White Water Rafting in Turrialba

Today we were up early and back at the bakery for breakfast. The white water rafting company was supposed to pick us up at 0830 in front of the hotel, so at 0825, we were outside and waiting. Every time a vehicle came around the corner, particularly a truck, we all thought “Oh, that must be them”, but invariably it wasn’t. At 0845, a van rounded the corner that had a big inflatable raft already inflated strapped to the roof. OK, this has to be them.

We all piled into the van and met everyone else already inside. We were surprised to find out there were 5 staff for 5 only passengers. Two were to be in the raft with us, one was the van driver, one a rescue kayaker, and one a photographer who would be kayaking around us and taking photos.

Turrialba is supposed to have some of the best white water rafting in the entire world. So, we expected it to be a short drive over to the river. At first we were on a nicely paved road, and the scenery was much the same as we have seen the last couple of days. Here are a couple shots we took while driving.

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The three of us were surprised at how far away from Turrialba we had driven when we finally turned off into a national park. The driver paid the entrance fee. Ah, we thought, we must be here now. But we weren’t. It was still a long drive over to the river, on a bad, windy dirt road that required us to drive slowly.

The nature reserve is beautiful, with thick, rich forest. At one point, one of the staff noticed a turtle in a pond off the side of the road and pointed him out. Being in the middle of the forest kind of makes you sad about the fact that so much of the forest in Costa Rica has been cut down and is now just plain grassland.

We finally pulled up to the river after a solid hour and a half of driving. The river looked to be pretty low, but we were assured there was still plenty of water for a good ride. The staff got the kayaks and rafts ready, then handed out helmets and paddles and did the safety lecture. The lecture was pretty dull until the guide said “if you fall out of the raft you could get trapped underneath it. If you do get trapped, this is what you need to do”¦.” Christi perked right up at that. What? You can get trapped under the raft and drown? Christi resolved right then that she wasn’t going to fall out. Period.

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While the raft was still safely onshore, we all piled in and practiced our strokes. The guide called out commands, such as “paddle forward” or “backward”, and we all responded with furious arm motions. Eric was in the front along with another passenger, Christi and Mike were in the middle, and the two staff were at the back. Confident we knew what we were doing, the guide pushed us off and into the calm, smooth water. Within a few seconds, we happened upon the first rapid, a small little guy. The guide went through the entire repertoire of commands, making sure we fully grasped what we were supposed to do when each command was called. We made it through the first rapid without anyone falling out, so we were off to a good start!

We drifted along for a couple minutes on the flat, calm water before coming to another rapid, this one bigger than the last. The instructions that the guide called out seemed a bit counter-intuitive. In the dinghy, we always try to take waves head on, but we took this rapid sideways. The orders were rapid fire, with him screaming “forward”, “backwards”, “forward” so fast that we could only get a paddle or two in before we had to switch directions. We got splashed with water and it was cold, much colder than Christi cared for. She reaffirmed her resolution to not fall out.

We paddled for about 2 ½ hours before we took a break. During the calm sections, we peacefully floated along, enjoying the mostly pristine scenery.

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We passed by a couple of eco-tourist hotels totally in the middle of nowhere and went through an Indian reservation. Rather than using bridges to get over the river, the Indians use zip lines, which we found really interesting. We passed a number of pretty waterfalls. At one point we were ordered to paddle right into a waterfall, where Eric was completely and totally drenched. Our guide steered us into a waterfall a second time, this time targeting Christi for the drenching, but she was wise to the trick and managed to avoid getting directly under the waterfall. Here is Eric with the waterfall that drenched him in the background.

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We saw several interesting animals, particularly birds. One kind of bird makes unusual looking tear shaped nests that actually hang off the tree branches, looking something like giant Christmas tree ornaments, and there were lots of them in the trees. Once in a while we’d paddle a little to straighten ourselves out, or to gain a little more momentum before hitting a rapid, but for the most part we just drifted.

As nice as drifting along was, the rapids are what made the trip thrilling. Sometimes we’d go for several minutes between rapids, sometimes they would come one right after another in succession. When going through a rapid, we almost always paddled vigorously. Some of the rapids were small, comparable to what we experienced in Bali (http://kosmos.liveflux.net/blog/2008/02/05/whitewater-rafting-trip-in-ubud/). Most were medium sized, which gave us a rush without actually making us scared. And some were really big — category 3’s and one level 4. On those we often thought someone might fall out of the raft and a couple times thought the raft might completely flip. We’d be ordered to get as low as we could in the raft and everyone would duck for cover, while still simultaneously trying to paddle with all our might. We’d be doused with water coming up over the sides of the raft. But no one fell out and the only thing that went wrong was at one point Christi accidentally smacked Mike in the face with her paddle. He saw stars for a minute, but recovered just fine.

