Thanks to Ron Canter, who has sent a draft of his report on river navigation by the Maya in Classic times.
Click "More" below to see the complete text, including bibliography and links to related websites.
Last Update, 8-29-02
RIVERS AMONG THE RUINS
THE USUMACINTA, SAN PEDRO MARTIR, AND CANDELARIA RIVERS, LAKE PETEN ITZA,
AND THEIR COMMERCIAL NAVIGABILITY BY THE ANCIENT MAYA
by Ronald L. Canter
"He who excels in traveling leaves no wheel tracks" - Lao
A major component of the transportation network used by the Maya
throughout their history has been the system of navigable rivers within
Yucatan, Peten, and the highlands of Chiapas. Rivers were the railroads
of the preindustrial world. They were far more efficient than roads or
trails, but limited by topography to only certain routes. Of the 18th
century, geographer Peirce Lewis said, "If you get away from a navigable
river or the sea, you might as well be on the face of the moon." It
applies equally well to the 8th century.
Though the importance of rivers as major trade routes has long been
recognized, there currently is no comprehensive source detailing which
rivers were or were not navigable by the Maya in the past. Richard E. W.
Adams, in "Routes of Communication in Mesoamerica: the Northern Guatemala
Highlands and the Peten", outlined well the basic frame of trade routes
throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and Los Altos. This paper hopes to add
some detail for the Usumacinta watershed.
Rivers are grouped by watershed, with the main river first, and
significant tributaries listed in order from head to river mouth.
Alternate names (of which there are many) are shown in brackets, with
probable Postclassic and earlier names underlined. Translations are given
in quotes. For simplicity, accent marks are not shown in names. Mayan
names are normally accented on the last syllable. Since bare bones river
descriptions tend to be rather desiccated reading, I've added some
anecdotes relating to navigability.
The river descriptions are brief and not meant to be a detailed
guide, though detail is given for features critical to understanding them
as part of a larger transportation network. "Navigable" and "not
navigable" refer to commercial navigability by fully loaded dugout canoes
5.5 m or more in length. A commercially navigable river has a dependable
season* with adequate depths, and not so many rapids that large cargoes
can't be carried safely and economically. I would expect that there were
exceptional Maya canoeists in the precontact period who occasionally
traveled up or down more difficult rivers, but these lie outside the norm
*Ftnt [A dependable canoeing season may be short, only a few months
of the year, but it can be relied on from year to year.]
Important factors affecting navigability which could reasonably be
inferred were: the type of dugout canoes used, the average skill level of
ancient paddlers, and some probable portage routes between major rivers.
Determining the types of canoes used and skill levels of ancient Maya
boatmen was based on surviving illustrations of precontact dugouts,
historical records of canoes used and rapids run, and distribution of Maya
sites along rivers. Possible portages were located using historical
accounts, site distribution, known trails, and detailed terrain analysis.
See the Appendix for a more thorough discussion of the factors affecting
In order to understand and compare different routes, knowing whether
or not a river might float a loaded canoe is not quite enough. Without
precise information on the location and difficulty of rapids, the effect of
changing water levels, and of current speeds in different seasons, travel
times can't be determined. Accurate travel times make comparisons of
alternate routes possible.
The rivers were part of a far larger trade network at times
stretching from the turquoise mines of New Mexico south to Lake Nicaragua
and beyond. Much of the trade was carried in the bottoms of canoes
following the seacoasts. The location of major salinas along the north
coast of Yucatan guaranteed heavy coastal canoe traffic. These saltwater
routes are well described in many sources, and will only occasionally be
touched on here.
The rapids of the Rios Usumacinta, San Pedro Martir, Candelaria, and
tributaries offer an untapped opportunity for discovering what was actually
traded, and for recovering artifacts in good condition. "Whitewater
archaeology" of the sort so successfully done in the Quetico-Superior
Underwater Archaeology Project by the Minnesota Historical Society has not
been tried in the land of the Maya. The possibilties make me sincerely
regret my lack of diving experience.
The Usu' watershed includes two extensive systems of navigable
rivers: an enclosed interior basin above the canyons, and a large part of
the Grijalva-Usumacinta compound delta below.
Usumacinta, written phonetically as "Usumatsintla" by Teobert Maler,
is from the Nahuatl "osumatli" and "tsintla". It translates as "Place of
the Monkey", but is usually given more broadly as "River of the Sacred
Monkey". It was also the name of a Postclassic town on the river near
Balancan. Moreley thought Ayn, "crocodile", was the ancient name of the
river. Adams confirmed Ayn as a past name for at least the Rio Pasion.
Spanish expeditions referred to the upper Usu' as the "Sacapulas". Louis
Halle nicknamed the Usu' " River of Ruins" in his book of the same name,
and that name has also stuck.
One source gives the Postclassic name of the river above the canyons
as Xocolha, and Scholes and Roys give the river name as Tanochel at
Tenosique. "Xocolha" simply means "The River" in Chontal.
In the Classic the Usumacinta watershed offered at least three
parallel routes between the Tabasco lowlands and the upper basin. Each had
advantages and limitations. The Usu' itself was a swift path downriver but
slow upriver. Its canyons posed a difficult choice headed downstream, and
forced a long portage going upstream. The parallel Rio San Pedro Martir
was overall much easier to ascend, but would have required a long portage
back into the Usu' basin. A route up the Rio Tulija, overland past Tonina,
and down the Jatate would have been faster than the long slow ascent of the
Usumacinta, but required whitewater skills to travel safely.
The most efficient approach would have been a circuit trip. Traders
could use the Tulija/Jatate or the San Pedro Martir to go from west to
east, visit the cities of the upper Usumacinta basin, and then return by
the main river, stopping at Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras on the way out.
