Sumidero Canyon

This post is delayed over a week because I had a lot of difficulty uploading all of the photos. This was the excursion we did in San Cristobal, on 14 June, before Palenque.

There are lots of excursions available near San Cristobal de Las Casas, and at the top of our list was a tour of the Sumidero Canyon. This is a tour a couple of hours long (plus transportation) that takes you on a boat ride some 30 km down the Grijalva River in the absolutely insane and beautiful Sumidero Canyon. We'd read about it in our cheat sheet blogs and the hostel book of tours and already knew that it was a scenic canyon that formed around the same time as the Grand Canyon in the US, about 35 million years ago.

Our boat unloading from the prior tour at the embarcadero

We left at 9:00am from our hostel in the van, riding up to the launching point for the tour, about an hour outside the city through some truly stunning high mountain roads that offer sweeping views of the valley when it's not covered with clouds.

We've had and will continue to have a lot of rain in our stay in San Cristobal, like greater than 80% chance of rain every day for the next few weeks, as far as the forecast goes out. Fortunately, the rain here isn't a nonstop deluge, it's more of a rainforest rain that comes and goes, and really at no point is the day ruined because it won't stop raining anymore. You basically have to just wait a bit for the weather to change and we really can't avoid going on excursions because at no point can we be assured of no rain.

Approaching the only bridge we saw as we enter the canyon

So after a reasonably comfortable collectivo ride (depending on your resistance to motion sickness (Melissa)) we arrived at the launching point. There were a few stalls there and restaurants to feed and sell to the tourists, but relatively low key compared to other sites in Mexico. We were issued life jackets and filed onto a 40 person boat, scrambling to get a good seat in the front or on the side. We did pretty well, second row with the cameraman on the side.  The weather at the Canyon was much warmer than in San Cristobal - probably closer to 80 degrees as opposed to the 60 degrees it's been in San Cristobal (San Cristobal is at altitude, so it's shockingly cool).

The captain of the 40 person boat models gets a cool little elevated platform from which he can see and steer the boat's two outboard engines. With a slight mist of rain and lots of cloud cover, we headed out into the river as the captain began the 100% Spanish tour.

The walls of the canyon begin to rise

Cacti growing between the layers in the limestone

The thing with this canyon is that it starts out relatively low, then as you go down river the walls grow higher and higher, until its peak at 1000 meters from the water, roughly halfway to the end. You get to see lots of different kinds of vegetation and rock along the way.

At the beginning the rock walls supported cacti growing out and up at a very slight angle. Some of the early rocks are clearly layered but pushed up at an angle, like looking at the edge of a phonebook that you're trying to fold in half. My guess would be that some kind of tectonic event disturbed the rock layers here to give them that appearance.

The peaks are shrouded in the morning fog as we set out

We started out in very brown water, not surprising at all considering how much rain the area has been getting. As we pushed further down river, the water eventually turned a rich green color. The vegetation changes a bit, we get more trees, some of them really monolithic and interesting looking on the shores or growing out of the rock walls. The wildlife really picks up too; birds are visible everywhere but get more interesting down river. The first major animals we got to see up close were some crocodiles (Melissa's favorite, in the sense that she finds them terrifying).

We saw 4 medium to small crocodiles sitting on a mud bank early on, almost perfectly still with their mouths slightly opened. I'm sure they do that for a reason but can't guess what it is. We barely even noticed the tiny baby crocodile that looked like no more than a normal lizard unless you paid attention to the shape of his tail, clearly optimized millennia ago for swimming.

The walls grow and we get a sense of scale for this place

A little blue sky helps

Big guy crocodile, waiting for food to jump in his mouth

Shortly after the crocodiles, our captain found some spider monkeys high up in the trees. We weren't able to see them as closely due to their perch but were able to make out two adult monkeys and even one baby monkey, monkeying around in the trees! I assume that the crocodiles will eat them if they fall into the water, but monkeys are usually good about avoiding that.

