May 2024: Chiapas has it all! It is one of Mexico’s most diverse States in topography and culture and is one of my favorite Mexican States. The State is massive with a Pacific coastline, mountains, cloud forests and the Lacandón, the largest rainforest in North America. There are 13 different indigenous tribes including descendants of the Mayans that have left evidence of their civilization strewn all across Chiapas in the form of pyramids and other ruins, many buried beneath jungles yet to be discovered.

This was my 2nd trip to Chiapas. I returned because I am drawn to its Mayan mysteries and great wildernesses and Chiapas has two great wilderness regions. The lowland rainforests of the Lacandón and the highlands rainforests and canyons of the La Venta Rivers Selva el Ocate.  My first trip to Chiapas was in 2015 to the Lacandón to trek across the jungle and camp on an island in a lagoon with an un-excavated Mayan pyramid-.Expedition Into the Lacandón- the Largest Rainforest in Mexico-to Camp on an Island with a Buried Mayan Pyramid | Venture The Planet. On this trip, I wanted to visit the wild river canyon and huge river cave, Arco del Tiempo of the La Venta River.  Both the Lacandón and the La Venta River canyon regions are two of the largest wilderness regions left in Mexico and home to Mexico’s last jaguars and other rare wildlife. The stewards of these lands are the indigenous people, who have lived in these lands for hundreds of generations.  This is the story of my trip with my friends Sterling and Jimmie that I booked last minute for my birthday weekend to the Arco del Tiempo, the Arch of Time

 

 

 

 

Location of Arco del Tiempo

About Arco Del Tiempo

Arco del Tiempo is the world’s largest arch even though it is more of a river cave than an arch. The cave was first discovered by outsiders in 1989 and in recent years is becoming a tourist attraction to trekkers and rafters. The cave covers the La Venta River as it runs through it for a few hundred yards before allowing the river to return to the open canyon. It is located deep in one of the largest rainforest wilderness reserves of Chiapas, Mexico named the selva El Ocate, a large mountainous region of limestone mountains, cloud forest and caves known to be one of the last strongholds of the jaguar in Mexico.

Getting to the Trailhead

There are two ways to visit Arco del Tiempo. The most adventurous is a weeklong rafting trip down the La Venta River. The easier and faster way is to drive to the small indigenous village of Lazaro Cardenas, which sits on the edge of the rainforest that surrounds the canyon of La Venta River and organize a trek with local guides there. To get to Cardenas, I flew to Tuxtla Guiterrez via Tijuana. Cardenas is approx. 3 hours’ drive via a series of small paved and dirt mountain roads from Tuxtla.  Instead of the industrial and very hot and dusty city of Tuxtla, I based our stay in the nicer and cooler Spanish colonial city of San Cristobal founded in the early 1500’s and far more charming with great eateries and indigenous markets.

From the village of Cardenas, it is about a 5-hour hike through steamy rainforests and down a steep slippery canyon. The last 100′ to the river bottom can only be done by rappelling with a rope. In theory a village guide is required for the hike and there is also a fee to pay for the rappel. The season to visit Arco del Tiempo is typically January to June during the dry season. Outside of this season the hike can be too muddy, dangerous and the rappel impossible. The river could also be too high to safely visit the Arco or camp at the bottom because rising waters.

I arranged a car, guide and overnight camping trip at Arco del Tiempo via my guesthouse in San Cristobal. Our driver picked us up at our hotel in San Cristobal early in the morning and we set off through the mountains in the dark and in thick fog. Driving on this highway between San Cristobal to Tuxtla during sunny conditions is scary enough but in the fog with steep embankments on either side, no visibility and crazy drivers, made the experience terrifying. We arrived in the village of Cardenas late in the morning to meet our guides at their family home. Our guide’s wife made us a large traditional breakfast. We sat in their modest home in a rural farming village with no windows while chickens and dogs ran across the floor. We ate freshly made eggs and tortillas that were made in the kitchen over an open top stove. The guide’s extended family lived in the home, and I visited with a new borne baby, who next to her mother, was crawling over the adobe floor. We also drank coffee made from the families own coffee beans grown from their field. The family like so many other rural indigenous families in this part of Mexico grow most of their own food.  There was no cell phone reception in the remote village, but the family shared a Wi-Fi router with a few other families, and they were able to provide internet. It wasn’t long ago when cell phones were entirely non-existent in this part of Mexico.

Fresh tortillas made in the kitchen over an open fire stove

Sterling and Jimmie eating eggs with tortillas and frijoles

We started the trail walking through mixed forest with agriculture. Then as we entered the forest reserve, the trees grew taller and denser and we were in primary rainforest surrounded by the exotic sounds of parrots, and other birds. Our guide explained that monkeys are common in the forest although we didn’t see any. He also told us that jaguars are here too and that he has seen them. The forests were also once home to the Mayan civilization. Like many indigenous groups throughout Chiapas, they can trace their roots to the Mayas and this area was no different. According to our guide there are Mayan ruins scattered about the forest that are overgrown by jungle and yet to be fully explored. Along the hike we would commonly see mounds with limestone rock that we thought might be Mayan, but we were too tired and focused on the hike to deviate and explore them.

