Sunday, September 29, 2013

Chiapas Part 14b: Sumidero Canyon, its Cave of Colors and its crocodile-infested beaches

Immense canyon walls rise closely on both banks of the Rio Grijalva. In my last posting, I focused on the geology, flora, and fauna of the canyon. This week, we continue through Chiapas' second-most-visited tourist area (Palenque is #1)), but the focus will be the historical and cultural background of this great gorge. Until the second half of the 20th Century, the Sumidero was a mystery to everyone but the indigenous people of the area. Before the Chicoasén dam was built, a wild river full of cascading rapids ran through the base of the canyon. This was far beneath the water surface you see above. In 1895 a party of three Frenchmen drowned while attempting to run the river. Almost 40 years later, in 1932, an American made another attempt, but also drowned. Finally, in 1960, Sumidero Canyon was conquered by a Mexican Army unit called the "Red Handkerchiefs." The soldiers managed to complete a 20 km (12.5 mi) voyage through the heart of the gorge.

La Cueva de Colores

The canyon walls get steeper and rockier the higher they rise. The many twists and turns of the gorge restrict the view ahead and behind, leaving the blue ribbon of sky above as the only opening. The gorge forms the dividing line between the Zoque people on the western plateau called Meseta de las Animas and the Maya on the eastern plateau, known as the Meseta de Ixtapa. The Zoque are one of twelve government-recognized ethnicities in Chiapas. They occupy about 3000 square kilometers of the State. The earliest Zoque archaeological sites date back to 3500 BC, establishing them as a very ancient people. Some archaeologists believe that the Zoque are descendants of the Olmecs. After a period of peaceful trade relations with the Mexica (Aztecs), they were conquered in 1494 by the army of Mexica Emperor Ahuizotl. The Zoque language is related to the Mixe spoken in Oaxaca and Vera Cruz.

The sheer limestone walls are riddled with water-carved formations. When the Spanish arrived in 1523, the dominant group in the area were the Chiapa people. Their main settlement was at present-day Chiapa de Corzo, the town from which we began our canyon tour. The origin of the Chiapa is unknown, but they may have migrated here from Nicaragua. They were fierce warriors and resisted the Conquest for eleven years until they were finally defeated by Diego de Mazariegos in 1535. Rather than accept Spanish domination, the remaining Chiapa men, women and children threw themselves off one of the highest points on the cliffs in a mass suicide.

We paused with several other boats at La Cueva de Colores. The Cave of Colors gets its name from colored striations in the rock. Unfortunately, at this time of day the bright sun made it very difficult to photograph the colors. However, La Cueva also contains a small shrine embedded high in the wall above us. The only way of reaching it is by the ladder you can see at the upper right. Just getting to the bottom rung of the ladder would be a daunting task.

A shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe is tucked into a niche high above the water. The Virgin of Guadalupe is revered throughout Mexico as the special patron of the indigenous people and the poor. The sign next to the ladder says (in Spanish) "To the memory of the last of the living explorers, Dr. Miguel Alvarez del Toro. Tireless defender of nature. Creator of the Sumidero Canyon National Park." There are many shrines and holy places in and around the canyon, some of them extremely ancient but still in use. The Zoques believe that the spirits for water and fertility dwell in caves.

This interesting formation seemed to have been made by the same process as stalactites. The limestone face is covered with vertical grooves and tubes formed by dripping water containing dissolved minerals. These are deposited during their journey down the wall, creating the formations. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Spanish authorities attempted to stamp out the old religions and to punish those who continued the ancestral practices. At least five Inquisitions were conducted in this area during that period. The open practice of the old religions was abandoned, but people continued to conduct their ancient rites secretly in remote areas like Cañon del Sumidero. Some ancient sites have been discovered by cliff climbers hundreds of feet up sheer cliffs. These caves are only accessible to modern people using ropes and other technical equipment, so it is astonishing that indigenous people used them regularly for their religious rites.

As the canyon began to widen, a knife-edge ridge along the shore appeared. This narrow ridge stands separately from the high wall behind it. It was created by lengthy geological processes on which I could only speculate. Just before the Chicoasén dam was built, archaeologists scoured the canyon for sites which might be threatened by rising waters. They found 53 caves, about half of them containing ceramics and other ancient material. Eighteen of the caves contained rock paintings. One of the largest of these was La Ceiba rock shelter. That cave is 10 m (32 ft) high, has 4 balconies, and contains more than 100 rock paintings. Also discovered at La Ceiba were eerie imprints of ancient human hands.

Crocodiles of the Rio Grijalva 

Some of the muddy beaches along the way are home to huge crocodiles. The cocodrilos like to partially bury themselves in the mud. At first glance, they appear to be logs washed up along the shore.  Someone idly strolling this beach might not have the opportunity to make this mistake twice.  Our boatman kept his craft at a respectful distance and I got this and the following shots with my telephoto. I wondered about boating accidents at a place like this in which people might be pitched suddenly into the murky water. Their frantic thrashing about would soon attract the attention of creatures like this guy.

