Fliptastic rafting adventures in high water, “flushing” moments on commercial trips and learning from what life throws at you – this week we meet Alejandro (Alex) Cuéllar. Alex remembers when his brother in law said to him back in 1994 in México… “Alex, come with me next weekend to the mountains, I’ll show you what I’m doing for work, I think you’ll love it!”. And indeed, it became his passion since then. It all started by training in a inflatable single ducky, alone, flipping, wrapping, swimming and once he got to know the river up right and upside down, he jumped to the raft and started learning the guide strokes thanks to his Sensei Giovanni Lampedeccia, owner of Pápero Aventuras named in that time, Selva Azul these days.
What has motivated you to keep rafting?
Who wouldn’t like to go traveling, getting to know new people, new amazing places, stay in close contact with nature, get to know different cultures, have great and scary experiences, grow internally by the changing world and learn from others and practically for free? Best school ever!
Most memorable experience on the river?
Every time I won a kayak or raft race. I still get goose bumps every time I remember each of them!
Funniest / most ironic river moment?
Ok, until now I kept it as a secret, but why not.. let’s spread it all out!
It was so embarrassing. I came back to México after my season in Chile, went to work with my very good friend Ernesto from Eco Chiapas. A delightful morning breakfast was waiting for me before the rafting trip. But of course, I was away from Mexico for a couple of years already and my stomach was not very used to hot spicy Mexican food so I bet you can now imagine what this is leading to…
A 2.5 hours rafting trip started. Pool drop pool in the beautiful place called “Selva Lacandona”. An amazing jungle with very dense vegetation on both shores with a magical Mayan site at the end of the trip but, unfortunately half way down my stomach was cranking on pain and making strange noises. I remember very well, we’re approaching a class III drop with a flat pool afterwards. By the end of the drop, my stomach was purging out and felt a horrible pressure that I had no other choice but to dive backwards in the water pretending that I fell out of the boat and couldn’t hold it any longer. Just not to give you details, because it might be funny but at the same time disgusting, I had to yield from the water to my crew “forward paddle, forward hard” to avoid getting in between my own floating diarrhoea! Period, I said it.
Worst moment on a river?
It was the end of my first year guiding. The Upper Filo Bobos, a class IV section was booked with 6 people after the same crew came rafting the previous day on the regular class III section. The rain didn’t stop during the whole night and in the morning there was still a light rain. The river came up high and in the morning we were thinking what we always think… “it’s big, but great level, we’ll be just fine!”. Unfortunately the water level rose significantly. At our base camp in the morning the lower section of the Filo was higher but not that much (wrong appreciation).
The upper canyon of the Filo (alto Filo) has a very steep walking trail put in where bringing down all the gear requires lots of effort, one hour walk and to hire local porters. By the time we arrived at the bottom of the deep canyon we realised we were in deep …problems. The water was huge; I would say around 200 cumecs in a narrow 20 mts wide gorge. Our biggest error was (back in 1995) we took only one raft, 5 guests and 2 guides (yes, both of us guides in the same raft).
To make the story short, we flipped on the first rapid in a massive hole. We had swimmers everywhere, me, 2 more guests and the other guide were hanging on to the boat. Eventually we got recycled in a strong small eddy by the river left wall which made things difficult to recover. After we managed to re-flip and put things back up right, we dump trucked trying to exit the strong eddy being pushed against the exit wall.
After a few attempts, we finally left the eddy over some huge rocks on the downstream of the eddy. We continued as soon as we could to start looking for the rest of the crew. Right after we continued padding, there was another swimmer holding on to some branches on river left and got him back in the raft.
On the next rapid, we got surfed in another huge hole. Everyone except one of the guests, were floating downstream. All the swimmers and I managed to catch an eddy and were safe. We could see the raft shaking and spinning while having a hell of a surf in the hole. We started yelling, “hold on and get down” to the single guest in the boat. After some minutes, the boat came out and I quickly swam to the boat.
We all knew there were still two more guests missing, the son of one of the guests and his son’s friend. We got in the boat again with few paddles left and continued downstream quickly looking for the two missing guests. Luckily they were just around the corner on a small beach river left, Uffff!
After several minutes, I convinced the crew to keep paddling downstream with lots of precaution and portaging some of the rapids because an evacuation was impossible in the middle of the canyon and could’ve been even more dangerous.
At the end, after about 4 hours on a section that normally takes 45 minutes at this level, all went ok, no fatalities, no injuries, some equipment lost but every body was safe. We were very lucky. Definitely a good learning experience.
How do you maintain a life balance?
I try to organise as many Rescue 3 White Water Rescue Technician courses as I can as an Instructor, the same as an IRF Instructor from full training programs for new beginner Rafters or experienced candidates to obtain their IRF certifications as River Guides or Safety Craft. I try to find jobs as a photo boater or raft guide all year around. In the small gaps between the seasons I see family, friends, travel around a bit near by the country I’m working in.
Words of wisdom to those new to rafting?
This job must be a passion for you! If you’re looking for a high standard life or making enough money out of it or just thinking of doing this for a season or two, you’re on the wrong path. I hope you can fall in love with the rivers, the nature, the people, different cultures and respect all of them. That’s the key to happiness in this job.
Thoughts on the IRF?
It is the constant evolution, smart development, responsibility and the well thought through safety and rescue standards. The care of nature, care of individuals and taking this sport as common denominator between all of us.
When will we see you next?
I got some job offers for this 2018-2019 season in NZ and Central America… will see. I’m sure I’ll meet some of you in an eddy!
Alex is one of our River Family. Are You?
#AreYouReady #RaftersAreAwesome #RiverFamily #StrongerTogether #WeAreIRF
We’re looking for more stories of River Family – if you have a story to tell, email Sean with your story and photos.