The hike was hot and humid despite the elevation being somewhat high and we climbed and descended many hills. It wasn’t long before we covered in sweat. There was no water along the hike, so we carried all the water we planned to consume with us from the beginning of the trek. To make the hike easier we picked up a few hiking sticks at the start of the trail. Hiking sticks especially in the steep slippery slope of the hike were invaluable.

Hike through the forest over old tangled roots and sharp limestone rock

Our guide brought his 11- and 5-year-old sons to help him on the trip. Kids this age in the USA would likely be coddled by their parents and at home playing video games but here they were already part of the family business, and the 11-year-old son was more a man than kid already. He walked the horse on the first part of the trail carrying our gear. Then he portered our gear for the last most difficult part of the trek. The 5-year-old son was learning the craft, and he was already able to rappel and climb on his own without any assistance. He was a curious and eager little guy, and I was very impressed with his fortitude for being so young, but he did cry once on the way up the trail because of stomach aches. His dad quickly balked at him and told him to quit faking and get back to walking.

Jimmie and our guides 5 year old son

The Rope Section

After descending on foot down the steep canyon for an hour, we came to a cliff overlooking Arco del Tiempo and the river below. It was an awesome sight. The cliff was about 100′ tall and our guide mounted some rope for us to rappel down with. The rappel was straightforward and a lot of fun. The ascent wasn’t as easy, and I really regret forgetting my gloves leaving my hands pretty bloodied and battered.

Video of Jimmie making the ascent up the cliff the next morning

Inside the Arco

it is possible to hike in and out in one day, but this would be exhausting and I also wanted to really experience the Arco and wilderness of the area and there is no better way to do this in my experience than to camp. We were fortunate to have the river and campsite to ourselves for the night. Even though the Arco was just discovered in 1989 and according to our guide only in the last 10 years have hikers been visiting, it is becoming more and more popular because of Instagram, and this is bringing more and more visitors mostly from Mexico. Even the night before us, there was a large group of hikers, too large to camp on the river that were making their way out of the canyon. It was explained to us that we were visiting the Arco during the last week of the season before it closes down due to the rains, and this is why the group was so large but our guide also said that we could hike down any time of the year. So, like with many places in Mexico, I am sure there are the official rules and then there is the reality.

View of the Arco from the bottom of the canyon

 The canyon was so steep, you couldn’t see the top. The jungle closed in all around us. As soon as I descended from the rope, I jumped into the cool waters of the river and swam into the cave of the Arco. It was a true privilege to have such a beautiful and wild place to ourselves.

Entrance to the Arco

Sterling on top of a boulder insude the Arco

Sterling on top of a boulder insude the Arco

Relaxing in the Arco

La Venta River

From the campsite and the Arco, I walked along the river besides the jungle. The river opened into a wider section around the bend of rapids and boulders, and this was as far as I decided to go. Beyond this point and with more time there are many more caves to explore and wild river to explore.

La Venta River

La Venta River

Camping

We camped along the river in the sand. Yes, there were sand fleas and they bit up my feet but besides them, the insects weren’t bad. We constantly swam in the river and our guides boiled water for us to cook with. One of the highlights was when I introduced them to macaroni and cheese, an American delicacy foreign to them. ironically, I found myself in an unusual position teaching someone else how to cook, strange to me since Iam horrible at cooking. They tried mac and cheese for the first time and loved it.

At night, as the sun set, I noticed our tents provided by the guides didn’t have rain tarps. The guide’s response in Spanish was simple, “it isn’t going to rain and if it does, we will camp inside the cave”.

We made the mistake of forgetting to bring alcohol and it would have been nice to have a few sips of whiskey bit it just wasn’t meant to be. But the real highlight was when the sun set, and we found ourselves surrounded by the chorus of night creatures. Little colorful lights started to float around us as the lightning bugs came out to find their prey. Then when the full moon came over the ridge, it shone a focused ray of light on to the water and beach near our tents that looked more like some giant of giant helicopter beam.  At first, I really thought that we might be on the verge of being abducted by aliens and I did not think it was moonlight. Bit soon the light dispersed as the moon climbed into the sky. The canyon was magical during the day but at night it was a fairytale land.

Campsite

Eating Mac n Cheese

Camping

Camping

The hike out was grueling from the start with the rope ascension. My rope became entangled and scratched my legs against the cliff. I tore my hands up on the rope. After a lot of effort and sweat, I finally made it to the top. Then we carried our water that we purified from a small spring above the cliff and 5 hours later we arrived at the indigenous village where we started the day before. We had another large lunch of eggs, frijoles in tortillas and freshly squeezed lemonade grown from lemons in the village and from there we returned to San Cristobal for one night before flying home the next day.

 

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