Rio La Venta Trip Report

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re planning a trip on Rio La Venta, so you may know there’s not tons of information available about this river. The few trip reports we found online were pretty sparse on details, probably in the hopes of avoiding it becoming more popular. But we realize that La Venta is now a popular destination for packrafters, in large part due to images circulating Instagram depicting lush waterfalls, dense jungle, and fun/moderately technical-looking class III rapids. We’re sharing our trip report to provide some critical information about a close call we encountered on our trip in January 2024.

We read up on La Venta in our copies of Mayan Whitewater, which is a great resource. One of the first reports that pops up in a Google search is the Men’s Journal article about a flash flood that occurred causing them to evacuate mid-trip. Reading this of course made us nervous, but we reasoned that this expedition happened in October, during the rainy season. We were planning for late January, and since it had been an especially dry year, we weren’t worried about encountering a high water situation. Spoiler alert: we encountered a high water situation - during an unusually dry year during the “dry” season.

Given our combined river and expedition experience, local knowledge from our friend Rod who lives in Chiapas and the low water level at our time of departure, we all thought that we were well-prepared for a La Venta trip that by all accounts is an easy, dreamy trip in the dry season. Our experience highlighted for us how quickly conditions can change even with what looks like “a little rain” in the forecast (more on this below).

In a nutshell, heavy rainfall on days 3 and 4 caused a significant rise in the river level, prompting us to delay our planned last day to wait for safer conditions. On day 6, feeling the pressure to finish the trip before our flights the next day, we proceeded despite uncertainties about what lay ahead. We were unable to scout Complicado from the portage, and didn’t have a great idea of what lay ahead (more on this below). Two of our members ended up having brutal swims through this powerful rapid, leaving the rest of us feeling helpless upstream due to obstructed views. Eddies had turned into surging hydraulics, and the usual class III route to avoid hazards was obscured, forcing us to commit to uncertain lines. Though our friends emerged unscathed, the ordeal left us deeply shaken. We were exhausted and we encountered a couple more mishaps in the remaining rapids, including another swim and a close call with a strainer. Finally we made it to the ranger station, completely beat but relieved to see our boat waiting for us.

Four Corners Guides ran a scouting trip ahead of their guided instructional trip the day after we took out, and they encountered a completely different river. Comparing their photos with ours made both parties realize the stark contrast in experiences we had just days apart. If you want to do La Venta and have any hesitations about a self-support trip, you may want to look at going with Four Corners.

Trip Length: We planned for 5 days, but it took 6. If there is rain in the forecast, give yourself extra time. Even without rain, the days can be long and if you don’t want to feel rushed, we recommend at least 6 days.

Dates: January 25 - 30, 2024

Group Size: 4. We all agreed that we wouldn’t have wanted to do this trip with less than that.

Permits/Permission? The Reserve requires anyone recreating in the receive to sign a waiver. As of January 2024, it was 78 pesos to enter the reserve (less than $5). You receive a wristband that you are supposed to keep on your person for the entirety of your trip and the ranger at the take out at Encajonado Ranger Station may ask you for it. Permits are currently only required for commercial trips on La Venta, but they are considering requiring permits for recreational boaters as well. As of March 2024, overnight camping at Arco del Tiempo is prohibited.

This information is from our friend Rod, who was on our trip and lives in Chiapas. Rod handled most of our logistics for the trip and helped organize logistics for the Four Corners Guides commercial trip just a few weeks later. He is in regular contact with the team at the Reserve. It’s hard to set these logistics on your own, and it’s recommended you use a “fixer.” Other reports online mention a couple options for fixers.

Water level: From our experience it is highly variable depending on the rain. This started for us as a low-water dry season trip and quickly turned into a high water trip due to 36+ hours of steady rainfall. The CFS gauge at the Route 190 bridge by El Aguacero often doesn’t work well and doesn’t give a clear picture of downstream conditions. It doesn’t include all the springs and waterfalls after El Aguacero. Predicted rainfall is a better way to gauge flow.

Technical Level: This fluctuated wildly for us due to rainfall during the trip. In the dry season, the rapids (besides Derrumbe) are up to class III/class IV. With the rain we experienced, we believe Complicado ran like a class V (and was impossible to scout).

Predominant Hazards: Numerous packraft-portageable rapids such as Ponedora, Bloqueado, and Derrumbe. However, Complicado, situated just below Derrumbe, poses a significant challenge as it lacks portaging options. Due to heavy rainfall during our trip, Complicado became a Class V read-and-run rapid with no opportunities for setting safety measures, and boat scouting was unfeasible. While you can observe the top of Complicado from a high rock at the end of the portage, visibility around the corner is limited, making it nearly impossible to gauge water conditions downstream upon re-entering the river.

