12 Top Jungle Rivers
Central America:
The Cahabon, Guatemala

If exploring Mayan ruins, candle-lit caves, hotsprings and Central American whitewater gets your jungle juices flowing, head to the lush foothills of Guatemala's Alta Verapaz region where the aquamarine Rio Cahabón flows through near-virgin rainforest that has remained essentially unchanged for centuries.
As is true in many regions of Guatemala, the first thing that makes this trip special is interactions with locals. During my first trip in 1990, children of the local Kekchi families visited our camp, fascinated by our tents (especially the poles) and eager to help us set up camp. In the morning they returned and we made some extra eggs for them which they ate off banana leaves. The next thing that makes this jungle trip unique is the drive to the put-in. To get there, most boaters drive east from the mid-size city of Coban, often stopping to explore the 200-km-long caves of Lanquin. Many Guatemalan visitors believe spirits dwell here and leave candles and other offerings on a makeshift altar.

The river, of course, is the main draw, and the rapids start right after you put in. On my first trip, Maya Expeditions founder Tammy Ridenour tumbled out of the boat in these initial rapids, called Rock and Roll, and called commands to her crew from the water. After a splash-filled beginning the river stretches out for a while, offering some intermediate rapids such as the deceptively sticky Wrap Rock. The biggest challenges are downstream, namely Sacacorcha (Corkscrew) which at higher levels will flip any boat that doesn't hit it straight and hard, and Sacacaca which gets uglier at low water. Just downstream, in a setting Disney couldn't top, is an aptly named pull-out called Paraiso (Paradise), where paddlers can play in a 20-foot waterfall and then bathe in natural hot springs. A couple of pools have room for six or eight people. In the depths of the Guatemalan jungle, there's nothing like grabbing a cold Gallo (Guatemalan beer), soaking in a hot spring and recounting tales of the trip. A typical trip on the Cahabón includes three days of boating plus a day to reach the put-in and a day to drive back to Guatemala City. Among other attractions en route are the Biotopo Nature Reserve, home to the rare resplendent quetzal (Guatemala's national bird), and on the way out, the Mayan Ruins at Queriga.

--For more information, contact Maya Expeditions, Section 66, P.O. Box 527270, Miami, FL 33152, (800) 733-3350; or Area Verde Expeditions, 507 McClelland, Pueblo, CO 81005, (719) 564-4944 (phone/fax), guatemala@areaverde.com (e-mail), www.areaverde.com. --Mike Shapiro