My Trip to Mexico - Part 5 - Day 3 of Canyoneering

As it happens, our day began very early Wednesday Thursday morning.  The big canyons, the canyons we were really here to see, Chipitin and Matacanes, are pretty remote.  Although they aren't particularly far from the hotel as the crow flies, they are very, very far as the 15 passenger van drives.  So that meant a 6 AM departure followed by a long day in a canyon.

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After the excitement of bungee-jumping the night before, I was more than a little wound up.  In case you were wondering, it's probably not a great idea to release all your adrenaline into your bloodstream, and then go beddy-bye.  Please make a note of it.

We also had our first logistical snafu of the trip at this point.  Because Chipitin and Matacanes are so remote, we would be spending Thursday night in a cabin in the mountains rather than making the drive multiple tiimes.  We all knew that going in, but unfortunately no one had informed us that we were expected to move out of our hotel rooms for that one evening, and move back in Friday night.  For the majority of the 'Guinea Pig Group' this was simply not an option.  Although the language barrier complicated matters some, it was determined that we could pay the 900 peso rate and keep the room an extra night.  Myself, alone and traveling very light, I decided to save the 900 pesos and go ahead and vacate.  Cheri and Bob said I could put my bag in their room.  When I showed up with a day pack about one third full, Cheri asked me where the rest was.  Like I said, I was traveling light.

The drive was as advertised, muy difficile.  After a few miles we turned off the paved road and headed down into the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park.  For about 12 kilometers, we traveled over easily the worst road I've ever been on until we reached the base of the canyon.  Then we headed back up into the mountains for 10 more kilometers on a road that made me long for the comfort and safety of the first road.  Carved out of the side of a mountain, barely wide enough for a mule drawn cart let alone a big cumbersome van, who knows what would have happened if we'd ever met a vehicle going the other way.  During the long drive, Bob regaled us with stories from the mountains of Afghanistan where he was deployed with the 'snake eaters' from Special Ops.  BTW, my military jargon, non-existent before, is much improved after this trip.  For instance, I can now use Tango Uniform (Military Alphabet Code for T.U., 'tits up') in a sentence, as in "The Spurs are about to go Tango Uniform in their series with the Hornets.'  So I've got that going for me.

After who knows how long, we arrived at the town of Portrero Redondo.  And it was a town, amazing given it's remoteness, with a school, and a bar (such as it was) and farms.  After a brief stop at the cabin to drop off our sleeping bags, we left for the trailhead.

A short downhill hike brought us to the water course we would be following.  Like the day before, the top of the canyon was dry this time of year.  But it was immediately obvious that this would be an impressive sight during the wet season.  Massive, deep holes, empty in April but Olympic swimming pools at other times, sat at the base of each drop, carved into the limestone by rushing water.

From the top of the fourth rappel, we could hear water at the bottom.  We were meeting up with a side canyon.  This was a long straight rappel into a beautiful pool of clear, deep water.  The highlight though was neither the rappel nor the lovely pool, but rather the huge arachnids.  When I got to the water Barbara told me that I shouldn't swim too close to the rocks on the right because of the icky bugs.  I assumed she was kidding, but indeed, two HUGE spiders (I'm guessing from Paolo's description and their appearance they were some form of dolomedes) sat on a rock just above the water line.  Apparently, they wait for fish to snack on algae at the edge of the pool, and then they snack on the fish.  I'm guessing that they would not have had much success trying to eat me, but I didn't get close enough to find out.  When Maya got to the bottom of the rappel and saw them, she let out a wonderful, horror movie shriek.  I laughed.  It was funny.  Maya's a good screamer. 

As most of the group headed for the next rappel, Bob and I waited behind for Edgar. I had found a nice outcropping of rock about 12 feet high from which I could jump into the water, which I did a couple of times.  When Edgar got to the bottom, we helped him stuff the ropes and moved forward. 

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After one more long rappel into another beautiful pool (this one with a pretty long swim to get out), we came to the water slide portion of the canyon.  You pretty much have to see this thing to believe it.  The water throughout these canyons is doing some amazing things.  For one thing, the minerals leaching out of the limestone are constantly being deposited along the watercourse, building up these interesting formations.  But at the same time, the force of the water wears away at the formations as well.  The combination of simultaneously building up and wearing down in this case made for a smooth, rounded slope leading sharply to a deep pool below, with a deep natural channel cut right into the top just wide enough for the human buttocks.  The engineers at Raging Waters could not have done better.

We arrived at the top of this slide ahead of our guides, and unfortunately I knew I couldn't go further without them.  By the time Paolo got there and gave me the green light, I couldn't wait another second.  It didn't disappoint.  A slippery chute, with a couple of twists (keep that left elbow in if you decide to try it) and a nice 10 foot drop into the pool at the end.  Too bad there wasn't really an easy way back up to the top, or I would have been riding all day.  A definite E-Ticket.

