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Rafting the Balsa River

Rafting the Balsa River

Rafting the Balsa River

Destination: Arenal

Bright orange flowers fall from the poro trees that line the banks of the Balsa River. Shaped like tiny machetes, the orange flowers cling to the sides of the raft and slide off in the rapids. Rafting the Balsa takes first-timers through the Costa Rican countryside on class II and III rapids along a 7-mile-stretch of the river.

Taking advantage of the dam upriver, the rafting company plans rafting trips for 11 a.m.; the same time the dam releases water. The higher water levels swell the riverbanks and make swift rapids. The class II are mostly wide open channels with small waves and easy rapids while the class III are narrower, with larger waves and boulders that require more technical navigating.

Teamwork on the River

Sitting in the raft, still on dry land, a family of four from Toronto called out the rafting signals to practice for their first whitewater rafting trip. With father George and son Jayden, 13, sitting in front and mother Julie and daughter Ali, 11, sitting in back, we paddled forward and backward trying to work together, but not quite falling in sync.

With our practice session over, we got in the river greeted the small waves of a set of class II rapids. Following the commands of our guide, Jorge, we paddled the first set, accidentally bumping paddles and attempting to match each other's rhythm.

The first section of the trip was nearly non-stop. We'd clear one set of rapids only to meet the next challenge with only time enough to clap our paddles over our heads and yell "Pura Vida" - Costa Rica's unofficial motto. It wasn't long before everything fell into place. With each rapid, we got better. By the end of the first section, we were expertly following commands and working together as a team.

The lower section of the river affords a little more free time than the first half. With more scenic views and class I, flat water, the river became a leisurely ride through the countryside and jungle. Herons and egrets perched on rocks drying their wings and scouting for fish. Up high in sparsely-leafed Cecropia tree, our guide spotted a two-toed sloth napping.

Passing from the tall grasses of the brave cane (related to sugar cane), we came to a wall of green rainforest trees and plants growing up the near vertical cliff face.

As we came to the next set of rapids, Jorge taught Ali how to ride in the very front of the raft, holding onto the safety line. We dove into a set of class II rapids, a giant wave welled up and crashed over the front the raft, but Ali held on; giggling the whole way. The final test of teamwork came in a rapid Jorge called the 'washing machine'. Paddling in opposite directions we spun in circles, faster and faster as we rolled over the rapids.

Coming to a rest underneath a bridge after our two-hour trip, we reached the end; soaked and wishing for more.

Rafting the Balsa River in Pictures

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