Monkeys, birds, crocodiles and the soaring kilometre-high cliffs make this boat ride a dramatic experience.
The great Grijalva River, named after the Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva but also known as the Tabasco River, flows from the southern Chiapas Highlands through the dammed Lake Angostura (although the bitters of that name come from Venezuela) and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico near La Frontera. The day before, we had seen it flowing placidly through Villahermosa, but up here in the mountains, it is a very different beast, up to 240m deep and flanked by dramatic canyon walls.
There are boarding points on both sides of the river.
Coming out east from Tuxtla Gutiérrez on Route 180 towards San Cristóbal de las Casas, just before the big bridge over the Grijalva, you'll see a sign for 'embarcadero', and a couple of men frantically flagging you down.
Ignore them. Cross the bridge and then take the first right into 'Al Embarcadero', at the Rio Grande restaurant. I'll tell you why.
The first turning takes you to the west bank of the river, down a steep rutted track with one hairpin bend, which eventually reaches a well-paved area with shady parking. This is the fiefdom of one of the most officious, self-important men I have ever met in Mexico. You will eventually get a wonderful trip through the canyon, but only after your orange life jacket has been adjusted a dozen times, buttoned, unbuttoned, taken off, and put back on again to his barked instructions. He makes airport security look relaxed. Although the boats only take 12 people, you'll be prodded into groups, identified by your nationality (as there were four nationalities in our group of four, he chose 'France'). If I ever went back, I'd say I was from Lichtenstein. That might give him pause for thought.
At the end of the trip, we spotted Rio Grande restaurant on the opposite bank and went there for lunch. They also run boat trips through the canyon. Access is less hairy; prices are similar, and of course, there's lunch. I'm afraid it's no contest.
But in the meantime, Sumidero Canyon. You start by sailing under the road bridge, which is already very high, and then the boatman steers a careful course into the canyon itself and you pretty much leave civilisation behind for an hour or two. Pretty much, although there are enough plastic bottles bobbing around to remind you of how careless we are of our own glorious planet. The captain points out the places where imaginative people have named the natural features: the Christmas Tree, for example, is a cascade of broad stalactites, like pine branches under snow, topped by an ethereal white figure like a cowled monk. If you come here during the rainy season, there is a large waterfall tumbling down the Christmas tree at that spot.
There's a cave, the Cueva de Colores, with a little altar, and a figure that could (with a little imagination, to the right of the ladder) be Christ on the cross, but unaccountably headless.
And then, just as you're beginning to wonder how much longer you can crane your neck to see clifftops 1,000m above you, you turn a corner and see the emblem of Chiapas. Well, sort of. Our captain Roberto showed us a laminated version of the Chiapas emblem which looked exactly like the view in front of us. The real canyon view has big hills ahead and no sign of lions, castles or palm trees on the canyon edge, and not much like the official coat of arms at all (the left photo below, source: commons.wikimedia.org).
There was plenty of real wildlife to spot. Masses of obvious white egrets and large but muted grey herons, and then Roberto pointed to a monkey. At first all I could see was a dark blob in the top branches of a tree which was just coming into spring leaf. It could have been anything. But once my eye was in, the blob unfolded and hung endearingly by one arm and one leg before swinging easily into another treetop. The crocodiles didn't move at all. They just lay on the bank with their mouths half open. I adjusted my life jacket nervously, for the umpteenth time. And then I spotted the vultures, waiting for prey.
And then just when you think this can't go on for ever, the boat pops out into Lake Chicoasén. A great mixed flock of black cormorants and white gulls, so dense they were like a mat in the water, took to the air and darkened the skies as we pass among them.
Just above the Chicoasén hydroelectric dam, by a large statue of the Workers of the Dam, there's a little boat with three jolly people in it, serving drinks. Their speciality is michelada, but I don't see the point of spoiling a good beer by putting sauces in it (even in a river called Tabasco flowing from a lake called Angostura!) so I skipped that. But it was fun just being in their company, and they obviously needed ours!
The boat turned back through the canyon. It's just as interesting in reverse. The shadows grow dramatically on the canyon walls.We found our way to the Río Grande restaurant and enjoyed a huge meal with wonderful views of the river from its broad balcony, did a little shopping at the local stalls, and headed for Tuxtla Gutiérrez Airport and the flight home.
How to get there:
If you are driving from Tuxtla Guttierez, take the road 190. Cross Río Grijalva on the bridge and that road will bring you straight into the village Chiapa del Corzo.
There's a colectivo minibus from Tuxtla to Chiapa del Corzo but I haven't tried it. The colectivo will take you to the centre of the village and the vendors happily point the tourists towards the embarking point. There are a handful of different boarding docks along the canyon river but two of the main ones are a short walk from the square of Chiapa de Corzo.
The actual boat trip takes about two hours. You can either hire a boat for your own party at the first embarcadero (2017 price: 2,400 pesos per person) or wait until there's a full complement of 12 (2017 price: 200 pesos each plus 30 entry to the canyon), which is what we did. If you decide to embark at Río Grande restaurant, the prices are slightly higher but the boats are smaller (for 9 people the price was 215 per person and a private boat 3,000 pesos).
Day trips to Sumidero Canyon and the town of Chiapa de Corzo leave daily from San Cristóbal and are affordable. I have been quoted 378 pesos by one agency and 650 pesos by another, so it is worth getting two quotes. If you take the tour with an agency from Tuxtla, the trip is more expensive (although it is on the doorstep of Tuxtla).
Mix & Match:
We did not go into the centre of Chiapa de Corzo but if you have time, be sure to do so. It is the site of the first Spanish city founded in Chiapas in 1528. However, because of the climate, most Spanish moved into the mountains to found what is now known as San Cristóbal de las Casas. Chiapa was left to the indigenous people and was called Chiapa de los Indios (with San Cristóbal known as Chiapa de los Españoles). You can explore the local churches here or do some souvenir shopping from the indigenous artisans on the main square or right by the restaurant Rio Grande, like my friend Michelle did.