Hiking, Waterfalls and Rappelling in San Cristobal Canyon

San Cristobal Canyon

San Cristóbal Canyon has been named one of the top 10 Natural Wonders of Puerto Rico. With that high distinction, I needed to see it for myself. Forests that end at sheer rock walls that rise out of rivers with beautiful waterfalls — sounds right up my alley!

It is not the easiest place to get to (being at the bottom of a 500+ foot descent), so it does require some planning and, for best results and safety, a guide!

I found Montaña Explora, a family-run tour company that offers an extreme adventure that includes hiking and rappelling in the canyon. It was tough, but it was so worth the effort!. After seeing the canyon, I think they are correct, it is on my top 10 list also!

Orientation & Some History

Located in between Aibonito and Barranquitas, the San Cristóbal Canyon is the deepest canyon in all of the Antilles Islands. It is a naturally occuring split in the central mountain range called the Central Cordillera. The Río Usabón runs through the bottom of the canyon, some 500 feet below the surrounding area, cascading over rocks in a number of places.

San Cristobal Canyon

The canyon had been used for years (from the 1950′s through 1974) as a dumping site for everything, including metal and machinery of all types. In 1974, the dumping was outlawed and the EPA started clean-up of all this toxic stuff, but evidence of this dumping site still remians embedded in the rock.

Today, the Fideicomiso de Conservación de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Conservation Trust) owns the land surrounding the canyon, with the hope of preserving the area for future generatons.

I have read, over and over, how it is not an easy place to find or hike into, and that a guide is recommended. Having done it, I think that is good advice for all but the most experienced/prepared hikers. Once you find the trail (a task unto itself), it is slippery and steep. Also, the river can rise rapidly and extremely high, and the trail can become unusuable during & after heavy rains. Having a knowledgable guide (especially one with safety ropes and other safety equipment available) can be a life saver (literally!).

Our Day in the Canyon

There are a few tour companies that can take you on adventure tours into the canyon, but I wanted one that would be able to work with English-language tourists, and was not too expensive.

Ricky Lopez, the owner of Montaña Explora offers a few different tours into the canyon: one is a hike to the waterfall, and the others are longer and more extreme adventures. He mainly leads local adventurers, but he has a guide that speaks English fluently.

Ricky knows the dangers of the area, and has lots of experience working with ropes (rappelling, etc). I felt comfortable with our guides, and also felt that we were in good hands for the day. Our group was 9 people in total — me and Ray, a few other couples, and some friends. Plus, we had 4 guides with us for the day.

San Cristobal Canyon

After meeting everyone at the main plaza in Aibonito and touring the church there, we went to Ricky’s house, where we used the bathroom (last chance) and got our gear (helmets and life jackets). Then we drove off to the canyon trail head and started on our descent.

The first part of the hike is through a field which is mostly flat. There is one spot where you can get a view of the falls and the canyon … just a tease of what we will be in for the rest of the day!

The hike down to the river bed took about 20 minutes, with a few slips and slides along the way. Ricky talked about the land and plants we were passing.

Once at the bottom, we walked upstream to the falls. During the walk, Ricky explained how, for years, this amazing place was used as a trash dump. Loads of burning metal and debris were thrown into the canyon. He said they had done a clean-up of the area, but you can still see lots of the burnt metal debris, that couldn’t be removed because it was embedded in the river rock.

San Cristobal Canyon

That was interesting to see, but the real attraction was the amazing waterfall El Juicio (the Judge), as Ricky called it. We’ve also seen this waterfall documented as Niebla del Usabón (Fog of Usabón) or just La Niebla. This was one of the largest and prettiest waterfall I have ever seen in Puerto Rico.

With a height of about 240 feet, it is one of the tallest, and widest, on the island. It is really impressive to see. Of course, the width of the waterfall varies with the amount of rainfall. We had some recent rains, so we had a great waterfall, but the pools in the rivers were not the beautiful blue they normally are (due to the silt being stirred up by the extra water volume). The water was cool, but not as cold as the rivers in El Yunque National Forest. The pool at the base of the falls is deep in areas, but there were plenty of spots near the falls where you could just sit in the water and enjoy the experience. Or, you could just enjoy the rocky beach and look at the falls. It was just a beautiful place to spend some time. For the 4 hour trip, from here you hike back up to the top but we choose the “medium” extreme 6 hour trip.

San Cristobal Canyon

After spending a good amount of time at this first waterfall, we headed off downstream, using both the river bed and trails through the woods.

