Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

Wild Whitewater!

My trip to Costa Rica was fueled by my desire to conquer the rapids of Rio Pacuare (Pacuare River). My friend and I booked the Pacuare 2 Day whitewater rafting trip with Rios Tropicales after I’d watched Al Roker raft with them on the Today Show. My friend and I had been whitewater rafting once before, but one look at the rapids visible less than fifty feet from our launch site told us that this time would be very different.

Our guide assembled our rafting team. A newlywed couple joined my friend and me. We were outfitted with “chalecos” (cha-LAY-cos) (lifevests) and “cascos” (CAS-cos) (helmets) and instructed on paddling. Seconds after pushing off from the riverbank, we were forced to test our abilities on the first rapid.

We sat on the edge of the raft, wedged our feet inside to keep ourselves in position, and held our paddles ready. The rapid took hold of our raft. We paddled to our guide’s commands: “Forward paddle.” (Everyone paddle forward.) “Right back.” (Right side of the raft, paddle backward. Left side of the raft, paddle forward.) “Forward paddle.” When the rapid spat us out, we were energized. This was going to be great!

Our guide easily led us through class 2 and 3 rapids. When we stopped for lunch, he flipped over our raft on a sandy riverbank turning it into a buffet table offering fresh pineapple and mango, cold cuts and cookies.

After a pleasant day of rafting, we arrived at Rios Tropicales Lodge where we would spend the night. Our guide took us on a hike in the lush jungle and pointed out insects, including the bullet ant whose sting packs a wallop, and the ubiquitous leaf cutter ants who carry comparatively large chunks of leaf to their nests. We climbed up small waterfalls and slid down them.

That night, we shared a delicious meal of seasoned chicken breast and vegetables complete with flan for dessert in an open air dining room overlooking the river. We fell asleep to the deafening chorus of jungle insects heard through the mosquito netting that covered our open windows.

The next morning, after breakfast, our guide geared us up and led us to a series of ziplines through the jungle. Hooked to a skinny line, I walked up to the edge of the first platform, reluctantly stepped off and soared through the beautiful jungle. Although the first step was terrifying, after that I was able to enjoy the scenery.

Too soon it was time to leave our lodge in the jungle and set out again in our raft. Our guide promised us that the second day’s rafting would be “even better” than the first. He also pointed out that a rescue kayaker would be accompanying us; I hoped that we wouldn’t need to make use of his services. Before long, we reached our first class 4 rapid. We tightly gripped our paddles and wedged our feet firmly in the raft.

The rapid took hold, pulling us down toward its boulders. We paddled hard, following our guide’s commands. Without warning, the raft lifted onto its side. Our guide ordered us, “Down, down.” We hit the floor of the raft on our knees to lower the center of gravity. I watched our raft move among tall walls of white water. We were doused with bucket-loads of water. “Back in position.” We leapt back into paddling position. For the first time on our trip, I was humbled by the river, and a bit scared, but there was no turning back, so I trusted our guide and paddled hard hoping that if I did everything he said, I’d stay in our raft.

After we’d conquered our first class 4 rapid, my confidence rose. I took time to appreciate the beauty of the lush jungle, the numerous waterfalls plunging down the cliffs and the occasional toucan and bright blue butterfly. When the river was calm, our guide let us take a swim in the river while he paddled our raft.

When we stopped for a break to swim under yet another beautiful waterfall, the guides piled into one of the rafts. They paddled upriver to the base of a rapid, then “surfed” there, the raft rocking from side to side. It looked exciting, but dangerous. I was surprised when they asked us if we’d like to join them, but we decided to climb aboard. The guides paddled our raft to the rapid and we began to “surf.” Our raft was pummeled with water. We tilted left then right. It was much wilder than anything I had experienced before. I was beginning to enjoy the ride when, suddenly, the river took hold of us. The right side of our raft rose high above the water, then plunged downward. Everyone was dumped into the river as the raft flipped over. I opened my eyes to find myself underwater. Above me was a sea of people. I felt surprisingly calm, like I was in one of those slow-mo underwater drowning scenes in the movies. I swam toward the daylight and surfaced.

A raft appeared before me. One of the guides grabbed my lifejacket by the shoulders.
“Uno, dos, tres.” He pulled me onto the raft. “Would you like to go again?” he asked. I decided to watch from shore instead.

After the guides “surfed” a little longer, we climbed into our raft and continued down the river. The rapids came hard and fast. Near the beginning of a difficult class 4 rapid, our guide ordered us, “Down, down.” We hit the floor. The river pushed the raft up onto its side, but, just before the raft flipped over, it righted itself with a hard slap. Unfortunately, it was enough to loosen me from my position and toss me into the wild whitewater.

In an instant, our raft disappeared from view. I was completely alone. I saw only whitewater around me. Water washed over my head. I took a breath whenever I could. My knee banged hard against a rock reminding me that I needed to get into “rescue position.” I pushed my legs out in front of me and faced downstream just as we had been told in our safety briefing. A few moments later, our safety kayaker appeared in front of me. “Grab the kayak,” he ordered. My hands still tightly clutched my paddle. More water washed over my head. I opened my eyes and the kayaker was still by my side. “Drop the paddle! Grab the kayak!” he barked over the roar of the water. I dropped my paddle and grabbed the kayak with two hands. Almost instantly we arrived at my raft. Our guide pulled me onboard. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Yes,” I responded, still not fully grasping what had happened. We were still in the middle of the rapid. There was no time to rest. “Back in position,” our guide told me. I scrambled to my seat. “Forward paddle!”

I followed his commands, riding a wave of adrenaline that helped me make it though that rapid and the ones that followed. By the time we arrived at the end of our adventure, I had a healthy respect for the power of the river. I no longer cared about conquering her. It was enough that I’d rafted the beautiful Rio Pacuare and survived.

I did this in 2007 on the Pacuare River.
(We were picked up by the whitewater rafting tour operator at our hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica.)

Dr. Jen (California, USA)