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Costa Rica: Riding the rapids

With vultures circling overhead and rapids determined to get you in the water, tackling the Sarapiqui River on a raft is a veritable adventure

Costa Rica: Riding the rapids
Image: Stuart Forster

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My eyes drift away from the white water in front of our inflatable boat to a committee of black vultures standing on rocks rounded by the relentless flow of Costa Rica’s Sarapiqui River. Momentarily I pause to view the gnarled faces of the scavengers. “Paddle forward,” cries Pablo in a tone akin to a drill sergeant, prompting me to pump my arms and simultaneously apologise for slacking.

Pablo is our guide, and as he said when we dragged our raft into the river, safely navigating an eight-mile stretch of this fast-flowing river will require us to work together as a team. There are just three of us in the vessel, so everyone has to contribute. He’s sitting on the stern of the blue inflatable, from where he can yell commands to my fellow Briton Karen and me, both of us being inexperienced white-water rafters. Today, we have it relatively easy, apparently the water level of the river is low and our journey will take around two hours. In November, the end of the rainy season, boats are tossed down the same stretch of the Sarapiqui in half that time.

I’m half-kneeling, half-sitting on the rounded left side of the raft. My left foot is pressed through a rubbery loop in the ribbed floor of the vessel. Even if rapids cause us to pitch and heave that should ensure I stay aboard. Nonetheless, we’re all wearing safety helmets and buoyancy vests, in case we do get thrown overboard.

“There’s a black vulture circling up ahead waiting for white meat,” says Pablo with a chuckle and a nod downstream. Sure enough, one of the birds is riding the afternoon thermals. Even above the fizzing and splashing of the river I can hear a cacophony of chirping insects and birdsong from within the jungle, whose foliage overhangs the Sarapiqui. A loud cry — something between barking and laughter — reverberates from the treetops but I can’t spot the howler monkey from which it emanates. The darting movement of a green kingfisher, with a distinctive white throat, catches my eye as it returns to a branch after dipping into the river.

We bounce past a section of boulders then begin to decelerate. It gives Pablo time to raise one of his muscular arms and point out a blue heron by the riverbank. Then he draws our attention to a thicket of tall grass. “We call that Indian cane,” he says, explaining that it was formerly used it to make the roofs of homes.

The volume of crashing water rises. With urgency, Pablo gets us to paddle left of a couple of grey boulders jutting clear of the water. The river level drops away beyond them through a cascade of rapids. “Lean in,” he hollers, as water splashes into my face. The side of the inflatable bucks up, throwing me into the air. I fall backwards out of the boat as we level out. Only the foot strap ensures I remain with the raft. As I attempt to scramble up without letting go of my paddle Karen comes to my aid, grabbing my life vest and pulling me back aboard.

After rearranging my helmet I give a thumbs up. The water in this part of the world may flow quickly but at least it isn’t cold. Back in position I listen for Pablo’s next command and get ready to paddle. This is a journey I’m determined to complete aboard the boat.

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