Trip Report: Mopan River, January 8, 2010
Location: Benque to Bullet Tree Falls, near San Ignacio, Belize
Participants: Tom Moran and Amy Marsh, Fairbanks, Alaska
Length: 12-14 miles (?)
Time: 7 hours
The Mopan is a Class I river with a series of short class II drops. Located right outside of San Ignacio, a popular tourist destination in Belize’s Cayo District, it’s a well-known day trip for tourists who descend portions of it in canoes and tubes.
It’s easy to catch a bus from San Ignacio to Benque, near the Guatemalan border, to start the trip, but John, the owner of our guesthouse, was so enthralled by our descriptions of the packrafts he gave us a free ride so he could watch us put in. This allowed us to put in a bit farther upstream than the bus station, at a spot where locals were giving their clothes a good wash.
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The river is generally a serene 2 mph-ish float past jungle, a few resorts, some farmland and orchards, and very few people. However, the area’s unusual limestone topography has created periodic class II chutes, almost like mini-dams. There are perhaps a dozen of these; they are each about 18-36 inches high and provide brief spurts of fun in between the long mellow stretches. They present an interesting challenge because it’s impossible to gauge their size from upstream.
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The only particularly harrowing part of the river is Clarissa Falls, where one of the drops creates a sustained eddy in midriver; according to John, two canoeists have died there in separate incidents in recent years. However, the eddy is easy to avoid if you stop and scout ahead at the “Danger – Stop Here” sign and then just keep to the right side of the river.
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The river gets calmer and more remote after Clarissa Falls, and we found ourselves sharing it with literally dozens of 5-foot-long iguanas sunning themselves in trees. Apparently it was mating season. No other wildlife save for a panoply of egrets, herons and other shorebirds.
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You can follow the river all the way to its confluence with the Macal River, from where it’s supposedly a 20-minute walk down Branch Mouth Road back into San Ignacio. However, after a long day’s paddle, we opted to conclude about two miles upstream at the village of Bullet Tree Falls, where a road bridge across the river marks an obvious takeout spot. From there it’s a $1 cab ride back to town.
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We did the Mopan at the tail end of rainy season and water levels apparently vary widely over the course of the year, so trips at other times may be untenable, or possibly wildly fun.