This big fellow seemed to follow our movements with particular interest. According to my research, the crocs in Sumidero Canyon are the American Crocodile species (Crocodylus acutus). On the upside for tourists, this species is not nearly as aggressive as the Australian saltwater croc or the African Nile croc. Still, the American croc can be dangerous. A few fatal attacks by this species have been reported, mostly in Florida, but also in Mexico near Puerto Vallarta and in Costa Rica. However, it appears that the real danger is more to the crocodiles from humans rather than the other way around. The river crocodiles are presently under government protection from hunting or capture. Unfortunately, in Mexico these kinds of laws are sometimes weakly enforced.

Crocodiles are social animals and we sometimes saw them in groups. These two, lying in opposite directions, appear to be enjoying a snooze in the warm sunshine.  The larger one looks to be about 4-5 m (12-15 ft). They can reach 7 m (21 ft) and weight more than 907 kg (2000 lbs). Of the four croc species in the Americas, the American Crocodile is the most widespread.  They can be found from Florida to Peru, and on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. Some live along rivers like Rio Grijalva, but they also like salty coastal lagoons and mangrove swamps.

A crocodile cools off by lying with its mouth agape. As a cold-blooded reptile, the croc has various strategies for maintaining its body temperature in a livable range. The open-mouthed posture cools off its brain. The American Crocodile feeds mainly on fish. small mammals, and other reptiles. However, they have been known to attack animals as big as a full grown cow. Although their jaws are extremely powerful and their teeth are razor sharp, they are unable to chew. When feeding on large prey, they must tear it to pieces that are small enough to swallow. In order to do this, the croc will grip the prey with its jaws and roll over and over in the water. This is called the "death roll."

Just makes you want to scratch him on the back and tweak his snout, doesn't it? Lying half buried in the cool mud is another way to moderate body temperature. Although they may look slow while snoozing, on land an American Crocodile can achieve speeds of up to 16 km/hr (10 mi/hr). His powerful tail can drive him through the water at speeds up to 32km/hr (20 mi/hr). Keep that in mind if you do decide to tweak his snout. Crocodiles are a very successful species and have existed on earth for at least 100 million years. Humans, by contrast, have only been around for about 2.5 million, and at the rate that we are destroying our environment, we may not make it through another million.

La Presa Chicoasén and the Eco-Park.

Emerging from the narrow gorge, we moved into a wide reservoir. The indigenous people use all available arable land, even steep hillsides like the ones above. They must do this because Chiapas is so mountainous and much of the best land has been owned by wealthy Ladinos since the time of the Conquest. The Maya, in particular, are very good at intensively farming the land they do possess.

Amikúu Ecological Park is accessible only by boat from Chiapa de Corzo. The park is devoted to eco-tourism and extreme sports. We didn't stop here, and the only part we could see from our boat was the landing dock with a large palm-thatched palalpa, which shelters a restaurant and a gift shop. There are three areas in the Eco-Park. In one, tourists can take part in a program called Discover the Canyon which includes a video. The Colors of Chiapas section includes a museum demonstrating the traditional dress and musical instruments of Chiapas' indigenous people. The Area of Adventure has a tour through the rainforest and animal enclosures where jaguars and crocodiles can be viewed. Some of the extreme sports available in the Area of Adventure include mountain biking, kayaking, rappelling, spelunking in the local caves, and a 300 foot zip-line.

La Presa de Chicoasén stores water and produces a large quantity of electricity. The rugged mountains of the Chiapas Sierras rise over it in the distance. The presa (dam) was built between 1974 and 1980 and is one of several along the Rio Grijalva. It marks the northern boundary of the Parque Naciónal de Cañon del Sumidero. The water in front of the dam has a depth of 243 m (800 ft). This is the deepest part of the whole Rio Grijalva. The reservoir created by the dam covers 2193 hectares (5419 acres), and the dam complex employs 600 workers. The hydroelectric operation here contains 30 generators which can produce 3928 megawatts, amounting to 30% of the electricity produced in Mexico.

Our tour boat's two powerful motors raise a large wake as we make our return journey. These Yamaha V6 outboards moved a large boatload of tourists at such speed that I had to hang on to my hat lest it blow away. Our tour of the canyon was a spectacular experience and one I would recommend to anyone visiting Chiapas.

This completes our tour of Cañon del Sumidero and Part 14b of my Chiapas series. I always welcome feedback, questions, and corrections. If you would like to do so, please use the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Wonderful Blog..I really enjoy following your travels. I would like to follow in some of your footsteps. Are the details available. how you got there,Where did you stay? etc.


    Charlie Williams

  2. OOPS,--Forgot my email

    Enjoy tour travels and would like to follow in your footsteps. Are details available? How did you get there,where did you stay? etc...

    Kind regards

    Charlie Wms


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim