12 Top Jungle Rivers
Central America:
The Macal and Cave Branch, Belize

When a team of British army adventurers first ran Belize's Macal River in the early 1980s, little did they know that--despite the many Class VI portages--they had stumbled on a run destined to be a jungle classic. In 1994, hardshell kayakers Cully Erdman, Dugald Bremner and Josh Lowrey affirmed this fact by running all but five drops in the river's 20-mile granite gorge in one day. "It's definitely a classic," says Erdman, who feels so strongly about the river that he offers eight-mile, one-day trips on the lower gorge through his company, Slickrock Adventures. "It's got everything you need in a jungle trip."

The Macal is the largest drainage of Belize's Maya Mountains, funneling countless rainforest tributaries through a 20-mile gorge cutting through the highlands. In the heart of the gorge, vine-clad walls tower up to 1,500 feet overhead, many of which harbor cascading waterfalls and hidden limestone caves. After flowing north out of the highlands near the Guatemalan border, the river opens up to a lush valley before joining the Mopan River in San Ignacio. Be forewarned, however, that it is not for the faint of heart. The granite river bed creates classic pool-drop rapids in the form of waterfalls and strong hydraulics. The best levels to tackle the rapids are between 500-1,500 cfs, which usually occurs when the rainy season subsides from November through March. The river often rises as high as 45,000 cfs in the rainy season. Excluding the Class VI portions, the average gradient is about 75 feet per mile.

Helping river runners--but harming the river's wilderness qualities--is a hydro-electric complex recently built in the middle of the canyon that diverts flow for a few miles before depositing it back in the river at the base of the gorge's Class VI section. The power plant provides the only road access to the lower eight-mile run, which houses such rapids as Cartwheel Falls, Rock-Hell Falls, Vaca Falls, Duck Soup and The Wall. The lower section still has several portages, including one that avoids a Class VI cataract, before you reach the take-out at Black Rock Lodge (you can also paddle another four miles of flatwater to an alternative take-out at Chaa Creek Lodge).

For a jungle fix without the adrenaline, head to the nearby Caves Branch River, which, when not meandering through rainforest-cloaked countryside, flows underground through Mayan artifact-filled caves for five of the run's eight miles. And that's someplace even British army adventurers dared not venture in their reconnaissance of the area in the early '80s.

--For more information, contact Slickrock Adventures, P.O. Box 1400, Moab, UT 84532; (800) 390-5715 (phone); (435) 259-6996 (fax); slickrock@slickrock.com (e-mail); www.slickrock.com. --edb