Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 1: San Jose to Arenal on the Balsa River

Destination: Arenal

scenic views of the alajuela highlandsI awoke with an entire butterfly garden fluttering in my stomach. Just two months ago, I had been on a whitewater tubing adventure, but I had not yet been whitewater rafting. I knew that it was perfectly safe, the river routes rehearsed and run day after day, but I couldn't banish from my mind the idea of falling out of the raft and floating down the river with no one to save me.

The bus from Desafio Adventures picked me up at 9 a.m. in Heredia, and we began our leisurely trip through rolling hills, green mountains and groomed pastureland. No matter how many times I drive through the Alajuela highlands, the scenery never fails to impress. Today was no exception, and as the van meandered through lush mountains, farmed valleys rolled out like a green carpet below us.

receiving whitewater rafting instructions (copyright desafio adventures)Despite the physical beauty around me, no distraction could help fight back the nervous fear biting at my heartstrings. By 12:00, two other tourist vans had arrived and I was stationed at the river mouth with 21 other eager river rafters. The butterflies raged on, but the instructions of our guide, Ariel, began to instill a small bit of confidence.

Each raft would hold 5-6 people, not including our guide. Ariel explained that we would sit on the outer edge of the raft, and not in the inflated seats inside. With our feet braced against the raft walls, this position would give us the balance and leverage necessary to maneuver the Balsa River's class II-III rapids. He taught us to paddle forward and backward, to lean in during unbalanced rapids, and to sit down inside the raft when we were in danger of falling out.

paddling on the rio balsa (copyright desafio adventures)Speaking of which... Ariel explained that we should lie on our backs, feet facing forward, in the event that we fell out of the raft. This way, we would cushion any rock collisions with our feet and water would not bubble up into our nose and mouth. We would be rescued by an extended paddle, thrown rope or, as a last case scenario, by the skilled rescue kayakers that were to raft with us.

Well prepared but not yet confident (this could also be described as "shaking in my life preserver"), I slid into my assigned raft. I left my camera behind -- falling into the river would be just my luck -- thankful that Desafio would be taking photos along the way. My partners for the day were a married couple from California, two sisters from Denver, and Ariel, our Costa Rican river master. We shoved off, practicing our new skills on class II rapids which, I assure you, felt like something along the lines of class XI or XII to my inexperienced arms and palpitating heart. We all made it safely through and celebrated with a congratulatory paddle high-five at the end of the rapid.

white rapids on the balsa river (copyright desafio adventures)We proceeded through the rushing water, and I struggled to hear Ariel's commands through the burbling din. "Paddle forward! Stop! Paddle Backward! Stop! Right side, forward; left side, backward!" We heaved and hauled through class III rapids, spilling over small waterfalls, careening towards huge boulders, and maneuvering through a maze of rippling water. When we beached on a rock, we collectively bounced up and down, displacing our weight as Ariel pushed and prodded the raft off the obstruction. We conquered each rapid, always stopping for a quick high-five after a difficult run. Adrenaline pumped through my veins.

At one point, Laura, one of my boat mates, slipped backward off of the raft. Before I even realized what had happened, Ariel had grabbed her by the arm and hauled her back into the raft, dipping his hand into the water to save a wayward flip-flop.

three-toed sloth over the rio balsa (copyright desafio adventures)Laura, invigorated, laughed the fall off, and assured me that it had been fun, not terrifying. It was then that it finally dawned on me: the butterflies had flown the coop; I was enjoying myself, and had forgotten my fear.

A little less than two hours into our river adventure, we stopped for a quick snack of water and fresh pineapple. With juice dripping down our arms, we stretched our legs and warmed our skin in the sun. It was hot though and soon we were all ready to jump back into the river and splash through the white water. Lazing down a calm section of the river, we looked up into the trees. Though the monkeys were hiding today, a green iguana and mother sloth with baby obliged us by making an appearance. Too soon, we had completed the last few bumpy, rocky rapids, and were dragging the inflatable raft onto dry land.

Dripping from my head straight down to my toes, I pulled my body from the raft and walked over to the waiting buses. I grabbed my dry clothes and, feet squishing in my soaked sneakers, headed for the changing rooms. When I emerged, I was clean and dry, still on an adrenaline high from the Rio Balsa.

view of arenal volcano from arenal springs resortHopping into the bus, I laughed and joked with the Desafio guides, who were as friendly and funny as they were skilled at guiding. They grinned at my Spanish, which they deemed perfectly Costa Rican, and quizzed me on my job, expressing their envy. I nodded and smiled (I know how great it is to travel for a living), and before I knew it, we had arrived at a riverside spot for lunch. Rice, beans, chicken in sauce and green salad filled my plate, and I happily washed it down with passion fruit juice. Delicious!

Exhausted and happy, I boarded the bus again, this time headed for the Arenal Springs Resort. Dragging myself into reception, I was greeted with smiling faces, a golf cart valet and a fruity welcome cocktail. My room was comfortable, with vaulted ceilings and a beautiful bathroom, but the best part was my own small porch, outfitted with two rocking chairs and a breathtaking view of a towering Arenal Volcano in the not-so-distance. Ahh, this is the life.

Day 1: San Jose to Arenal on the Balsa River in Pictures