Editor’s Note: In 2024 we are running two expedition courses on La Venta and other rivers in Chiapas. We will be donating 50% of the profits from the second course to the local nonprofit, Amigos de San Cristobal, which is located in the town from which we are basing operations. Our February 10-17 course is full with a waiting list. But we have 8 spots on our fundraising February 26-March 4 course.
Packrafting Chiapas’ Rio La Venta
Story & photos by Chris Brinlee Jr.
Nestled deep within a nondescript rainforest in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, is a canyon. Based on its surroundings, you’d never know that the canyon existed, unless of course you serendipitously found yourself peering over its edge looking into the abyss below. Or if by some great fortune, you were already in it.
Such anonymity beguiles the intrepid adventure seeker. We don’t know what we don’t see. And those who are more typically enamored by craggy alpine peaks, glacially-carved u-shaped valleys, and dramatic desert towers, wouldn’t normally be enticed by looking out across a sea of scrubby trees.
However, to judge an earthly plane by its two primary visible dimensions–what we can see laterally, and what juts up from the surface–is to disservice the dimensions that exist below. In this case, “what lies below” is one of the most spectacular natural arenas on Earth.
The Labyrinth That is Rio La Venta
Literally thousands of feet beneath the canyon rim winds the Rio La Venta. Over the course of the last 30-plus million years, the river has carved a labyrinth through the jungle, more than 50 miles in length. And now, only the most dauntless dare enter its maze: packrafters.
Your journey begins at Centro Ecoturístico El Aguacero. This natural park area is characterized by its dramatic waterfalls, accessible from the road by way of 720 concrete steps down into the canyon. Here, many locals and mostly Mexican tourists descend to the Rio La Venta to play amongst the waterfalls, a scenic respite from the heat higher up.
This place is truly a paradise; the tone is jovial. One can’t help but to enjoy it. The river, the falls, the steep canyon walls. To be immersed in such an arena, while delighting in the whimsy company of others who see with fresh eyes, ensures that the mood remains light. However, as the sun starts to lower, the day trippers hike back up to their cars while you remain. The gravity of the endeavor that lies ahead starts to set in. Assemble camp on the sandy beach and contemplate your existence, because shit’s about to get heavy. Once you enter the labyrinth, there’s only one way out: paddling through until the end.
Alone Among the Canyon Walls
The difficulty of paddling is never too great. And the few sections that are too consequential to paddle are easy enough to portage. So the weight comes from a different place. For the next week, you’re unlikely to see another soul. And the canyon walls are so steep and so tall that they swallow you whole. The entire journey becomes an exercise in perspective. Problems carried in from regular life shrink down in size until they are nothing at all. Paddle. Swim. Eat. Conversate and contemplate. Sleep. Do it again.
Early-on in our trip in April, frustrations arise from low levels of flow. Boney sections necessitate lots of in-and-out. Wear your best water shoes this time of year. There is perhaps, equal amounts of “raft-dragging” as there is packrafting. Those concerns begin to evaporate with each waterfall passed, the summation of which adds significant volume into the mix, improving the ease of travel hour by hour and day by day.
The movement is magnificent. Well-paced and varied. It’s “choose your own Packrafting La Venta River adventure” through a multitude of channels. Weave through some reeds. Aim down-river and pick your best line. Smile and squeal through playful rapids. The scenery changes with every bend. It somehow becomes more dramatic than it was before. As the week progresses, the canyon becomes imperceptibly narrower. No longer a cause for panic, it draws you in.
As the sun lowers, the limestone walls transform from gray to orange. Insects buzz about, backlit by the last rays of light. The intensity of their collective thrum increases–inversely corresponding to the minutes of day remaining. When all that’s left in view are hazy outlines giving way to the blackness of night, the canyon comes alive with a cacophony of sound. Symphonies from both insects and amphibians echo down–more encompassing than Dolby Surround.
Camping, Quiet & Inner Truths Expressed
Sandy beaches facilitate immaculate camps each evening. Dried driftwood fuels the fire of intense camaraderie amongst the crew. A bottle is passed around. With the intake, inhibitions waver and dissipate. Inner truth is expressed. This is the way.
Days. They morph from one into another. It’s as if you’re the only ones left on Earth. All that matters is here. This sense becomes clearer as the canyon becomes narrower still, until finally, you’ve reached transcendence: It’s not a canyon at all. It’s a cave.
And Finally You Reach The Arc of Time
El Arco del Tiempo. Translated, the Arc of Time. A portal through space. A refuge for the mind. You float within it, like being inside a massive sensory deprivation tank. Close your eyes. Feel the sonic vibrations from the wings of a colony of a million bats that have lived there for a million years.
Camp on a sandbar for the night. A bonfire provides warm refuge. Your shadows dance on the walls. Tiny you stands a hundred feet tall. Tonight, you’re prehistoric. Ancient homo sapien. Caveman. The Arc of Time. Tomorrow doesn’t matter. Nor does the next day after that. Here is now. Home is here. The moment is truth. It lives inside of you.
Contrast is created when light meets shadow: When the highs are Himalayan, the lows reach canyon depths. It is between these disparities where the human spirit grows. Where meaning is derived. Purpose is inspired. Where transcendence occurs. That’s life as Chiaroscuro. Chris Brinlee, Jr. is living the master class. Follow his writing on Substack and his mountain missions on Instagram.