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Paddling Pacuare in Costa Rica

Rios Tropicales Eco Lodge is located in a remote private reserve



Right forward," Chino shouted, and we dug our paddles in. "Harder," he urged. "Left back," he insisted. Our raft shot through rapids, between big boulders, and submerged tumbles of stone. I bounced from the side into the center of the boat, but kept reaching in and pulling back in the Pacuare River of Costa Rica, until the waters calmed to an easy, quieter flow. We heard, "paddles up" and slapped our paddle-heads over the center of the boat like a collective High Five of wooden fingers.

Exertion was rewarded with exhilaration — our awe and adrenalin could now glide with the river through gorgeous scenery. Ribbons of waterfalls. Behemoth slabs of rocks telling time longer than any clock. Layers of lush greens reaching skyward. Tropical birds with showy colours and songs.

And always the river — raging, revealing, or reflecting. I learned to read the waves of oceans as a kid, but water crashing into boulders that are hidden or prominent, depending on the rains of the previous year, are like a Cyrillic or Chinese alphabet to me.

I was river illiterate — a relative beginner at reading the currents and velocities and at guessing the best path. From a shore view, all that churning white water looks magnificently, magnanimously strong, but from a rubber raft in wild waters, it morphs to a potential monster rushing toward me.

Seeing a potent section of thrashing water and unforgiving rock chewed flavour into the dried fear that sat inside me — some primal response to the more powerful forces of nature not yet befriended. But I had Julio sitting behind me, ready to grab my life jacket if it looked like I was going to bounce out, and Chino was calling the shots to navigate our passage.

I knew it was time to shift my focus. Don't look ahead at the looming dangers. Just look at where I was digging my paddle in. Think about my rhythms, the angle of the paddle, not hitting a rock or falling off the boat's side. Try to make each stroke count, dig in further, stay in cadence with fellow paddlers.

With that thrilling focus, before imagination could conjure worry, we were already through the adventurous slot and resting our paddles again — back in the wonder of it all — beauty in every direction, so far from our daily lives, and in the glorious elements with that soaring joy of being alive.

My previous experiences river rafting were in cold waters, but these Costa Rican waters are warm. Some scuba divers make big distinctions in dive destinations between cold water and warm. I am newer to river rafting and wonder if the same is true for this sport.