Here are some shots the photographer took of us on a rapid. The first is entering it, the second is in it, and the third is coming out of it.

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And here are the photos of a different rapid. Once again shot one is about to go in, shot two is in it, and shot three is leaving it.

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We found out quickly that the rapids can be deceiving. Sometimes we’d approach one that looked small, but turned out to be a biggy, and other times a rapid would look huge and really be a piece of cake. The steering continued to be counter-intuitive as the guide navigated us around hazards he knew were in the water but we couldn’t see from the angle we were at. We frequently looked back to see rocks and other obstacles in the middle of the rapid we’d just come down that we hadn’t seen from the other side. Twice we went through amazingly tight passes, so tight we doubted we could clear it. Often, it looked like we were going to crash into the giant boulders on the sides of the river, but our guide was really good and actual contact with the rocks was pretty rare. The few times we did crash into rocks or caught the bottom of the raft on a rock or other obstacle, the rugged little rubber raft would just bounce and slide right off of it with no problems. Why isn’t our dinghy as durable?

During the whole ride, the safety kayaker was always close to us. He was in one of the smallest kayaks we have ever seen very fast and super maneuverable. Every time we were drifting, he would practice his tricks, doing Eskimo rolls, flinging himself out of the water and catching air, etc. He effortlessly glided down the rapids, making them look easy. He was so good and absolutely fascinating to watch. Christi went through a kayaking phase once and could truly appreciate how much skill his tricks required.

We stopped for lunch on a sandy beach. The staff flipped over the raft and used it as a table. Right then, it started to rain. The staff went to work preparing the food while the clients rested. They are skilled at chopping, too! We watched as they made a tuna salad with cucumber, made fresh guacamole, and sliced up mangos. They laid it out on the table with beans, cheese, tortillas, bread and lunch meat, trying hard to keep the food dry with the rain. We like this photo of the staff making lunch because it gives you a good sense of the setting.

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The clients were all wet and cold. Christi’s hands were numb and she found a warm rock to defrost her hands on while lunch was being prepared. Mike and one of the other passengers were already starting to feel sore from all the paddling. As soon as the food was ready, we ate quickly and were back on the water within a half hour. This time we switched seats, with Mike and Christi in front and Eric and the other guy in the middle. We were all paddling with the opposite arm now, too. Within a couple minutes everyone agreed that the front seat is more thrilling, kind of like being in the front car of a roller coaster, but that the middle seat is more comfortable, particularly in the rapids. In the middle you can brace yourself against the raft better than you can in the front. Also, you don’t get nearly as much water splashed on you in the middle. And, most importantly, you can hear the commands a lot better in the middle seat than you can in the front seat.

The second part of the trip had significantly less rapids than the first part did, and most of them were small rapids, though there were a few doozies that came out of nowhere. The second half we actually paddled quite a lot in the calm sections to keep our speed up. As we were quietly paddling during an especially long stretch of flat water, Mike commented that he felt like we were in Apocalypse Now and was braced for the arrows to start shooting at us.

At one point we came to an area with a rocky cliff overhanging the river. The staff asked if anyone wanted to climb up to the top of the ledge and jump into the river. Only Mike volunteered. He hesitantly climbed up to the top of the 20 foot ledge and quickly jumped off, making a big splash as he entered the water.

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Instead of retrieving him up right away, the staff let him float down the river for a little ways. He floated under a waterfall, which was neat. Mike said it was fun and was surprised at how strong the current was and how fast he moved down the river.

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After a few minutes, they loaded him back into the raft and shortly thereafter, we found ourselves in a town. Within a couple more minutes, we had pulled over to something along the lines of a rugged boat launch where the van was waiting. We had done a total of 18 miles, most of it before lunch. The second part of the paddle only lasted about an hour, which was fine. Mike and the other sore guy were glad about. They mumbled something about being eager to get back to their hotels to take some vitamin I. Christi was really cold and eager to get into dry clothes. The men all hoisted the raft up the ramp and over to the van. The crew went about loading and securing the rest of the gear while the guests went inside a bathroom in a bar to change into dry clothes.

It was a long drive back. Right after we were dropped off at our hotel, we found a near by restaurant and had dinner, then went back to the hotel and crashed. We were all really tired.

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