Upper Usumacinta [Xocolha, Ayn, Sacapulas]:
*Junction of Pasion and Salinas Rivers at Pipiles [El Trapiche] to Frontera
Corozal- 96 km
The Usu' is flat with a definite current for the first 50 km to the
mouth of the Rio Lacantun, at Benemerito Segundo Seccion, and then for
another 21 km to Boca del Cerro (not the dam site). It picks up speed
where it squeezes through deep ravines, but remains easy. There are no
large rapids, but currents and eddys are strong in the wet season, when the
river rises 10 m or more. Small Maya sites are spaced roughly 7 to 9 km
apart along the river.
6.5 km below the Rio Lacantun, Arroyo el Chorro spreads and tumbles
over travertine falls along the right shore. Five km downstream the river
splits around Isla Grande [Isla Colmoyote], the first of several. After
another 9 km (21 from the Lacantun) the Usu' slips between high hills at
Boca del Cerro (a different one than the dam site). For 7 km the river is
swift, with strong eddys, through Encajonado de Gonzales. At Arroyo el
Mocho and the abandoned Agua Azul [Filadelphia] airstrip, the hills recede.
8 km downstream, at Isla la Paleta below Bethel*, another narrows begins,
this one only 3 km long. There are small sites at each end. Frontera is
only 5 km farther.
*Ftnt. At Bethel there is a Guatemalan customs station and bus
service to La Libertad [Sacluk].
The strong current is a constant of the river from Boca del Cerro to
Rio Chancala. It would have made the Usu' an excellent route to deliver
bulk goods from upstream sites to Yaxchilan or Piedras Negras. Hauling
loads upriver would have been tedious, though still more efficient than by
land. The huge meander loops in the lowlands of Tabasco, a long portage
past the canyons, and the strong current all combine to make the Usu' a
less than ideal Gulf to Pasion route. A route up the Tulija, overland to
Topiltepec on the Jatate, and then downstream to the Usu' above its
swiftest part works out as fast or faster. See the Tulija writeup for more
*Frontera Corozal to Yaxchilan- 20 km
The river is mostly flat but swift ( 3 to 5 kph per George Stuart and
Chris Shaw) for all 20 km. At Arroyo Yalchilan* there is a Class 1 rapids
formed by debris washed into the river by the arroyo. Paso Yalchilan, the
Guatemalan landing here, marks a major change in the river. Just
downstream the Usu' again enters a gorge between steep hills, but this time
it stays within a defile all the way to the lowlands. From Arroyo
Yalchilan to El Pilar, the start of Yaxchilan's waterfront, is 13 km
*Ftnt [Yalchilan and Yaxchilan are confusingly close in spelling,
though well separated along the river.]
Yaxchilan "Green Thing Scattered About" ie. Green Stones, [Yaxchilan
Xlabpak, Yalchilan, Menche Tinamit, Tsah Kanac.] is a major Classic Period
site nestled within a huge circular meander. In the Classic Yaxchilan's
name may have been Tsah Kanac or Itz'am Kanak, "Cleft Sky Place", per
Carolyn Tate. On Stela 4, the city's emblem glyph has a deep split in its
top per Stuart and Houston. In the skyline east of the city is a
prominent gash in the Sierra del Lacandon, likely the "cleft sky" in city
name and glyph. Following a transcurrent fault, the narrow pass may have
been more than a nice scenic feature.
Because of its strong current the Usu' is a great downriver run, but
a grind going upriver. Alternate routes that bypassed part or all of the
swiftest section would attract travelers trying to go from the Tabasco
lowlands to the upper Usu' basin. By paddling up the San Pedro Martir to
Ocultun [La Florida] and then carrying southwest through the "Cleft Sky"
pass, a traveler could bypass the Usu' canyons and 65 km of rapids and fast
water. A trail from Ocultun to Yaxchilan would be 43 km long, slightly
shorter than an upriver carry past the Usu' canyons. Though the San Pedro
Martir has an extra 7 km carry past cascades at Reforma, the route is 20 km
shorter overall and has little current between Reforma and Ocultun.
Because of the deep pass in the Sierra del Lacandon, there is no severe
A trail through the cleft would have put Yaxchilan at a crossroads of
river and land routes. Teodoro Paschke's 1889 detailed map of Guatemala
shows just such a trail from Laguna de la Cruz to Paso Yalchilan, though
modern maps don't. Desire Charnay used a similar approach by land from
Tenosique to Yaxchilan. Whether or not there may have been an actual
Classic Period route through the cleft could be checked by looking in the
heart of the pass. In southern Belize a smaller pass, guarding the
approach to Chac Bolai from the Bladen Branch, is fortified with a wall and
gateway at the narrowest point.
While exploring the ruins in 1882 Alfred P. Maudsley was given
something, carefully wrapped up in paper, by one of his men who had been
upriver. It was a gentleman's card, that of French scientist Desiree De
Charnay. By coincidence, his expedition had just arrived, and was stranded
across the river. Mausley graciously lent his canoe and in return De
Charnay shared the exploration with Maudsley, who was officially only an
amateur at the time.
In the river a massive artificial pile of stone, El Pilar, marks the
start of the ancient waterfront. Various people have identified El Pilar
as a royal grave, a breakwater for the city landing, a river level gauge,
or a pier for a bridge. It is definitely not a grave but could have been
any or all of the other possibilities. James Okon has located a
cooresponding stonework, more ruined by floods, in the river near the
opposite shore. He theorizes that they were piers for a huge suspension
bridge _ m long.
Yaxchilan, almost alone among large Maya cities, is sited without
apparent relation to good farmland. It is confined within a mountainous
meander. The nearest arable land is across the river and over a steep
ridge, in the broad valley of the La Linea Syncline. By land, the city has
only a single exit, southwest along the ridge of the meander neck.