At this point we're into the thick of the canyon: the walls are extremely high, often quite sheer but sometimes more sloped supporting a lot of vegetation. Most of the river simply crashes against a rock wall - there aren't a lot of beaches or mud bars or places that you could easily get out of the water if you fell in.

Looking back as we pass a peak

Surrounded by the walls and clouds

Right near the highest point

One of the coolest things about this canyon is that it really twists and turns, up to 90 degrees at some points according to Wikipedia. That gives you an incredible effect of being able to come around a corner of the canyon and see the foreground moving more quickly while the background moves more slowly and you see more and more of the canyon open up in front of you as you proceed. At one point I remarked that it looked like the Jurassic Park intro, which Melissa couldn't comment on because she hasn't seen that movie for some reason.

We paused at the highest point of the canyon, which hits 1 kilometer above the river. The surrounding areas can't be much less than that because this point doesn't look dramatically different from the proceeding and following kilometer of canyon, so this whole stretch is really amazing to see. Because we set out on a rainy, cloudy day, a lot of these peaks and high points were shrouded in low clouds or fog, which gave a really cool effect without obscuring everything.

The captain told a story at this point, and this was the only one that anyone on the boat found important enough to repeat in English for us poor monolinguists. This canyon exists in the state of Chiapas, which was once the home of the Chiapa people, about whom modern civilization does not know very much. The legend in this canyon and at this point is that when the Spanish conquistadors were finally able to pin down the Chiapa people after many years of successful resistance, the entire remaining population chose to jump to their deaths from this 1km peak into the canyon rather than submit to the Spanish. We have no idea if this is true or not, most resources refer to it as a legend. Although 1km is a really far way to fall, I do wonder if some of them might have landed in water and survived. We'll let that one be a mystery.

The Cave of Colors, with waterline and ladder to the shrine

The Christmas Tree waterfall

Almost under the waterfall

I'd been wondering for several days now if my phone was going to run out of storage space. I've been taking a lot of pictures and deleting nothing, and although my phone has felt like an unlimited resource since I've bought it, I know it's not. My questions were answered at about this point in the tour when I started running out of space not even halfway through the canyon. Fortunately I was somehow able to delete a couple hundred pictures and videos to get through the day, although I missed a couple of features while I worked to see the screen in the bright light. Also, I deserve some special credit for getting a lot of good pictures without ever dropping my phone over the board of the boat. That may not seem like too much, but when this boat gets going it moves really fast, people lose hats and I started to feel a little wind burnt at the end.

The next major feature was the Cueva de Colores, or Cave of Colors. We didn't learn much from the captain here because of the language, but were able to observe some things and look up others later online. This was the biggest cave feature in the rock canyon wall at this point, so it's very noticeable from far away, even more so because there is an alcove in the cave with a religious statue in it and lots of flowers and offerings. It seemed to be dedicated to an early explorer of the area.

The name of the cave comes from the many colors on the walls caused by different mineral compositions. We saw a lot of pinks and greens, and interesting blob formations on the walls and ceiling. There was a ladder far up the wall and some ropes that reached a bit lower, totally out of the reach from water level. Based on the water line along the canyon walls, I'd say the water level today was several feet lower than a yearly max, so I guess you have to come at the right time of year to be able to climb up into the religious alcove and leave an offering.

The next major feature is a waterfall known as the Christmas Tree. We're right at the beginning of the wet season, so this wasn't obviously a waterfall at first. It is obvious why it's called the Christmas Tree though, when the water is flowing it falls onto outcroppings below and leaves mineral deposits in giant mushroom-like patterns that branch out wider on the way down.

I knew there was something called the Christmas Tree from reading guide literature but didn't know what it was until a bilingual traveler told us that this is normally a waterfall. After realizing that and looking much closer, I noticed that there was a bit of water flowing down really high up in the formation, just a trickle really and fanning out as it hit the next levels. As the boat pulled closer we were able to see more and more water falling down each level, being blown around by the wind and bouncing off the rocks. Eventually the captain took us right under the lowest level of the waterfall, telling the group that the legend here is that every drop of water from this fall that hits you adds a year to your life (or makes you a year younger, I heard both interpretations). We got slightly wet, and the effect of looking up through this misty waterfall was really cool.

