Adelante! Adelante! Forward, Forward, Forward!!!! Hard right! Hard right!! Back, Back, Back!!! Hang on! GET DOWN!!!! This massive wall of water came crashing over the front of the raft, as we slammed into a boulder the size of a Chevy Suburban. The entire rubber inflatable, shot up in the air, flipped around 180 degrees, and came smashing back down again. I was gone, completely hopeless, heading backwards into the river, seconds from going for a swim, possibly never to be seen again. My paddle was the first thing to go, as it flew out of my hand, and I felt like one of those cartoons; where they are falling, helplessly, with their arms flailing in reverse loop circles. It was like slow motion, as I was certain I was going in the river, and just as my feet came up to my shoulder level, headed over the back of my helmet, Kent grabbed me by the front of my life preserver and reefed me back in the boat. We had just finished a 800 meter run through two class IV rapids, known as the Lower and Upper Huacas, and we came out the other end a little worse for wear. Pura Vida Baby!!!
When Kent told me he wanted some EXCITEMENT for his birthday, I did some digging around on the internet. It seems the Pacuare River, in Guapiles Costa Rica, is considered one of the top five white water rafting rivers in the world; Potential injury or death? Awesome sign me up!!! My entire life has been one big risk taking, so there was no need to change my personality now. I have always gone with the David Lee Roth School of thinking; “A little ain’t enough for me; Living ain’t a luxury.”
The plan was simple; we were to meet the tour bus at the hotel in San Jose, at 5:30 a.m. and they were going to drive us the 90 minutes to the Rios Tropicales Operations Center. This meant going back over the “highway to hell” that we had encountered just a day earlier, when we drove our friend David back to the airport after our adventure in Puerto Viejo. Just a couple weeks before, I had been on a similar bus on my trip to Nicaragua, and the thought of spending another minute in a rolling sardine can makes my head hurt. Add to that, the nauseating S turns that I knew we were going to encounter, made my stomach churn and I was dreading the ride the entire night. You see, I don’t do well as a passenger, especially on buses filled with diesel fumes. Even when I sit in someone’s SUV, I usually find myself getting car sick, and the last thing I wanted before rafting one of the most dangerous rivers on the earth, was to be light headed, and needing a good puke. So when the driver and his assistant arrived, we told them that we would be following them to the shop. They had this stunned look on their face, since obviously nobody ever did this, but since I lived here, and had my own truck, we were in a different position. He seemed to be a little worried, that he might lose us on the way, which wouldn’t look good to his boss, but I assured him that there was no way on earth, I couldn’t keep up with his rickety old tour bus. We followed them around San Jose for the next hour, as they stopped at 4 or 5 other hotels, picking up about a dozen tourists who were going on the river that day as well. We congratulated ourselves for being so smart, riding in comfort, hot coffee in hand, air conditioning blasting, listening to Tom Petty while these poor individuals were in for the most undesirable ride of their lives. “Well yeah, I might have chased a couple women around……” as we sang the words to every song. Remember, this is the Eternity reunion tour.
A couple hours after we started, we turned off Ruta 32 and followed a country road a few miles back up into the hills, where we arrived at the Rios Tropicales home office.