However, the meander is as near perfect a natural fortress as one could
The dip in the neck is a great location for a wall and gate like that
found in a pass leading to Chac Bolai on the upper Bladen Branch in Belize.
So far as I know no one has yet checked the neck for defensive works,
though Mario Aliphat has done a botanical transect of the neck. Even
though it would bypass 13 km of upriver, the neck of the meander is too
high and steep for a practical portage.
Yaxchilan to El Cayo Venado ? 45 km
The river is pinched in a narrow gorge, 200 to 250 m deep, carved
deep into the shattered core of an anticline. Now hemmed in, the Usu' has
nowhere to go but up in wet season. There are surprisingly few rapids of
The river swiftly encircles Yaxchilan with a watery moat, and
straightens out as far as the minor site of Anaite I, 21 km from Yaxchilan.
Here it turns sharp right, along a transcurrent fault, and sluices through
minor rapids, Class 1 El Raudal Chico. Since these rapids are just below
the modern hamlet of Anaite, they are often called "Anaite Rapids",
inviting confusion with the larger ones downstream. The river then swings
left to continue down the heart of the Usumacinta Anticline.
Los Raudales de Anaite:
The most serious rapids between Yaxchilan and El Cayo are Los
Raudales de Anaite, now commonly called Chicozapote Falls. Like so many
localities in the region, the rapids have acquired two names. "Chicozapote
Falls" came into vogue with commercial rafting of the river. For this
article "Raudales de Anaite", the name used by Maler, Blom, and local
boatmen for nearly a century, will be used in preference to the more
recent, even at risk of confusion with a smaller rapid near the Anaite I
site. "Anaite/Chicozapote" is too awkward, and "Chicozapote Falls" has
less historical depth.
28 km below Yaxchilan, the rapids begin with boulders on the west
(Mexican) shore forcing the river through a wavy chute. The main current
swings to the right, then left, before settling into a long train of +1 m
waves near the west shore. A large rock sits left of center in the waves,
but is easily skirted. The rapids are not long, only 0.5 km from top to
The annual wet season rise keeps the foreshores clear of vegetation
for 20 m above the river. The steep right (Guatemalan) shore is strewn
with large blocks which make walking a chore and portaging even a light
boat difficult. Jutting out from the west shore at the head of the rapids,
a line of boulders creates a long eddy hugging the west shore under a
cliff, and just outside the main current.
50,000 cfs is a medium flow. At dry season flows below 15,000 cfs,
usually Feb through May, the rapids are hardest. Steep waves up to 2 m
high march down the main channel. At wet season levels, June through Nov,
the rapids wash out and are straighforward, per Scott Davis. The river has
exceeded 200,000 cfs, though not often.
Los Raudales de Anaite [Chicozapote Falls] appear to be formed not by
a bedrock barrier, but by a side stream on the south shore. An arroyo, the
sometimes outlet of Laguna Santa Clara, pries boulders and lesser debris
from the Cretaceous Upper Boca Del Cerro Formation, and dumps them into the
Usu'. The river continually tears away at the debris dam, but every local
flash flood renews it. Debris fan rapids are common in narrow canyons.*
*Ftnt [Most rapids in the Grand Canyon of Arizona are formed this
way. They are gradually getting harder to run, since dams upstream have
stopped the annual high water levels that used to reduce the debris fans.
The sole exception is Lava Falls, formed when a lave flow cascaded down the
canyon wall and dammed the Colorado River.]
Los Raudales de Anaite are straightforward high volume Class 2-3
rapids, but you wouldn't know it from historical accounts. When Louis
Halle rode a cayuco through Anaite, the boat spun round and round, out of
control. His bogadors let the bow get caught in eddies, causing a series
of involuntary eddy turns. Dimitar Krustev cautiously walked the shore
while Romulo soloed their boat through, but Krustev also handled his folbot
so poorly at Piedras Negras that they were swept past the landing. On a
1905 expedition, "prudently mistrusting my irresponsible Tenosique
simpleton" Teobert Maler bundled up his notes and hitched a ride in a
passing cayuco manned by able vogas. However his own "cayuco was dashed to
pieces on the rocks and disappeared in the brawling waters".
Barely noticed in these accounts of terror and disaster is that
competent boatmen ran Anaite without any trouble. The rapid is just
serious enough to punish incompetence, but forgiving to the skilled. As
Chris Shaw remarked, "The rapids reputation had been exaggerated". For
several years motor lanchas* have routinely run up and down Los Raudales de
Anaite to service Stephen Houston's and Hector Escobedo's project at
*Ftnt. [It takes about 75 hp to buck the current.]
According to 19th and 20th century accounts, timber companies
discouraged their vogas from running Raudales de Anaite, but they usually
did so anyway. Lining downstream is slow, and dragging a heavy dugout
overland out of the question. The safest landing when heading downstream
is on the east (Guatemalan) shore, where a flat shelf of rock offers an
easy landing. Sometimes part of the cargo was carried past the rapids via
a rough trail along the steep, rocky east shore, then the lightened boat
In all past accounts of canoe voyages in the Americas, part or all of
the cargo was frequently carried past a rapid to reduce weight and increase
freeboard enough to avoid portaging the canoe itself. In expedition
reports, this is variously called "carrying the loads past", "packing the
load across", or "portaging". The terms "Decharge" and "Demi-charge" used
by Canadian voyageurs are more precise.
"Decharge" meant that the entire load was carried past a rapid, but
not the canoe. The crew then ran the lightened canoe down the rapid. If
headed upriver, they poled or tracked the empty canoe up the rapid.
