By Tim Leffel
Venturing into the wild adventure capital of Mexico, a group of tour guides gets a lesson in what not to do with their clients.
The rafting had been good fun, but the elation quickly wore off as we stood shivering in our wet clothing. An ongoing drizzle didn’t help. Whenever any of us walked across the grass, our shoes got sucked into the mud of the saturated ground underneath. The van was supposed to be here 40 minutes ago. Our hope was fading as we stood outside a riverside shack in rural Chiapas, southern Mexico.
A hen and her chicks pecked at the ground around us. The mother living in the house pulled fingernail-sized grains of dried corn from a stalk while sitting on a crude bench. The children milled around and sat on tree branches, never taking their eyes off the shivering gringos in bright clothing.
“We need to go into the village and find someone with a pickup truck,” said Albert, one of the other members of my group. It seemed a bit extreme to me, but our so-called guide Renaldo wasn’t very encouraging. Any and all questions about why our pickup was so late got a reply of, “I don’t know.” There was no cell signal here and he had no radio. Or any kind of a Plan B.
“Do you guys know where we are?” someone asked the rafting guides in Spanish. No, they had just rafted this river for the first time yesterday. Thanks for not telling us that before we got on the water.
After an hour, we gave up and started walking. We found a pickup truck and a driver willing to let us pile in. All 16 of us. As we bounced on speed bumps and potholes through the countryside, we held onto the side panels and each other to keep from tumbling over. After about ten miles of this we arrived back at the put-in point, with no van there either. It was lost in the countryside. We were cold and wet, with no change of clothes, but at least there was a restaurant serving lunch.
The Downsides of an Organized Tour
I was here on this mangled tour with, ironically, a bunch of people who run travel tours for a living. It was before a big adventure tourism summit and this was our pre-conference excursion. So far we’d mostly seen the inside of a van. Our very first day, with most passengers having arrived from flights of between six hours to a whole day and night, we spent 10 hours riding. I was amused at the absurdity, but the experienced tour guides and itinerary planners with me were livid.
We independent travelers are often already a bit leery about organized tours. There are fears of regimented schedules, of too much time in transit to check off sites, of a lack of control over our time in the country. The good tour companies know how to get around all this. I was riding with some great ones, people with experience guiding groups through dozens of countries, often on bikes or on multi-day hiking trails. They do most everything right and their customers are thrilled.
Instead, we got these guys. Around 2:00 on the first day someone asked when we were stopping for lunch. “You want lunch?” Renaldo replied. We vetoed his suggestion of a convenience store.
When we asked about the places we were passing on the route we got answers like, “I’ve never been here before.” Half the people on the trip spoke Spanish, so we asked the indigenous guy with the long white tunic and the ponytail. No, he wasn’t from around here. We’d get to his village at the end of Day 3.
Late afternoon on that first day we arrived at our only scheduled stop: Chiflon Falls. As we set off up the trail, past the rushing river at the bottom, we noticed that the people coming down were soaking wet. Did they go swimming somewhere? “I’m not going in the water,” exclaimed one woman in our group.
She did go in the water. We all did. Or rather the water came to us. Chiflon Falls is not some pretty postcard cascade viewed from a distance. In autumn anyway, it’s a fierce explosion of water that makes it seem like Mother Nature is really angry about something. The water sprays so far and wide that anywhere close feels like a rainstorm. It’s impossible to get a photo of it from the trail because the lens gets instantly covered in droplets. The impact is so strong when the water hits the bottom that I saw boulders the size of a BMW Mini swirling around like twigs.
When we got back to the van, it looked like we’d all been swimming. Since nobody told anybody this would happen, there wasn’t anybody with anything else to wear. Out came all the carefully packed suitcases that had been fit into the back of the van like puzzle pieces. Out of those came one more item that would keep reappearing in different forms later: a bottle of tequila.
“In about three hours we will get to where we spend the night,” said Renaldo. Surprised silence in mid-tequila-shot, then a collective groan.
Chiapas in the Clouds
This was all a sad tragedy because Chiapas is a great adventure destination. This is the wildest part of Mexico, a former revolutionary hotbed that was off limits for many years. Ironically it’s now one of the safest states in the country. It has Maya ruins, unspoiled jungle, spectacular lakes, interesting crafts, and a colonial city that sucks you in and makes you start looking at real estate prices. In other words, like Guatemala but minus the crime part.
Late at night, in the blackest dark imaginable, we arrived at our lodging spot of Las Nubes (the clouds). Our relief did not last long. “There are not enough rooms for all of you to have your own,” said Renaldo. The next thing I knew, my wife and I were sharing a room with a British hiking tour company owner we had just met that day. Four of the women traveling by themselves were stuck together, despite all the cabins but ours looking to be empty. At 10:15 p.m. we had dinner, accompanied by some tequila that two people had the foresight to bring along. Las Nubes does not serve alcohol–even to those who just spent 10 hours in a van.
We slept to the sounds of the waterfall next to the camp, but some slept better than others. “There was rat shit in my bed,” said a Turkish tour company owner the next morning.
“I slept with my pillow at the foot of the bed because the ceiling was dripping on my head,” said a bike tour company guide.
After breakfast we went for a hike by the waterfall and to a panorama point about a mile away. Two people in our group stopped to take pictures and were left behind. We found them back at the camp. Renaldo had never taken a head count, so he didn’t notice they were gone.
Enter The Africans
A trip that goes wrong always makes for a better story, but even the best disaster needs a good sub-plot. Ours was supplied by The Africans.
The fate of our tour was really foreshadowed at the start by an hour of waiting for an African couple to make their way from their hotel room to the van. They had a long flight across the ocean, so we cut them some slack. But then the husband began the ride with a spiel about his tour company and a hard sell to those on board to please book business with him in the future. Odd and inappropriate, especially since we had all just met, but also because he was from a country known more for ethnic strife, fundamentalists, and corruption than any wildlife or tourism attraction. Still, we chalked it up to cultural differences and took a nap, assuming the business attire they had on was some kind of confusion over the first day’s itinerary.
The next morning, however, the strange got stranger. Mr. Okoro came to breakfast wearing wingtip dress shoes, dress slacks and a pressed shirt with a collar. Mrs. Okoro had on dressy shoes that went well with her fancy ruffled blouse. While the rest of us just looked at each other with raised eyebrows, my tagalong wife asked the mister, “Aren’t you going rafting today?”
“No, I can’t swim,” said Mr. Okoro. “And my wife is afraid of the water.”
It was quickly becoming clear that this couple had not read the itinerary of the tour they had signed up for. There were simpler choices they could have picked that involved coffee plantation lodge stays or nice nature tours that looked for butterflies and birds with binoculars. But no, the Africans signed up for the one that clearly stated there would be several steep walks, two white-water rafting runs, and a very long hike through a jungle. Were they in it for the van rides?
Each morning at breakfast, as the group rolled out decked in waterproof Gore-tex and footwear meant for water or mud, The Africans showed up looking like they were ready to man a trade show booth. At an eco-lodge on Day 3 they asked about an iron.