6/12 I believe they now have a zip line where you take it from the top of Cabras Falls into the pool below.

We followed the river until we got to the top of Salto de la Cabra (or The Goat Jump). This was a smaller waterfall, maybe 25 to 30 feet, but we had make our way down the rocks alongside of the falls. The rock was slippery, so Ricky rigged up a rope for us to hold while we crab-walked our way down. It was very thrilling!

We continued down river, passing a few rock formations and amazingly beautiful sheer rock walls of the canyon. We finally got to Charco Azul (Blue Pool), which is usually a beautiful blue water pool under yet another waterfall. Here you had a choice as to what you wanted to do. You could hang out at the top of the waterfall, to relax on the pebble beach or swim. The other options were to jump to the river at the base of the falls, or to rappel down the rock face an into the river.

San Cristobal Canyon

We (along with most of the others in the group) chose the rappelling route. We geared up into rappelling harnesses, and Ricky rigged up the ropes (the rappelling line and a safety line) and we rappelled down into the river at the base of the waterfall.

For most of the people in the group, it was their first time rappelling, and they did really well.

Once you rappelled into the river, you had to wait for everyone else to come down. You could swim downriver a little bit to a pebble beach and wait there, or you could scoot up onto a rock near the base of the waterfall (where you were protected from most of the spray from the falls.

San Cristobal Canyon

While sitting there, I wondered how we were going to get back up to the top of the falls — and that’s where this trip got even more extreme!

We had to climb up the space behind the waterfall, through little caves or tunnels between the rocks. Our guides were a great help getting us up through this maze of slippery rocks and running water!

Once everyone made it back to the top of the falls, we had a chance to rest up from our adventure, then we headed up river, retracing our steps along what had become a slippery trail due to a short rain shower. We were all tired, but thrilled at our adventure in this true natural wonder.

Some Thoughts & Observations

San Cristobal Canyon

Even with the guides, you are totally responsible for your own safety. They give you helmets and life jackets. Though they did require you to wear them at certain times, they were not as strict as other tour companies (who might require you to wear them all the time). They tell you the rocks are slippery, but if you want to go close to the edge and risk it, it was your choice. You need to use common sense on this tour.

This was a physically demanding tour. You should only sign up for this tour if you are physically fit. Also, the route behind the waterfall is narrow; large people might not fit through the spaces between the rocks … and there is no other way back to the top of the falls.

I didn’t feel that I was adequately prepared for how extreme parts of this tour would be. I had no idea we would be rappelling into deep water, staying in the river until the group was done, and then climbing back up through the waterfall. It was very neat, but it was cold and extreme, so be forewarned.

The groups that go on these tours are mostly local, with Spanish being the language of choice. Most of the people in our group spoke some English, so we really didn’t have a problem, or feel uncomfortable, during this adventure. If you are not fluent in Spanish, make sure you request an English-speaking guide when you make your reservations. There are times that your life could depend on it!

This is not a trip for the very young or older people….I will repeat, just getting down to the falls is physically demanding. While most physically fit people can get down to the falls, don’t even think about going further down river without safety equipment, river safety knowledge and preferable a guide!

Details

The cost of the “medium” extreme tour we’ve described in this article is $175/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 5-6 hours from start to finish. In addition, you need to factor in drive time from where ever you’re staying.

You will need to provide your own transportation from where ever you’re staying to Aibonito and Barranquitas. A rental car is recommended. A taxi for this trip would be cost-prohibitive.

For the less adventurous, they offer a hike that only goes as far as El Juicio Falls for a reduced rate. The duration of this shorter tour is about 3-4 hours. Note: The hike there and back is still hot and tough, so you still need to be physically fit.They also offer an 8 hour really extreme trip .

Montañ Explora is available for tours every day. Contact them to make a reservation. Tours meet around 8am, or as arranged in advance. They are also available to lead private and customized tours.

Ricky will send you a list of things you need to bring, including leather gloves (we bought $2 work gloves at Home Depot that were perfect) for rappelling, a couple bottles of water per person, and snacks to keep your energy up throughout the long day.

You will be wet for most of this tour. Wear quick-drying clothing (as little cotton as possible), and sturdy, closed-toe footwear that is OK getting wet (tennis shoes, hiking shoes, or Keens). 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, use their webpage or you can contact Ricky Lopez @ Montaña Explora by calling (or sending a text message to) 787-516-6194.

Montaña Explora website. They have a Facebook Page.

The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico now, offers a few trips to the canyon. They have an easy trip just around the rim to see it($12), they offer a trip just down into the canyon to see the falls ($35)and then they offer an adventure trip similar to the one we did ($85). BUT they are only offered in Spanish. For reservations, go to their website http://www.fideicomiso.org/ for dates and information.

Other companies that offer tours of the San Cristobal Canyon (some with rappeling, some without: Copladet (787) 765 – 8595 or email www.copladet.coqui.net and Go Hiking PR 787-857-2094 email: sancristobalcanyon@hotmail.com

Ricky will most likely have the group meet at the main plaza in Aibonito. To get to there from San Juan … Take highway 52 south and get off at exit #39 (that’s the second exit for Cayay). Turn left onto Route 1 south. Turn right onto Route 7722 (the Panoramic Route) which goes to Aibonito. Then left on Route 722. Then right onto Route 162, which you follow into the center of Aibonito. The town plaza will be one block to your left once you get into the center of town. Look for the church on the plaza. Note: if you want to try the falls on your own, skip the plaza and continue on RT 162 and then turn onto RT 725. You will take this until the 3rd street on the left. Turn here and take it to the sharp left curve in road. Park along the road. Right at the corner, there is a house with a friendly old guy who will point you in the correct path (there is a gate across the street,but walk through and then take the path off to the left across the field).

Allow about 1 hour to drive from the San Juan area to Aibonito.

Use this map to locate places mentioned in this article. You can click on a placemark to view the GPS coordinates for that place.

PuertoRicoDayTrips.com assumes no responsibility regarding your safety when participating in the activities described in this article. Please use common sense! If your mother or that little voice in your head tells you that you are about to do something stupid … then don't do it! Read more about Safety →

Comments & Discussion Leave a Comment »

There are 20 comments on this article. Add to the Discussion »

If you are fit, you really do not need a guide to go down into this canyon. Little local boys go in and out of the canyon all the time.Just remember to bring long pants and river sandles, and lots of water. Try to hike back up after the sun has gone down a bit and rest along the way. An older person could die of heat exhaustion or heart attack on this outing. Only for those in good shape.

Comment by Frank Flanagan on 14 May 2016

I estimate it was about 40 ft.

Comment by Gwenn on 03 Sep 2013

Any details on what the longest rappel is? I would like to be mentally prepared for this adventure. Thanks!

Comment by Del on 02 Sep 2013

I am still in awe over this high extreme and fun adventure. My children 12 and 10 did an amazing job and Ricky and his crew were very helpful, prepared and even though some of the activities were wild like rappelling down waterfalls and jumping off cliffs we all felt very safe! This has been our favorite part of Puerto Rico and I highly recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and experience an adventure of your life!!!! My girls and I thank you for sharing Puerto Rico with us:) Gracias!!

Comment by Bobbi jo, Mckenzie, trinity on 22 Mar 2013

We just did this exploring adventure yesterday. It was so exciting to explore nature and meet the challenges of the area! The guides were knowledgeable which gave you confidence. They gave you lots of information about the area, the flora and fauna, and how to best meet the challenges. They let you do it on your own and at your pace and let you explore yet they were there if you needed help and to give you back up protection and encouragement. You could tell they loved the land and the nature around them. They were pleasant and very friendly. We called the day before to book and Ricky was very willing to accommodate us even if it was just the two of us. We are in reasonable shape for a long hike but had never done rappelling. We were able to do all of this and enjoyed it tremendously. It was a thrill to meet the more challenging areas yet confident we could do it. It is important to wear long pant and sleeves of light material, good shoes and gloves. Make sure you have a backpack with water and food yet don't carry too much. Always follow the guides advice and enjoy every moment. Every plant, view, rock and turn. Thanks again for an amazing day Ricky and Gamaliel !!!

Comment by Leslie & Sonia on 26 Nov 2012

Over 8 years ago, I had done this excursion and had been phenomenal. Since then, I always wonder where it was and what company I did it with. Luckily, perusing thru this great website, I found the trek again. I went with Montaña Explora after reading glowing reviews from this site. I highly agree with the previous reviews regarding the professionalism and knowledge of the guides. Ricky and Gama (father and son) are wonderful guides and canyoneering experts. My group consisted of my cousin and nephew (12 years old). Both of them are not conditioned athletes. This trek is physically demanding and takes several hours. I knew both of them were going to have some difficulty, and they did. Well, here comes the intangibles. The guides facilitated and aided them numerous times. At times, gently persuading them to overcome their fear of heights. It went slow, but, they both completed the whole trek (rappelling also) successfully. Another aforementioned quality of this company is their Eco-minded approach. Throughout the trek, they continuously pick-up trash. The canyon does appear cleaner than 8 years ago. Though, there is still plenty of trash that needs to be scooped. Now, like all things in the island, prices have gone up. Eight years ago, the cost was $40. The previous reviews stated $65. When I spoke with Ricky he quoted me $100. This may be due to inflation, or they hiked up the prices to match similar tours done with other companies. I spoke at length with Ricky about the future and direction of the company. The future looks promising, with an emphasis on conservation and safety. A website will be up soon and will have all the details required for the various tours they offer. Do this trek with them, you will not regret it.

