Sunday, March 17, 2013

Cangrejal River - Bejuco Waterfall - Honduras

If you haven't been following along on my Facebook Page, then you missed out on a fun 2-week blog-style story. No problem, though, I'll share the love here too.

Along the Cangrejal River in Honduras is a lush wall of tropical forest at the border of Pico Bonito National Park. Cascading down from one of the verdant cliffs is a massive waterfall called Bejuco Falls. While living in the small town of Las Mangas, a friend and I set out to explore the primary forests and hike up an unmapped trail of the waterfall system, into the heart of the national forest.

The journey begins in the basin of the Cangrejal River. On either side, the Nombre de Dios and Pico Bonito tropical forests hug the river, providing a biological paradise of many endangered species and incredible vistas. My friend Jonathan Zoba and I set out to explore these forests and transect the Bejuco Waterfall which drops 150ft from primary forest into the river below. 

I wanted to do this not only for the sake of adventure, but to chase a certain photo I had envisioned for over a year. This series of photos will bring you into that world and show you some of the beautiful landscapes, the dangerous situations, and the eventual payoffs for what would be an unforgettable trip.

When planning for this trip, the first thing we had to consider was seasonality. If we were hiking up a waterfall system on top of a mountain, the last thing we wanted would be a flash flood that could wipe us off the trail, or disconnect us from getting back home. So we waited until the height of the dry season where we could more easily climb waterfalls and push into the forest.

In the wet season, just a day of rain is enough to turn a peaceful river into a raging torrent, destroying everything in its path. If you look closely in the image above, you can see two people atop the granite for scale. This is the Cangrejal River, where Bejuco waterfall pours into.

When the water levels dropped low enough, Jonathan and I packed up our gear and hitchhiked on the back of a vegetable truck winding down the river road. Soon the small farms and bean plantations disappeared, gradually replaced by primary tropical forest as we neared Pico Bonito National Park. We were heading into one of the most ecologically diverse habitats of Honduras, attempting to transect a mountain without trail or maps. Luckily there were plenty of other signs along the way that showed us we were headed in the right direction.

Into the National Park, the canopy floor was thick with colorful vegetation of all kinds. We managed to gather some of these small palm nuts which taste like miniature coconuts. We had a couple of hours before we would make it up and down the dense ridges to arrive at the base of the waterfall.

We finally made it to the base of Bejuco Falls, and then looked up to the top where the water was spouting out like a massive jungle faucet. So, we started bushwhacking up the ridge of the mountain at an incredibly steep angle, holding onto whatever small trees and vines we could for secure grounding. Light was fading fast in the late afternoon and we were determined to get to the top before dusk to set up camp and build a fire.

When we got to the top, the sun was setting and clouds started moving in through the canopy. We were a little worried because our plan for camp was to stay right next to the waterfall's source. If it rained, this could be a big problem. The clouds were temporary though, and pushed through. Jonathan and I found a spot right next to the waterfall and set up our camp. The adventure was the thought of what was ahead, along that tropical jungle mountain stream. We had no idea what to expect. That night, I set out the gear and began to figure the logistics for an image I've been envisioning over a year. First, though, we would need to make a fire and put some hot food in our stomachs.

For those of you who know me, and those that have camped with me, know that - besides my camera gear - I like to pack light. Primitive camping is the way to go when on a trek so while doing the transect, Jonathan and I decided to go with hammocks to keep us off the potentially wet ground. Here's an invaluable camping tip... for a stove, we just brought a can of beans and ate them first thing and opened the can only halfway to have a top. Then, we cooked any noodles and boiled water inside just by sticking it in a fire. Easy! Sure, it gets a little charred and nasty on the outside, but inside is pure flavor.

And then we wake up to this. Atop Bejuco Waterfall looking down on the Cangrejal River, Jonathan Zoba takes in the "cuenca" or watershed. We brought climbing rope for safety issues along the unknown trek and also for a photo I had been envisioning for more than a year. This is just the beginning!

After a solid breakfast we started our trek, up the creek bed. After only a few minutes of hiking we came to our first unnamed waterfall and subsequently, our first obstacle as we wanted to continue hiking into the primary forest. Here, Jonathan and I are assessing whether or not to try and climb the slippery rocks, or to just find an alternate route. Little did we know, but this would be the first of many to come. And since it was an unnamed waterfall, we decided to call it "Tamagas Falls," for what happened next..

