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Rafting the upper Sarapiqui

Rafting the upper Sarapiqui

Rafting the upper Sarapiqui

Destination: Arenal

The current, swollen with rain water, gushed over the class III and IV rapids. Water crashed against boulders and launched itself over hurdles of unseen stones creating great rolling waves. Compared with the fury of the Sarapiqui River, the rafts seemed a humble match. But with the help of a team, expert guides navigate these rapids every day.

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The rapids belong to a 9-mile section of the Sarapiqui River extending from San Miguel to La Virgen.  With origins in the Central Mountains around San Jose, the river runs to Nicaragua passing through the tropical wet rainforest, pastures and farms. While rafting companies hold tours on many different parts of the river, the upper section remains the ideal spot for thrill-seekers looking for the strongest currents and the biggest rapids.

A Day in the Rapids

The clouds spit rain in a fine drizzle over the raft as the guide, affectionately nicknamed Cuchilla (knife), explained the signals and instructions for paddling through the rapids. Already in the raft, myself and three fellow rafters — two meteorologists and a med student — dipped our paddles in the frigid waters and practiced rowing while Cuchilla held us in place. After five minutes of practice, we cast off.

We immediately plunged into a set of roaring class IV rapids screaming and hollering as the nose sank into the water and then bobbed up like a rubber duck in a bathtub. Soaked, screaming but still paddling, we made in through the first set. Settling back into position, our hearts pounded as we moved to the side of the side of the current. Floating there, beside a small waterfall, we watched the other rafts navigate the rapids. Once everyone had crossed we raised our paddles and cheered.

Afterwards, the rapids came in quick succession. Working with the flow of the river, we slunk between boulders and popped over smaller stones all while Cuchilla called out directions. At every large drop, Yulia (the med student) shrieked in terror and excitement. Each bend in the river brought new challenges, pushing us to row harder and faster.

As if the adrenaline rush wasn't enough, Cuchilla devised games for us to play. Right before a rapid, he'd call out "Right paddle forward, left paddle back." Blindly following his directions, we spun ourselves in circles while the current propelled us through the rapids. It was like riding a merry-go-round in an earthquake.

Cuchilla called the next game "Riding the bull". This involved Laura, one of the meteorologists, sitting on the nose of the boat with her legs dangling over the edge holding nothing but the safety line circling the raft. Together we hit 2 sets of rapids with her holing on front like the raft's figurehead.

The ride took nearly two-hours, but seemed over in a few minutes. As we passed under an old iron bridge Cuchilla announced for us to pull up on the riverbanks. With aching arms and sore legs, our bodies were exhausted but we never wanted to stop.

Rafting the upper Sarapiqui in Pictures

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