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upper Río Lempa, El Salvador (area: west; click here for the El Salvador table of rivers)

lempa canyon

Class: IV to V+; Ave. Gradient: 9 m/km; Portages: maybe; Length: up to 26 km; Time: up to 8 hours.

Water Quality: poor; Water Temperature: medium.

Season: June-October; rafts? yes, some parts; Highlights: huge granite boulders; Crux move: patient scouting.

PI: Citalá bridge (elev: 705m); TO: La Junta village (or Llano de la Virgen village or Las Pavas beach)

Description: (click here for general notes about my descriptions)

The upper Lempa is classic Central American class V creeking in a steep secluded canyon. The scenery reminds me of California. The pool-drop rapids are varied and high-quality, with some drops getting quite big. When boat-scouting, I recommend doing so extra-defensively since I found several rapids drawing me in a little too close for comfort. The river provides some challenges to everyone, yet when it gets too challenging there is always a portage option over the boulders.

Despite its remoteness, there are some midway access points and they are well-placed to allow many kayakers, and even rafters, to construct a run to suit their tastes. The section names below come from the defunct Ríos Aventuras. The intermediate TO's are not obvious from the river, so it will be important to carefully coordinate your pickups with your driver.

The top Agua Helada section is 6 km long starting at Citalá and ending at Llano de la Virgen. This section is class III, with one class IV drop (depending on flow) that comes around a blind left curve and doesn't give rafters a lot of time to react. There is a hammock bridge at Llano de la Virgen. 1-1.5 hours.

The Ruta del Jaguar section continues 14 km down to Las Pavas, also called El Playón. Here the granite river bed becomes more bouldery with some beautiful narrow gorges. This section is class IV, with a V or two thrown in depending on flow. It must be raftable since Ríos Aventuras has it on their list. Plan on having to scout a few times. There is no bridge to mark the TO spot, only some dirt tracks on either side of the river. 2-3.5 hours.

The busiest (unnamed) section is the 6 km from there down to La Junta. This is the deepest and most remote part of the Lempa canyon and has the biggest drops. I had to scout 10 times in this section, and the drops seemed to get bigger and trickier towards the end of the canyon. I counted 3-5 class V or V+ drops. There are reports of several kayakers being injured trying this section at high water. Not for rafts. Houses, and the first hammock bridge since Llano de la Virgen, indicate the TO. 3-4.5 hours.

The Lempa continues below in wide class III style. A good access at a highway bridge is only 6 km further. See the middle Lempa page.

Flash Flood Danger: High, the slow canyon section is a good ways down, and a hike-out would be arduous.

Descent History: The first descent of the Ruta del Jaguar was in 1993, organized by Ríos Tropicales (Costa Rica) explorers Jimmy Nixon, Mauricio Bicard, and an unnamed Argentinian, and in which Jimmy sustained a serious injury requiring a next-day extraction. The first raft descent was in October 2003, with Ríos Aventuras honcho Rafael Leret and guides Beris and Noe and 3 others, taking 10 hours from Llano de la Virgen to La Junta. Earlier in the same month was my only run, with ~350 cfs at Citalá.

Flow Notes: This river has fairly reliable water during the rainy season. There is an online gage right at the PI, shown below along with its recent history. You will want to see recent movement, and a reading above ~0.8, to have creeking flows. (You also have the El Zapotillo gage further down the river in case the Citalá gage is malfunctioning but note this point also includes the Río Guajoyo flow.) Note that my impressions are from a single run with 350 cfs at the PI. This river has a large drainage and can get big and burly. Be extra wary of this river if you see flows over 800cfs at the PI.

cfs graph

cfs graph

click here for the SNET boletín,

or go to the maps

Shuttle Notes: The PI bridge is at the entrance to Citalá, right off the main road near the border crossing to Honduras. The next paved access is 6 km below Santa Rosa Guachipilín at the bridge on the new Nueva Concepción highway going towards Metapan. All other access is on slow bumpy dirt roads which are passable by most cars. The turn east to La Junta is 7 km towards Metapan from this bridge. From here drive down 6 km asking the way. Note: at La Junta, you have a 5-minute walk down to the river..

The river-right Llano de la Virgen TO is also reached via the Citalá-Metapán road. A little over 3km out of Citalá, take a left turn, and follow the road ~6 km to the river (30 min total?).

The Las Pavas TO is accessed on river-left (note that Las Pavas village is up the hill on river-right however). I have not taken this road, but it appears you need to turn off the highway somewhere in the La Palma district and drive through San Miguel Ingenio. Expect ~2 hours of rough roads from there requiring 4-wheel drive. This is the only listed access point without a bridge.

Aside from the Citalá PI (buses running to the border), public transportation is not available in these villages. You could float further down to Santa Rosa Guachipilín (see the middle Lempa page).

Accommodations: There are basic hotels near the PI in San Ignacio, and possibly in Citalá itself.

Nearby Tourist Attractions: El Trifinio park near Metapán, La Palma town near Citalá.

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