For a "Demi-charge" roughly half the load was taken out. Going
downriver the half load was carried past the rapids to meet the canoe.
Going upstream, the crew would deposit a half load at the bottom of a
rapid, track the canoe to the top, and deposit the other half load there.
They then ran back down, reloaded, and brought the second half up.
Tracking up the rapids twice was usually faster and less work than carrying
even a half load past them by land.
Maler is the only early Mayanist who really knew what could be done
with dugouts. His cool assessment of upriver possibilities was remarkable.
Anaite thoroughly intimidated most travelers. The towering walls, broken
shores, and leaping waves were impressive. Maler judged that his vogas
from El Cayo, though not expert, could track their boat up the rapids.
Jutting out from the west shore at the head of the rapids, a line of
boulders created a long eddy hugging the west shore under a cliff, and just
outside the main current. As he related, "the cayuco, gliding along at the
foot of the sheer rock, remained invisible to those hauling the ropes".
Maler's crew, even though unfamiliar with Anaite, succeeded in tracking all
the way up the Mexican shore without a demicharge or decharge, but his
vogas lost their nerve on the top drop.
At the top was the one tricky part, swinging a canoe through a strong
chute between the boulders. Maler again correctly gauged the danger, and
had the boat unloaded, a "decharge", before trying to haul it up the last
drop. He could see it was possible, and probably would have succeeded with
a more competent crew. In the Classic, Maya boatmen, familiar with the
river at different levels, should have long mastered passing a boat around
the rocks at the top.
Compare ascending Raudales de Anaite to the effort overcoming
the chutes of the First Cataract of the Nile, as witnessed by Charles
Dudley Warner in 1875. Hauling an 8 meter dugout up Raudales de Anaite
seems rather straightforward by comparison. Warner was riding on a
dahabeah, a sailing ship over 36 meters long, being tracked up the
cataracts. His narrative not only summarizes the various stratagems used
to get a large boat up rapids, but gives the flavor of the effort.
"The place where we lie is barely long enough to admit our boat; its
stern just clears the rocks, its bow is aground on hard sand. The number of
men and boys on the rocks has increased; it is over one hundred, it is one
hundred and thirty; on a re-count it is one hundred and fifty?
The swimmers come on board for reinforcement. The poor fellows are
shivering as if they had an ague fit. The dragoman brings out a bottle of
brandy. It would burn a hole in a new piece of cotton cloth. He pours out a
tumblerful of it, and offers it to one of the granite men. The granite man
pours it down his throat in one flow, without moving an eye winker, and
holds the glass out for another. His throat must be lined with zinc.
Judging by the eye, the double turn we have next to make is too short
to admit our long hull. We just scrape along the rocks, the current
growing every moment stronger, and at length get far enough to let the
stern swing. It is a close fit. The stern is clear; but if our boat had
been four or five feet longer, her voyage would have ended then and there?
We have come to the real cataract, to the stiffest pull and most
dangerous passage. The chief cataract is called Bab Abu Rabbia from one of
Mohammed Ali's captains who some years ago vowed that he would take his
dahabeah up it with his own crew and without aid from the cataract people.
He lost his boat. ?
For this last struggle, in addition to the other ropes, an enormous
cable is bent on, not tied to the bow, but twisted round the cross beams of
the forward deck, and carried out over the rocks?
The water of this main cataract sucks down from both sides above
through a channel perhaps one hundred feet (30 m) wide, very rapid and with
considerable fall, and with such force as to raise a ridge in the middle.
To pull up this hill of water is the tug; if the ropes let go we shall be
dashed into a hundred pieces on the rocks below and be swallowed up in the
whirlpools. It would not be a sufficient compensation for this fate to
have this rapid hereafter take our name.
We are now carefully under way along the rocks which are almost
within reach, held tight by the side ropes, but pushed off and slowly urged
along by a line of half-naked fellows under the left side, whose backs are
against the boat and whose feet walk along the perpendicular ledge. It
would take only a sag of the boat, apparently, to crush them. But we are
held firmly by the shore lines. The boat is never suffered, as I said, to
get an inch the advantage, but is always held tight in hand. Men come
riding down on logs as before, a sort of horseback feat in the boiling
water, steering themselves round the eddies and landing below us.
At the right moment the sail is again shaken down; and the boat at
once feels it. It is worth five hundred men. The ropes slacken; the crowd
thins out, dropping away with no warning; and before we know that the play
is played out, the cataract people have lost all interest in it and are
scattering over the black rocks to their homes."
In the Classic, the Rios Candelaria and San Pedro Martir appear to
have been improved for navigation at several ledges. Simple improvements
at Anaite could have minimized the already moderate time and labor costs of
tracking up it by eliminating any need for a demi-charge. Most likely
would have been a good towpath along the cliff on the west (Mex.) shore,
and a skidway over, or a cleared chute through, the worst obstacle at the
Such modifications can only be speculative unless traces of
improvements are found at Anaite, which may be difficult. The seasonal rise
keeps the foreshore clear of vegetation, but may also have erased any trace
of a simple towpath. An artificial sluice would have been filled over time
by debris from the arroyo.
Continuing down the river:
Four km downstream of Raudales de Anaite is the small Chicozapote
site, at a natural landing on the west shore. The river is swift
throughout, but the only other rapid , a Class 1 too minor to merit a name,
is two km downstream from the Chicozapote site. Six km from the
Chicozapote site is the El Chile site, also on the left shore. El Chile is
near a spring, possibly an underground outlet for Laguna Santa Clara. 47
km from Yaxchilan is the sandbar island of El Cayo Venado, with ruins on
both shores. Paddling at a modest 5 kph, with a boost of 3 kph from the
current, a run from Yaxchilan to El Cayo should have taken at most 6 hours
A likely scenario is for upriver traffic to have used different
routes according to the type of traffic and urgency of travel. As Mario
Aliphat observed, downstream visitors to El Cayo or Piedras Negras may have
often elected to walk back via the parallel "Intermontane Valley" along the
La Linea Syncline to the northeast. It would have taken about 15 hours to
return overland to Yaxchilan via La Pasadita, instead of approx 25 by
water. Unencumbered travelers and perishables may have gone by land; heavy
nonperishable loads by boat. During floods and unusually high water,
nonperishables could have been stockpiled.
