The road from San Cristobal de las Casas to Ocosingo, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, is blocked by people protesting against public transportation reforms. “In Chiapas, if you want to get from one place to another, you really have to want it,” says Rafa Ortiz, Mexico’s top extreme kayaker and possibly the best in the world. “It’s part of the adventure that makes this state so wonderful. This might be part of its magic.”
Ortiz and his team are trying to get to Agua Azul, five waterfalls 30 to 50 feet high, and one of the great spots on earth for extreme kayaking. They plan a new route, avoiding the roadblock, and it will wind them throughout the wilds of southern Mexico to the town of Tumbala, the closest place to the falls. It’s a long trip, more than 10 hours, so they decide to stop in Lacanja, a town in the heart of the Lacandon Jungle near the border of Guatemala. The area has thousands of years of history and is home of the hack winik, the “real men”—direct descendants of the Maya. Legendary in Mexico, they see themselves as guardians of the balance between nature and mankind.
People here are used to tourists, which is why, when the truck with the kayaks rumbles in, Mario Chambor, one of the real men, comes closer to greet the visitors with a smile, followed by a group of excited children. “Me and two of my kayaking buddies were wearing almost all of our gear,” says Ortiz, “and we stood out because of all the bright colors.” The kids look at these strange, colorful men with a mix of astonishment and fear, and the strong urge to touch the visitors to see what they are really made of. “It was very cool,” Ortiz says. “When they finally dared to get closer, they wanted to wear our helmets, climb onto the truck to touch the kayaks. They were very excited, and so were we.”
Ortiz explains the reasons for his trip to Chambor, who immediately proposes a walk around a nearby waterfall, in an area usually kept secret to outsiders. The next day, Chambor leads the visitors and some locals into an area thick with ferns and orchids and trees 165 feet high, full of animals and soundtracked by the songs of invisible birds—yet another example of Mexico’s incredible biodiversity. “I always want to get to waterfalls and just throw myself down them in my kayak,” Ortiz says, “but ultimately, the trip to the falls is almost always the coolest part.” He could feel his hosts’ connection to nature. “We walked through the wilderness without analyzing what was going on in our surroundings, thinking we were going to post it all on Facebook when we got back to the city, and so on. They are really inside the wilderness—they listen, they smell, they feel.”
Suddenly, Chambor stops, and with a single outstretched arm he forbids the others from advancing. He crouches down, touches the earth, looks ahead and around, then sniffs the air. “A jaguar just passed through here,” he says. There, fresh and obvious to those who know what to look for, are the prints and the traces of a creature whose species is on the verge of extinction. “In moments like these,” Ortiz says, “you realize how little we care for nature. Whereas the natives don’t just get involved now and again: They live it every day, and they suffer much more than we do, because it’s their wilderness that is disappearing.”
The group reaches the falls, and although it’s not the pulse-skyrocketing kind Ortiz would kayak over, it’s perfect for having fun in the water with the native children who came along. They paddle, try on helmets and are thoroughly entertained, as is Ortiz. “Everyone wanted to climb onto the kayak at the same time. They were very excited, and they jumped into the water with no fear at all. The children spoke very little Spanish, but to introduce someone to kayaking and share the fun with them, you don’t need a verbal language. Smiles are more than enough.”
Back in Lacanja, the team bid farewell to the real men and get back on the road to the Agua Azul falls. They are worried that recent rising river levels may ruin their plans. “When the water rises too high,” says Ortiz, “it’s turbulent and turns muddy brown, and you can’t paddle in that kind of water.” But, rounding the bend that brings the Agua Azul in sight, the team lets out a collective gasp. The waterfalls, whose name means blue water, are a beautiful shade of turquoise.
The beauty here is only skin deep. “Rivers are classified from 1 to 6 in terms of difficulty, where 1 is still water and 6 is death,” Ortiz says. The Agua Azul falls, he explains, are ranked 5 or sometimes 5+, requiring a high level of technical ability and even more courage. “In that moment, right at the mouth of the fall, sometimes I doubt myself a little and I think, ‘Why am I here again?’ But then I grab the oar, and I tell myself that this is a challenge I must conquer.
Fear is justified. Last year, Ortiz reached the Agua Azul falls with three other kayakers. One of the three decided to go down the left part of the river and steered his kayak confidently to the edge of the falls. He was underwater for three minutes. Ortiz saw him floating down the river below. “We pulled him out of the water, and right there on the rocks, we gave him CPR for four minutes. We took him to the hospital in Palenque, where they saved his life. The falls are a monster that watches you and waits for a chance to duel with you.”
This is a challenge all extreme kayakers are eager to receive and accept. Ortiz and people like him live for those few seconds during the fall, before being submerged in the water, to fight against the turbulence that tries to rip away their oars, their kayak, their head from their shoulders. When they overcome the power of the water and manage to float away, it’s a moment of true glory. “That’s the moment when you turn back, get a look at the monster, and you think, ‘Nothing will ever top this. Winning the lottery? Means nothing to me.’ ” This time, Ortiz wins the duel with the magnificent, turquoise beast and paddles away down the river below with a smile on his face, like the children of the real men.