We gathered on the dirt beside the Pacuare river, we being about 75 tourists from places like Virginia, Europe and Escazú, as well as three Tico Times journalists including myself, for the purpose of piling into a big plastic yellow raft to ride some wild water.
Several guides from the tour company Ríos Tropicales moved industriously among us, ensuring everybody got the life vest, safety helmet and paddle. There seemed to be no plan for who would end up in what boat or with what guide, and so we killed some time chest bumping in our vests. Eventually, a young man with a mohawk and flawless eyebrows walked up.
“You go with me,” he said, standing on his tiptoes to fasten my helmet. I had been chosen by Douglas Avendaño, and that was incredibly lucky.
Douglas’s raft consisted of six people: me, Tico Times photographer Gabe Dinsmoor, Tico Times reporter Matt Levin, Rustic Pathways counselor Lindsay Fendt (who now is a Tico Times photographer) and Rustic Pathways campers Sara MacDonald and Emma Wheat. Rustic Pathways is teen adventure camp, and the participants come from all over the United States. Sara was from San Francisco. Emma was from Virginia. Both were adorably clueless.
Douglas looked us all up and down and decided he wanted the male journalists up front, Lindsay and me in the middle, and the two adolescents in the back. Shortly after he made this announcement, the campers took the middle seats. Douglas gave them a sideways glance, but decided it was fine. The most important thing was that the pairs were about the same size and strength. That way, the paddling would be about even, and should somebody fall overboard, the partner would be suitable to perform a rescue.
Still hitched on rocks at the side of the river, we practiced our paddling technique. “Forward,” Douglas bellowed, as if he had recently swallowed charcoal. We complied.
“Stop!” “Backward!” “Stop!”
He showed us where to hold the paddles, and told us we should stroke the water at the same speed. Finally, he explained that with the command “Oh my god!” we should all jump down into the raft, or else we risked falling out.
Although the simple instructions didn’t seem to be sinking in, Douglas eventually decided we were ready and launched us into the 108-kilometer Pacuare River. It was about 10 meters across, and lined with rocks and enormous tropical trees. The water wasn’t particularly cold or fast-moving, but this was only the beginning.
It took about five minutes for us to understand that we had the coolest guide on the entire river. In between practicing our paddling, Douglas steered us over to other rafts, splashed them with water and blamed it on Lindsay. Out of nowhere, he would yell, “hey!” then slap his paddle down, startling everyone within earshot. He fake sneezed, and tossed water on his passengers as if it were snot. All of this may sound juvenile and strange, but out there on a river, with our adrenalin pumping and rapids looming, it was as comforting as it was hilarious.
At one point, Douglas took us to one bank and jumped out, instructing Lindsay to hold a rock to make sure we didn’t float away. He began pulling at nearby trees, and came back with six bunches of large, floppy leaves attached to their stems. He secured them in holes at the tops of each of our helmets, and like hapless crusaders from some Dr. Seuss story, we took off down the river.
It was around this time that Douglas began to notice something peculiar about Emma. It seemed that each time he gave an instruction, she did the opposite. When he instructed, “get ready,” Emma started paddling. When he said “backward,” she paddled forward. When he said nothing at all, she paddled backward. “Emma, what are you doing?” he sang. “You’re funny.”
Then he grabbed her life vest and tossed her out of the raft.
One by one, we all plopped in, eager to cool off and swim a little where we could before we started hitting the level 3 and 4 rapids. Floating on my back down the Pacuare, I couldn’t help but think about how refreshing it was to be in nature, especially among coworkers, a couple of clueless teenagers and the most entertaining outdoor guide I had ever known.
“Everybody back in,” he instructed, and soon we were all pulling each other and scrambling clumsily over the side of the raft, collapsing into a pile of legs and laughter.
Now was a time to get serious, though. Everything we had done so far was merely practice for the upcoming rapids, and we would need to listen carefully and follow instructions. As the river hastened beneath us and the upcoming path came into view, we saw something we had been dreading – a level 4 rapid. Then we watched as another raft flew over it in bad position, resulting in a passenger overboard.
As the tension in our boat mounted, something seemed to click in Emma’s mind. She knew she had to keep paddling and to stay focused. As we entered the rapid, she became obsessed with the idea.
Douglas began to instruct us to paddle, but she cut him off. “Forward!” she yelled. “Forward!” Unaware of whether her command was even appropriate, Emma yelled forward through the entire series of level 4 rapids, and her own yelling motivated her to continue paddling. We sailed past giant boulders, dipped down and popped back up on curling white-water waves. When they got too big, Douglas screamed, “Oh my god!”
We all crouched in the raft, squealing and panicking and loving it.
When we came out the other side, it felt like we had all been through some kind of natural disaster together. Our once perky leaves now limply stuck to the sides of our helmets, and our skin was beginning to pink from the sun. I laughed irrationally, feeling overwhelmed by my own energy. When I asked Emma how this compared to the rest of her trip, she said it was by far the best thing her camp had done.
On the final stretch of river, Douglas decided it was Emma’s turn to call the shots. He brought her to the back of the boat and whispered in her ear, then let her handle things from there on out.
“Forward!” she commanded us. We weren’t sure if she knew what she was doing, but what the hell did it matter? We dug in, our guide Douglas included, and paddled for our 16-year-old captain. “Forward!” she said. “Forward!”
Ríos Tropicales offers a variety of different rafting packages on the Pacuare River, ranging from one to four days long and costing between $99-$460.
All trips include professional bilingual guides, transportation from and to San José, rafting equipment, breakfast and a hot lunch at the Operations Center. Additional transportation is available from Arenal and Puerto Viejo for a small fee.
For more information, visit www.riostropicales.com.