The Jungle River Expedition
Years ago – mid-1970s, when I was just beginning my career as a professional river tour operator, and had high aspirations of operating a worldwide system of guide service with operations as diverse as trips on the Omo River in Ethiopia to the Tatshenshini River in Alaska, I mounted an exploratory expedition into Mexico on the Usumacinta River that formed the border between Guatemala and Mexico. This was to be a jungle river expedition with emphasis on visiting Mayan ruins deep within the jungles where few tourists ever ventured.
With two young river guides as companions and I as the driver, none of us speaking any Spanish, we set out from Utah and drove three thousand miles south to the Mexican state of Chiapas, and eventually to the Yucatan Peninsula in a little Dodge van that we loaded with food and water. My hope was to make the round-trip journey with as little interaction as possible with the locals because of my lack of Spanish-speaking skills. I only knew two words of Spanish – pan for bread, and yeno, which meant fill it up at the gas stations.
We made it to San Cristobal de las Casas, an indigenous Mayan Indian town high in the mountains above Tuxtla Gutierrez in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Here, with the help of some American Protestant missionaries, I charted a single-engine Cessna aircraft to fly the three of us over the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas to the Usumacinta River. In the rainy season, this river drains a vast territory of Guatemala and Mexico, and where it passed the city of Villahermosa on its way to the ocean, it is hundreds of feet wide and perhaps as much as a hundred feet deep.
My goal was to scout the river from the air to see if there were any rapids that would be difficult to navigate. I located only one small canyon on the river, close to the takeout point of Tenosique, and from the air the rapids did not look difficult. This exploratory trip took place in the fall of 1974. Convinced that the trip was doable, in 1975, I put a small brochure together advertising a Mayan Jungle River Expedition and sent it out to hundreds of travel agencies across the country. To my surprise, I had twelve people sign up for the trip, which was scheduled for January 1976.
Besides myself, I needed two Spanish-speaking individuals to accompany me on the trip, one to drive the truck and trailer to the takeout point at Tenosique, and the other to accompany me on the river. It was my intention and hope that I could find two returned Spanish-speaking missionaries from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, forty miles south of my home in Salt Lake City. I advertised in the student newspaper for several months, but got no takers.
With the trip departure date getting close, I then advertised in the student newspaper at the University of Utah. I only had two inquiries, neither of whom was fluent in Spanish. Against my better judgment, and because I had no other options, I took them both on.
The trip was to leave the first week of January 1976; to make sure we arrived in time, the three of us left the first of December 1975. At first, things went well between the three of us, but the handwriting was on the wall.
Being proactive against mechanical breakdowns and potential delays, I had purchased a brand-new 1976 Ford F-150 pickup truck. The three of us rode together in the front seat all the way to San Cristobal. We all know what hikers smell like after several days on the trail and no shower. Put that smell in the closed cab of a pickup, and something has to give. The kid sitting next to me was the worst offender. I offered to let him use my deodorant, but he nonchalantly said,
“No,” and as he put it, he liked to go au naturel. After several weeks of driving, we made it to San Cristobal, and we were all still on speaking terms.
First order of business was to visit the airport and get reassurance that the pilots and planes would be available and ready to fly at the appointed time. Through my interpreters, I got assurance that they would be. Now the plan was to purchase and pack the food in boxes and ice chests, then load the plane called an Islander with all the boating equipment, food and ice chests, and fly to the jungle put-in two days before the passengers would arrive. That way, we could have the boat inflated and sitting on the water fully loaded and ready for the passengers.