Comment by Arturo on 13 Oct 2012

Ever wonder what it's like to hike through a rain forest in the rain? Or swim through a waterfall, and climb up the back? Montaña Explora will provide the answer. This article does not overstate the experience. Far and away, this tour was our best day in Puerto Rico.

Comment by Andrew on 14 Aug 2012

Excelente articulo sobre la aventura del Cañon de San Cristobal. La experiencia es inolvidable. Pura adrenalina! ! La actividad dura alrededor de 6 horas y uno se mantiene todo el tiempo animado disfrutando una de las bellezas naturales mas impresionantes de Puerto Rico. Ricky y el personal de Montaña Explora operan a la perfeccion. Animate para una aventura diferente.

Comment by Rafael Perez on 25 Jul 2012

Overall, we loved this experience. The hike/adventure was great, but the true highlight was meeting Ricky and Gabriel - they're extremely friendly, knowledgable of the ecosystem, area and history, and they were well prepared for our trip with equipment (helmets, climbing gear, life jackets, gloves). The cautionary comments about level of physical fitness is really quite relative to what your normal level of activity is. We were both fairly active 30-somethings, and the hiking/rappelling/swimming wasn't a problem. Ricky and Gabriel were wearing really great canyoning shoes (with a climbing rubber sole) and we were quite jealous of their footwear. Having a sturdy, pair of shoes with really good traction even when they're wet (and when the surface you're walking on is wet) is essential. If you tend to get chilly when you're wet or dislike scrapes from rocks/shrubs, quick-dry long pants would be a good suggestion too. There is a LOT of trash in the canyon, and each of us packed out several pieces of garbage. Our guides set the example, and this was the first time we'd seen someone being so concerned about the environment in Puerto Rico and wanting to make a difference. Kudos to them for this step in the right direction.

Comment by Sue and Charlotte on 31 Jan 2012

Most amazing adventure I have ever done!!!! climbing behind the waterfalls was extremely cool. The tour got really fun for me when the guide took me to do some cliff jumps. We started at 50 foot jumps and worked up to a 90 foot jump. Talk about conquering fears! as you stand there ready to jump it is so nerve racking. There is no way to describe how amazing this adventure was. These guys are the greatest people I have met on the island, so friendly. Set me up with a list of other things to do and provided me a couple of there phone numbers in order to organize an adventure anywhere on the Island! And invited me to attend the festival with them! Thanks guys, by far my top tour of the trip!

Comment by Jeremy on 11 Jan 2012

I enjoyed every minute of it. Hiking through the woods, the scenery were awesome, the waterfalls extremely beautiful. it was a great experience I really recommend going to SAN CRISTOBAL CANYON! With the tour guide Ricky Lopez and his crew.

Comment by ONY on 22 Nov 2011

I did this around two weeks ago. I was amazed at how badly I want to go back. It's grueling and hard, but I loved it, just like there are people addicted to working out, I suppose. It was just as described in this article. I am in a reasonable physical condition because I have been training with a personal trainer for the last four months, even though at the time I went to the canyon I hadn't trained for a month. It still was enough. I didn't start feeling exhausted until we were halfway back up (which is difficult, because it's steep and you're already really tired). However, my husband wasn't in an adequate physical condition, and he hated it, even though he didn't do rappelling or climbed the bowels of the waterfall. The rappelling part is definitely out of the question for bulky or overweight people, because of the need to climb up through small crevices of rock. I wouldn't even recommend the tour to large people at all, since 75% of the tour requires walking and jumping on large rocks. Of course, to take children is unthinkable. I wouldn't take a kid under 14.

Comment by Isabel B. on 02 Oct 2011

Going on this trip next week with my friends! For the person who mentioned the money order payment option... I am traveling all the way leading up to Puerto Rico so sending a money order really wasn't an option. He said we could just pay cash in PR, no problem.

