San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Whitewater Rapids 1, Extreme Tubers 0

RíO NEGRO, Guanacaste – There is no drifting, no time foranything pensive, no beer cooler floating beside you, nothing thatresembles relaxation and you can forget about keeping your cigarsdry. This is whitewater tubing.Here, the water churns like mango pulp in a blender on puree,and the rubber donut tubes are dunked in a froth at the bottomof each little waterfall.Rocks nip at your hiney and you have to pushaway from them if you have a leg turned that way, ora shoulder, and the rubbery cushion underneath doesnot soften all the blows.But it’s a family activity – a seven-year-old hasdone it.It’s an intimate experience with the river. Unlikerafting, where people are separated from the water by atleast two feet of compressed air and the paddle is always abuffer, tubing gives you a water bug’s view of the torrent. Thereis no guide in the tube with you – the tubers control the entire show.The foam plops right in your lap, nothing is dry and you can’t stopscreaming when you plunge over steep, class three and four rapidsand lose your tube at the bottom.“Whitewater rafting is more about teamwork,” said one tuber,Eugenia Chaves, who went with her husband and 11-year-old son.“The fact that you don’t have to worry about the rest of the team –(tubing) is a more personal experience.”THE sport takes place on the Río Negro where it tears througha forest near the volcano Rincón de la Vieja, north of Liberia. TheHotel Hacienda Guachipelín hosts the trip and provides the guides.The river is narrow and shallow throughout the course, not toodeep for people to stand up in many places, making this raging trickletoo small for rafts and just right for tubes.The tubers carouse the rapids in trendy yellow helmets and lifevests. Here, safety is handled almost to a fault.A small army of guides outfitted with harnesses, carabineers,nylon straps and spare tubes if one pops, herd peopleaway from the tight fits between rocks or the shores, rescuepeople from the eddies and bury the drowned. (Just kidding.)They are in the water, sometimes anchored with thenylon lines, to nudge tubes around boulders or to pushthem along through the doldrums.The tour is registered with the CostaRican Tourism Insitute and the guides aretrained in first-aid.Sticklers for safety, the measures are soextensive they are almost overkill, sometimes causingdelays in larger groups while people wait at the bottomof a low fall for everyone to slip down and float tocalmer water. It’s only a problem if you’re impatient. But the extrapush in the calm water brings on the waterfalls more quickly.THE idea for the ride sprang from the genius of José Tomás Batalla, one of the owners ofGuachipelín, when his sister toldhim about tubing tours on meanderingrivers in the southwesternUnited States.There was no calm stretch ofriver through his family’s land, sohe dropped some tubes in the RíoNegro and banged around therapids. After working out most ofthe kinks, including scaring offthe illegal loggers who cutbranches that littered the water,and rounding up good guides, heopened the ride to the public inJanuary.“The idea is to give a high adrenalinetour to people inGuanacaste. It’s not for everybody,it’s for people who likeadventure,” he said.In a nod to the copycatcanopy tours around the country and the legal battlesthey spawned, he said, “Lots of people willfollow in our footsteps, but we’re not going topatent this.”It begins and ends with a half-hour horsebackride from the grounds of the hacienda along a forestpath – people also walk or take a truck.DON’T do it “if you’re scared of certain thingsor if you’re not physically fit.” Chaves said. So,though it’s not for everyone, she said “it was up toa lot of people’s expectations.”For info, visit Guachipelín’s Web site, e-mail the hacienda or call 442-2818.

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