Deciding not to risk a major injury so early on by climbing the waterfall, we skirted the edge and started climbing up the ridge. It was extremely steep, so we committed fully to each step grabbing at the ground and understory and lunging forward trying not to lose momentum. Hurrying is a dangerous game and it almost cost me dearly when I reached forward and came inches from setting my hand on this jumping viper. When my eyes saw the coiled form just in time, I reeled back and nearly slipped down the side of the mountain. 

Can you see it?

These pit vipers are called "tamagas" by the locals and is a general term in Honduras to describe many different venomous snakes. As remote as we were, a bite on the hand could have very well been fatal. I don't think I would have seen it in time had I not spent several years exploring the forests and slowly calibrating my eyes. I got really lucky on this one, and we pushed onward paying a little more attention to the ground beneath us.

Once we made it past the Tamagas and the first waterfall, we came to a series of small waterfalls and rock outcroppings. The trail was almost entirely water and with minimal supplies, we were able to cover some serious ground. For my camera gear, I took a medium-sized daypack because it was top-loading, and then stuck a dry bag inside with towels for padding. That way my camera was accessible and I didn't miss a beat when Jonathan was doing something awesome like this. When we came over the top of these small waterfalls, the view was absolutely incredible.

Coming up over the last small waterfall, my head peaked over a boulder and I saw this. A massive opening in the canopy and a long trail of falling water disappeared into the forest. I couldn't believe my eyes. It's hard to translate the scale here, but imagine the first boulder in the foreground as tall as I am (which is like, giant massive). We tried to climb all the way to the topit became too steep and slick, so we headed back into the dense forest for an alternate route. We came to a cliff about 25 feet high and saw no way of getting around it until we noticed a vine dangling from the branches of a nearby tree. Assuming its strength, we started climbing. We would later call this waterfall "Broken Vine."

After a near fateful fall off Broken Vine, we got to the top and continued onward. We heard howler monkeys, saw plenty of tracks, and also found this green parrot snake. Only mildly venomous, and not really harmful to humans, I wasn't too afraid of handling it for a photo.

Heading further into the forest the trees got bigger and the hand of man disappeared entirely. At these heights and depths, the massive cedars, san juans, and mahogany trees were left untouched. At the lower elevations and surrounding the national park slash and burn agriculture is rampant. It was great to come to the next waterfall and see this massive san juan stretched across the basin almost completely intact, serving as a nurse log for the next generation. At this point, the sun started getting low and we were far from camp. We decided to keep pushing onward, but a little nervous about coming down the mountain in the dark, especially after the jumping viper incident.

As we pushed forward we found a good spot for an early dinner and a quick swim in a waterfall pool. By that time we really needed it. For our dinner, we simply found some kindling, made a fire, and stuck our cooking can on top, boiling water from the creek with dried noodles; couldn't be easier. About this time once we each drank our fill of water, ate dinner, and arrived at the last waterfall, we decided it was time to head back to base camp. We considered sleeping there for the night and continuing onward in the morning, but I had a photograph in mind that was gnawing at me, and I had to be back at Bejuco for it. So, we headed back through the night, down the mountain.

Well, we pushed it as far as we could while we still had light. The last waterfall we climbed was merely a trickle and provided a natural clearing for a wonderful view of the tropical canopy. Even though I was hesitant to go back to camp, I was really excited for sunrise to attempt the iconic image that brought me up this mountain in the first place. Bombing down the way we came up, we made quick work descending the waterfall trail. There was barely a shred of light when we arrived at Tamagas Falls, and sure enough, the jumping viper was still coiled up in his same spot. We felt lucky to have made it back to the base camp, and we built a fire and celebrated our day with a warm cup of noodles. The morning would bring one of the most memorable sunrises I've ever seen.

After a much-needed deep sleep on top of Bejuco Waterfall, I awoke to this. Beautiful predawn light spilled over the cuenca and dappled on the waterfall which plunged some 150 feet into the tropical forest below. In the distance the Cangrejal River meandered with its bleached white granite boulders lining the shores. It was an incredible sight and I made a few images, but they didn't quite capture the scene as I wanted. And I guess I lied a little. I didn't wake up to this. It would be more correct to say that I woke up two hours before this scene to start setting up for a different image, one that I had been dreaming about for over a year. It would be dangerous, perhaps foolish, as I would soon find out, but ambition and caution don't always make the best couple.

