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Rafting the Rio Naranja


As I helplessly drifted down the rushing river, I decided I would never leave my house again. I thought this would be a safe leisurely stroll down the river, but it became a major life experience that would determine my future as an intrepid adventure traveler. After watching endless hours of meaningless reality TV one day, something swept over me and I felt compelled to go whitewater rafting down one of Costa Rica’s many rivers at the beginning of their occasionally dangerous rainy season—a choice considered unwise by a friend many years before. Alarmed by his advice during my first trip to Costa Rica, I abandoned all future adventures by firmly planting myself on my couch cushions (one of which now has a permanent indention).  Luckily for me, my newly discovered infatuation came at a fortuitous time for as I planned my yearly vacation, I decided this one would be full of adventures. The appointed time came and the adventure began…

The day started simply enough at 6:00 am for myself, my husband Jeff, my sister Allison, and my sister-in-law Laura as we prepared for our first rafting experience.  Not only was this our first voyage down a river, it was also Laura’s first time outside the confines of rural America and Allison’s first trip to Latin America; after visiting Costa Rica’s numerous beaches, we thought a trip down a river would be a nice safe change. However, I cannot deny the nerves flowing through the room as the rafting rookies started the day. 

But start we did. As per the American way, we arrived early to the designated pickup spot.  Yet although the itinerary said 7:00 am, by 7:25 there was still no sign of our hired rafting guides.

Like most of Latin America, in Costa Rica, you can expect the ticos—as Costa Ricans are locally known—to be at least 30 minutes late, a cultural phenomenon I was more than acquainted with due to my four months of study abroad in 2002 (it was at this time my tico friend dissuaded me from my fist rafting attempt). However, it had been four years since then, and living in the United States definitely does not lend itself to patience. So off I went to find the offices of our rafting company—who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons.  Once I arrived, the manager insisted the voyage was scheduled for 7:30, although I showed her the itinerary, which said 7:00, she proclaimed, “Nunca empezamos a las siete” (We never begin at seven).  She sent me back to the pick up site—only to find the rafting guides and my companions patiently waiting for my return in the company jeep.

Our guides, I was to learn over breakfast (where, due to miscommunication between my rafting party and server, I received two heaping helpings of rice and beans, which I devoured), were Tomás and Alejandro.  Tomás rafted, kayaked, and skateboarded.  At 20 years old—five years younger than me—I felt a bit uneasy about this, especially after learning he had only been guiding for four months and was still learning many of the river’s ever-changing rapids.  While listening to Tomás speak of his many rafting adventures, I could not help but hope that Alejandro was a bit more experienced.  To my delight, Alejandro was in fact more knowledgeable. He had been guiding rafters for years and knew much about the river’s rapids as well as the surrounding vegetation. Yet he would not be in our raft; as our kayaker, Alejandro would alert Tomás to any of the river’s dangerous rapids before we arrived.  In spite of our nerves, the four of us felt more confident after talking to Tomás and Alejandro over breakfast, thus preparing us for our arrival to the Río Naranjo for the beginning our safety lessons.

The Río Naranjo is a river on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, near Quepos and Manuel Antonio.  Known for its natural beauty (almost 30% of Costa Rica consists of national parks or reserves, serving as sanctuaries for thousands of different animal and plant species).  The Río Naranjo forms the southern border of the Manuel Antonio National Park, the smallest, yet most visited national park in Costa Rica.  At approximately seven miles, the river’s length would give us ample time to literally get our feet wet in the world of river rafting.  And, after hearing the names of some of the rapids, “Robin Hood,” “Crocodile,” and “Caesar,” (significantly named after the 1996 hurricane that altered the course of the river), I decided I needed to pay more attention to the safety lessons when the butterflies in my stomach began to flutter again.

I have a wandering mind by nature and generally cannot stay focused on a single topic for more than a minute or two (five if I am having a good day).  However, I intently tried to focus my attention as Tomás led us through our safety lessons and proper rafting protocol.  We learned what to do when he said “lean,” “down,” “forward paddle,” “back paddle,” and of course, the ever-confusing command, “stop.”  We also learned what to do in case we fell out of the raft (something they said almost never happens): float on the water with your arms out making the shape of the cross.  All this seemed easy enough at the time, but how quickly one forgets this basic technique when needed.