But here's one case where my enthusiasm backfired.  Since I was chomping at the bit, I was the first to go.  Paolo was quite emphatic that I shouldn't get too far out of the water at the outlet to the pool, and I soon found out why.  It led to a 250 foot waterfall.  Don't worry; obviously I didn't slip and fall to my death or anything.  But I did have a problem.  The stream basically emerges here from a narrow canyon into a much wider valley (hence the huge waterfall).  As such, there is a wind tunnel effect above the falls.  The rappel down the waterfall (the last of the day) is long and complex, and requires a lot of preparation.  So after we all had a fun slide into the water, we sat for 45 minutes or so, soaking wet and shivering in the wind, waiting for the next rappel.  Of course the sun picked that moment to go behind the clouds as well.  It was a mite chilly.  Note to self - next time, wait at the TOP of the super fun water slide.

I was feeling a little guilty about rushing every down into this arctic wind tunnel, so I waited until near the end of the line to move forward.  Because of the precarious nature of our perch, I couldn't see the rappel that Paolo and Edgar and Nick had set up.  All I knew was that there was a LOT of screaming as each canyoneer disappeared from my view.  I soon found out why.

Although it's certainly possible to rappel down a 280 foot waterfall directly, there are plenty of reasons you might not want to.  For one thing, that's just a damn long way to be rappelling through water, which is fun for awhile, but which might get old after 100 feet or so.  And as Nick pointed out when I inquired, "It would be one hell of a rope pull at the end."  True.  At any rate, the guides set it up in two separate steps - the first a guided rappel to an outcropping to the right of the falls for about half the elevation, followed by a straightforward descent straight into the pool at the base of the falls.

A guided rappel, for those who are not familiar, is a little like a zip line.  A fixed rope was secured between an anchor at the top of the falls and a tree on the ledge.  (How Edgar got to that ledge is another story.  The answer: very carefully.)  Clipping into the fixed line using the safety tether attached to your harness, a second rope is then used to lower each person along the fixed line, suspended perhaps 250 feet in mid air.  Now, you're no more or less dependent on your equipment and your knots and your anchor on a standard rappel than you are drifting through space 250 feet off the ground.  Still, there's a little comfort to be gained from having your feet against the rock, controlling your own descent.  This was an entirely different feeling.

As each person began this uniquely harrowing descent, two things happened.  First of all, you passed directly into the waterfall.  It was a little unexpected and therefore more shocking, because the direct line of the guide rope appeared to take you above the water.  But of course with the added weight, the rope dipped very nicely under the falls and stayed there for awhile.  And if you wanted to get out of the water quickly, well that wasn't up to you, since Paolo was the one letting out the rope.  So that accounted for a lot of screaming.  (Wolf doesn't really like water, which I guess is why he joined the Air Force and not the Navy.)  The good news is that you eventually emerged from the water - but the bad news is that you left the perceived safety of the canyon wall to do so.  As the guide rope took each member of our group over the abyss and their striving toes could no longer grasp any portion of terra firma, that was invariably good for another set of screams.  If the first set of screams conveyed, "Oh crap, that water's cold!" the second set was definitely "Holy shit, what am I doing HERE?"

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via nicoantonio.smugmug.com

The final rappel was spectacular, if somewhat more conventional.  The ledge we were on overhangs the pool, so the majority of the 150 drop is free hanging.  Wolf was the first to go, and Nick wanted to set it up so everyone would drop off the rope at the end into the water.  Wolf decided that it would be best to drop from about 10 feet.  After Wolf was gone, Nick reeled in about 15 feet more to a more manly height.  For my part, I decided to let go of the rope about 50 feet above the surface of the water - speeding downward for about 25 feet with friction slowing me, then freefalling the final 25 feet.  For what it's worth, I don't really recommend that method.  It's hard to get your feet under you when you disengage from the rope, and I ended up landing squarely on my ass.  Now, a butt flop is a lot better than a belly flop or a back flop, but it's still a shock to the system.

The grotto at the base of the falls is amazingly beautiful, and much more like something you might expect in a rainforest in Hawaii than in supposedly arid Mexico.  We still had a hike back to the cabin ahead of us, but we were done with rappelling and swimming for the day, so we were able to get out of our harnesses and wetsuits, and have a snack and relax while waiting for Edgar and Paolo to make their way down.  It was a wonderful way to end a spectacular canyon.

The ending to the day was pretty wonderful as well.  Of course we'd eaten little more than nutrition bars and trail mix all day.  Back at the cabin, some associates of Paolo and Edgar were barbecuing chicken and carnitas, vegetables and of course lots and lots of tortillas.  We must have eaten for two hours.

The cabin was very basic, but probably better than most of us expected.  With a couple of rooms and a couple of lofts and mattresses on the floor.  I'm told that someone snored, but it must have only been happening when I was asleep, because I never heard anything.

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