It was a crazy idea but I knew it could work if we just planned it out thoroughly. I wanted to rappel halfway down the waterfall and photograph it cascading down the mountain as the sun crested the Nombre de Dios mountain range. Photographically, this would be a difficult image. I needed stability for slow shutter speeds and high depth, so I brought a tripod which I tied to the line. There would be a big difference between the light areas and the dark areas of the frame so I brought gradual neutral density filters to balance the exposure. Then there's the technical aspect of rappelling down a 150-foot waterfall. 

Well, at least everyone told us it was 150-feet. Since we were in Honduras and I didn't have my climbing gear with me (this country is not known for its climbing), I needed to borrow equipment. When borrowing equipment that your life will depend on, you need to know with 100% certainty that gear is dependable. I found a friend who I knew took care of his gear and he loaned me two harnesses, rope, and carabiners. With a 180 feet of rope, the plan was to rappel down the waterfall, make the image, and then meet up with Jonathan at the base to head home. It was a good plan, but is not what happened. 

When I cleared the first large bump of the cliff's facade, some thirty feet down I realized that the end of the rope was dangling, not touching the ground. Bejuco was much taller than 150 feet and all of a sudden I was overwhelmed by the visceral fear of how I would get out of this jam. I couldn't go down, the sun would soon be up, and the rock face was too slippery and loaded with vegetation to climb. Shit. So much for a solid plan. All I knew was that I wasn't going to leave this cliff face without the photo I came for.

After all the mishaps, adventure, and discovery, this was the best possible way I could imagine to finish the Bejuco Mega Transect. I had been dreaming about making this image for a long time and as you all know by now, there were many obstacles standing in the way, which made capturing it all that much sweeter. Bejuco waterfall is one of the last sources of clean water supplied to the Cangrejal River before it empties out in the Caribbean. The relationship between healthy tropical mountains and the precious lifeblood of water can never be understated in this area and this image would be my homage to that age-old bond. 

Kicking out horizontally from the cliff's face, I extended my tripod legs to form a monopod and gripped the camera tightly with one hand while positioning the grad ND filter with the other. It was tricky.

Looking down some 150 feet at the pristine jungle water crashing on the boulders below, it took a lot of focus to give the proper attention to the image before thinking about climbing to safety. I soaked up the scene for a good twenty minutes before I found a solution, since going down was no longer an option. 

I was lucky enough to bring some extra climbing-grade cordage with me to hold my tripod and the camera while rappelling down. Since down meant death, I had to go up. I fashioned two Prusik knots with the extra rope and made big loops where I could stick my feet. Then, slowly but surely, I ascended the rope the old-fashioned way, inch by inch, using the friction of the knots to hold my weight on the main rope. I felt foolish to have been in that situation but never happier than when I reached solid ground and saw Jonathan standing wide-eyed. We hugged it out in true bromance fashion, and he howled when I showed him this image. What do you think, was it worth it? 

For me, without the story, the image is often one-dimensional. I hope you enjoyed the journey. It was an incredible three days and one of the most memorable adventures I've ever lived. Of course, we still had to get down from the mountain and hike back to Las Mangas some twelve miles from where we were. Despite all the close calls, it's only appropriate that it would be the return where something bad finally happened.

I've always heard and believed that when on a long hiking trip, there's nothing worse than wet boots. Well, I proved that old adage wrong pretty quick. It is much worse to have to hike back 12 miles after lacerating your foot because you're hiking in sandals. 

This happened when coming down from the waterfall and a loose rock rolled down the hill and slammed into my ankle. I tried duct-taping it shut but it wouldn't stick so instead of dressing it properly, while I still had adrenaline pumping I just started running down the mountain. By the time I got to the bottom it was excruciatingly painful. 

At the trail head, I hitched a ride with a school bus and they made me stand in the doorway so I wouldn't track blood everywhere.

Fortunately, I made it back to Las Mangas in time to clean up the wound. There was only a mild infection and I still have a nice scar to remind me to hike a little more staggered from my uphill friends in the future.


  1. Good grief foot fungus. Also thank you for sharing the love here. When will the 20 sumin's wake up to the datafaceminingbook say hello to big bro algo Rithim no these are not typos you get my drift just another way to confound there searching for common words to add to the mix thus allowing their product to be more ad revenue generating. When will we stop giving this away for free oh is books of faces free no there is a cost a cost I say for everything and I shall avoid Z. Mark

  2. Nice, thanks for you pics and comments