Get ready for an epic kayak adventure in Mexico

Michoacán offers rapids and waterfalls never paddled before; just stay out of drug cartel territory.
Kayaker Rafa Ortiz paddles through rapids in Tlapacoyan, Mexico in 2013
Rafa Ortiz in Tlapacoyan, Mexico © John Rathwell/Red Bull Content Pool
By Kevin McAvoy

Whitewater kayaking isn’t done in a gym or contested in an arena. The circumstances under which the athletes pursue their passions are not controlled or predictable, which is precisely why they’re passionate about the sport in the first place.

Once kayakers have developed their skills, they invariably seek out new rivers to test themselves. Every river offers its own challenges, whether they’ve been run before or not, but it’s exploring deep into nature and making first descents on unknown routes that really drives the professional kayak athlete.

That’s precisely the motivation that existed behind an elite crew that set out to explore rivers in the state of Michoacán in Mexico, waters that had never been paddled before. The story of their expedition will be told in a five-part video series, introduced in the teaser video above. The excitement of new exploration; the nervous energy of dropping into a waterfall for the first time; the uncertainty of travelling in a region under heavy influence from the drug cartels – it’s all here in First Descent: Michoacán.

We checked in with Mexico’s Rafael Ortiz, one of the principal kayak athletes on the trip, to give us an idea of what to expect in the coming episodes.

Red Bull Adventure: How did this expedition into Michoacán come about?
Rafa Ortiz: As whitewater kayakers, rivers are our main playgrounds. Each river has its own character and challenges, therefore we often have the urge to find new playgrounds, new places to challenge our skills.

We know news channels are sensationalised, but from talking to family and friends I had heard the stories – the risk was there.

Joel [Kowalski] has an obsession with Google Earth; like a kid in front of a video game, he sits for hours and virtually explores the world. For years he has been talking about the state of Michoacán, Mexico, which has a similar geology to waterfall mecca Veracruz. The only real way to know if this place is that good is to see it with our own eyes and paddle it with our own hands.

Two years ago we set out to explore it, but with boats tied on the roof and bags in the trunk, we pulled the plug and took the easy way around, as it seemed the drug war situation at that moment was far more dangerous than deep canyons and big waterfalls. In December 2013, we felt it was time.

Kayaker Rafa Ortiz on a Michoacan Expedition in 2013
Rafa Ortiz in Uruapan, Mexico © John Rathwell/Red Bull Content Pool

Were you nervous about anything before the trip started?
Unlike most river expeditions, this trip's big concern wasn't as much about the on-water risks. The hard part of committing to a social insecurity risk is the lack of certainty in our tools (such as maps or skills when making a decision). We know news channels are sensationalised, but from talking to family and friends I had heard the stories – the risk was there.

Were there any unexpected things that happened on this trip, positive or negative?
Any trip has its turns. We all arrived to Michoacán with a cautious approach, but as the days went by, we felt the hospitality and friendliness of the locals. We felt safe. The rivers' quality surpassed our expectations. And the unexpected happenings kept the trip spicy – a broken-down van, a lost (and found) wallet, and a 60-foot rappel, to name a few.

Kayaker Joel Kowalski descends a waterfall in Michoacan, Mexico in 2013
Joel Kowalski descends as Rafa Ortiz cheers him on © John Rathwell/Red Bull Content Pool

How did this expedition compare to others you've been on?
Every place is different and every group's dynamics are unique. This trip turned out to be one to remember for the rest of our lives, for the most fun times with the boys and the best days in our kayaks.

What did you learn?
Our natural reaction is to fear the unknown and take the easy way out. Ultimately, it’s not about taking bold risks, but approaching a challenge with smaller steps. Like running a big waterfall for the first time, exploring a new place is about going one step at a time. And if you don’t go, you'll never know…

Watch out for the premiere episode on the First Descent: Michoacán series page on March 11; new episodes will follow every Tuesday, along with photo galleries, additional behind-the-scenes video and more.

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