The Raging Rapids of the Río Cahabón

Guatemala’s best white-water river is the Class III-IV Río Cahabón. In addition to the exhilarating rapids, the traverse downstream on its emerald waters is interspersed with more tranquil stretches that afford opportunities to view several species of birds and explore caves, waterfalls, and hot springs along its forested banks.

The Cahabón is the same river that flows into a cave under the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, reemerging several hundred meters downstream. Most river trips begin at a put-in point near Lanquín. There are some rather menacing rapids along this stretch of the Upper Cahabón, including Rock and Roll, Entonces, and Las Tres Hermanas, making for an adrenaline-filled ride. The Middle Gorge has some nice jungle scenery and continuous Class III rapids. There are a few more challenging rapids after passing the bridge at a place called Oxec before reaching an obligatory takeout point at Takinkó to portage the Class VI (not possible to run) Chulac Falls. A dam was once planned here, but dam builders seem to have gone cold on the idea after discovering a fault line running right beneath the proposed site. The two-day river trip camps here.

A Class IV rapid on the Río Cahabón in Guatemala. Photo © Al Argueta.
A Class IV rapid on the Río Cahabón in Guatemala. Photo © Al Argueta.

The Lower Gorge is a boatload of fun with titillating rapids such as Saca Corchos (Corkscrew) and Saca Caca. There are stops along the way to explore caves and enjoy lunch at “El Pequeño Paraíso,” a small sidestream with delightful waterfalls and hot springs flowing into the Cahabón. The next rapid is appropriately named Lose Your Lunch, shortly after which the river widens and you are treated to a serene stretch of river with mountainous jungle-clad banks. The takeout is at Cahaboncito, where the intrepid can take a plunge into the river from a 30-foot bridge.

Rafting the Cahabón affords the opportunity to see some remote natural attractions and come in contact with the local people inhabiting the area. As is often the case in Guatemala, the beauty coexists with a sobering reality. In addition to still-forested areas you will see some steep, badly deforested slopes given over to corn cultivation, shedding light on the desperate plight of peasants willing to live and grow their crops anywhere they can.

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