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Río Ulua, Honduras (area: mid-north; click here for the Honduras table of rivers)

river photo

Class: II to III; Ave. Gradient: 2 m/km; Portages: none; Length: up to 123 km; Time: up to 13:00

Season: July to December; rafts? yes; Highlights: big water; Crux move: bringing along enough drinking water

Water Quality: poor; Water Temperature: very warm

PI: Agua Caliente bridge (elev: 287m), or lower; TO: San Vicente Centenario bridge, Chinda, or San Pedro Sula highway

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

The Río Ulua offers the largest volume whitewater in Honduras, albeit not difficult whitewater. It makes a nice scenic float trip as it flows through mountain valleys that have very little riverside development and are home to birds such as the large Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks. The run is marked by intermittent bridges which can utilized to shorten the run if so desired. Or the Ulua can be combined with the upstream Otoro or Jicatuyo runs to create a (much) longer run. Camping spots can be found within an hour of any point.

Note that on such a big river, my estimated paddling times are very approximate and vary widely with the flow, your craft, and how much you paddle. The times listed are for easy paddling in kayaks.

From the Agua Caliente bridge, it is 1 1/2 to 2 hours down to the San Francisco de Ojueras bridge. The rapids start class III and become more spaced-out class II. One of the trip's more interesting features is only 15 minutes into the run where a hot springs boils up out of the river-right bank to cover a large area. About an hour later the large Río Gualcarque comes in river-left.

(Just below, hidden on river-right, is the community of San Antonio where a large crowd gathered to interrogate us on our kayak descent. It seems the villagers, though generally civil, are quite sensitive to outsiders. They threatened to take us off the river for further questioning but in the end allowed us to continue our trip. The next group down may find them more relaxed, or not. If on your trip you are called over, and you are feeling social, go ahead and chat with them. Those paranoid about being taken off the river by force may decide to ignore such calls with probably little consequence. The community would prefer that river-runners check in with them before putting on, though this may be impractical for many groups.)

About 15 minutes farther is the San Francisco de Ojueras bridge.

From there it's about 1:30 of class II to the Santa Rita bridge. Easy whitewater continues down to the San Vicente Centenario bridge, about 2 hours further. You will see the small Río Palaja coming in on river-left about 40 minutes into the run.

Below this bridge is another long unbridged section with class III making a reappearance from time to time, included one km-long III+ rapid at high water. Figure about 4 hours down to the Ilama bridge. In this stretch is where we started seeing larger water fowl. Also in this stretch is where the large Río Jicatuyo enters--about halfway, on river-left--approximately doubling the flow.

From Ilama it's an hour or more down to the Chinda hammock bridge, II/III. Here the river leaves the Santa Barbara highway for a 5-hour descent through the last canyons. Below Chinda, expect one class III+ followed shortly by a class III- leading into a beautiful limestone gorge. From here on down the rapids are only class II but the beautiful mountains, and steady current, continue. Near the end you will pass some more gorges before getting to the highway bridge near Pimienta where the river enters the San Pedro Sula valley.

Flash Flood Danger: low. The wide river bed can handle large volumes.

Descent History: The only descent I am aware of was done by Rocky Contos and myself in July 2010.

Flow Notes: Not one but two online gauges are along the route here, the San Francisco de Ojueras gauge near the beginning and the Chinda gauge below the Jicatuyo confluence. The graphs on the right are a compilation of historical data from the past few years, the weekly averages being the solid bars. My impressions are from a run with over 2,000 cfs at the start (1.2 on the SF gauge) and well over 5,000 cfs at the end (1.7 on the Chinda gauge). Obviously flows will affect the run time quite a bit, and borderline-low flows will mean some work to stay off the rock bars.

cfs graph

cfs graph

cfs graph

cfs graph

click here for other Honduras gauges,

or go to the maps


Shuttle Notes: All the bridges, except for the one at the lower TO, are close to the Santa Barbara highway. In the upper parts the highway is on the river-right side. The Agua Caliente bridge is via San Pedro Zacapa, about 8 km past. The San Francisco de Ojueras bridge is before the town of the same name, about 5 km from the highway. The Santa Rita bridge is likewise before Santa Rita, about 7 km from the highway.

Lower down the river stays closer to the highway. The San Vicente Centenario bridge is 1.4 km from the highway. The Ilama bridge is where the highway actually crosses over the river. The Chinda bridge is 300 m from the road; turn 150 m south of the turn into the town of Chinda.

The lower TO is 1 km south of Pimienta on the San Pedro Sula highway.

There are regular buses on the major highways but little traffic going to the side bridges.

Accommodations: There are hotels in Santa Barbara (middle of the upper part) and San Pedro Sula (near the lower TO).

Nearby Tourist Attractions: Parque Nacional Santa Barbara (with Honduras' 2nd highest peak), Lago de Yojoa, and Pulhapanzak waterfall.

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