At lower water, there is a sieve that you must avoid towards the bottom of the rapid on river left. This particular one was filled in for us, but there were other sieves and massive hydraulics that made this dangerous. At these water levels, once you start the Derrumbe portage, you are somewhat committed to running Complicado. A couple of us thought about reversing our portage, which would have been unpleasant and potentially impossible to paddle back upstream to reach our camp the night before. We had our “let’s get through this today so we can make our flights home tomorrow” goggles on, and decided to push on. It’s important to note from the end of the portage, you still can’t get the full picture of Complicado. We made it through Complicado, although not without two of our members having very rough swims in huge water.

Rainfall hazards: The ConAgua website is confusing and interpreting the graphs requires a level of local knowledge of what that means to this specific watershed, which we lacked. We had a friend with a hydrology PhD look back at the forecast from before our trip and she was pretty confident the values are averages for the total rainfall that the watershed will receive. The forecast showed a mere 0.4” of rain each day for three days. This seemed minimal to us while looking at the forecast before the trip. What we didn’t realize was that La Venta has numerous underground rivers and aquifers that feed the river, compounding the amount of rain that was delivered to the river. We think we got unlucky with uncharacteristic rainfall for this time of year. After our experience, we advise anyone planning a La Venta trip to be very cautious about getting on the river if there is any rain in the forecast.

96 Hour Watershed Forecast: Pronóstico Meteorológico especial por cuencas para el Sureste Mexicano a 360 horas

Other hazards:

  • Rockfall - choose campsites that are not directly under the canyon wall. One night we heard multiple large rockfalls across the river.
  • E. coli is present in the river as well as in a couple of the waterfalls that run downstream from the communities above. Diarrhea hit 3 of us pretty hard and had we not carried Imodium and antibiotics, this would have debilitated us. Skin-breaking wounds should be cleaned and covered to avoid infection.
  • The rocks are slippery, especially on the portages. Half of us had trail runners and half had Astrals - grippier shoes made things a lot easier.
  • Venomous snakes are present in the canyon.
  • InReach messages may or may not go out depending on where you are in the canyon, so an evac may not be possible if needed due to lack of comms.

Local information: Rocky Contos and Sierra Rios are very well-known in this area and have created a good reputation of working with the local communities in areas where they run trips. The Mayan Whitewater book is a must-have for this trip. Rocky is very friendly and open to providing you information even if you’re planning a self-supported trip.

Bailout Options: Limited. Arco del Tiempo is a bail out option above Derrumbe/Complicado, and guides from General Cardenas use the rappel to lead day trips to Arco. Climbing gear is needed to ascend the fixed rope here - you could pay guides to use their ropes and gear, or bring your own and pay a reduced fee. High water note: this is not an option at high water. We estimated the waterfall covering this entrance/exit was producing 300 cfs.

Waste Disposal: WAG bags are required at Arco del Tiempo, but highly-recommended for the entire river canyon as most camps don’t offer options to dig holes in places that aren’t sand. We kept saying that if this was a river in the States waste disposal would be a requirement. Bring extra WAG bags in case you get the shits.

Flights: We flew into Tuxtla Gutierrez and then stayed in San Cristobal de las Casas for a few days before the trip. Tuxtla is less of a tourist city, although as you can see from other trip reports, many people stayed here and used ‘fixers’ from Tuxtla to help arrange logistics. We highly recommend staying in San Cristobal, as it is a charming and interesting higher-elevation town renowned for its chocolate, coffee, and tourist-friendly atmosphere. Rod and his family own a number of awesome accommodations, from the budget-friendly Posada del Abuelito hostel, to upscale B&B’s like Casa Carmen.

Accessing Rio La Venta: Aguacero is the most common put-in and requires the least effort in terms of needing permission from local communities to access the river. We paid 5500 pesos for the taxi ride from San Cristobal to Aguacero. You can hike in at La Conchuda or other options lower down the river, but we highly recommend you contact those communities first to ask permission. They might require you to hire a local guide (at least for the hike down) in exchange for access.

Note: We did get stopped at one military checkpoint and the guard attempted to intimidate us into paying a bribe in order to proceed since we didn’t have our passports or photocopies of them (we only had photos on our phones). Thanks to both Rod and Andres (our driver), they finally let us through. Take copies of your passport, including the pages showing the entry stamp/visa, in case this happens to you.

Getting out: The most common exit appears to be floating past the confluence of La Junta to the El Encajonado Ranger station at the mouth of Lago Malpaso. There are few camps after Complicado (at high water), which made for a very long last day starting with portaging Derrumbe and getting picked up at the ranger station 8 hours later with an hour boat ride ahead and 3 hours driving back to town. Looking back, I would split this into two days - camp at the ranger station after the long day of paddling out and get a boat the next day. We ended up paying double for a boat + taxi pick up because we arranged logistics before the trip, and then waited out the Derrumbe portage a day. Our InReach messages were pretty sporadic, so Andres did not receive our texts in time to tell the boat to wait on the first day. It seems easy enough to ask the very friendly ranger to call for a boat pick up for the next day.