Mexico Boating Adventures: Part II, Ten Lessons

Lacey Anderson had one heck of a boating year in 2011, rafting over 30 rivers in the U.S. and Mexico. In this second of a series of articles, the longtime guide and author of the Camp Cooking WITHOUT Coolers cookbook shares ten lessons learned from heading further south into Mexico.

We had just completed 150 miles on the Mulatos-Aros River in northern Mexico. It was August 2011, and since May, I had completed 19 river runs, most of them multiday wilderness trips. The Mulatos-Aros was the first of many international runs I was looking forward to.

Everyone had a great time on the Mulatos-Aros (see Part I). Our next plan was to drive east to the Conchos River. However, we were forced to skip the Conchos because our trailer, which carried most of the group's rafting equipment, could have been confiscated at the border of Chihuahua. The problem was that the owner of the trailer didn't have it registered in his name. So we decided going to the Conchos wasn't worth the risk. Oh well! I wasn't too disappointed; I still had another six months free to roam.

Lesson Number 1: Before leaving the USA to cross into Mexico, make sure all your paperwork is in order.

While the rest of our group opted to head home to California, Rocky Contos and I decided to head further south into Mexico looking for more boating adventures. We were traveling in my trusty 4x4 truck with my small cataraft, Rocky's kayak, and all the gear needed for running multiday wilderness trips. Rocky is the best kayaker I know, fluent in Spanish and a modern-day explorer. He has been doing first descents all over Mexico for the past 13 years and is the author of the guidebook, Mexico Whitewater: Norte.

Lesson Number 2: Surround yourself with experts.

Next stop was the Baluarte River. It had been run once before in 2009; there are no other known descents. We stopped in Mazatlan to pick up a shuttle driver. Lujano, a city taxi driver, was willing. Our shuttle would depend on whether I trusted Lujano with my truck. I thought to myself, "But of course, let the driving adventure begin!"

Lesson Number 3: A city taxi driver will do your shuttle in Mexico.

Lacey weaving through a Baluarte rock garden. Note how little she has packed on her cat, even though she's carrying most of the gear for two people. Her
Lacey weaving through a Baluarte rock garden. Note how little she has packed on her cat, even though she's carrying most of the gear for two people. Her "no cooler" food method lets her run really light. ©Rocky Contos www.sierrarios.org

We drove two hours east of Mazatlan through the Sierra Madre mountains along a winding two-lane paved road and an additional four hours down into steep canyons on a rough, rock-strewn, single-track, loose gravel and dirt road to arrive at the Baluarte put-in.

Lesson Number 4: When exploring, the road may be more difficult than the river.

When we finally got to the put-in, the river was very low, maybe 200 cfs, but we weren't discouraged; as I rigged my cataraft, it was sprinkling. Also, Rocky consulted the weather forecast before leaving Mazatlan, and it looked like a rainy pattern was building up, so we launched and began our journey. That night at camp it did rain, and the water rose quickly, but it slowly dropped during the night. In the morning, we had about 400 cfs, and we enthusiastically carried on. We were betting on the numerous storm clouds to drop rain down the many side creeks along the run to bring the water back up.

Lesson Number 5: It's tough to turn back when it has taken days of preparation and a long difficult drive to get to the put-in.

To make a long story short, the river never did come up.

Lesson Number 6: When faced with extremely low water at the put-in, consider altering your plans.

Every night, we experienced a spattering of rain drops and could see colorful lightning displays in the distance, but we never received the much needed downpour. There was no turning back; we were in the middle of an isolated river canyon with no roads in or out once we entered the inner gorges. Our Baluarte expedition turned into an amazing example of what can be accomplished on challenging rivers.

Lesson Number 7: Exploring requires having the attitude that we can do this, no matter what!

In reality, we did have enough water to weave our way through many fun rapids, but many more were quite challenging. We had to push, pull, "Flintstone", swim with, line, and portage my cataraft. If we'd had just a bit more water it would have been fantastic; but alas, the rains and the swollen side creeks never materialized. Rocky had an easier time with his kayak; he smoothly maneuvered it through all the low-water rapids. And he never once complained about the difficulty of getting my cataraft down the river.

Lesson Number 8: Make sure your boating partner(s) are even-tempered and skilled boaters.

Sometimes we had to just get out and push. ©Lacey Anderson
Sometimes we had to just get out and push. ©Lacey Anderson

I really did not mind all the hard work because this was such a unique adventure and one of the most beautiful river canyons I had ever seen. The scenery was stunning, reminiscent of Thailand – not what I expected in Mexico. There were dozens of towering limestone pillars covered with vibrant jungle foliage. Green military macaws soared among the rock towers. Exotic purple and red flowers were sunning themselves everywhere. One of the gorges we traversed was full of giant two-story-tall boulders; I felt like Alice in Whitewater Wonderland. I was in awe of such beauty.

Lesson Number 9: Mexico has some incredible untouched wilderness areas.

At the take out, we decided to keep driving south until we found a drainage with a more boatable water flow. Unfortunately, many areas of Mexico were experiencing a severe drought, perhaps the worst in a century. We had to drive past Mexico City to find an area unaffected by the drought. We headed toward the Tlapeneco-Mezcala River in the state of Guerrero. This undiscovered gem would be a 140-mile, multi-day journey with sections that had never been run before.

Lesson Number 10: I enjoy running uncharted rivers where my skills of read and run (or push, pull, line, and portage) are tested!

Here's the 7-day menu from my Camp Cooking WITHOUT Coolers II cookbook. Recipes and directions for all the dishes, plus tips on organization, packing and low-impact camping are in the book.

Click through for a higher resolution PDF
Click through for a higher resolution PDF
One of the toughest rapids on the river, where massive boulders block the flow. For perspective, that's Lacey across the river on the white boulder. ©Rocky Contos (www.sierrarios.org)
One of the toughest rapids on the river, where massive boulders block the flow. For perspective, that's Lacey across the river on the white boulder. ©Rocky Contos (www.sierrarios.org)
This would be a tough maneuver, even with more water. © Rocky Contos (www.sierrarios.org)
This would be a tough maneuver, even with more water. © Rocky Contos (www.sierrarios.org)
One of the several large beach camps. ©Lacey Anderson
One of the several large beach camps. ©Lacey Anderson
Rocky Contos in the massive white boulder section of the river. ©Lacey Anderson
Rocky Contos in the massive white boulder section of the river. ©Lacey Anderson
Spectacular limestone towers rise above the Rio Baluarte. ©Rocky Contos (www.sierrarios.org)
Spectacular limestone towers rise above the Rio Baluarte. ©Rocky Contos (www.sierrarios.org)