Extreme Canyoning on the South Side of El Yunque
Lots of changes since we went on this tour! Montaña Explora’s base camp has changed, routes have been altered, but the basic idea is the same. Also note that Kalichi Adventures and Puerto Rico Hiking Tours offer canyoning tours in this area. Each company offers something slightly different. We will be reviewing their tours as soon as we get the chance. But whichever company you use, it is an amazing experience for the physically fit adventurer.
I think I had that thought at least 50 times that day.
We recently did an adventure trip that seriously tops all others we have done … Canyoning the Rio Blanca and Rio Icacos in Naguabo.
The sport of canyoning (or canyoneering) is described as traveling up and down a river by a variety of techniques including walking, scrambling, climbing, floating, jumping, swimming, and rappelling.
It sounds so fun, but beware, this is EXTREME! Extremely beautiful and extremely difficult.
I’m going to attempt to describe our experience with Montaña Explora, but this is something that really is beyond words. In addition to being a physically challenging day, it was really an emotional experience — awe, excitement, fear, pain, and pleasure all rolled into one — and something that I am so happy that I experienced.
If you’ve read more than a couple articles on our site, you probably know by now that I love waterfalls, hiking, petroglyphs, and exploring. So when we heard about this adventure — and all the elements in it that we love to do — we decided to give it a try.
This canyoning expedition is led by Ricky Lopez of Montaña Explora. We loved doing the San Cristobal Canyon tour with him, so we knew this would be a fun and challenging day.
We met before 8am on a Sunday at a local bakery in the foothills of El Yunque in the town of Naguabo. We got there early to grab breakfast, sign the usual release forms, and to meet our fellow adventurers. After breakfast, we went up to their base camp
Our guides were Ricky, his son Gama, and another guide Gama (who was also the rappel-master from our San Cristobal Canyon tour). We geared up with helmets, life jackets, gloves, rappelling harness, knee pads and shin guards. Shin guards? Uh-oh … What were we getting ourselves into? Ray and I are closer to 50 years old than we care to admit/believe. But we figured we weren’t getting any younger, so we better go for it now!
Onward and Upward
Our trek started with a hike, up and up and then eventually down to the Rio Blanco. Once we got to the river, we started the canyoning part of the tour.
It is a lot of work — we were climbing up, over, around, under and across wet & slippery rocks & boulders, sometimes so large you needed help from the guides and fellow adventures to do it. We went through water, deep and shallow, sometimes with currents. We cross ledges where water dropped over the edge.
As it turns out, this is a great team-building exercise. You have to trust your guides and ask for help from others, encourage people to push themselves, be exhilarated at their triumphs, and feel their pain when they slipped or hit a rock a bit too hard.
We were in the sun as we maneuvered up the river, so it was humid and hot — especially with all the gear we were wearing and carrying. It seemed like whenever we got to a spot in the river where we could sit, float or swim, we took advantage of the opportunity to jump in and cool down.
Waterfalls and Petroglyphs
The river is so large and beautiful, and the rocks & boulders along the way were amazingly beautiful. Ricky said we would see 11 falls throughout the day, but I wasn’t counting. It was all so amazing. Both the views of the falls and the views toward the ocean (which you could see from these heights) were great.
At the first major waterfall we got to, some of the guys were doing jumps and water sliding, but I just watched. After playing at this waterfall, we climbed up the river some more, then we got out of the river and took a trail on dry land for a bit.
As we walked along the trail, we came over one ridge and we saw the next series of falls and … Holy Crap!
I know you are thinking that I am a girl, so everything is probably "beautiful" to me. But even all the guys were amazed at the beauty ahead of us. The pictures just don’t do it justice. This set of falls was the most beautiful that I have seen in Puerto Rico. Ever.
Now we had a goal — to get to these waterfalls. And that required some serious canyoning and teamwork. But getting to these falls wasn’t all work. There were some really fun water-sliding opportunities along the way, some intentional and some accidental.
Finally, we arrived at the waterfalls. This is where a couple different rivers split (or join, depending on if you are going up or down). This is the point where the Rio Cubuy and Rio Icacos, coming down from the top of El Yunque, meet up. Below this point, the single river is Rio Blanco. All the rivers coming together provides the great volume of water for the waterfalls.
This is what seemed to be the half-way point of our trek. Here, some brave people jumped off one rock that had to be a 30-foot drop. This was optional — Ray and I chose not to do it.
Having not done this jump, we asked a fellow adventurer on our tour to describe what was going through his mind.
In case you haven’t jumped off a cliff before, and are wondering what that feels like, I’ll guide you through the ten step process I went through as I waited in the short line for my turn and inched closer to free fall.
(1) "why did I volunteer to do this again?, the canyon ledge seems so much safer and I could even crawl down it if I wanted to"; (2) "wow, that guy really went down fast, look at that big splash!!"; (3) "that waterfall is very loud, not really helping my nerves"; (4) "my turn, just one step forward"; (5) "it’s too damn high, I’m not sure I want to do this"; (6) "ah geez, here goes nothing"; (7) SHEER 3-SECOND TERROR; (8) SPLASH!!; (9) "I think I’m ok … yes I am!!" (10) "wow!!! that rocks, let’s do it again!!!"
