Matacanes & the Leap of Faith

I can’t see the bottom of the black hole called the “Confidence Jump”, but I know if I throw myself into the black abyss I might come out on the other side. At least that’s what Campana, my guide, tells me. After all, he brought me to this juncture where a beautifully sculpted limestone slot canyon swallows cascading turquoise waters high above Monterrey, Mexico.

I hesitate and peer into the darkness below. He looks me in the eyes with a deliberate smile and says: “make sure you don’t jump too far to the left or too far to the right, you might hit a rock”.

That is the nature of the sport known as canyoneering, an extreme adventure sport that is gaining popularity among outdoor enthusiasts. Canyoneerers usually hike down a steep river canyon otherwise deemed impossible to raft or kayak. The rub is that the canyoneerer must employ techniques of rappelling, technical swimming, and/or cliff jumping. And no matter how you look at it, the path of least resistance is not always the way down.

Lucky for summer extreme sports enthusiasts living in South Texas, the Mexican national park Las Cumbres, outside of Monterrey, offers perhaps the most beautiful such canyons in the world: Matacanes.

In Matacanes (A Spanish term for filtering spouts in the canyon’s caves) trials such as the “Confidence Jump” are numerous. But the canyon offers more than just risky obstacles.  The natural splendor includes thick, emerald gardens of ferns draped over stalagmites and limestone rock formations teeming with fauna like tree frogs sunning themselves above the mountain springs.

The canyon Matacanes was formed by the river Pablillo and stretches eight kilometers between Potrero Redonda y Adjunta, two villages inside the national park Las Cumbres. After a bouncy ride in the back of a pick-up over a 4×4 trail, canyoneerers don wet suits, harnesses, life jackets and helmets and head to the opening of the canyon. There, a rappel down a hundred foot waterfall dispels any doubts that the next eight hours would be anything but extreme amusement. That was only the beginning, thirty jumps ranging from ten to forty feet, another rappel (this time into a cave) and numerous natural slides still remain.

“It’s rare that you get bored in Matacanes”, says my guide Campana, 26, who has guided here for the past six years. “You’ll get tired before you get bored”.

He’s right. I use both arms and both legs to negotiate my body through the “Rock that Swallows People”, and find myself panting after long stretches of swimming through the slot canyon pools.

The psychological challenges comes while I fling myself off varied precipices like the Watermelon jump, the Friendship jump, and the Leaf jump, where the goal is to pluck a fern leaf in mid-air before plummeting 30 feet to a dark pool below.

Matacanes serves up all these miniature tests of body and mind. Coupled with the serenity of the natural setting, the buzzing of insects, and the constant ssshhhh of rushing water, and the experience is truly unforgettable.

“You learn to control your emotions when reacting to the cold and the heat, and you begin to understand fear and impatience”, insists Campana who also works in Mountain Search and Rescue unit and relates how he has been stranded overnight on mountain peaks in the area.

For me the most difficult emotion to control is my excitement. When I saw my first matacan I was amazed and confused at the same time. Never before had I seen such a natural creation in my life.

In the many caves along the way, water streams out of three to five foot natural showerheads called matacanes.  These natural phenomena filter the river’s water whose path is often hidden from view for many yards at a time.

The eight hour adventure is open to the public from April to September. During the wetter winter months, canyons with less water are opened for the sport. Campana’s company GeoAventura offers tours through four canyons, all located in Las Cumbres of Monterrey.

The canyon El Chipitin offers more rappels than Matacanes and Ruta 14 offers, yes, 14 different rappels. Still, Matacaens remains the crem de la crem for canyoneering in México and perhaps the world at large.

The price for Matacanes has risen slightly over the past few years, mainly due to an increase in accidents and the resulting tightening regulations by the government.

“It can be dangerous if you don’t go with the right people”, says Luis Valenzuela, owner of GeoAventura in Monterrey.

Valenzuela continues to see people without helmets or wearing lifejackets in poor conditions and employing sloppy rappelling techniques. Because Matacanes is accessible to the public, anybody with a pair of shoes and a rope can descend the canyon, however for those new to the sport, a guide is highly recommended.

GeoAventura charges $120 for the day which includes the guide, equipment, two meals and a snack, health insurance, and transportation to and from a hotel outside Monterrey. Valenzuela, who has run the company for the past eight years, offers guides who speak English and Spanish. He also offers river rafting, mountaineering and rock climbing tours in Monterrey and throughout other states of Mexico. GeoAventura currently offers packages which include reduced hotel prices and is negotiating to include airfare from San Antonio, Austin or Houston.

Besides GeoAventura, Valenzuela estimates that there are four other companies in Monterrey which are trustworthy and whose guides are certified by the local and state government as well as by the American Canyoneering Association (ACA).

The ACA, founded in 1999 by Rich Carlson, a canyoneerer and guide based out of Southern Utah. According to Carlson, the sport’s popularity in North America lags that in Europe by about ten years. The sport is currently exploding as ecotourism gained more traction thanks in part to increasing popularity in adventure sports such as rock climbing, kayaking, and mountaineering.

Carlson and a network of canyoneering guides from all over the world have since set up a ACA canyon rating system for difficulty and information booklet called “Canyons” which discusses safety and ethics issues related to the sport. “inherently dangerous sport”.

Nonetheless, Matacanes is less technical and provides access for novice canyoneerers who just want to get a taste of the sport.

“It doesn’t really require advanced rope work or anchors”, says Carlson who will descend Matacanes for his third time in August. “It’s just very aesthetic and lots of fun”.

The ACA will be sponsoring a rendezvous at Matacanes from August 4th to the 6th. Members of the ACA will have open access to the canyon and many area guides will participate. The purpose of canyoneering rendezvous is to continue to network with guides from all around the world and discuss new techniques of the “inherently dangerous sport”.

The Rebirth

On the final stretch of Matacanes, the thought of danger has long since gone away. Out of a shadowy cave I float toward the light at the end of a 100-yard deep water tunnel. Water fills the passageway to within two feet of the ceiling and a steady current propels me along.

As I emerge, drippings ferns reach down and stroke my face as my eyes readjust to the sunlight. I spin around in the water and notice the mammoth size of the stone spanning the water. There’s absolutely no sign of the treacherous canyon above.

“Its my favorite part of the canyon”, Campana tells me. “Every time I emerge from the mouth of the cave, I feel like I was born again”.

Learn more about Canyoning

For canyoning courses, certified guides, canyon beta, and contact information:

American Cayoneering Association: www.canyoneering.net