Comment by David on 07 Sep 2011

We really enjoyed our hike into the canyon! The waterfall was beautiful and we repelled down a waterfall for the first time (don’t forget gloves). The guides were also very knowledgeable about Puerto Rico and the area. Thanks we had a lot of fun. Next time zip-line!

Comment by Trina & Rob on 04 Sep 2011

Another thing worth noting is the way the reservation and payment was handled. Not a problem, simply different than is the custom nowadays. Once we decided on a day, and I let him know how many people were planning on attending in my group, Ricky asked me to send him a money order (remember those) for half of the total amount. He provides you with an address, and you send off the money order. I reserved a date about 2 weeks in advance, so I wonder how it would have been handled with short notice reservations. Maybe he will do something like PayPal in the future, but it was not offered to me as an option. Then I paid the balance in cash at his house, the morning of the excursion.

Comment by Josh on 10 Aug 2011

An added little bit of information of where to eat if you opt to do this tour with MontanaExplora. I asked Ricky for a recommendation for somewhere nearby that he would recommend to eat. He recommended LAS PIEDRAS, which is very near "La Piedra Degeteau Mirador," nearby on 7718. Since it was a holiday, it was closed when we arrived. Very nearby (also on 7718) there was another restaurant where we decided to eat, which was very, very good. It was called, "El Balconcito Criolla." Everything was tasty, nice and fresh, nice selection, reasonably priced, and large portions. I don't know if it's better than La Piedra or not, but I would definitely recommend it.

Comment by Josh on 09 Aug 2011

Thanks to PR Day Trips for making me aware of Ricky and MontanaExplora. I just got back from Puerto Rico, and the canyon tour was the highlight of my trip. It was a true adventure tour, and I loved it. The hiking was not anywhere as difficult as I was expecting, so if you are not in shape, you should not let that scare you away. Ricky and his crew make as many stops as necessary, so great cardio is not necessary. If you have poor coordination and balance, then you might want to think twice. A good part of the hiking is over rocks/boulders, roots, and mud, compared to just hiking on a trail. Even though the hiking wasn't extreme, the overall excursion ends up being EXTREME, if you opt for the full tour, past El Juicio Waterfall. At the end of the second part, you have the option of jumping into the bottom of a waterfall, or rappelling in, or both. Either way, you have to get yourself out each time, which is an extreme adventure. There were times I wondered if I was going to be able to do it. My brother-in-law who is 6'4" and 260 lbs was able to do the whole tour, so any other big people should not be discouraged. Part of getting out includes climbing through a hole, and he was instructed to take off his life-vest to accomadate the fit, which did the trick. Last thing I want to mention is related to the price. On paper, it seems to be a good deal compared to other adventure tours companies available. Something comparable usually goes above $100 per person, so $65 pp seems a very good value.

Comment by Josh on 08 Aug 2011

I'm really glad you published info on this canyon!! There are so many virgin adventure parts of Puerto Rico, that really only your website covers in full. I've been able to find some American caving groups trip reports to some of the canyons and waterfalls you speak of, but it seems that a lot of this stuff is still VERY on the down low. My 5 friends and I (all young 20 something adventurers) are coming in September, and we've been planning on visiting this canyon, either solo, or with a guide. $65 for the day is very reasonable, so we will consider it!

Comment by David on 15 Jul 2011

Excelent and amaizing experiencie....Congratsss for the history and the web page!!!

Comment by sylmarie on 01 Jul 2011

Another great, GREAT article. I've been interested in experiencing El Canon De San Cristobal since I found out about it a couple of years ago. A couple of years ago I located it, and took some pictures, even though I wasn't as close as I wanted. This article just makes me crave the experience. When YOU say that El Juicio is the "largest and prettiest waterfall I have ever seen in Puerto Rico," that means something. I want the full adventure experience, but in my next trip to Puerto Rico, I'll be lucky to experience the first half of it. The second part sounds killer, but I'm traveling with my brother-in-law who's a burly mountain man type (6'4" and 250 to 280lbs), and I just KNOW the he won't qualify for the rappelling part. From the sound of it, even if he made it down, he might not be able to make it up. He's a nice guy, and I don't wanna just leave him like that. I'm going to verify with montanoExplora, but do you think my brother-in-law's size will allow the hike to El Juicio? It doesn't seem like that part involves any rappelling. By the way, did your fellow explorers realize that they were sharing the experience with internet rock star celebrities?

Comment by Josh on 29 Jun 2011

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