After spending a little while enjoying these waterfalls, it was time to get back to work. Next stop: Petroglyphs!
Getting to the petroglyphs required some more difficult scrambling over boulders, but it was so worth it! We had heard about these petroglyphs years ago, but info about their location was sketchy, and we didn’t really know where/how to find them. Well, now we do!
From what I have read, this swaddled infant type of design is very old — presumably from around 350AD to 750AD, pre-dating the Carib Indians — and pretty unusual to find in Puerto Rico.
Final Destination: Lajas Falls
The rest of the trek was similar — climb, scramble, jump, float, then stop to enjoy the beauty, and repeat. All along the way, Ricky and the other guides were helping us. There were times we actually climb up their bodies to get to the top of some of the boulders. Stepping on knees and shoulders, grabbing out-stretched feet, legs or arms.
They were concerned about the clouds coming in, they warned us about the flash floods common in the area (and some of the horrible stories of unlucky people that did not have guides nor safety gear). They wanted us off the river if it started to rain or the water started to rise. They reminded us, more than a few times, to head to the safety of the shore, no questions asked, if they told us we need to. Luckily, we did not get any rain, the river remained at a safe level, and we had wonderful weather all day.
Finally, we reached our destination — the lower part of Lajas Falls.
During our trek up the river, we had gained about 400 feet in elevation. The top of Lajas Falls was about another 400 feet above us.
At this point, we stopped for a break and to eat lunch. Some of our group went up a bit higher to check out the falls and play in a pool up there, but Ray and I just rested and ate our lunch. I know I was tired. It had taken about 3½ hours to get to this point, and Ricky said we had done it pretty fast compared to other trips he has led.
The Return Trip
After a break of about 30 minutes, we collected our stuff and started heading back down the river. Going down-river was not easy either. Since you are going with gravity, you have to be extra careful with each foot placement. It was a slow process. There were a few spots where we needed to use ropes to help get us down, though we did do a few slides and jumps that sped the trip. We all got a few bumps and bruises on both the way up and the way down!
There is one point where we had to go down through this hole (a chute under some rocks) where all the water was rushing. It was "exciting", but a few of us slid down to close to a rock on the side and hit it pretty hard. A week later I still had the souvenir bruise to show for it!
It was a bit tougher going down after that, but it was all so pretty that it was hard to not want to continue.
About half way down, they offered us the option of going down the "easy" way, or to continue down the river the "hard" way — an option that included jumps, slides, ropework, and rappelling.
Ray and I wanted to continue and go down the river, but we and another explorer decided that we were tired and bumped enough — we decided to listen to our bodies — so we took the "easy" way out. The "easy" way was not all that easy mind you. We were backtracking over the path we took on the way up — climbing over, under, and around a lot of boulders. We got back to the house at about 3:30pm, having cut about 3 hours off of the trip by taking the "easy" way down.
The Part We Didn’t Do
We asked one of the guys who was on our trip and did the trip down the river to write about the rest of the trek:
The rest of us headed once again towards the 30-foot cliff ledge from where we had jumped into the rushing water below a couple of hours earlier. Once we had all jumped down and managed to fight the current back to the river shore, we decided to climb up again to rappel down the canyon and into the rushing below.
Ricky set up the line as we adjusted our harnesses, and we began our controlled descent. It’s a short drop for rappelling standards at the point we went down — maybe 20 feet — but the idea of landing in waist deep rushing water made it interesting. The canyon is pretty narrow, so once you work your way down if you stretch out your arms you can almost touch both walls. Consequently, the funnel effect made the current strong enough to force you to hold onto the sides. From there, a short jump out of the canyon’s mouth returned us to the very same spot where we fell from the skies a few minutes before.
Afterwards, we continued trekking downriver, alternating frequently between walking, swimming, sliding, jumping off ledges, and body rafting, which is a nice way of saying "float and watch your butt, or you’ll leave it hanging on a submerged rock".
After a long while, we slid down a semi-dry rock chute and fell into a fun whirlpool. If you swam close enough to the waterfall, the current would grab you and spin you around the whirlpool over and over again, kind of like a vinyl record on one of those old record players. Once we managed to break out of the wash cycle there, which was a bit of a challenge, the current carried us over a 10-foot drop into a small pond with a huge boulder for an overhead — way bigger than a bus.
Incredibly, the boulder has been held up from eternity by a couple of rocks not larger than a concrete brick, which made me wonder whether some celestial giant visited a long time ago and had fun using all these rocks as building blocks. Actually, this is a feeling you get a few times during the day as you pass alongside rock formations that seem not only perfectly manicured, but architecturally designed, making you think "yes, that is exactly how I would have placed those huge rocks if they were Lego-sized".
We made our way through a shady passageway into a downward rock funnel and back into the river, where we met with La Canoa waterfall to our right, and to our left we proceeded to get spit out of another small waterfall into El Hippie pond. We swam across the pond with the little strength we had left and concluded our amazing adventure.
