Nonprofit organizations have long known that one of the best ways to get people to care about a cause is to make it real for them. Well, Rocky Contos, director of the nonprofit organization SierraRios, has found a way to make his cause — preserving the world’s rivers — very real to people: he offers them rafting trips down big, Grand Canyon-type rivers in need of conservation in places like Canada, South America, China, Africa, and, yes, Mexico.
Contos founded SierraRios with the purpose of preserving some of the world’s most beautiful rivers by introducing them to the general public. Many of them are in Mexico.
“A lot of these rivers go through beautiful canyons, and they are still clean,” he said. “Some of them are very reputable, and they make for great trips. But unfortunately, many now have dams planned for them.”
Because nobody goes to the rivers, there is little awareness, Contos said.
“So one of my goals is to bring more people to these rivers to see what they’re like and hopefully, that will help in the movement for conserving them.”
For example, Contos told me about the San Pedro Mezquital river in Nayarit, where he ran a trip last year, and where the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) plans to build a huge dam.
“The San Pedro is one of the most incredible rivers in Mexico. It’s wild and beautiful and very long,” he said. “About seven years ago, they were moving forward with the dam plan, but there were a lot of protests from the local communities and the Huichol Indians who live in the area, and [so] they put the project on hold.”
It’s still on hold, he said. “But sooner or later, the CFE plans to build it… and it would be devastating.”
Besides offering guided trips down many of the world’s most enthralling rivers, SierraRios raises money to fund river preservation efforts, maps and documents Latin American rivers for outdoor enthusiasts, promotes sustainable river ecotourism development through a program that trains local river guides and aids river protection activism efforts.
Contos was previously known in the outdoor sporting world for having made pioneering kayak descents of numerous Mexican rivers.
“I started paddling in 1990, when I was at [the University of California] Davis,” he said. “At that time, there was a lot of exploration going on, new rivers being opened up by new technology in kayak development, and I could see that the new frontier for whitewater was going to be rivers in Mexico.”
“Other paddlers had explored the area and run some of the rivers, but they had done it in the wintertime, which is the dry season in Mexico,” he said. “When I went there, basically none of the rivers that drain into the Pacific had been run or paddled.
“So I went down pretty much every one of them. I was there for three full summers starting in the year 2000, whenever I could get time off from my studies working towards a PhD in neuroscience.”
I asked Contos which trip he would recommend most for ordinary folks.
“I think by far the best first river for anyone to do is the Usumacinta, which is the biggest, the most voluminous river in all Mexico and Central America. It runs along the border with Guatemala.
“You’re on the water [for] six days. You get the experience of camping; you get to run some rapids, but nothing too difficult or scary, and you get a marvelous experience because you’re floating through the rainforest, and the jungle is just incredible.”
The rainforest corridor has the highest concentration of howler monkeys in the world, for example. These were the sacred monkeys of the Maya.
“And we also stop and camp at two Mayan sites: Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras on the Guatemalan side,” he says. “So the trip has a lot of cool things about it.”
What are you likely to see while rafting down the Usumacinta?
“The howler monkeys and the spider monkeys are really special,” says Contos. “You’re guaranteed to see a lot of those on the trip. You’ll also see scarlet macaws, and you may spot a crocodile in the water sometimes.”
“Of course, there are jaguars here,” he adds. “We may see their tracks in the sand and their markings on the trees, but we never see the actual jaguars. If we have a lot of people into birding, we’ll have a bird guide along to tell us all about them.”
Contos has organized the Usumacinta River trip 56 times and personally led it 17 times.
“I never get bored,” he said, “because of the monkeys and Mayan ruins. It’s an incredible place to go, and we take extra security precautions because it is in a border zone. But I know the people around there and everything that goes on, and we’ve never had a problem.”
Because some of the Mexican rivers where he leads trips run through states notorious for criminal activity, I asked Contos if he had ever run into drug traffickers in any of the remote places he’s paddled into.
“Drug traffickers are down there, alright,” he told me, “but they don’t tend to bother tourists on rivers. I’ve met a lot of them when I paddle rivers, especially in the Sierra Madre Occidental. They want to know who you are and what you’re up to, but when they realize you’re there as a tourist paddling the river, they tend to be nice, in fact sometimes very nice. We went down one river last year where the Sinaloa Cartel guys actually gave us beers and food and tried to help us out.”
- To know more about SierraRios’ various rafting trips in Mexico and around the world, and how to support their efforts in documenting them, check out their website.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, since 1985. His most recent book is Outdoors in Western Mexico, Volume Three. More of his writing can be found on his blog.