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Journey Along the Rio Santo Domingo

Along the 300-mile north-south stretch of the Sierra Juarez Mountains in Oaxaca-Puebla, Mexico, there is but one canyon that crosses the range completely from the east to west. The perpetrator of this canyon is the Santo Domingo River, which flows some 6,000 feet below the peaks it dissects. In a twist of geologic irony, the river's antecedent course predates the Tertiary Mountains that loom above it. In a much later, but still ancient time, the canyon may have been a vital trade route linking early Central Valley and Gulf Lowland cultures. In addition, and of particular interest to cavers, waters from some of Mexico's most impressive cave systems resurge into the Santo Domingo adding to its long colorful history. With such geographical significance, and the aura of an unknown wilderness, several cavers, Blake Harrison, Ursi Sommer and Karlin Meyers decided to do a complete traverse of the canyon in the spring of 1995. The following is an account of that traverse.

March 20: The three of us left the Cerro Rabon basecamp for Tenango and spent the night in Blake's truck until the wake up horn for the 4.30 am bus to Huautla. We then caught a 9 am bus for Cuicatlan, 5,000 feet lower in the Canada de Oaxacana, a long valley that parallels the Sierra Juarez. Our crazed bus driver raced down the mountain in true machismo-o style terrifying his passengers including us. He looked at us in bewilderment as we requested to be dropped off in the baking desert at the northern Puente of the Rio Grande (a southern tributary to the Santo Domingo). He probably thought we were bailing out of what was to him an exciting bus trip. Reluctantly he stopped and we gathered our disheveled bags out of the cargo bay and watched the bus quickly melt into the mirage on the horizon. The last thing we heard was the screech of wheels at the next turn and then all was silent. Slowly, the purr of the river replaced the silence and we adjusted our bodies to the 110 F heat and blinding sun. Relieved to be on our own and full of excitement, we lugged our gear to the river and spent the next two hours rigging up the three Pack Cats. The river was low and warm but we couldn’t wait to get floating and mingle with its currents. At 3 PM, we embarked for the River of Jade.

The Rio Grande flowed at a good pace along the gravel beds of the wide Canada. Often the river was only knee deep or less and so the shallow draft (2-3 inches) of the Pack-Cats made them ideal. To cool off from the desert heat, one has only to slip off the seat in-between the pontoons for a refreshing dunk in the river. The current and golden afternoon sun quickly seduced us, but we had to be alert for occasional log snares. We began to think of a campsite but had yet to see the mouth of the canyon. We had scheduled ourselves six days for a complete roundtrip to the Cerro Rabon basecamp before the others should suspect anything and so felt a slight sense of urgency to push on. At the same time, strong winds blew upstream making paddling nearly impossible. We had to stop and we happened to pull off at the river crossing for Quiotepec. Our warm windy camp was made in a nearby lime orchard. We had only covered about 11 kilometers that afternoon.

