written by Max Baldetty
RIOS Guatemala is the result of the passion for paddling, the love of nature and the need to preserve at least one river in Guatemala. The push to create RIOS Guatemala came most recently from an expedition to paddle and film the country’s endangered rivers (details of the documentary screening are at the end of this article), but the story began 30 years ago.
River rafting was expanded in Guatemala in the early 1980s by Tammy Ridenour and together with Ramiro Tejada, who established the company Maya Expeditions. They were drawn to the wild pristine rivers and to the thrill of taking domestic and international tourists out to discover and explore the treasures hidden in the jungle canyons.
In 1993 another company, Area Verde Expeditions, led by American Paul Heesaker, joined in with a similar dream to raise awareness and create an organization that would provide opportunities, fun and great whitewater adventures. In 1998, due to security warnings and a historic drought, Area Verde had to close down.
In 1998 a 14-year-old named Max Baldetty went on his first rafting trip, hoping to discover a purpose in life, and found himself working as a guide’s assistant—inflating rafts, filtering water and doing whatever needed to be done to have things set for a sweet multi-day rafting trip down the Cahabón—and he lived it like it was his last day.
As the years passed, this young Guatemalan grew up to become a full-fledged rafting guide, and for his 18th birthday he was presented with his first paid trip. At this point he also began his university studies in marine science and aquaculture and worked as a guide to pay for his education. Eventually, he was afforded opportunities to work the rivers in France, Spain and Turkey. He also found a book titled How to Save a River by David M. Bolling and felt like something was calling him home.
Fourteen years later after closing Area Verde Expeditions, Paul Heesaker again decided to pack his duffel bag, fly to Guatemala to make the film RIOS Guatemala and meet Max, now 28. They discovered that they both have a dream to run whitewater, to create a base camp, to raise awareness of the beautiful rivers, to create opportunities for the communities to live from the river but to protect the river, and to take people down the river and share the river.
After getting Greg Schwendinger of La Antigua Guatemala-based MayanWhiteWater.com involved, other contacts were made, and a plan evolved to explore the remote Río
Copón in northern Guatemala in January 2012. In addition to Paul and Max, the expedition team included Roberto Rodas, Nils Saubes, Peter Zurflieh, Lacey Anderson, Neil Nikirk and Josh Galt, all experienced whitewater practitioners. Unfortunately, things went awry and the group was held hostage by indigenous communities that mistook its members for dam builders and outside spies for engineering and development companies.
Just when the group thought that the end was near, it found that great opportunities come in strange packages. In fact, this was the beginning of RIOS Guatemala. The group survived, and it was a life-changing experience—especially for Max, as it gave him a purpose and the courage to pursue it. As he says, “RIOS Guatemala has become that little something you think, ‘I was made for this’.” Max continues in his own words:
“RIOS Guatemala means Recreation, Investigation, Orientation and Sustainability of the rivers of Guatemala.
“Recreation. Our dream is to take people down rivers to enjoy themselves and to bring awareness of the rivers and the potential Guatemala has to become a world-class whitewater destination and through this you can help protect rivers, because this becomes an option for communities to live from nature and to take care of nature.
“Investigation. We want to open up a base camp where students can come and live, do research, and help us discover what was the river like before, what the river is like now and what it might become if we don’t take care of it, so building a laboratory at the base camp is really important.
“Orientation is an education process where we identify communities that impact the river directly and indirectly and guide them to using the land in a conservationist way where they can mutually benefit from nature and bring education to the next generations.
“Sustainability happens when Recreation, Investigation and Orientation work together and the communities live from nature, take care of nature and work together to preserve the pristine rivers.
“What does RIOS Guatemala intend to do now after existing only as a dream? We want to build a base camp on the Cahabón River because it’s the most commercial river of Guatemala and it is a place where you can begin to work and have an immediate result but we believe this base camp can become a model to use all over the country anywhere where there is a river that could be used as a trip to take people to enjoy the jungle rivers.
“Why do we do it? Because the river has taught us that if there is a purpose in one drop of water to make a river flow, then we have to have a purpose in life.”
RIOS Guatemala, from a dream in the 90’s in the heart of many who started rafting rivers, to a new generation willing to make the dream happen.
The RIOS Guatemala film will be screened in El Sitio Cultural Center, 5a calle Pte #15, Antigua, Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m. It tells the story of a group of paddlers, conservationists and filmmakers who risked their lives to gain access to the endangered Río Copón. Along the way, the audience is treated to astounding footage of six other jungle rivers as well as scenes of Guatemala’s other natural and cultural attractions. The film is in English, 43 minutes long, and a discussion will follow. A Q40 donation is requested. Drinks and snacks will be provided.
More info at: www.riosguatemala.com