A detour through Laguna Santa Clara might possibly have been used
during high water when Anaite was too difficult to ascend. It would have
required portaging cargo 3 km uphill from El Chile to boats waiting on
Laguna Santa Clara, then paddling uplake 5 km, and finishing with lugging
the cargo 9 km to the Anaite I site on the river above Raudales Chico.
With 12 km of carrying (steeply up and down at each end) a route through
Laguna Santa Clara would usually have required more labor than slowly
working boats up the river itself.
El Cayo to El Porvenir- 19 km
At El Cayo Venado "Venison Island" [the rafter's Paradise Island],
usually shortened to El Cayo, a huge sandbar divides the river and forms a
minor riffle and large eddy. The narrow river gorge widens into an oval
valley, the only one below Yaxchilan.
El Cayo was probably a well used ferrying point in the Classic. Not
only is there a broad midstream eddy at all water levels, but a trail
follows the Arroyo Machabilero down through a break in the high rugged
hills lining the east shore.
El Cayo lies between two major Classic centers, Yaxchilan and Piedras
Negras. Though only 16 km from P.N. vs 37 km from Yaxchilan by trails
along the "Intermontane Valley", El Cayo paradoxically takes less time to
reach from Yaxchilan by water. This is because travel down the swift
Usumacinta River is much faster than paddling against the same current. In
addition, not far upstream of P.N. is Rapidos el Caribe, a strong Class 2,
which would have required tracking from shore. On a downstream run from
Yaxchilan, Raudales de Anaite, though dangerous , would not slow
experienced boatmen down.
*Ftnt. Current speed varies from 3 to 5 kph, depending on season.
Traveling at 8 kph (3 kph current, plus 5 kph paddling speed) the 47 km by
water from Yaxchilan to El Cayo would take 5.9 hours. At 2 kph (5 kph
paddling speed minus 3 kph current) the 16 km from Piedras Negras upriver
to El Cayo would take 8 hours by water, plus additional time to track up
the rapids. Walking the 15 km of trail from P.N. to El Cayo would take
about 5 hours, only slightly less than from Yaxchilan by water.
The modern village of El Cayo is on the Mexican shore, but a sizeable
Maya site has structures on both sides of the river. The largest ruin, a
two story palace, is on the Mexican side, where the valley opens out more.
In June of 1997, Dr. Peter Mathews attempted to rescue an altar stone
here before it was looted. He and his party were robbed, beaten, and
nearly killed by villagers. They escaped by swimming across the river, and
hiding until they could flag down a launch bound for the new dig at Piedras
Five km below El Cayo is another break in the karst hills of the
eastern shore at the hamlet of Desempeno, "Redemption". After losing some
men and boats in the canyons, timber companies strictly forbade their vogas
from running below Desempeno, and this became the general 19th century foot
Downstream, in the 11 km between Desempeno and Piedras Negras, the
river runs through a narrows with several minor rapids, and a sizeable one.
6 km below Desempeno a rough road comes down to the river at Nuevo
Jerusalem [Arroyo Jerusalem], at a shingle beach on the Mexican side.
The Class 2 Rapidos el Caribe, with good surfing waves, are only 2
km upstream of the ruins of Piedras Negras. According to one source, they
would have been impassable by dugout. Per another, the hydraulics in El
Caribe are easy to skirt. Motorized lanchas have routinely run up and down
the rapids to supply the dig at Piedras Negras, clearly demonstrating that
large dugouts could at least navigate them downstream in the past. Unless
both shores are sheer cliffs, any Class 2 rapid can normally be lined if it
can't be run. The shores at El Caribe are steep, broken rock, not easy
walking but not impassable cliff either.
From a high bluff the Preclassic through Late Classic Period ruins of
Piedras Negras, abbreviated P.N.* overlook a sandy cove, the city landing,
holding a jagged black slab of limestone, called La Roca De Los Sacraficios
by Maler, with seated figures in a circle carved on it. The river
sometimes rises over in the wet season. Maler speculated that it was a
sacrificial altar, but river gauge seems a more likely use. An inscription
at P.N. records a royal visits by canoe.
*Ftnt [Classic name Y-okib, literally "Cave Entrance", from a huge
cenote, 200m deep and 200m across, nearby. The full meaning is more like
"Portal to Xibalbal".]
Just below the ancient city landing is another Class 2, Raudal El
Porvenir, with hydraulics to be avoided. On a large pool 3 km downstream
is El Porvenir, a Maya site spanning the Preclassic to Late Classic
Periods. Ruins extend unbroken between El Porvenir and Piedras Negras.
There is a large natural landing area on the right shore. As the last
practical stopping place for travelers headed to the lowlands, it is the
most likely start for a portage past the canyons downstream. Continuing
downstream would have committed a boat to running the gorges.
*El Porvenir,"The Future", to Rio Chocolha - 25 km
In 1994 Guatemalan banditos ambushed and shot up a raft trip near
Budsilha Falls. This brought the commercial rafting business on the Usu'
to a sudden halt. The bandits (not guerillas) are still hanging around
below Piedras Negras and rafting is still on hold. Their base is rumored
to be in the San Jose Canyon. They have not halted all traffic.