We want to give special thanks to the guys from Kalichi Adventures for providing us with some video footage to use in this article.
Thoughts and Observations
This 8 hour EXTREME trip with Montaña Explora was the most physically, emotionally and mentally challenging excursion we have ever been on.
We used every muscle in our bodies. We were physically exhausted at the end of the day, and our muscles reminded us for a week afterward. I assume the average adventurer would be happy with a less extreme tour.
You need to come prepared for this journey, with proper clothing, gloves, footwear, water, snacks, and backpack. You will be in the sun, and wet, all day. I suggest a lightweight, quick-drying long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Those will also provide some protection from scrapes and cuts. I would not recommend glasses or sunglasses — they are just something else for you to loose or break.
You will need to carry all your own gear — water, lunch, rappelling harness, camera, etc. Bring as small a knapsack as you can as it will be heavy when full of water and it can/will change your center of balance. Everything you own will be soaked, so either bring a dry bag/box, or plan to leave your cellphone, car keys, etc. at the house.
You need GOOD canyoning shoes. Our usual water/hiking shoes did not cut it. Neither will flip-flops, sneakers, or hiking boots. Luckily the knee pads did have traction, so I spent a lot of the trip crawling on my hands and knees — and I was thankful to do it!
The guides wore 5.10 Canyoneer shoes and they were great. I highly suggest them. We have already bought our own for our next outing.
You also need to have the right frame of mind. You will slip and fall. You will get bumped and bruised. You will be sore and bruised afterward. Your clothes will rip. This is not a walk in the park, and it is not for everyone.
The guides can make the trip easier and shorter, or otherwise customize it. But no matter how "easy" they make it, it will still be a difficult trek. And it will be beautiful!
Don’t attempt to go canyoning on your own, without an experienced guide, in any of the rivers in Puerto Rico. You need to have proper equipment, know how to spot unsafe areas in the rapidly flowing water, and you need to be aware of potential flash flood conditions. There are news articles on a regular basis about people (tourist and local, alike) who got washed down-stream by rapidly rising flood waters. Don’t be stupid. Use common sense, and don’t go it alone.
The cost of the tour from Montaña Explora we’ve described in this article is the whole day Extreme tour at $200/person. They also offer a 4 hr less extreme tour for $100/person and a 6 hours medium extreme tour for $150 per person.
If you're happy, let them know it — Don't forget to tip your your bartender, tour guide or trip operator if you enjoyed yourself. Gratuities are appreciated and typically aren't included in the price they charge you.
The tour that we’ve described in this article is 8 to 10 hours from start to finish. In addition, you need to factor in drive time from where ever you’re staying. Shorter tours are available.
You will need to provide your own transportation from where ever you’re staying to Naguabo. A rental car is recommended. A taxi for this trip would be cost-prohibitive.
Montañ Explora is available for tours every day and meet around 8am, or as arranged in advance. They are available to lead private and customized tours. Reservations are required for all tours.
They will send you a list of things you need to bring, we suggest gloves, a couple bottles of water per person, and snacks to keep your energy up throughout the long day.
You will be wet for all of this tour. Wear quick-drying clothing (as little cotton as possible), and sturdy, closed-toe footwear. Leave a change of dry clothing in your car so you can change afterward.
This tour is extreme. It is for physically fit people. You need to be able to hike for miles, and bend, twist, jump, crawl, and not be afraid of being in deep water.
For more information or to make a reservation, you can contact Ricky Lopez @ Montaña Explora by calling (or sending a text message to) 787-516-6194.
Check the Montaña Explora Facebook page for more information.
The meeting place for this trek with Montaña Explora was the Rio Blanco Bakery. To get there, from the north-east, take Route 53 south to Exit 22. Take Route 31 toward El Yunque (west). Continue on Route 31 past where it meets Road 191. You’ll find the bakery on the left side of Route 31.
Allow about 90 minutes to drive from the San Juan area to Naguabo.
There are some other companies that offer tours that are similar to what we’ve described in this article. Here is some brief info about their offerings …
- Kalichi Adventures
- Kalichi Adventures offers an extreme but safety-conscious version of the south side of El Yunque canyoning tour. They offer a base camp with bathrooms and also provide breakfast and pictures of your trip. Inquire for specific tour rates.
- They can provide transportation from the San Juan area.
- They offer tours everyday, starting around 7am.
- Their guides are trained in Wilderness Rescue by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and by the National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC).
- Call 787-365-3401 or or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to make a reservation.
- Check the Kalichi Adventures web site for more information.
- Puerto Rico Hiking Tours
- Puerto Rico Hiking Tours does a moderate tour for about $110 per person, which includes lunch. Call for other tour rates.
- They offer tours 7 days/week.
- Call 939-269-2377, 787-696-7319, 939-280-9517 or send an email to email@example.com for more information or to make a reservation.
- Check the Puerto Rico Hiking Tours Facebook page for more information.
Use this map to locate places mentioned in this article. You can click on a placemark to view the GPS coordinates for that place.