Now more nervous than ever, the four of us began our experience with our seemingly capable guides, Tomás and Alejandro.  We approached our first rapid with a certain amount of trepidation—would we fall out? What if I don’t remember the commands? And of course, I wish I had finished my advanced swimming lessons as a kid.  However, we came, we rafted, and we defeated that first rapid. So what if it was a baby rapid, we still dominated it!

The next few rapids were a breeze as we quickly navigated them, pushing all worries aside.  Next, we came to a lull in the river where there were few rapids and we took time to reflect on our accomplishments and take pictures of the scenery.  Using her newly-purchased waterproof camera, Allison snapped a few photos of the papaya plantations, plants, and the grazing cattle.  My uneasiness with Tomás’ inexperience vanished after a few hours of conquering rapid after rapid, bestowing upon myself a renewed sense of confidence. 

As we quickly approached the next rapid, Laura noticed Alejandro frantically waving his hands and yelling, trying to get Tomás’ attention. Just as Laura turned to inform Tomás, our ever-attentive guide, we all plunged into the depths of the water.  Laura, in the front of the raft, slammed into a huge rock underwater leaving a bruise the size of a softball that stayed for a month. She, however, was quickly aided by Tomás who pulled her out of the water and back into the raft. Allison, Jeff, and I fell into the water together leaving a tangled web of arms and legs behind.  Helplessly, we glided down the river trying to detangle ourselves and our oars (thankfully, we had three of the four, while Laura grabbed the fourth; if we lost the oars it was $25 each).  Freeing ourselves from Allison, Jeff and I began to collect our wits and slowly neared the shore with oars in hand.  We looked around for the others, and saw Laura and Tomás making their way towards us, while Allison was yet to be found.

And then…POW!

Allison crashed into to me sending us both back down the river in a mess of body parts and oars. I yelled at her, asking why she was trying to kill me. She said, “AHA! Revenge is sweet baby!” Clearly referencing the time I apparently tried to drown her in the bathtub when I was four.  As we floated down the river, we both tried to put our arms in a cross, while simultaneously attempting to unravel our four arms and two oars. Clearly, it was not as easy as Tomás said.  Eventually, after surging down the river and still yelling at each other, we managed to separate. However, we still could not stop our quick pace in the water.  After banging our bodies on numerous rocks—the tide was so fast we could not even put our feet down in the five feet of rushing water—we somehow grabbed a rock and held on, but my butter fingers soon gave way, tossing me back into the torrents of the river again.  On the flip side, Allison eventually got to her feet and made her way to shore with both our oars.  As for me, well soon Alejandro came to my rescue, leading me to shore.  Everyone else awaited my arrival in eager anticipation…well, ok maybe not, but I’m sure they we glad to see me.

While we dried, we regained our wits a little as Alejandro yelled at Tomás in Spanish for not paying attention.  Alejandro had tried warned Tomás about the huge dip in the upcoming rapid.   Little did they know I was fluent in Spanish and found this highly amusing.  Alejandro reminded Tomás how much trouble they could be in if we decided to complain about this and both nervously watched us react to our plunge into the depths of the Río Naranjo.  Once they noticed our laughter, I think they calmed down a little. However, for the rest of the trip Tomás had us do very little as he navigated us around tree trunks constantly saying “you never know what the river will give you, yesterday that dip was not there” and “I almost broke my ankle because of that new rapid;” an interesting point since he was the only one to stay in the raft.

We ended our trip a short time later and returned to town, but the memories of our first whitewater rafting trip will always remain firmly implanted in our minds as the time I decided I needed to experience an adventure.  After returning home from our trip and reacquainting myself with my self-made indentation, I slowly began to formulate a new plan of attack. While I will definitely test the rapids again, for my next adventure I think I might try an elephant safari.  After all, how dangerous could those cute, floppy-eared things be?

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