside rainforest on the Guatemalan side protected as the Sierra del Lacandón National Park. On the Mexican side, there are a variety of communities and some bad deforestation, though there are some beautiful waterfalls downstream from Piedras Negras.
All is not lost, however, as you can still reach Busiljá Falls from Mexico. Willy Fonseca, the friendly owner of Restaurante Vallescondido (Km. 61 on the Palenque–Comitán Road, tel. 916/348-0721), can get you there and also offers trips to Piedras Negras.
Farther downstream, the river leaves Guatemala behind and narrows into the impressive Cañón de San José, where there are Class III rapids flanked by 1,000-foot canyons.
While it is entirely possible to do part of the trip by motorboat, as opposed to slow-moving inflatable rafts, it seems even these vessels are occasionally shot at from the riverbank in an attempt to make them stop. Much of the boat traffic here pertains to the transport of illegal immigrants crossing international borders on their way north, and thieves are only too eager to rid them of their money. Drug smugglers also use the river as a highway for transporting their merchandise.
It really makes you long for the “good old days” when the Guatemalan ORPA guerrillas patrolled the banks, at worst flagging you down from the shore for a lecture on the justice of their cause. If the Mexicans can get their security issues straightened out, white-water rafting trips may once again be a viable recreational option here. But don’t hold your breath.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com