We were treated to an incredible Tico Style breakfast, with everything from omelets, pancakes, Gallo Pinto and fruit. I believe we needed all the energy we could get, so I consumed a double portion in anticipation of the hard work that lay ahead. As expected, they made everyone sign a waiver of indemnification, against, injury or death, and this made the anxiety that much more powerful. We all then piled back into the van, for a 30 minute drive to the entry point of the river. As is always the case here, the scenery was breath taking, as we meandered through rolling hills and farm land, huge mountains and rain forest, and the bus came to a creaking halt at the top of this very steep incline. There was a dirt road, headed straight down at what looked like a 45 degree angle, and I hoped to God they weren’t going to attempt it in this squeaky old bucket of bolts; nope. They had other plans. This farm tractor arrived, with a giant wooden cart towed behind it, and they instructed us to “Grab our gear, and get in.” We bounced, and dipped; crawled and prodded our way, down the hill, to a flat load up spot on the river. Kent and I were the only ones doing the two day overnight trip, as everyone else was just there for the one day ride. This meant we had our own craft, just the two of us and our guide, and I wasn’t sure if this was such a very good thing. Generally, you want 6 rafters to the team, especially on Rapid Class IV and V’s, as you need all the “steering” power you can get, but we just took it on as another challenge that we had to conquer. Our guides name was Esteban, and he was just a kid of about 21 or 22, but you could tell that he took his job very seriously. We practiced our paddle maneuvers, on his commands, so that when the time arose, we wouldn’t delay for a second. Hesitation can be very dangerous on a river, especially when you are in rapids of this speed and severity. If you ended up in the drink, it could mean some serious problems, as it might be quite a while before the raft caught up with you again and had the chance to pull you back into safety. Besides, with only one rower left, and the guide steering in the rear, it would be almost impossible to get you back in the boat, without at least a long, wild, fast ride over the jagged rocks. The thought of pinging and ponging back and forth between million year old boulders, is enough to keep you focused on your job ahead as you plod down the river. People do die, attempting this sport. Juice Fire!!! Let’s go!
The first 15 minutes or so are basically a warm up to the “real stuff” and this allowed you to take in the vast amount of nature that surrounded you. The Pacuare River runs smack dab through the center of the Braulio Carrillo National Park, one of the largest in Costa Rica. It is 109,000 acres and has altitudes of almost 10,000 feet, and has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the nation, with 90% of the park considered primary forest. What this means, is that the area looks just like it did when dinosaurs walked the earth, and at times it is even quite creepy. There are thousands of animal species, and it is so thick you cannot even fathom trying to walk through it, and yet here is this river, slicing it in two. On both sides of the Pacuare, are towering mountains, with expansive scaling sheer cliff walls, and not a telephone pole or electrical wire in sight. Actually, in 1986 the government entity known as ICE, which handles all the electricity for this little country, had considered building a hydroelectric dam here, but it was rejected due to the concerns the impact would have on the ecology of the river and its surroundings. All I can say is; Way to go Costa Rica!!!! Because this was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen anywhere on this earth, and I would encourage every single one of you to take the time to visit this National Park, in one way or another. As the river started to gain speed, I had a flashback to my childhood, and one of my favorite TV shows; Land of the Lost; where a family goes rafting and ends up back in time, and you would swear you had shot out of a time machine, 75,000,000 years ago. Let the fun begin!
The next four hours, we worked our tails off, carving through canals and channels, flying over rocks and rapids, whipping around violent bends and turns; even negotiating whirlpools. There are places on the river, where they have different colored markings so that the guides know the depth and direction of the upcoming rapid. Esteban told us, that they are never quite sure what the river will be like, or what to expect until they get there, as the precipitation is so unpredictable in the rain forest. Sometimes, they can have torrential downpours for days, and then not a drop for the next. I am not going to debate Global Climate Change with you people, but this is why it is called Weather. It is unpredictable. It has ALWAYS been unpredictable. That is why Meteorologists don’t last very long on TV, and usually end up being replaced every year by a different Weatherman. At least in Europe they use women and they are topless.
Each rapid was unique, with its own special identity to try and capture your raft, and toss you in to the fury and the rage. Some were like Roller Coasters, taking you up and then dropping you down with mind boggling G-force. Others were like the Whip it Ride at the Carnival, which shook you violently back and forth, front to back, bashing your brains against the inside of your skull. I felt like Wes Welker against the Seahawks Defense; completely useless. It felt sometimes like you were in a haunted house, and you weren’t sure what was going to jump out and grab ya, so you just paddled like there was no tomorrow and prayed for the best. One of them was a pipe, where it shoots you down the tube, and blasts you out the other side, like the gun on a pressure washer. They had names like “Don Montana” and “Lose your Breakfast”; “Rodeo” and “Double Drop.” One of our favorites was named “Toilet” and with just a little luck, and lots of hard work and skill, you could swirl around and get in the bottom of the bowl, actually surfing the flush for a good minute or two. Kent and I, with the screaming instructions of Esteban, were able to deftly pull this off, and it truly felt like we were getting swallowed alive; the nose of the raft was so overwhelmed with water and pressure, it actually tore the entire front bottom off the boat. For the last 45 minutes we had to take on Mother Nature with only 75% of our craft, but of course we survived. Did you think I wouldn’t? Not bad for a couple of old dudes, huh? Happy Birthday Kent!
