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Río Copán (aka Amarillo) (all sections), Honduras (area: northwest; click here for the Honduras table of rivers)

river photo

Class: II to IV; Ave. Gradient: 4 m/km (up to 21 m/km in top section); Portages: only in top section; Length: up to 14km per section; Time: up to 2 1/2 hours per section

Season: June to December; rafts? only on border run; Highlights: something for everyone (even non-paddlers); Crux move: choosing the right something

Water Quality: poor; Water Temperature: medium

PI: take your pick (elev: 583m to 930m); TO: Honduras? Guatemala?

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

While the Mayan ruins are much more impressive than the whitewater in these parts, the Río Copán still can provide a nice diversion for paddlers passing through on their way to other parts of Honduras. This page describes 59 km of river split up in various sections, all back-to-back.

The top section is a rocky little creek that if it ever had enough water to run would be too scary to do so. At about 125 cfs, I found it not really worth the boat abuse on the parts I could run, and I didn't enjoy the portages around the jagged rocks on the steepest parts either. But for the insatiably curious, expect it to take a couple hours to descend 150m down to a dam hard to miss from the main road.

The upper section begins just below the dam which is where the steep gradients end. For the next 4 km you will find III- rapids down to the Leona bridge. Halfway you pass a couple hammock bridges at the community of Los Ranchos. It would be a pleasant little run on the rare days you find enough water this high up in the drainage.

The valley section is what I call the next 13 km of flat water meandering between forests and farm land. The main problem here is the multitude of branches strewn across the channel.

The middle section, 11 km long, is a pleasant beginner section, with the nice feature that it starts pretty flat and gains gradient as it goes along. You pass the village of Hacienda El Jaral halfway along. You will see only class II until the final bend entering Santa Rita where there is a rocky class III rapid ("crowd pleaser" according to the Ríos Honduras book) just above the concrete bridge. This can be completely avoided if desired by finishing at a hammock bridge at the Santa Rita outskirts.

The lower section starts in Santa Rita and holds the most interest for advanced paddlers. It includes a nice secluded class IV canyon in the first half of the run with fun eddy-hopping around big boulders. The Ríos Honduras book names the last three class IV drops as "Palabras No Me Doleran", "Mass", and "Las Vegas." This section is 10 km long and will take you maybe 1 1/2 hours.

The border section is for those naughty enough to pass "mojado" (illegally) into Guatemala. This class III run takes you through pretty valleys, across the border, to the confluence with the Jupilingo River, and then back to the main road at a point about 6km past the official border crossing. This stretch is mostly flat, but there is some nice cliff scenery, and a few class III rapids in a canyon below the confluence. This section is 27km long but flows fairly fast at high water (2.5 hours) but is obviously flow-dependent.

This may appear to be a major breach of international law but in practice it's not a big deal because the border is pretty loose and they don't stamp your passport here anyway. The only complication is with your shuttle vehicle. I suggest leaving it in Copán Ruinas and hitching back (see below). Just please take my advice and don't try to explain to any border official what you did or plan to do, possibly causing unnecessary alarm. (Btw, you can cross by river back into Honduras on the Rio Lempa near the Aguas Calientes border crossing.)

Note: Expect brown, or even red, water all rainy-season long.

Note 2: The whitewater continues downstream on the Río Camotán-Jocotán and the Río Zacapa in Guatemala.

Note 3: The middle and lower sections are also described in the Ríos Honduras book.

Flash Flood Danger: normal. Run the canyon in the morning.

Descent History: Probably the 1st descent of the middle/lower sections was by the Ríos Honduras guys in the 1990's. I ran those sections, and across the border, in 2005. I did the upper sections in August 2006.

Flow Notes: There is a online gauge downstream at Camotán. In 2006, 1.3 on the gauge gave 500 cfs at Copán Ruinas. The river rarely is running with much force, except for late-day flooding or during major storms.

cfs graph

Shuttle Notes: Access is along the paved road that runs from Guatemala to Copán Ruinas and continues up the valley. The border run TO (in Guatemala) is road-side. The Copán Ruinas access is at the bridge just south of town. The Santa Rita access is at the bridge on the far side of town. Santa Rita is about 8km east of Copán Ruinas. Middle access requires a turn at km 45.3 where you follow a dirt road to the bridge. The Leona bridge requires a turn at the village of Rio Amarillo, 7km or so further on. Upper section access is easy on a little dirt road right below the dam hard to miss from the road. The top section PI is on another side road, turning 1.5 km west of "Beneficio de Café Santa Isabel".

Note: if running the lower section and taking out at Copán Ruinas, and if your shuttle car is from Santa Rita, you might want to clarify that it has permission to go into the tourist zone of Copán Ruinas to pick you up. If not, you might need to arrange a meeting at the hammock bridge upstream of Copán Ruinas, accessed by turning off the main road at km 59.6.

For those without a car, the main road is serviced by frequent buses, though it may not always be easy to get on with a kayak. You could easily get a taxi shuttle in Copán Ruinas or Santa Rita. Coming back to Copán Ruinas after the border run, you can find a tuk-tuk or minibus on the road back to the border, and a shared shuttle from the border to Copán Ruinas.

Accommodations: Copán Ruinas town has many options.

Nearby Tourist Attractions: The Mayan ruins at the Copán site are the area's major attraction.


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