“Just a basic swimming test?” I said looking at E with a face that said “GOD HELP ME.” This is what the man at the complex had told us when he signed us up to do the activities. “I want some adrenaline, not just a scenic float,” I had told the man. I wanted to do a class IV or V because the only other time I had rafted was a class III in West Virginia and it was boring as shit. “Okay, that trip just requires a swimming test,” he said not even looking at me as he scribbled with his pen. “Like what kind of swimming test?” I asked. “Oh, just like to make sure you can swim. You know, just a basic swimming test,” he said, finally looking up and sliding the forms across the table for me to sign. “That’s fine, I’ve been in swimming lessons since I was 2,” I said looking over at E smugly. I signed my life away and slid the papers back across the table.
Now, as I looked at this churning river that I had just been asked to voluntarily jump into, I was beginning to wish I had paid more attention in those swimming classes. And in my C.P.R. classes. And to the fine print on those forms. But whatever, E and I had only been dating about a year at this point and I’ll be damned if that river was going to make me look like a pussy. “This run is usually about a IV/V but today it’s a hard V, maybe higher. Are you guys sure you want to go today?” The guides had been walking up and down the river bank muttering to each other and pointing at random objects in the water. All my senses were telling me that this was a bad idea. E and I looked at each other with a smirk that said neither of us were backing down. “Yeah, let’s do it!” I could barely hear my own voice over the roaring of the river.
“Okay so you’re just going to jump in here,” he pointed to a spot in the river directly in front of us. “Float down to about where those ropes are and then swim to shore.” he said pointing down the river to where his girlfriend was now waving at us and smiling. We were there in between seasons so we were the only two people on the tour that day and we had picked up Romaine’s girlfriend on the way to the river. Romaine and her were going to take pictures and survey the river ahead of us while our guide, “Tico Rambo,” would be in the raft with us. I’m not going to lie, having my life in the hands of a guy named Rambo did make me feel slightly better about the situation. “Okay, I can do this,” I thought to myself recounting the instructions they had given me. “Feet first at all times, hands crossed on my chest and NEVER take a breath when going into a rapid. Take a deep breath before and then hold it until your through the rapids.”
I began wading forward into the river “I want to go first” I said looking back at E and the guides. I knew that if I didn’t go right at this moment I might lose my nerve. The river was strong, like REALLY strong. It felt like a 300 pound man was hanging over a cliff by my ankles. I inched forward until I was standing in the spot that Romaine had pointed to before, looked down the river to where the lady was standing next to the rope, and I sat down. No sooner did my ass touch that water than my legs swept out from under me and I was speeding down the river. “Okay,” I thought, “my legs are in front of me, my arms are crossed, now I just make sure that I don’t take a breath before GULP…..fuck.” The rapids were unpredictable. So much so, that what looked to be just a tiny ripple in front of me turned into a tidal wave and washed over my head just as I was taking my first deep breath. I could not breathe. It was like that scary sensation that you have when you get the wind knocked out of you, except I couldn’t even gasp for air because I was mostly under water. I didn’t get a breath in and now I was in the thick of it. My feet were hitting boulders, my life-vest was up around my chin, and that lady with the rope still looked ages away. “Fuck-it I’m swimming now,” I thought. I literally had no air in my lungs, only water. Every time my head popped up and I tried to take a breath it was like trying to turn over the engine of a car with a dead battery, nothing. I saw a small gap up ahead where there weren’t too many rocks and made the quick decision to go for it. Here’s where all of those swimming lessons better pay off goddamnit. It was now or never, I rolled onto my stomach and paddled for dear life toward the river bank. I was trying to swim freestyle but between the current and the life-vest I’m sure I looked more like one of those dogs that you saw on the news getting rescued from the floods during Hurricane Katrina. I still couldn’t breathe and my body was starting to go into fight or flight mode, but the harder I swam the more I needed to breath. The next set of boulders was seconds away and I started flopping around like a fish, paddling and kicking and basically using my whole body to propel me forward. I wasn’t going to make it all the way to shore, and I definitely wasn’t going to make it through those upcoming rapids while floating sideways on my stomach. Just then, a boulder, the most beautiful and glorious boulder, appeared just before me out of nowhere. I’m fairly certain that it was made of solid gold and had a halo around it. It was right next to shore and I knew if I could make it to that rock that I would be able to make it the rest of the way. I reached out just in time to grab it before being shot through the next set of rapids. I clawed and clutched to the boulder for dear life, finally I was able to gasp. I choked and spit and my chest made a raspy gurgling sound that I had only heard in old episodes of E.R. All of the water in my lungs was coming up and out of my throat, eyes and nose and I couldn’t tell if I was crying or just draining. I looked up, still clinging to the boulder, to see everyone on shore cheering and giving me the thumbs up. “Great job!” they said, “that was perfect!” E was doubled over laughing. I’m pretty sure that he was the only one who had seen the look of terror in my eyes. “Good job?!” I said in between gasps of air. “Yeah, you passed! Your turn E!” “What the hell do you have to do to fail, DIE?!”
E passed his test with flying colors (he is one of those annoying people who is just inherently good at EVERYTHING) and the rest of the trip went on to be one of the (if not THE) most terrifying and exhilarating things that I have ever done in my life. There are rapids with names like “Dragons Tail,” “El Chorro,” and “Devil’s Butthole.” (Okay, so I made that last one up, but you get the point). It’s intense, and you have to stop and survey most of the rapids before you can even go through them. This means maneuvering boulders on foot and trying to keep your balance in the current. I was so focused on staying alive that I didn’t even notice how beautiful the scenery was until the end, nor did I notice Romaine and his girlfriend taking our pictures the entire way down the river.
And then, just as it had begun, it was over. The river, almost in an instant, went from angry and spiteful to docile and beautiful. It opened up to a calm, wide area with a waterfall to our left and the tree-lined shore to our right. Tico Rambo led us in putting our paddles up, “PURA VIDA!!” we all yelled laughing (and crying a little) hysterically.
Once on shore we all shared our favorite and scariest moments, even the guides had a couple scares which made me feel slightly better about the fact that I was still shaking like a leaf. We went through all of the pictures that they had taken. Romaine had a laptop so we were able to view all of the pictures before we decided to buy them and they burned them for us on the spot. Because our photographers had gone unnoticed the pictures were fantastic. It’s interesting to see the faces you make when your life is flashing before your eyes, never before has the look of sheer terror been captured on film.
H20 Adventures is a local based company near Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica that operates white water rafting and tubing tours down the nearby rivers. Although the tour that we did was intense, they also offer several family friendly options and tours for the less adventurous. The guides are knowledgeable, fun, and make you feel right at home from the time that you arrive, until the time that you leave. They will tell you all about the land and history of the area along the way to the river and they will explain about the plants and animals that you see while you are there. They even picked fresh fruit from a tree and we had it for lunch!
I wrote this story not to discourage anyone from doing a tour with H20 Adventures, but to encourage those who are up to the challenge. I did this tour almost 6 years ago while in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, and it remains to be one of the most fun things that I have ever done. I still get that feeling of adrenaline when I look through the pictures and even as I tell this story. Costa Rica was one of the first trips that I ever took, and it holds a special place in my heart. If you are in the area, take a tour with H20 Adventures and ask for Tico Rambo, just make sure that your life-vest is on tight. PURA VIDA!!
Downtown Quepos, Costa Rica
On the road to Manuel Antonio…
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