March 22nd: After a breakfast of granola and tea and a quick swim, we figured this was our last chance for some fresh food. I walked toward the old railway station which looked like a set from a spaghetti western or "100 Years of Solitude". Nada. I did find some intriguing pigpens made from old railroad ties of exotic red hardwood. We broke camp at the late hour of 10 am. The river now began to meander east towards the mouth of the canyon. About a 1/2 hour later we came to a nice embankment of wispy trees that looked like a favored spot of the locals. Ursi and I went in search of the town and soon ran into a toothless old man who welcomed us to the metropolis of Quiotepec. The serene dusty road led us to some houses and a small village square. A couple of inquiries revealed a tienda and a household where we could buy crackers, cheese, Tang, milk, fruit, vegetables, cookies, and warm beer. We set afloat again pleased with our provisions only to be stopped around the next bend in the river. At first, we waved hello to the men on shore but soon realized one of them (the one with the machete of course) waded out into the shallow river to stop us. "You must come see the Presidente." he insisted. Our official letters of permission covered five municipalities but not Cuicatian. Seeing he had the upper hand, we pulled ashore and I went to town with the men. My Spanish is terrible at best and doubtless I made a poor impression with our adventure plans. A stern young man at the Presidente's side pushed the issue of permission and that we had neglected this requirement. I was, by now, dripping in sweat and then I heard the word "policia". I thought the worst but soon a handsome young man came in. A generous smile towards me helped a lot and momentarily we were walking back to the river. The young man, Rudolfo, was very interested in what we were trying to do and was patient as I explained to the others that we needed to get permission from Cuicallan. Suddenly, Rudolfo explained that the Presidente wanted to see Blake. Back at the office, Rudolfo talked, Blake talked, and 1/2 hour later the Presidente seemed satisfied that we were well equipped and able to tackle the "molinas" that lay down in the canyon. After a long pause, the Presidente suggested we go for a drink. Why not? It’s only 100 F out! We bought beers for everyone and a Coke for the Presidente. Soon, we left our group of friends for the river again. Social educate paid. Within the hour we rounded the knoll where the-Rio Salado comes in, the small northern tributary to the Santo Domingo. Gently carved sandstone cliffs and gravel bars characterized the river along the next stretch and soon we could see the Sierras towering to our left and right as we approached the canyon mouth. A lone horseman near the Rio Salado was the last person we saw before entering the canyon. We had yet to encounter the "molinas" we were warned about. In the late afternoon, we were met again by the formidable headwinds, which nearly pressed us to a halt. Since the Santo Domingo forms the only deep cut through the mountains for some 300 miles, the pressure differences between the lowlands and the high valley seem to be equilibrated here. Winds near 50 mph finally stopped us and defined our campsite. We had only come about 10 km. At the base of the 600-meter walls, we set up camp behind some bushes on a bed of grass and passionflowers. The strange toasted succulent forest that clung to the near vertical walls seemed to be the stalwarts of a blast furnace environment. The winds and canyon heat desiccate all but the most protected. Only at the river level does a green oasis exist. The winds persisted into dusk making cooking a challenge but kept the bugs away. Much later, in the calm of the night, I laid down on the warm rocks and gazed up. As an easterner, I was mesmerized by the glowing clarity of the starlit sky.

March 23: We got another late start at 9:30 am. The next 5-km meandered at a gentle pace and soon the hot sun reached the inner canyon. We relished the float and joked about the threat of rapids yet wondered what lay ahead. Blake noted, however, that the river dropped 150 meters in the next 10 km, significantly more than the 30.meters in the last 10-km. Then we came to a broad northward bend in the canyon and heard a slightly audible rumble! We saw a visible tilt in the canyon floor and Blake grinned. "I think things are going to change here!" Just then we encountered a band of seven men, four of who toted rifles. We waved a friendly "Buenos Dias" as they starred at our strange boats. Some nodded back but our minds raced as to the predicament we might be in based on yesterday’s experience. Seeing unrunable rapids in front of us, we asked them if there was a trail around to which they replied "Si". They also said there were many more rapids down the canyon. We moved quickly to portage our boats and distance ourselves from the men who just calmly watched us. We waved goodbyes and shoved off into the swift current and obstacle course of boulders. The group must have come down the side canyon from San Juan Coyula to hunt. By now, we had seen the tracks of many animals on the riverbanks including iguanas and cotomundis (?). We now looked downstream at several kilometers of rockgardens. Strange that the canyon should suddenly be filled with big rocks! The next 2-km provided a splendid run of pure fun as we maneuvered the Pack Cats through boulders and pools, exactly what we hoped for. Here, (30 km from the Puente) the canyon was becoming also more vegetated. Soon, we came to a split in the river with house sized rocks. The view on was blocked and a roar emanated. At this point we began to scout out sections, and how we could run them. Our progress became punctuated with scouting and sometimes necessitated a portage around giant boulder section containing dangerous spillways and strainers. We enjoyed the workout and became all but oblivious to the scorching sun. Soon we had to put our long sleeve silk underwear and ration our sun block to avoid becoming total crispy critters. Even though the flow was relatively low, it was still easy to get flipped and banged up a bit on the rocks. We played with caution due to our remoteness. Around 2 PM, the canyon updrafts started and we opted for a lunch break. They blew neither as long or quite as hard, perhaps because the canyon was broader here. At 35 km we came to another unrunable section and we had another encounter with some locals, a man and two boys. The man made no greetings, but came running down the north bank waving his arms calling for us to stop. We had already stopped on the other side. For us, his gestures meant an invitation for a delay so we quickly dragged the boats over the strainers on the south side. He followed some 100 meters yelling words like "permiso" and "Cueyamecalco". We paddled even harder. Even though Cueyamecalco was 1400 meters above us, we were not convinced he wouldn’t fetch other villagers to stop us. It was late afternoon by now and we decided to go another 4-5 kms before we camped. Of course quickly was relative and we no sooner ran into another big rapid requiring a portage, and another, and another. Four kilometers later we began to feel the day wearing on us, and figured we had come far enough downstream so we began to look for a campsite.

