Canyoning offers big thrills in Puerto Rico’s lush highlands
Puerto Rico enjoys a well-earned place among the premier sun and sand destinations in the Caribbean and beyond.
Long celebrated as an ocean sports hotbed, Puerto Rico in recent years has emerged as a rock-solid island for a range of inland adventure pursuits including canyoning, an outdoor activity that will have you trekking up, down, and around some of the most remote and beautiful areas.
Canyoning essentially entails exploring canyons, rivers, or waterfalls by using specialized equipment and vertical techniques to descend or traverse from point A to point B. Adventure-hungry travelers expect to be immersed in unspoiled nature and put through the paces of a multi-discipline outdoor activity that can involves hiking, rappelling, jumping, diving, swimming, and climbing through landscapes which would otherwise be inaccessible. All on a single outing.
Split down the middle by a mountain range that runs east to west known as the central cordillera, Puerto Rico’s maze of steep terrain is home to a dizzying array of cascades and waterfalls as mountain streams fed by frequent rains plunge quickly toward the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south.
Unlike other canyoning playgrounds around the globe, Puerto Rico’s tropical climate allows for excursions year-round. As with nearly all outdoor activities in the Caribbean, it’s always canyoning season on the Enchanted Isle.
As interest in canyoning has surged, the number of established routes has expanded considerably in recent years and seasoned guides are ready to lead you through them. Nearly four dozen routes — generally defined as river sections with at least three or four successive waterfalls — have been traversed and documented and more are being explored and established.
A driving force in that development is Canyoning Puerto Rico (also known as CañonismoPR), collective of friends with diverse backgrounds in outdoor pursuits such as hiking, caving, river trekking, scuba diving, mountain biking, rock climbing, and nature photography.
“All of us share a common denominator: a passion for the outdoors,” says Canyoning Puerto Rico founder Jose Mendez. “Our ethics are tightly tied to the preservation and safeguarding of our natural resources, which serve as the stage for our hobbies, sports, and our lives.”
As a team, Canyoning Puerto Rico specializes in the exploration, logistics, opening, and equipping of Puerto Rico’s canyoning routes. Its active mission includes installing the safest “bombproof” stainless-steel rappelling anchors while blazing new trails and upgrading existing ones by adding additional safety points and/or replacing outdated anchors.
“We pride ourselves in facilitating and guiding adventures to the island’s most gorgeous waterfalls, stunning scenery, secluded landscapes and technical descents,” Mendez tells Bienvenidos.
Canyoning Puerto Rico’s lead guides are proud to have been trained by Alfonso “El Español” Carrero, the island’s first American Canyoneering Association-certified professional canyon guide and a key figure in Puerto Rico’s canyoning scene development, and by Rich Carlson, the ACA founder and instructor with over 30 years of canyoneering experience.
Team members came away from a recent canyoning trip to the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe with the understanding that Puerto Rico can lay claim to at least 10 world-class canyoning routes (Rio Prieto, Mete Miedo, Inabon, Inabon Maravilla, Emajagua, Barreal, Jaguas, Rio Fajardo, Rio Cubuy, and Rio Tanama).
“There are probably a few places in the world where you can tackle a canyoning route in the middle of a rainforest and follow it up with a drive of a few minutes to end on a beach,” Mendez notes. “However, most of the time we are content with just enjoying the good food served in the mountain region and a few well-deserved beers from the local chinchorros.”
Canyoning adventures can be had around the island, but the interior and southern regions boast the highest concentration of routes given that they are marked by the steepest drop to the sea from the central cordillera.
Now to the nuts and bolts of your canyoning adventures. Canyoning is not for everyone as it entails navigating substantial heights, serious hikes, and traversing over slick and challenging river terrain. “Good hiking endurance and strong mental focus to deal with heights and challenges are a couple of things that come to mind,” Mendez says.
Excursions should be tailored to cater to different levels of expertise and knowledge of vertical techniques. First-time participants can expect entry-level outings along routes that progress in rappel height, technique and difficulty. This natural progression allows for newcomers to master the rappelling techniques while descending through a series of gorgeous waterfalls, infinity pools, and stunning scenery.
Entry-level excursions follow routes that progress in height and/or difficulty as participants sharpen their skills as they descend through the various rappels. These routes generally take between three hours to six hours to complete depending on access, approaches, practice time, overall descent, and route exit.
Mendez says that groups generally have a minimum of two guides, although his team has opted for three — a lead guide and two others.
“This is key for a unique and personalized experience,” he says.
Advanced routes with more demanding vertical and river passages may take between eight hours and 12 hours to complete, in part because of their remoteness — with approach times of as much as two hours to reach the first waterfall rappel — and due to a higher degree of skill for increasingly technical terrain.
“Offering inexperienced participants excursions to these more advanced routes can be considered a reckless act and is strongly discouraged by the Canyoning Puerto Rico team,” Mendez says.
In fact, Mendez claims Canyoning Puerto Rico has avoided mass tour offerings due to the inherent risks of the activity and has focused on reaching people truly interested in living the canyoning experience.
That is why the outfit has opted to only offer excursions along an “entry-level” route thoughtfully crafted by the Canyoning Puerto Rico team to appeal to first time participants as well as more experienced canyoneers.
“We do encourage and invite the participants to practice and gain further experience if their intent is to tackle other more demanding routes,” Mendez said.
Established tour operators include Ruta Nativa, Altura and Montaña Explora, among others, and they prepared to lead first-timers safely down remote terrain.
The best companies provide all the equipment necessary for the adventures and boast guides who are well-trained and knowledgeable in rescue and first aid techniques. While a plunging stream or waterfall high in Puerto Rico’s mountains is sure to be refreshing, they are generally not cold enough to require any sort of wetsuit. Good hiking shoes and clothes (long pants and long-sleeve nylon shirts recommended) that you don’t mind getting wet and dirty are a must. Check ahead with guide outfits as some may recommend trekkers bring small back backs with water, snacks, etc.
Ruta Nativa offers two main adventures along the Tanama River – which include hiking, rappelling, body rafting, caving, and canyoning – and are focused on the education and preservation of natural and cultural resources of the area.
Montaña Explora runs trips on the south side of El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system and a riot of lush vegetation, massive boulders, cascading rivers, and scenic views. Soak up the clean air and crystal mountain water, drawing energy from the island’s “lungs” as did the indigenous Taino natives, whose petroglyphs are visible on a trek that includes hiking through jungle, rappelling, boulder hopping, cliff jumping, and swimming in calm cool pools.
Altura currently offers three trips: The Big Waterfall Adventure; the Zip and Zen Guided Rappelling Adventure; and the El Chorro Waterfall Adventure. Go online to find the one that best suits you and your group.
All of the outfitters will put you in a position to immerse yourself in Puerto Rico’s wonderful nature, where participants can expect to be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment, a powerful surge of energy and unmatched memories.
So, get out there and take the plunge.