Mexico’s Matacanes: Underwater Rivers, Cliff Jumping and Rappelling
“So calming and relaxing is this place. Food for the soul and music for the heart to beat by…”
by Sean Healy
The shrieking alarm penetrates my ears. Not that I realize it at first. My vivid imagination incorporates the sound into my dream conjuring up a dump truck reversing down the back alley of the Santa Monica condominium where I spent my youth.
This, however, is hardly West Los Angeles. And the adventure I would soon embark on is a far cry from lattes and independent films. This is Mexico; central Mexico to be exact, and it’s four o’clock in the morning. I’ve been living here for several months; studying, picking up the language and gorging myself on tacos and cervezas.
Weeks back my compatriots and I had gotten wind of a truly unique adventure in these parts. A local regaled us with tales of waterfalls, underwater rivers, cliff jumping and rappelling. Hardly possible in the midst of a near-desert expanse of sand and dust we thought.
Yet the old man’s stories were intriguing, and struck the chord of adventure in our hearts. Sounds like a great place to visit if it’s in the cards, but if not, no worries. Today the cards have spoken and it’s off to Matacanes.
For those who don’t know what a matacan is, simply put it’s reminiscent of a single, elongated downward-facing octopus sucker spouting massive quantities of water from its hollowed center. Stalactite in shape, deluge in function, it is a truly unique sight to see – or so we were told weeks earlier by our favorite local.
Roll out of bed, bottles of water in the backpack, a quick breakfast of granola and frijoles and we’re off. The ride to the base of the mountain is nearly two hours. At this time of the morning our Mexican city is an eclectic blend of stray dogs, dimly lit roadways in front of silhouetted mountain ranges, and post-party foreigners filing out of dark doorways towards the carteros (the locals who satiate the swaying masses).
As the base of the mountain comes into focus through the morning haze we realize our environs have changed. The landscape is greener. The air feels more humid. The aforementioned haze isn’t haze at all, but rather legitimate fog. Air with moisture is a novel concept in these parts.
According to our guide, Alberto, this region is created by a jet stream of warm tropical air from the Caribbean which blows over the Gulf of Mexico through mountain passes settling in this locale and, over millennia, has created a pseudo oasis of lushness in a sea of aridity. Or something to that affect.
My Spanish wasn’t great at the time and he may have been alluding to our ill preparedness and how our pudgy physiques would make the journey difficult. But I digress. All seven of us pile into the back of his old four-wheel drive pickup and head up the mountain’s muddy – and soon to be precarious – trail.
How our driver can see five feet in front of his face is a mystery to me. This is not a journey for the faint of heart, or the weak of stomach. The jostling and bruising makes it clear why this trip isn’t in the tour books.
However, as day breaks over the range and the mist clears, rays of sunlight illustrate why this journey came so highly recommended by locals in the know. I imagine King Kong or some long extinct whatever-asaurus rex suddenly appearing in our path. And if it had, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
This is one of the least traveled, under-discovered, serene and beautiful places I have ever been. Emerald moss blankets rock and tree; a veritable cornucopia of plant life surrounds us and the sound of exotic birds and waterfalls echoes through the valley.
Waterfalls?! That’s a reassuring sound. Surely we can’t be far. And we weren’t. Around the next corner the truck stops and Alberto yells, “Salgan.”
“Base camp” is little more than a shed, some free-range chickens, and fresh air.
Alberto instructs us on squeezing into our wetsuits, strapping on the harnesses, and affixing our helmets securely to our cherished heads. We hike for an additional thirty minutes through tall pines and fallen cones.
I decide to befriend our local guide and so question Alberto about the area. He informs me that we’re on a large cattle ranch and the cows – and bulls – roam free. He smiles and says that if I hear a thunderous rumbling to climb the nearest tree because “Tu no quieres ser golpeado por toros huyendo en disorden.” And right he was, I did not want to be hit by bulls fleeing in disorder – literal translations are a joyful pastime of mine.
We struggle over a house-sized residual boulder and down the other side to find ourselves at the precipice of the universe. A beautiful hundred-foot-high waterfall of shimmering blue. Standing atop this natural wonder we peer over the valley. It is explained to us that this is where the journey begins.
Nothing spells adventure like starting the day by rappelling down a shear cliff, especially if you’ve never rappelled before – ever. One by one we strap in and lower ourselves over the edge.
About fifteen feet from the bottom is a ledge where Alberto’s assistant is standing. The ledge, hovering above a deep blue pool, is only large enough for two.
One by one we lower ourselves to the ledge, unhook and leap sailing through the air until we hit with a splash. Applause follows each jumper; the hearty must stick together – as must the first timers.
On the edge of the pristine glass we sit and watch and regroup. Phase one, complete. Phase two, canyoning.
We follow the river on its graceful descent through the rugged green valley. I leap from big rock to smaller rock, from small pool to large pool, all the while remembering how nimble I was at sixteen.
At this point individual tensions ease and we become more comfortable with the experience. There’s nothing better than a little pool jumping and floating along a lazy stream surrounded by verdant cliffs through a meandering valley.
And in a setting like this with warm air, cool clean water and the sounds of nature, a more relaxing lull could not be imagined. Invigorating I think to myself, feeling as though this place was put here by a higher force to drive the ills of the city out of the soul.
Boulders part the river intermittently. Our guide gives us the okay to roam and leaves to our discretion how adventurous we choose to be.