During the last 5-km of fantastic scenery, we noticed the sand blasted boulders were getting larger, and the rapids more challenging. Iguana tracks were also more common and we even had an occasional sighting, some of them 3 to 4 feet in length. Again, another large boulder dam loomed before us. Some rapids boiled into a falls, which piled water into a vertical left canyon wall. It was impressive but unrunable for us. We made the last portage for the day, number nine. Like the calm after the storm, the river floated through a bed of huge mushroom like rocks. It was here we found a nice sandy beach to pull ashore. Camp was set up in between several polished monolithic rocks, which would also shelter our fire from sight. After dinner and a cool bath, we relaxed under another spectacular starry night. Like kids, we had pushed our excitement and enjoyment to the point of exhaustion, but couldn’t wait for tomorrow. Today, we had come about 39 km, a little less than 1/2 of the way.

March 24: Waking earlier, we attempted and early start, and also to get further before the canyon winds came. We guessed we still had 1/2 a day to reach the karst boundary, which marked the upstream end of the known canyon. Within a half-hour, we encountered another rough section and were forced to portage. Some 200m downstream, we passed a large group of bathers probably from Cuemecalco whom just quietly starred as we paddled on by. We soon needed to climb some 10-m up on some boulders and join some young Mexican boys for a look out. The visible canyon rim soared about 1200m above and it was obvious in this classic "V" shaped valley to see how such huge rocks get funneled into the riverbed. We also noted the high water marks over a meter higher. It was clearly apparent that this would be a very serious river in high flow. We told the boys our destination "Jalapa" and they nodded in agreement, waved their hands downstream gesturing "Yes, its down the river!". We bid adios and realized that most of the rapids required scouting now. During the morning, Ursi flipped her boat several times and even got her leg pinned once requiring us to wrench her free. The Pack Cats ride with a high center of gravity and are more subject to the surface currents. It’s hard to 'dig in' and use the hydraulics to maneuver, hence, handle quite different than a kayak. One advantage of their stability is that you can stand on them allowing a view of what’s up ahead in gentler grades. Still not quite used to her boat, Ursi found herself washed into another huge boulder, which flipped her. She managed to grab a similarity pinned log while hanging onto her boat and called for help. Thirty seconds later, I was there pulling her out after she let her boat go. She then climbed up and around the right side of the rapids and met us some 100m downstream. I then ran the same rapid way to the left steering clear of the boiling pillow on the right. Behind the boulder was a big upwelling and the thought of getting sucked under was very sobering. Ursi was now a bit shaken and we hoped for a calmer section to boost her confidence. Our progress had been slow between scouting, running and portaging, but then we suddenly saw the appearance of limestone boulders. At last! The karst had been reached and being cavers at heart, we somehow felt we were in familiar territory.

The canyon ahead changed dramatically as a limestone escarpment crossed the river probably marking a fault boundary. Where the river met this escarpment, it formed a deep and narrow notch. It was like passing through a massive gate into another territory. Within fifteen minutes of passing through the cleft, we noted the river temperature dropped significantly (10 F ?). We saw the caves of the Cheve resurgence area to our right. About a half kilometer later, at approx. the 50 km mark, we came to the Pena Colorado on the northern side, a mere brown trickle of muddy water. After a short break here, we continued into a section called the "Narrows". Somehow we missed the Sisteme Huautla resurgence but we clearly saw that the river had nearly doubled in volume. This also meant that the rapids would be much more powerful. In the Narrows, the polished walls of the canyon come to within 10 meters of each other. Even though it was wall to wall flat water, a slight rise in the river level would make this section impassable on foot. Spectacular overhanging walls peppered with lobelia like agaves and cycaids kept our necks bent upwards. The Narrows lasted only about I km and we exited into broader rock garden type canyon. Even here, we were still finding old hardwood railroad ties from Quiotepec. The wood is too dense to float and pays tribute to the river's flood powers and the wood's durability! We ran many great rapids in the next section, but a bit more cautiously. The best safe drops would submerge the Pack Cats and we'd pop up ready for the next. My boat had acquired about 30 lbs. of nice river polished burls and this changed its maneuverability, for the better I thought. Blake and I would take turns making first runs, Blake the harder ones. Ursi chose to walk around them if there was a good chance of flipping and then Blake or I would run her boat through. During a much needed lunch break, a beautiful viper slithered out of the water at our feet. 'We sat still as it moseyed on by nearly touching our shoes! On another occasion, while scouting on ahead amongst 20' boulders, I heard a big splash. I looked around a big rock just in time to see a big iguana swimming away. I judged it to be at least 4' long and its splash marks were 10' up on the rocks!