We arrived at the Rios Tropicales Pacuare Eco Lodge at about 2 pm, exhausted, but confident, having just taken on some of the toughest rapids in Latin America and come out on top. The lodge is tucked in the rainforest on the banks of the river, complete with electricity and hot showers thanks to their hydro-powered generator system; a model of ecotourism and sustainable business practices. We tied up the raft, grabbed the water proof bags and dropped them off in our rooms. The quarters were actually quite nice, quaint and simple, but much more than I anticipated, thinking we were seriously going to be roughing it in the jungle. We came back down to the open air rancho restaurant, where we met a wonderful couple from New Zealand, Casie and Matt, who had also rafted the river and were staying at the lodge. They were happy, I think, to have some company, as this time of year, there are not a lot of tourists taking this overnight trip, and we were the only 4 people in the place, along with Esteban and Otto, the other guide. “Do you guys drink?” they asked, as they held up a bottle of rum and invited us over to share.
There is no halo over my head, I responded, and a new friendship was formed. It turns out they are both flight attendants who live in Dubai and work for Emirates Airlines, and having spent the last couple years in the desert, they were ecstatic to be in a humid, tropical environment. They had disembarked there the day before, so they were already pros, and gave us tips on where to hike and what to see. We were all treated to an outstanding lunch, with a bucket of cold beer, and Kent and I decided to play Teddy Roosevelt and explore the surrounding jungle. The place was amazing. There were waterfalls, and natural pools, hiking trails and scenic viewing areas, even a suspension bridge, all just feet from the racing river below. At times, the noise was so loud; you actually had to shout for someone to hear what you were saying. We found this trail, heading up and out, and decided to see where it would go. We climbed for what seemed like an eternity, and still never even got close to the top of the mountain. Gasping, and choking, dying for another beer, we finally gave up and turned back, but I have to say the fauna was something out of a Botanical Garden; Gorgeous.
“You went where?” Otto asked. “Do you realize how many snakes there are out there? This IS the rainforest man.” He proceeded to pull out his phone, showing photos of some of the beasts, that they have caught while hiking up that same path, and the lump in my throat started to grow. There were Bushmaster and Coral snakes, and even the Fer De Lance, the most poisonous one of them all in Costa Rica, fortunately mostly only located on the jungle side of the country. He went on to tell us, that if we had gotten bitten, we would only have 2 hours to live, if we didn’t get to the nearest hospital for an anti-venom shot. He also informed us that it was a 4 hour hike, if you are in excellent shape, as there are no telephones or internet and the cell service is nonexistent; you can’t call a Flight for Life; so basically you are dead. Living dangerously man, that’s my style. Thanks for the heads up bro.
That evening we were treated to another spectacular meal, and spent the last few waking hours checking out the stars. There is not one single light in the rain forest, except for our little flashlights and the stars, so it was incredibly eerie to be sitting there in the dark, listening to the sounds of the jungle. We called it a night, and went to crash in our little casita. At first, it was almost impossible to fall asleep, as the roar of the river below us was overwhelming. It truly sounded like a freight train running through the dormitory. But after a while, it became almost hypnotic and I had one of the best sleeps of my life, my exhaustion adding to the deep trance I am sure. The sun rises early in this part of the planet, and we headed to the rancho where Otto and Esteban were already making coffee. After another insane breakfast, we were told we had about 3 hours to kill before launching the rafts again and heading on down the Pacuare. The lodge actually has two canopy tour zip lines, so we decided to take one for a spin. As we zig zagged back and forth across the turbulent river below, I had to smile, reminding myself how tremendously lucky I am to live in such an impressive country. It still amazes me how many people spend their entire life procrastinating as time just keeps flying by. It’s your life people; take it back; take control. As Bon Scott used to say, “Take a chance while you’ve still got the choice.”
