Not until I was speeding down a crocodile-infested river between the Sumidero Canyon’s 1km-sized walls did I realise that, actually, I don’t even need to be high up to be scared of, or at the very least perturbed by, great dizzying heights.
Normally, when I peer over the edge of anything higher than 10ft it feels like a whole swarm of butterflies are tugging at my intestines. I often have to go to the toilet too. I’m literally scared shitless.
Thankfully though, the feeling of worry or terror wasn’t nearly as intense or bowel-bothering on this occasion (a relief, given there were no toilets on board our 24-birth speed boat), but I nevertheless felt a bit uneasy gazing up at the sheer walls of rock on either side of me. And who knew how many man-eating crocodiles were gliding beneath the murky surface nearby.
I’ve climbed mountains and volcanoes four times the height of Sumidero Canyon, in the Chiapas region of Mexico, but they don’t make me anxious. It was a similar feeling to the one I had that day at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. They too, were ridiculously steep and made my knees wobble. I knew they weren’t going to suddenly crumble and crush us all to death, but for some reason I just couldn’t get that thought out of my mind. Is that normal? I think not. Somebody help!
Pretty soon, I pushed such intrusive thoughts to back of my mind, helped considerably by the very cute German blonde sitting beside me. “Isn’t it beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Yes, she- I mean- it is” I replied.
She was dead right though. The scenery was breath-taking, and well worth the 250 MXN (about $13) we’d paid to see it. I’d probably have paid more if I’d known I’d get to sit next to her too.
Surrounding the canyon is the Sumidero Canyon National Park, which extends almost 22,000 hectares across the state of Chiapas. Most of the vegetation in the park is dense green rainforest, with the odd cluster of pine trees and grassland. Together, the forest, rocks, emerald water and deep blue sky form a striking contrast of colours. It’s like a scene from Avatar or Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.
Conveniently, the canyon is just 13km in length, so tourists viewing by boat get to see more or less the whole thing (you can also view the canyon from the top). Along the way, the Rio Grijalva (which itself is 766km in length, beginning in Guatemala and emptying in the Usumacinta river) twists and turns – up to 90 degrees in places – and widens up to 2km in others. So if you get motion sickness (or vertigo), bring some pills along to settle your stomach!
If pills are unlikely to help, or you just don’t fancy getting wet, Sumidero can be seen from five viewpoints along the roads at the top if you rent a car. There are car rental agencies in both Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristóbal de las Casas. However, by renting a car you won’t get to see all the different types of wildlife that dwell in the river.
Wildlife and Waterfalls in Sumidero Canyon
Many endangered species of wildlife live in the River Grijalva. I’ve already mentioned the crocodiles – of which we saw two, camouflaged and lying perfectly still among the trees, deadwood (and, unfortunately, litter) on the riverbanks, with their gaping jaws half open. Apparently Rio Grijalva is home to around 500 or so crocodiles – not something I’d known prior to leaving that morning, when I was eagerly stuffing my swimming shorts into my bag.
Another threatened species that calls the river home is the Central American river turtle, of which we saw none (this, as it turned out, was a sign of things to come in Costa Rica).
Save for a few birds and a lone fisherman rowing laboriously, we saw no other signs of life on the river. We did, of course, stumble upon a holy shrine in the Cueva de los Colores (Cave of Colours), where a depiction of the Virgin of Guadalupe hung on the wall surrounded by candles and other ornaments. It was very pretty but a bit gimmicky I thought (no offence Christians!) Only in Mexico.
There are a number of waterfalls (many of which are not visible from the viewpoints along the road) scattered along Sumidero canyon. The special Christmas Tree waterfall is the most impressive, since the water spills from a hole above into moss-layered, green rocks that are shaped like the branches of a Christmas tree. Unfortunately for us, not a great deal of water seemed to be gushing out that day, but it was nonetheless pretty amazing!
Cleaning up Sumidero Canyon
On the tour, our guide told us how until a few years ago Sumidero had a very serious pollution problem. He described how a bottleneck section of the river used to be clogged with plastic waste and other non-biodegradable items. I researched this later and discovered that the canyon had received a lot of negative media attention until a major clean-up process began. As recently as 2014 other bloggers reported seeing a horrendous landmass of rubbish blocking a section of the river Grijalva.
Perhaps my guide had been instructed to avoid this garbage zone because I didn’t see anything resembling such an eyesore. Or maybe the clean-up operation actually worked! I sincerely hope the latter…
Where is Sumidero Canyon?
The canyon is a few kms east of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas capital, and about 78km west of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a smaller but popular stopover on the backpacker circuit and where I decided to explore and rest up for 4 days.
Sumidero Canyon Tour Details
The tour lasted about 2 hours and included a very knowledgeable Spanish-speaking guide. I couldn’t make out what he was saying all the time (he was stood over us and spoke very quickly!) but the gist of it was enough really. Tour operators in San Cristóbal advertise English-speaking tours but I imagine these are more expensive than the 250 MXN (about $13) that we paid.
The return journey (to San Cristobal) includes a stop-off at the town Chiapa del Corzo – a relatively untainted spot where you can take lunch or wander the streets and lively central square.
Have you visited Sumidero Canyon or another one like it? What was your impression?