Hiking, Waterfalls and Rappelling in 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!
We went with a 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.
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 remains 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 generations.
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 unusable during & after heavy rains. Having a knowledgeable 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. Go Hiking PR or Montana Explora are good options. We went with Ricky Lopez, the owner of Montaña Explora. He offers a full-day tour into the canyon. 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.
After meeting everyone at the main plaza in Aibonito and touring the church there, we went to “headquarters”, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 about our tour
Montaña Exploraall day tour costs roughly $200/person. prices may be different depending on factors
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 about 6 hours from start to finish. In addition, you need to factor in drive time from where ever you’re staying.
Montañ Explora is available for tours every day. 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.
For more information or to make a reservation, send message on their Facebook Page or you can contact Ricky Lopez @ Montaña Explora by calling (or sending a text message to) 787-516-6194.
No matter which tour company you go with, 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.
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.
Other companies that offer tours of the San Cristobal Canyon
Go Hiking PR . They are a company that offers bi-lingual tours. They have a 3 to 4 hour tour down into the canyon and falls, cost are from $60- 90 per adult. Contact them on their Facebook Page. Or call them at 787-857-2094 email: email@example.com
The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico occasionally offers a few trips to the canyon. They have an easy walking 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 website for dates and information.
Directions To 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 (which I do not recommend), take RT 162 and then turn onto RT 725. You will take this until the 4th street on the left. Turn here and take it to the sharp left curve in road. I believe this is where the Conservation Trust has their farm now. Park along the road. Right at the corner, there is a house, you will see a gate, walk through and then take the path off to the left across the field. 12/20- I hear the trails are pretty overgrown. Trailhead GPS from AllTrails 18.159090, -66.297640.
Allow about 1 hour to drive from the San Juan area to Aibonito.
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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!