Motorboats still risk the canyons, reportedly carrying such cargoes as
cocaine and mahogany.
Rafting had altered the local economy with the promise of cash and
consumer goods, but it had also built international support for protection
of the river. Plans to dam the river below the Rio Chancala [properly
Chocolha?], and incidentally flood many Maya sites such as El Cayo and part
of Yaxchilan, were shelved because of international pressure.
Two km below El Porvenir is another strong Class 2 rapid, named Cola
de Diablo, "The Devil's Tail" (formerly called simply Los Saltos), with
waves too heavy for small dugouts. Cola de Diablo is regularly ascended by
The next 23 km of river have a swift current and mountains all
around. 9 km below El Porvenir, the Rio Budsilha [Butzijah] emerges from
underground in time to come tumbling in on the left over a travertine falls
24 m high. A road has been pushed through to near Budsilha Falls. The
last 4 km are by mule trail. Later the Rio Chocolha [Chancala] bursts from
a side canyon after stepping down lots of Class 2 ledges. It marks the end
of easy travel.
It is worth noting that the river from El Porvenir to the Rio
Chocolha would have been easier for the Maya in the Classic to navigate
than the preceding section. Though swift, there is only one rapid of
consequence in the entire 25 km. To my knowledge there are no sites on the
river, no evidence that it was well traveled in the Classic. This may
reflect lack of use in the Classic, or it may be there are sites still to
Downstream of El Porvenir, the river valley becomes a cul de sac,
with no low gaps in the towering eastern ridge for a traveler to slip out
through toward the lowlands. The rugged canyon of the Chocolha does not
offer an easy exit either. The only way forward is down the river through
The Spanish entrada under Alonso Davila faced this quandary in 1530.
After struggling overland NNE across ridges and swamps from Laguna Miramar
to the banks of the Usumacinta, they headed downriver in dugouts toward the
lowlands. After some easy going they came to a major rapid. Seeing no
other choice, they continued down the Usu' canyons. After a harrowing
trip, full of close calls, they emerged at Boca del Cerro, the first
Europeans to run the canyons.
Alonso de Luján, a member of Davila's force, reported to Gonzalo
Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés that the first rapid was about 3 leagues from
the last major one, now called San Joselito Rapids. 18 km (4 leagues)
upstream of San Joselito is Rapidos La Linea. Since there are no rapids
upstream for another 5.5 leagues, La Linea is the most likely candidate for
Davila's first bad rapid, and his entrada took to the river somewhere below
Cola de Diablo.
The Usumacinta Canyons [Tanochel?] Rio Chocolha to Tenosique [Tanodzic] ?
53 km, of which half are of uncertain navigability.
Just downstream of Rio Chocolha, the Rapidos La Linea, a Class 2
chute with large waves, marks the start of the Usumacinta canyons, where
the river worms through the Sierra del Lacandon. Before the trouble in
1996, the river was regularly run by modern whitewater rats, and sometimes
At first, the Usu' slices through a ridge 600 m high, with powerful
but not complicated rapids rated Class 2 to 2-3 in the dry season. At
Poste Rock [Postol] in the San Jose Canyon* , the entire river squeezes
through a narrow cliff bound slot. After Raudal Saluarte, a Class 2-3
rapid with diagonal waves, the river slacks off approaching El Retiro.
This long calm stretch, where the La Linea Syncline crosses the river, is
the best ferrying point in the canyons.
*Ftnt [The first section of San Jose Canyon is sometimes called Big
At San Jose the canyon resumes. In the San Jose Canyon are two
heavy Class 3 rapids, Los Rapidos San Jose [Raudal Grande de San Jose] and
San Joselito. The actual character of the rapids was captured well in
"Road to the Edge of the World", a video by Tom Rodgers.
The river cuts one last canyon, Iguanas, before sliding over Boca Del
Cerro Ledge and leaving the mountains for good under the combined
road/railroad bridge at Boca Del Cerro. The final 17 km are a long, slow
meander to Tenosique, near the site of Postclassic Tanodzic.
Did Maya run the Usu' Canyons?
Did Maya boatmen have the boats, skill, and nerve to run the gorges
in the Classic Period? There were economic incentives to make the run.
Haggling first for porters and then a new set of boats always consumes time
and costs more. Any big canoes brought down the river would find a ready
market as replacements for worn out craft in the lowlands. On the minus
side the risk was real, the canyons were given a wide berth by 19th century
vogas, and there are no significant riverside sites reported between El
Porvenir and El Retiro.
In the Northwest USA and Canada, Native Americans ran large (+10m)
dugouts through strong but straightforward Class 3 rapids like those in the
Usumacinta canyons . Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery ran the massive
Dalles and Cascade Rapids of the Columbia, Class 3 to 4, in dugouts. In
the Guyana Highlands of South America, both Native Americans and Bush
Negroes routinely shot Class 3 rapids in medium sized canoes designed for
serious whitewater. Skilled Maya boatmen should also have been able to
take large (+10m) Lacandon style canoes through heavy but uncomplicated
Class 2 and 3 rapids.
Piedras Negras and El Porvenir are both below strong Class 2 rapids,
avoided by vogas until the late 20th century. The Maya appear to have run
them, suggesting that they were bolder rivermen than most of their
historical successors. How much bolder is unclear. Some Maya may have
taken the risk and run the gorges. Others may have chosen a long portage
from El Porvenir or Piedras Negras to the lowlands, where the river was
again easy. Not enough is currently known to be sure of the answer. One
certainty is that a return trip up San Jose Canyon was not practical. A
portage past all the gorges was necessary at least for upriver travel.
