Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 2: Whitewater Rafting the Savegre River

Destination: Manuel Antonio

"There is no way I'm falling off the boat" is the mantra I kept repeating in my mind as I walked along the road leading to Quepos. Surely, with the power of positive thinking, I could make it so. Iguana Tours was taking me whitewater rafting down the Savegre River (pronounced "sah-vey-grey"), and I had already decided that I was not getting tossed into the unfamiliar water -- no matter what. A deep-rooted aversion to unknown creatures lurking beneath the surface was creeping back into my thoughts, and there was nothing I could do about it.

As I pulled into Iguana Tours' parking lot, two prospective friends from Belgium quashed my nerves: Alex and Fabienne. The three of us introduced ourselves to our guides, Jonathon and Eduardo. Along with a family of four from the United States, we boarded an enormous bus with screen skylights designed to keep the heat out. As we began to move, air rushing through the open windows made it increasingly more difficult to talk. Remembering that this was a long journey -- 45 minutes to the sleepy town of El Silencio, plus two more hours just to reach the take-off point -- we made bets as to who would be the first to bust out an iPod.

savegre river

Rattling along back roads and marveling at the scenery, our senses were overwhelmed with intense shades of green. We passed African palm plantations, crossed over the Naranjo River (also whitewater raft-able), and drove through rainforest so dense we had to crane our necks to see the sky. The bus cranked to the top of several large hills, mimicking the buildup of an amusement park roller coaster -- the vehicle even made that ominous "click-click-click" sound as it reached each peak.

Our group stopped for breakfast, and Jonathon warned us of a species of poisonous grasshopper inhabiting the surrounding trees. He told us to watch out, because such bugs are known to fly in the windows of the bus and bite unsuspecting passengers. We exchanged looks, not quite believing him but not wanting to be rude, either. Fabienne closed the subject by promising, "Well, if one of those jumps on the bus, I jump out!"

Less than ten minutes later, something green flew onto Fabienne's lap. She jumped so high and so fast that her head smacked against the roof of the bus. Jonathon and Eduardo fell to the floor in hysterics. They had purposefully set up their joke and thrown an origami grasshopper, crafted from a palm frond, as a gag. Once Fabienne's heart rate slowed, she peeled herself from the ceiling and began to laugh with the rest of us.

happy rafters

This practical joke set a lighthearted tone for the rest of the trip. We stopped at various points along the way to observe wild cinnamon, lemongrass and annatto, a spikey pod that looks similar to the lychee fruit. This was no lychee -- we opened the pod to find little balls of natural blood-red liquid, the same color as yesterday's teak leaf. Jonathon carefully retraced the butterfly tattoo that I had earned yesterday, and before I knew it we had arrived at our take-off point marked by a dilapidated bridge.

Eduardo proceeded to give us a ten-minute lesson on whitewater rafting. His job as the guide would be to sit in the back of the boat and direct our efforts. Eduardo would be responsible for steering and giving out commands like "FORWARD TWO!," "BACK THREE!," "STOP!," and it was our job to obey him by paddling the requisite number of strokes. Each of us was instructed to sit elevated on the edge of the raft, unless the captain yelled the most important command: "GET DOWN!" In my book, this last order translates to "dive-bomb the middle of the raft like you're in a war zone, and hold on tight!"

Rafters with even the slightest bit of courage will follow instructions exactly, remaining balanced on the edge of the vessel until told otherwise. I, on the other hand, prematurely found sanctuary in the middle of the raft practically every time a rapid came within sight.

achiote

We floated through the center of an impossibly deep valley, and Alex noted that it reminded him of Jurassic Park. Every corner we rounded revealed wild horses gnawing grass along the riverbank, or graceful birds like kingfishers and tiger herons.Clouds of orange and white butterflies fluttered about the river's edge. It felt as if we were inside a landscape painting.

The first rapid, a Class III, was called "Welcome to Savegre." Before these words were out of Eduardo's mouth, I had already taken cover -- having catapulted to the bottom of the raft faster than anyone could blink. Fortunately, we made it through this rapid and several others without a problem.

Despite all of my caution not to fall overboard, by the time I laid my eyes upon the rapid called "Surprise," I knew we were goners. A huge boulder sat in the middle of this Class III beast, and in order to get past you have to aim the raft squarely on it and then spiral off. We landed on the rock and immediately got stuck. Our raft flipped, and I lost sight of the team as my foot smashed against an outcrop. The current was strong and held me underwater for a few moments before releasing, ever so slightly, allowing me the opportunity to grab a breath of air.

rafting down the savegre riverSomehow, amid all the chaos, I managed to grasp a rope hanging from the overturned watercraft. The force of the river swirled beneath me, and I let it carry me downstream. It threatened to slam my face onto a boulder, but pulled me back at the last moment, as if it were just joking around. My foot was throbbing and I braced myself for a mess; I was afraid to even look.

Eduardo pulled me back into the raft and we saw that my foot was fine -- just a bit swollen. Alex and Fabian were completely unscathed. We were a bit shaken up, but more than thrilled at having pulled through unharmed. Eduardo said "HIGH FIVE," and we all tapped paddles overhead.

cascadas-dome-verticalAfter making it through the very last rapid, Eduardo pulled off to the riverbank so I could videotape the boat behind us with my waterproof camera. The craft held a friendly family from Utah: Paul, Vicki, Mark and Julia. Toward the bottom of the final rapid Paul was tossed over the side, and the film was rolling as they began to hoist him back onboard. At the very last moment, an invisible force yanked his swimsuit down to his ankles and he stumbled, bare-assed, back into the raft. Talk about good timing.

Our crew was sobbing with laughter as we floated to the finish line, paddling half-blindly through tears. All nine of us huddled together and watched the video over and over on the way back to the restaurant, where we feasted on a hearty lunch. The pictures that Iguana Tours' photographers had taken from paparazzi kayaks didn't even compare to the piece of cinematic genius we had come to call "The Eclipse of the Full Moon."

Everyone was exhausted by the time we returned to Quepos -- we had traveled nearly four hours by bus and 13 miles down the river. I somehow mustered up the strength for a sunset jog along the marina. The town bustled at this hour, and the sky was beautiful. By the time I returned to Condotel Las Cascadas it was 7:45 p.m. My mind was still buzzing, but my body was completely wiped -- a fact that became all too clear when I fell asleep fully clothed and with all the lights on.

Day 2: Whitewater Rafting the Savegre River in Pictures