Later, in the afternoon, we came to a large unrunable falls. Jim Smith, along with Don Coons, had traversed the karst section of the river by foot some years earlier. He mentioned one section that might require a rope. Since we had hauled a rope along with us, we kept alert for this landmark. However, we found a long portage around this section. Between harder rapids and more portages we were tiring, and opted for an earlier camp. To stay on our six day schedule meant we would have to travel over 25 km tomorrow to reach the takeout at the bridge in Santo Domingo. This was more than the 22 km we had covered today. Once again, a world class camp was found amidst some huge sculpted limestone blocks on a beach. In the middle was a superb polished slab, which became our table and bench for the campfire. It doesn’t get better than this! Buenos Noches!

March 25: We made an early start and soon noticed the frequency of big rock gardens was lessening. Calculating from our 1:250,000 map, the grade of the river should become easier however still sported some challenging rapids. Not long after setting afloat, we passed a large cold aquamarine stream coming, in from the south. It was undoubtedly resurgence water probably from the high karst regions near Cheve, and we wondered if anyone had noted this before. I went upstream some 100m before turning back as we were short on time. Even here, in the broader riverbed, we saw high water marks nearly a meter up indicating the huge volumes that are collected in the canyon, the karst resurgence probably contributing a substantial percentage of this.

The vegetation was becoming much more tropical and reached higher on the canyon walls. Fewer beaches meant fewer iguana and other animal tracks. Shortly after our last portage and the last of the big rapids, we saw the rotting remains of an old footbridge hanging high above the river. Judging from canyon contours, we passed through the section below Ayautia. Although we could not see the village, we did see milpas on the upper slopes not broken by escarpments. Our location was soon verified as we made northward turn and saw the looming Massif of the Cerro Rabon in the distance. We anticipated the blue green waters from the Rio Oropan cascading down on our left but passed only a large gravel bar where is should be. Where was the river? Perhaps during low water, it sunk in the rocks. We later learned that the Oropan resurgence was incredibly low (extreme dry season up on the Cerro Rabon) and would provide diver Bill Far with ideal conditions, as he made what is so far the furthest penetration dive in the sump.

With still 10 km to go, we paddled continuously down the broad river, which was near the lake level now. Jungle and milpas reached down to its banks and the cliffs of the Cerro Rabon towered some 1200 meters over our heads. By late afternoon, we began to see many people and horses, and soon the new Yellow Bridge at Santo Domingo came into view. A gravel bar under the bridge marked our takeout and we spent the next two hours derigging the boats and packing under the gaze of a small crowd of Mexicans. Our heavy bags (not to mention the wooden burls) were too much for us to consider hiking the six kilometers to Jalapa de Diaz, so we looked for local transport. Of course we watched the last bus leave while we packed but managed to locate a truck for hire ($25 !). While waiting on the bridge, we watched the sun set on the imposing canyon turning the tropical green into gold. Shades and shadows of the rugged horizons ingrained the impressions from our magical adventure!

Postscript: Arriving in the evening in humid Jalapa, we located Dagoberto Meija whom Yvo and I met the year before. We were able to leave the bulk of our gear at his house while we rented a small room in a tiny hotel with a fan and a shower. The next day, March 26th, we took a people truck to the junction for Cerro Central. There we waited about an hour and got a truck ($15) for the 2 1/2 hour ride to Cerro Central. Arriving at midday, we began hiking in the sweltering heat. It was one hour to Los Ruinas, where we left Blake, who was Tenango bound, for the Cerro Rabon basecamp) 1 1/2 hours up and away.

Jack's Note
I recieved this letter years ago in typed pages. It was not until recently that I was able to scan the document with new software so I could put it in our new web site.


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