It should be possible to end speculation and determine whether the
Maya ran the canyons by diving in the eddy at the foot of a major rapid
such as San Jose. The cargo of any boat lost in the rapids would end up in
the cracks and crevices between boulders on the bottom. Salt, corn,
textiles, feathers and such would leave no trace but granite metates from
the highlands, obsidian from El Chayal, Motagua jade, and smaller elite
goods should still be there.
From 1960 to 1975 a team from the Minnesota Historical Society
searched in the eddies below rapids along Voyageur routes. Among the
boulders they found trade axes, copper kettles, knives with wooden handles,
flintlocks, and a few far older items. Though most were 200 years old they
were often in good shape. If such a search in the Usu' canyons yielded a
trove of artifacts, then the Maya must have ran cargo canoes through the
canyons. The best rapids to search, San Jose and San Joselito, are
unfortunately very close to the bandits preying on rafting trips.
The Usumacinta Portage-46 km from El Porvenir to Tenosique
Many past portage routes can only be tentatively reconstructed by
extrapolating from ends of navigation, controlling terrain features, and
distribution of Maya sites. When this approach is applied to finding the
most likely carry past the Usumacinta canyons, the logical route is along a
linear karst valley in Guatemala and Mexico running to Corrigedora Ortiz
[Tres Champas], then over a low pass to Francisco I. Madero [called El
Retiro before a spate of revolutionary renaming] . There is a small Maya
site here. The valley follows the La Linea Syncline, and is the only route
that avoids climbs over high, dry, and rugged karst ridges.
Not only is this route the obvious choice topographically, it is
indeed the well documented 19th century portage trail. From Desempeno the
historical trail at first worked through karst ridges, on which sit Piedras
Negras and El Porvenir, and then followed a karst valley for the rest of
the way. It would have been the best route in any period, from Preclassic
to Postclassic, though the Maya probably shortened it by starting at El
Porvenir in the Classic.
20 km from El Porvenir (33 km from Desempeno), El Retiro is on a nice
calm pool, one of the very few places deep in the canyons where a ferry
crossing by canoe is practical, but it is not the end of portaging. The
19th century portage trail continued north another 26 km, first following
the river, then climbing over ridges along the east rim of the San Jose
Canyon before dropping down past Los Rieles and Adolfo Lopez Mateos and
then beelining to Tenosique 46 km from El Porvenir (59 km from Desempeno).
It is a good compromise between a reasonable grade through the mountains
and directness, and probably follows an ancient trail.
I use "probably" because for this part there is are other possible
options. By ferrying across in the relatively calm water at El Retiro,
porters could shorten the carry by 8 to 12 km at the cost of running the
minor rapids of Iguanas Canyon ending at Boca De Cerro. A broad valley
runs from the crossing west to Victorico Grajiales, where old trails ran
north to the river opposite Chuncheje (10 km upstream of the bridge at Boca
Del Cerro) and northwest to Lindavista 3 km upstream of the bridge. A
chain of Maya sites runs right down the valley. These options were not
used in the 19th century because vogas were simply forbidden to run any
part of the canyons.
As another option porters might have continued from El Retiro
northwest down valley 38 km, all the way to the vicinity of Arena de
Hidalgo, a few kilometers from the Pomona site. Both the Rios Usumacinta
and Chacamax would have been equally accessible from there. Pomona has an
associated site, Panhale, which was well fortified. Chinikiha is also on
the line between El Retiro and the bend of Rio Chacamax at La Reforma.
Lower Usumacinta River [Tanochel, Usumacinta, Ayn, Sacapulas?]
*Boca Del Cerro to Frontera [Putunchan]- 350 km
The lower river is all of a piece: wide, broadly meandering, and slow
in the dry season, and a big swift river spilling across the lowlands in
the wet season. It was navigable for any kind of canoe, though back
channels were often used to work upriver in the wet season to avoid the
The lower Usumacinta is part of an immense riverine system stretching
from Cardenas [Cimatan] in the west to the Laguna De Terminos in the east.
Prior to Spanish contact there were few trails but many, many winding
channels lacing this grand compound delta. Travelers heading east or west
played a kind of game of chutes and ladders by riding down a big river,
then working up smaller streams, against lesser currents, to the next big
river, and so on. The largest Usu' tributary, which joins 18 km above
Balancan [Usumacinta], is the Rio San Pedro Martir, itself an important
The first 190 km of the Usu' from Boca del Cerro to Emiliano Zapata
[Monte Christo] is so meandering that one travels four km to advance only
one. Upriver travel must have been tedious and, in the wet season,
intolerable. For those headed into the highlands, a detour using the Rio
Chacamax would have been much faster and less work. See separate writeup
for Chacamax. Rios Chico, San Antonio, and Las Playas/Laguna Catazaja are
also described separately.
The principal distributaries of the Usu' are the Palizada, covered
separately, and the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo. Nearing the Rio Grijalva
the Usu' breaks into three channels, two of which join the Grijalva at Tres
Bocas (Three Mouths). The last 16 km from Tres Bocas to Frontera
[Postclassic Potonchan, "Putun Snake"] are on the Grijalva. The Rio
Grijalva [Mescalapa, Tabasco] is navigable for almost 300 km west to
Malpasito, a Postclassic Zoque site at the foot of the mountains of
Routes of Communication in Mesoamerica: the Northern Guatemala Highlands
and the Peten, Richard E. W. Adams, 1978. In "Mesoamerican Communication
Routes and Cultural Contacts", New World Archaeological Foundation
Classic Maya Landscape in the Upper Usumacinta River Valley, Mario M.