For the second day of our travels, we joined forces with Casie and Matt, as the four of us teamed up with Otto for the lower half of the river. Esteban had the unfortunate job of manning a raft all by himself, just two oars and his expertise, and I have to say I was definitely impressed to see him handle it alone. We rocked and we rolled for a good hour or so, until we came to this little enclave, where another river flowed and joined forces with ours. We took a short break from rowing, and climbed on to the rocks, and hiked about 500 meters up into the forest. There, just pouring out the side of the mountain, was this gushing water fall, with private lagoons and a massive swimming hole. We spent the next 20 minutes, jumping off the cliff, cannon balling into the pool, the water brisk, cool and refreshing, and even found ourselves sliding down the waterfall as if it was a man made water park. STUPID FUN! Who does this stuff? It was almost better than sex after the Giants Super Bowl win; Almost, I said.
The next three hours we were treated to some of the most unbelievable scenery you have ever witnessed; from gargantuan caverns and caves, to towering peaks and canyons. There were a few times where the water slowed down, and we could cool ourselves off with a dip and a float, before climbing back in the raft, seconds before the next eruption. As we came around this one bend, there was this grass hut, perched way up on the slope, overlooking the land and the river. I asked Otto if this was some sort of Ranger station and he informed it was not. It turns out; there are still indigenous people who live in the Braulio Park, as they have for thousands of years, living off the land, fishing from the river. Can you imagine? Here it is almost 2015, and there are still people who have absolutely no desires or needs to conform to the modern world, and live in the jungle like the Mayans did 500 years ago. Turns out there are tens of thousands of people like this in Costa Rica and Panama, and you can read more about it here. It is truly fascinating, but two days of playing Francis Drake was enough for me.
As we approached what would be our final Dance with Death, I saw a photographer crouched down on a knoll, taking photos of us as we passed. I was the only one who saw him, and made an effort to look his way. You know me; always up for a photo op; smile for the camera, man. It was called Cimarones, which means outlaws or criminals, and its purpose, I truly believe, was to try and kill us. “Hang on everyone!” Otto shouted, as we plunged into the anger and the destruction. “Forward! Forward! Forward!” For the next 180 seconds, I couldn’t even see the other members of my crew sometimes, the wall of water was so intense, blasting us in the face, pounding us against the sides; doing everything it could to capsize our vessel; separate us from our safety. It was evil. “Adelante! Adelante! Adelante!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. “Keep at it, don’t give up! Harder! Harder! Harder!” I was paddling like there was no tomorrow, the pain in my arms and shoulders was excruciating, but we all fought through it, knowing we were counting on one another to handle their share. The rapid was not willing to let go. It fought back, like a psychopath, desperate to win; determined to destroy us; crush us; obliterate our raft. It was like a sound track to a horror movie, getting louder and louder, faster and faster, and then finally; BOOM! One gigantic explosion! Somehow, we came out the other side; physically demolished, but completely intact; not a muscle in my body not screaming for vengeance. The four of us lifted our paddles in the air, clashed them together to make the rafting salute; PURA VIDA!!! We all yelled. Mission Accomplished! Cheers Mr. River; Check mate.
Hope to see you soon. Take care.
PS – On the return drive home to San Jose, we encountered one of those famous torrential down pours, known in this part of the country; the rain was so heavy, and so hard, my wipers couldn’t even clear the windshield. It is scary enough making this drive on a sunny day, let alone during a thunderstorm, and I have to say it was one of the most difficult drives of my life. Just a few days later, that same portion of Ruta 32 was the location of 3 giant landslides and 11 small ones that trapped 1200 people in their cars, trucks and buses. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed, but it seems again my timing is always perfect.
PSS – We returned just in time for the Costa Rica Independence Day, September 15th, which is another sight to see in itself. There are thousands of parades and festivals all over the country, and if you can ever plan to be here on this particular day, I implore you to do it. There is so much National Pride in this little paradise, it gives you goose bumps. This country is one of the only true democracies in Latin America and being allowed to live here is an honor. Happy Birthday Costa Rica and Happy Birthday Millie Dolores; they were both born on the same day. Thanks my little angel for 10 phenomenal years of unconditional love! I adore you!!!!