My mates and I run from ledge to ledge, gliding through the air in a symphony of hoots, hollers and splashes. All the while we were more excited about the next jump than we were about the previous one. We glide down slick, natural water slides that rival amusement park attractions. Stone arches pass over our heads and our lifejackets allow for mellow floating between fits of adventure.
The water at matacanes comes directly from high mountain rain, is fed by natural springs along the way and doesn’t pass any civilization for another ten miles. Dare I take a sip? I dip my lips into the stream trusting my friends had not recently relieved themselves and allow the water to spill into my mouth. So delicious! I’ve never tasted water that actually has a sweet taste; today was a day of many firsts.
So calming and relaxing is this place. Food for the soul and music for the heart to beat by. And then I see it. Ahead, the river disappears as it dives straight down beneath a cliff into a large, pitch-black hole – and there’s no way around it.
We stand scratching our heads gazing into the abyss waiting for Alberto to explain how to climb around it. No dice. He elects me as the first to enter and ties the rope to my harness.
Far be it from me to call myself an expert at rappelling after one 100 foot cliff, but until now I had felt rather comfortable with it. This was different. This was the black hole of Mexico. A stone I toss into the hole vanishes five feet down and doesn’t hit water for several seconds.
I lower myself down and watch my friends’ eyes as they strain to see me, which they can’t. Talk about resembling bait dangling on a hook for the ferocious sea monster whose sleep I’m about to disturb.
Since I’m not strong enough to climb up the rope, down is the only option. I begin inching my way down, bouncing off the rocks as instructed. And then it happens. The angry reptile grabs my leg and begins pulling me down.
That’s it folks, the story ends here. Nice knowing you. Surely I’d be eaten and forgotten. I kick free my leg only to have it grabbed again. I kick again but it has a firm grasp and will not let go. Then it did something most mythical water creatures can’t do – it spoke:
“Qué es usted haciendo? Deme su pie.” What are you doing? Give me your foot.
Amazing, even the toothy river beasts speak Spanish here.
“Pare patear!” Stop kicking! Oh thank God. Alberto’s assistant. Sneaky guy; somehow he had climbed down another way to meet us on yet another ledge. As my heart slows I’m left with the question why wasn’t I offered this convenient option? He unhooks me and I fly off the ledge into the pitch, not knowing how far it would be until I hit water. For the record, it was pretty far.
My eyes adjust to the darkness and I’m in a bowl-shaped cave with a small opening of light above me – way above me. I feel like I’m standing in a massive geode, minus the semi-precious gems of course.
Water crashes down in front of me as the rest of the crew is lowered and pushed off the ledge. When you’re the first one down, and you’ve safely made it, it’s quite easy to find humor in watching others suffer the same uncertainty, fear and then relief as you.
The walls are pocked with small in-curves and the familiar omni-cultural presence of “Julio + Catarina siempre.” I am a small goldfish in a big basin with plenty of room to roam. And roam I did; exploring the area in front of me and jumping off small ledges and rocks.
And then I turn around. I can only describe this as an alien landscape. Dozens of deluges crash on the cave floor as though massive hoses had been poked through the cave ceiling. Each matacan is unique in design and size, and each is spraying endless streams of warm mineral water. I stand underneath and bathe in the warm, sweet springs.
Matacanes give the illusion that they are alive. They should sway about like sea bottom life forms. They should feel soft and gummy to the touch. They should let out low rumbling sounds as they strain small animal life from the fluid plasma around them.
My imagination ran wild; the first man to set foot on Neptune. Alas, formed over millennia by mineral deposits from the springs, these incredible rock formations are hard and silent. Yet to call them lifeless would be absurd.
We are like children at a science museum (ok, I was a sciencey kid for quite some time in my youth) investigating the matacanes with fascination. When we had had enough, we filed into a narrow passage, laid ourselves in an underground river and let the lazy current lead us beneath the mountain.
As the earth passes over us, matacanes dribble, pour and soak us with warm spring water from above. After a while, an opening appears. Green vines and red and blue flowers dangle above as we pass out of the cave into the light.
This side of the hill is even more stunning than the other with a seemingly infinite variety of flora and fauna. Massive vines stretch down from the trees tickling the water’s surface. Alberto demonstrates how to swing from a vine and launch into the river – naturally, we follow suit.
For hours we walk, hike, float, rappel and jump. We end up at the bottom of the mountain, where we had started the day nearly eight hours earlier, tired, scraped, bruised and immensely gleeful and full of life.
Trying now to remember the various emotions, scenery and risks we experienced that day is impossible now. Let’s say it’s something you must try on your own.
A word to the wise, make sure someone in the group remembers bug spray for Jose’s much appreciated steak, taco and beer BBQ that awaits the group after the trek. Truly a fantastic day – and just one of the many fond memories I have of my time in Mexico.
Contact Information for Matacanes
Matacanes is outside the city of Monterrey, Mexico. The city is a short direct flight from most southern US states. The trip lasts a full day and is only available from April to September. The price is around US$100 and includes transportation, equipment, trained and licensed guides, lunch, and the post-trek BBQ.
Reservations can be made through several tour companies – try matacanes.net or geoaventura.com.mx. You can also contact aventurs.com directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call them on phone (81) 8338-5211 or mobile (81) 1281-5948.
Sean Healy is an avid traveller and lover of food. He has lived on several continents, currently residing in London with his fiancee (although she has designs to move them both home to Australia in the near future).