Giant pelicans somehow sitting on thin tree branches. Some birds take flight as we approach.

Farmland in the canyon valley and a heavy bird population near the end

Further down the river it opens up a bit and the canyon walls get lower. We started to see some human buildings and massive power line towers. At one particularly wide point, I asked Melissa what she'd think if she were a Chiapan 500 years ago, and came to the canyon and saw dozens of Spanish ships anchored in this channel. That would have been nuts.

Some of the later bends in the river are homes to a lot of interesting birds. We pulled up really close to some trees at one point, unsure of why initially, then noticed that the branches were covered with giant pelicans. Most of them took flight as we approached, some stayed put. It must be annoying to have these boats come through every hour if you're a pelican living in the Sumidero Canyon. I was amazed that the branches were holding these birds because they are big.

We also saw a lot of herons and some kind of black bird I don't know that seemed fond of standing around with its wings slightly spread. A lot of these took flight as we cruised down river.

The dam

Turning around after 30km

The midpoint of the tour (in distance) is the Chicoasén Dam, a massive hydroelectric dam in the canyon that generates over 30% of the hydro power produced in Mexico. Sadly we couldn't get too close or see how big the drop was or what was on the other side of the dam, and I haven't seen many pictures of that side online.

We floated here for a bit as the captain passed his hat for tips and we drifted alongside a small snack boat selling chips, beers, and mango and coconut slices. We were warned that this part can be a little awkward and dodgy when they pressure for tips and sales but didn't have any trouble, especially since he only asked for tips in Spanish!

The cruise back was almost full speed the entire time, except for one amazing stop. The captain found a much larger solo crocodile sitting on a mud bank, mouth open. We got rather close to this guy, too much so for Melissa but luckily I was between her and the crocodile. I think crocodile legs look ridiculous, but that tail was huge and muscular. Really big guy.

Much bigger guy sunning on the rocks

What if he ate her?

Clearer skies as we returned

Upon returning to the dock we had a few minutes to visit the $5 peso bathrooms before the van took us to Chiapa de Corzo, the town situated on the canyon near the tourist points. We had about an hour in this small seeming, somewhat colonial and very Mexican town. Melissa and I both got a bowl of the regional specialty cochito horneado, which is not the same as cochinita pibil. That even fooled the Mexican man I sat next to on the way back; fortunately we learned the difference on our walking tour the previous day. Rather than stewed and slightly pulled pork shoulder, this was roasted pork shoulder chunks, served with a really good, deep, brown, unctuous sauce topped with cabbage and pickled onions and radishes. We both opted for the tipico serving rather than tacos; I imagine tacos don't come with this broth. I think I like this a lot better than cochinita pibil, especially since every version of that that we've had ends up with fairly dry meat.

We walked around the town square with our new canyon friends, tried some local pozol (a drink of blended raw chocolate, corn and water), and got back to town by 3 PM.

The local cochito pork, served tipico (not cochinita!). Delicious broth

Chiapa de Corzo square where we parked

Pozol: chocolate, water, corn. Really gritty and thick at the bottom

Overall this was a really good tour at a great price (500 pesos for both of us, or a bit over $25 total) and the sights at this canyon are simply incredible. This may be my favorite natural excursion yet, certainly only the cenotes are in the same category so far. Apparently this is a local favorite as well, as the internet tells me that 80% of the visitors annually are Mexican. I'm glad we were able to be some of the scant 20% of foreign tourists who visit here each year.


  1. I've never seen Jurassic Park either.

    1. Thank you for normalizing Melissa's unacceptable lack of movie knowledge. I will bring you back some chapulines

  2. The canyon is amazing. Some of those pictures were so beautiful! And Adam I never thought about crocodile legs - but since you mentioned it they are a little ridiculous.

  3. It was very peaceful and very relaxing. Also, I HATE crocodiles.