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Winter Sun: Jalcomulco, Veracruz state, Mexico

February 2003

by Jon Wright

When I decided to take a trip to Mexico, paddling wasn't on the agenda. It was with immense delight therefore that after chatting to some paddling friends of mine, I discovered that there is in fact a plethora of first rate paddling to be had in the Veracruz region of the country.

Myself and Amy, my non-paddling but paddle tolerant girlfriend had booked our flights from the UK for February and I was praying that that there would still be sufficient wet stuff about to get some decent descents in. I emailed Stephen McDonald at K360 Kayak centre, Jalcomulco and eagerly awaited his reply. Result, looked like there would still be a good selection of class III to IV water about to justify a deviation from the holiday itinerary and slot in a visit to the area.

We flew into Cancun from the UK (essentially a slice of the US which has been floated down to Mexico and bolted on) and made our way overland to the City of Merida taking in a load of Mayan ruins on the way. Internal flights in Mexico aren't cheap, the low cost airline craze hasn't arrived yet and a flight from Merida to Veracruz cost about 250 return but it transpired to be hard earned well spent.

Mayan ruins at Chitchen Itza

As we approached Veracruz, it was evident that the landscape was significantly removed from the pancake flat vistas which stretched for miles from atop the Pyramids and temples of the Mayan ruins in Yucatan, things here looked considerably more rugged. We were met at the airport by the guys from the K360 kayak Centre, no board with my name on it, just a guy holding a paddle in the arrivals area identifying our lift. The K360 base camp where we were to stay is located near the tiny town of Jalcomulco, an interesting 90 minute drive from Veracruz port which incorporated a fair bit of off-roading.

The valley containing the magnificent Antigua

We had been diving earlier on in the trip and there was little room left in my luggage for kayaking gear, I was hoping I wasn't being too optimistic packing just a pair or boardies, a rash vest and a pair of Tevas to paddle in. I woke on the first day of paddling to a very overcast sky, temperatures had been typically 30 degrees C during the previous week but today the absence of the sun making an appearance made things feel significantly colder. Following a relaxed traditional Mexican breakfast overlooking some of the finest scenery the region has to offer, our team comprising myself, Stephen McDonald and Steve Normandin made our way to the get-in of the Antigua at the small village of Jalcomulco. Given that phones here are still considered pretty much a luxury, it's safe to say that this place is primitive. Access issues aren't a problem in Mexico, on the way to the river we were greeted only with friendly waves and welcoming smiles. The section we were to run was a simple 9km of fairly continuous grade 3 water that would allow me to become accustomed to the boat and kit supplied by the centre and provide a gentle introduction to what was to come. The first thing that strikes you is the breathtaking scenery and warm water despite the overcast skies. Local children, instead of throwing projectiles as kids find so much amusement in on the bank of UK rivers smile and wave enthusiastically.

On the way to Barranca Grande in Steve's camper

It was decided over a significant number of beers that night that the follow day we would tackle the 54km of the Antigua from Barranca Grande to Pescados bridge.

Steve Normandin had driven down from Canada, through America's West coast and was now touring Mexico in his camper on the look out for decent water to paddle and rocks to scale, an enviable lifestyle by most people's standards. Steve's camper proved useful as a comfortable means of making the two hour trek to the get in at Barranca Grande, the early start didn't seem quite so bad when you had a van with a bed in it to take advantage of. The section we were to paddle is graded as continuous grade 3/4 water located in what can honestly be described as the middle of nowhere. The river's emerald green water weaves its way down through a narrow 300ft vertical canyon for the first two and a half hours of the trip and messing up here was not a viable option as Stephen, our guide pointed out. There is no way out, and even if you did escape, civilisation was still a couple of hours away. We were in for the long haul.

Stephen McDonald at the get-in, Barranca Grande

The paddling was truly awesome. 'Continuous' in this instance encompassed the true sense of the word with unrelenting and committing grade 3 / 4 rapids pinballing from the walls of the canyon. The occasional 40m or so of slacker water gave the only opportunity to marvel the volcanic rock formation that shot vertically skywards and the associated thick vegetation and diverse wildlife as the river etched out its rugged path. 3 Hours and a well deserved and needed bank stop later the canyon widened and the rapids eased slightly which gave an opportunity to relax for a while and soak up the sun and true majesty of this seldom paddled area of the world. After 5 hours on the water I was starting to feel the burn and the river was beginning to grow in ferocity as this, the tail end of the trip offered up some of the most technically challenging sections in its arsenal. By now the river had widened considerably from its tight technical beginnings and its volume had been swelled significantly by the many tributaries which had met it along its journey. This lead to a characteristically differing run which gave rise to big holes to aim for or avoid depending on your taste and large rolling wave trains.

Jon Wright on the Barranca Grande section of the Antigua just before entering the canyon

After 6 hours of combat we finally reached our destination. The bar at Pescados bridge was a welcoming sight indeed despite the enthusiastic owner who, overjoyed at the arrival of his first and probably only patrons of the day (possibly the week) insisted on entertaining us by playing dubious popular Mexican music at an ear bleeding volume.

7am: Steve Normandin Stephen McDonald prepare for a pleasant wakeup call

The Wednesday was to bring our brief but passionate affair with Mexican water to an end but there was just time to fit in a sneaky run on the grade 4 section of the Antigua from Pescados to Jalcomulco. The put in for this 18km stretch was regrettably next to the same bar we had visited only the previous day. Despite being on the water by 7am, the owner in his excitement at seeing we had returned, acknowledged our arrival with a further rendition of the same dubious Mexican pop at an equivocal volume. We quickly unloaded and headed down stream. Soon the cacophony was faint in the distance and one of the best wakeup calls in the world lay ahead of us. Essentially a pool drop run not dissimilar in character to Scotland's magnificent Fechlin, this stretch offered up some fantastic technical sections and it didn't take long to get my muscles, sore from the previous day's adventure into paddle mode. One rapid in particular named 'The Cave' comprised a rocky entry through a narrow slot drop and down toward the cliff face where a PLF manoeuvre was urgently required to prevent being swept into a gaping cave which would have proved less than entertaining to escape from. The scenery on this section proved to be no less impressive than that encountered on the previous day but the nature of the river provided us with greater opportunity to admire it and its wildlife. Swallows darted around us, just inches from the water and our heads as we floated down a more placid section and took a well-earned breather in between rapids. Birds of prey soared way overhead above the canyon walls which bore the smooth, rounded curves of centuries of trying to contain this powerful river. There are few things I'm able to drag myself out of bed for at 6.30 in the morning for, but this definitely ranked as one of them.

As we neared the get out at Jalcomulco I felt torn that we had to leave so soon as this area had so much more to explore and this was considered to be the dry season. I'd already decided as we loaded the boats back in the pickup and we head back to the base camp for breakfast that I had to return in September / October time when I'm told the fun really begins.

For more information on paddling in this area of Mexico, check out www.mexicooutdooradventure.com or www.kayak360mexico.com.

Jon Wright