White-Water Adventure, Panama style

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…or, another (fun & exciting) way to soak the gringos*

Invited by good friends John and Susan, or JP & Suds as they’re known to others, Saturday last I set out on my first ever white-water adventure, a (not so lazy) trek down the Rio Chiriqui Viejo in Western Panama. I booked my trip with Boquete Outdoor Adventures, a high-quality firm in beautiful downtown Boquete.

I should mention that this was a solo trip for me, as Mariah opted, in an abundance of caution around her too recent injury, to skip the jerking, wrestling and plunging of a trip on the wild and wooly river. It was a good decision. You can see from the shot above that our little ship was in trouble from the time we launched. Two indications of this: One, we’re all smiling; two, we’re (relatively) dry and comfy. This would not last.

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Ten minutes into the trip

The astute reader/observer will now notice a few changes: Yes, we are still smiling, that is true. However, yours truly is no longer quite so dry, and I have indeed changed places in the boat. The reseating was not, dear reader, a rearrangement of weight to add stability to our little craft. No, it was because I’d just fallen in the %$!@ river and been hauled back aboard by my shipmates. Notice I’m now soaked to the skin, as anyone who falls into the Rio Chiriqui Viejo might expect to be. Hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you wetter, I suppose.

The other difference is a bit subtle, but readily visible by those with or without glasses. That’s right, I’m not wearing any. My gafas del sol are now (and forever) part of the ever sweeping waters of the river. When I washed overboard I did, however, manage to remember a priority item that had been drilled into me years ago in Hawaii during my outrigger canoe days. ‘Never let go of your paddle!’ Well, my experience with the Koloa Outrigger Canoe Club served me well on the river. Despite my dunking in the turbulent water, and my time tossed around by its boiling currents like a log in a freshet, I held onto that paddle for all I was worth.

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Yours truly takes a dip in the Rio Chiriqui Viejo

That’s me in front of my shipmate, as we coast along without benefit of a boat. I lost my glasses, but managed to keep my paddle. Yes, the fact that there’s no lifeguard in the gene pool did cross my mind. Thank goodness, and the gods who watch over old but still slightly buoyant gringos, for flotation gear and helmets.

A bit of culture, wildlife, history…and politics

I should take a moment to mention our professional, courteous, very funny (and fun) staff of river guides. Pepito was our particular rafting captain, and though he sounded like Captain Ahab at times–Forward! Back! Sideways! Duck! (without glasses, I never saw the duck) Pepito guided us through every channel, mogul and dip in the river with an expertise gained from 11 years, and ‘mucho’ tours down this very river. I even practiced my Espanol a bit with the very patient Senor Pepito. In reference to my lost glasses, I speculated with him that ‘un pez lleva ahora les.’ After that feeble attempt at linguistic humor, I figured it might be best to pipe down, lest Captain Pepito toss me back in the river.

Along the Rio Chiriqui Viejo, we were exposed to a bit of Panamanian culture. A number of folks fished along the way, some on holiday with their ninos splashed and cavorted in the river and evidence of past attempts to harness the flow of water for personal and/or commercial purposes was evident in places. And there were critters. My goodness, iguanas, spider monkeys, birds of all descriptions and of course fish. (one of which is wearing my glasses!)

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Launch! A Hydro Plant Provides the Ooomph

For our historico-political edification, the recent history of western Panama includes a tale about the very hydroelectric project that made our trip down the river possible, the dam system that provides the ooomph that gushing water gives to teeny, tiny boats such as ours. It seems that the power project bids were let to insiders of a recent presidential administration, those infrastructure projects designed to make Panama a kind of primary electricity source for surrounding countries. The idea was to harness the flow of rivers like the Chiriqui Viejo onto hydropower turbines, then sell the resulting ions to surrounding nations like Costa Rica, Colombia and others. Outdoor adventure companies like BOA got a boost into the bargain, and all is well. The trip we made down this river may not have been possible during the dry season. But now, with the added contribution of water from the damming system, white-water rafting goes happily along.

In no particular order: Cruising down the river

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Lunchtime alfresco

After a light lunch of cold cuts, fresh fruit, drinks and assorted veggie delights, it was back on the river for another hour or so of dodging moguls, dips, channels and holes in the water. All things considered it was a fun, stimulating and energizing tour of a waterway. One of the best parts of the trip was interacting with the guides, watching their expertise as they steered us safely along the otherwise treacherous course. There were bumps, grinds and jolts aplenty, but we made it through and celebrated with a brew or two at the end. Highly recommended if you’re looking for a way to spend an otherwise boring, lazy and/or dry afternoon.

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Paddles up! The end is in sight!

We made it. All boats, all crews accounted for and safe. Not counting a pair of glasses and a tiny tidbit of sunburn, this was a good day spent with friends, and stretching the envelope, the comfort zone that’s way too easy to inhabit. Thanks BOA, JP & Suds and Captain Pepito for a grand adventure.