Aliphat, 1994. University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Site Interaction and Political Geography in the Upper Usumacinta Region
During the Late Classic: A GIS Approach, Phd Dissertation by Armando Anaya
America's Ancient Mariners, Anthony Andrews, Oct 1991, Natural History
Maya Salt Production and Trade, Anthony Andrews, 1983, Univ of AZ Press
Conquest of Yucatan, Franz Blom, 1936. Houghton Mifflin Co. [partial
New Boats for Mosquitia, - Jim Brown, WoodenBoat School
Maya Settlement Patterns in Northeastern Peten, Guatemala, William R.
Bullard, American Antiquity, Vol 25, 1968
Manche and Peten, the Hazards of Itza Deceit and Barbarity, Fray Augustin
Above the Gravel Bar, David Cook, 1985.
Secret of the Forest, Wolfgang Cordan, 1963. Victor Gollancz, Ltd.
The Fifth Letter, Hernan Cortez, 1525
The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, Bernal Diaz de Castillo
Long Distance Transport Costs in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, Robert D .
Drennan, American Anthropologist Research Reports, 1984
Journey to the Far Amazon, Alain Gheerbrant, 1954. Simon & Schuster.
Ancient Maya Traders of Ambergris Cay, Thomas H. Guderjan, 1993, Cubola
River of Ruins, Louis Halle
Ancient Maya Civilization, Norman Hammond
Classic Maya Canoes, Norman Hammond
In the Land of the Turtle Lords, Stephen Houston, 2000. FAMSI Report
Among the River Kings, Stephen Houston, 1999. FAMSI Report
Between the Mountains and the Sea, Stephen Houston, 1998. FAMSI Report
The Piedras Negras Project, Stephen Houston and Hector Escobedo, 1997.
Commerce and Trade Routes of the Maya, Christopher Jones, 1990, University
River of the Sacred Monkey, Dimitar Krustev, 1970
Enchanted Vagabonds, Dana Lamb
Machaquila, Albert Lisi, 1968, Hastings House, NY
Alexander Mackenzie's Voyage to the Pacific Ocean in 1793, Alexander
Mackenzie, Esq, 1801. Reprinted 1931 Lakeside Press
Explorations in the Department of Peten, Guatemala, Teobert Maler
A Glimpse At Guatemala, Anne C. and Alfred P. Maudslay, 1899. Reprinted by
Flo Silver Books, 1992
The Ancient Maya, Fourth Edition, Sylvanus Morely, George W. Brainerd,
Robert J. Sharer
The Discovery of the Americas, the Southern Voyages, Samuel Eliot Morison
Fur Trade Routes of Canada, Then and Now, Eric W. Morse, 1969. Queen's
Printer , Canadian Government
The Title of Acalan-Tixchel, 1614. Pablo Paxbolon
Palenque, the Walker-Caddy Expedition, David M. Pendergast, 1967. Univ. of
Into the Underworld: the El Tirgre Underwater Research Project, Paul
Pettenude, Nitrox Diver, Vol. 96-3.
Report on 1996 Field Season at El Tigre, Paul Pettenude, MURC
The Canoe, Roberts & Shackleton, 1983, International Marine Publishing.
Through the Brazilian Wilderness, Theodore Roosevelt, 1919. Charles
The Rise of a Maya Merchant Class, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Scientific American,
A Tale of Three Cities, Wm. Sanders & Robert Santley
A Forest of Kings, Linda Schele & David Freidel, 1990. Wm. Morrow & Co.
The Maya Chontal Indians of Acalan-Tixchel, France V. Scholes & Ralph L.
Sacred Monkey River, Chris Shaw, 2000, W.W Norton & Co.
Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, John Lloyd Stephens & Catherwood
Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Stephens &
Paddle to the Amazon, Don and Dana Starkell, 1989, Prima Publishing.
Classic Maya Place Names, David Stuart & Stephen Houston
Among the Indians of Guiana, Everard F. im Thurin, 1883. Dover
Canoes and Navigation of the Maya and their Neighbors, J. Eric S. Thompson,
1951, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society
Maya Archaeologist, J. Eric S. Thompson, 1963, Univ. of Oklahoma Press
Agricultural Base of the Ancient Maya, B. L. Turner, Fall 1988, Mesoamerica
Voices from the Rapids, Wheeler, Kenyon, Woolworth, & Birk, 1975. Minnesota
River Notes: Thanks to the following people who have generously shared
their information and experience on the rivers.
Candelaria- Alfred Siemens
Jatate & Lacandon- Chris Shaw, Cully Erdman
Salinas- Ben Harding & Filip Sokol
Sebol and Pasion- Steve Radzi, John Montgomery
Tulija- Donna Obrecht, Chris Shaw
San Pedro Martir and Chocop- Brian Houseal
Usumacinta & tribs- Scott Davis, Chris Shaw, Tom Rodgers, George Stuart,
The Ancient Maya World, Cartographic Division, NGS, 1989
Carta Fotogeologica Del Peten, series of reconnaissance geological maps at
La Selva Lacandona, y Tierras Colindantes, Frans Blom, 1953. Superb map.
Map of El Peten, Guatemala, and Bounding Regions of British Honduras and
Mexico, Carl Hubbs & Henry van der Schalie, 1937
Map of Tabasco, 1579, circle map attributed to Melchior de Alfaro Santa
Mapa Base de las Cuencas de los Rios, Mexico y Guatemala, 1:500,000, 1980.
Mapa de la Republica de Guatemala, Escala 1:1,000,000, Teodoro Paschke,
1889. Shows colonial trails,
Peten, Escala 1:800,000, 1900. Rough schematic of trails.
Sistema Fluvial Tabasqueno, 1946, map showing limits of navigability for
rivers of Tabasco.
and over a dozen ruins.
Topographic Maps of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, 1:250,000 series and
partial coverage 1:50,000 series
Web Sites:Posted by Dave at August 29, 2002 12:37 PM