Listed in our guidebook as a kayak company (gasp!) we went to San Gil partly because of them. Arriving at their office, we were given a rundown of the few river sections available in the dry season. Wanting to put us on the Class II/Class III river before letting us go down anything more technical, we signed up to follow a river raft the following day. Unfortunately the equipment was very old and in poor shape. 2/3 of Danny’s warner paddle blade was missing, leaving him rather vulnerable upside down in the river. The equipment had seen better days and I wouldn’t want to be running a Class IV with any of it. Essentially we functioned as the safety boaters for the raft trip, but the river was more 2 than 3 so it turned out to be an extremely easy run. Disappointed we went back to the office to try to repeat the run that afternoon, but they were not inclined to offer us any discount, even without a guide. Their next trip was two days later, but we declined to go with them again partly because of their refusal to let us do the run again on our own at a discount, but mostly because of the poor quality of the rental kayak equipment.
After our fun run down the river I was compeletly demoralized, not sure if I´d ever get in a kayak again since my skills had so completely failed me. Our raft-kayak guide Harry had been clear in telling me (thankfully, after the fact) that the boat I was in was simply horrible and that I should give it a try in different boat.
The next day Jill and I rented a boat, took a taxi (that´s how things work around here) to the river and jumped in to practice. I rolled upside down and came right back up. Easy as pie. Of course doing it in still water is easier than doing it in a rapid but I couldn´t even do that the day before. Clearly an improvement. We made plans to hit the river again the next morning…with other kayakers and no rafts.
The next day came around (so this is two days after the inital run down the river) and since Jill was up all night with a stomach bug she wasn´t able to join me. This left myself, Harry the guide, and another kayaker. The morning was a bit chilly made worse by the falling rain. The taxi took us to the river and once there, standing on the overlook, in the cold rain, I said that I thought the river looked much higher than it had before. Harry responded by telling me he´d never seen it this high in all the times he´d been on it.
I nearly shit my pants.
Somehow I mustered the intestinal fortitude to not turn back, to not get back in the taxi and just go back to the hotel and continue onto our next destination. Down to the river I went. Into the boat I went. Into the rapid I went. Recall that last time down the river I rolled twice in this first rapid – the first time I rolled back up (the only all day I did that the last time) and the second time was my first of 7 swims. This time I went in the rapid, and came out the other side without rolling and without swimming.
Made it though the second rapid just as easily as the first doing way better than I had two days prior. Almost having fun now I thought, almost. The third rapid was where things started to get hairy. A big big rock at the bottom of the rapid and I needed to get to the left of it. I tried but I didn´t get far enough left. I got caught in the wild water around the rock and went over. Tried a roll. Failed. Swam. Back on shore looking at the rock that had ruined my perfect beginning I felt stupid. The rock was at the end of the rapid. One more second and I would have been in smooth water. I could have rolled up but I panicked. Hopefully the day wouldn´t get any worse.
We floated past where we took our lunch break and where Jill nearly was killed by a poison dart frog. I thought of the kids playing by the river but was thankful we didn´t have to stop. The next rapid was my worst swim of the day the last time through and I didn´t want to dwell on it at all.
I entered the rapid. Darting around rocks and holes and going over big waves. Starting to have fun again. Made it through and floated over that long shallow space where I was dragged the last time. Haha, look whose floating today! Next up was the rock garden, the rapid that I swam through top to bottom last time. We started in and and I made it over the first few waves before getting clipped by something and going over. I knew I could do it and with all my strenght I forced a roll and came up…nice and easy. Woah, that felt good….and then it happened again, just as quickly…and just as quickly I was up again and through the rapid. Two combat rolls in the rock garden and I was 2 for 3 on the day. Things were looking up.
As it would go I would roll and come back up several more times throughout the day. Having fun and even starting to take a few chances. The rain continued to fall. The water stayed cold. Through it all though I warmed up and had fun. I realize now that my biggest mistake that first day was not checking out the boat first and there is no way I´ll do that again. I feel ready for the next river we find and am looking forward to stepping to the next level.
We came from Quito to Tena for the sole purpose of getting in some kayaking. Coming off the Andes into the Amazonian watershed we had been told by several people, including one person on Couchsurfing, that Tena was the place to go…it had rivers and actual locals who kayaked.
Before arriving in Tena I had only ever ejected from my kayak 3 times. The time first, another boat was on top of my paddle (we have photographic evidence) stopping my roll and the second second time was when we we stupidly went out to little falls on the Potomac while it was at flood stage and to this day we are still thankful we made it out alive. So really those two swims were more dumb luck than actual swims…
Imagine our surprise when on our first morning in Tena, as I was about to go out to one of the local outfitters to see about renting equipment, the owner of the hostel we were at come knocking at our door asking if we could be “safety boaters” for the day and follow a raft down the river. I point out that we’ve never done this river nor have any equipment with us (save for some very valuable noseplugs, thank you Ponch!) to which he offers to provide the equipment and says its OK that we’ve never done the river before. This marks our first day of “employment” since February…albeit a little bit sketchy.
After today my total number of “wet exits” from my boat stands at 10. Recall it was at 3 before the day began and that Jill and I were the “safety” boaters of the day.
With a few moments to ourselves before the raft is ready to depart, we practiced our rolling in the river. Jill came up no problem; I didn’t. Nothing. Not sure if the problem was with me, the paddle (which I initially blamed), or the boat (which I ultimately blamed), I was less than pleased with my chances for the day. I should also note that despite the fact we were kayaking in the headwaters of the Amazon River, these waters were glacier fed from the Andes and were quite cold…especially given that my cold water gear is safely stowed away in Pennsylvania.
We begin down the river. The water is pushy. The water is very pushy in every direction. The water is bigger, pushier and more chaotic and powerful than anything I’ve done yet. The river is a Class III river, and I’ve paddled Class IV but that was with my own gear, with the sun out, in far less pushy (more technical) water. Basically, I’ve done much more technical stuff, but this was something very different and something I just wasn’t prepared for.
We enter the first rapid. I see a large wave and somehow end up right in it. I flip over and manage to roll right back up. Fantastic I think, I came up and I wasn’t expecting it. I flew right into another large wave and, screaming obscenities, I survive…but as I’d just been under water I didn’t see the really big one coming up next. I went over. One roll attempt, two roll attempts, three roll attempts. My paddle is slicing right thorough the water as I’m trying to roll which means it’s not “catching” the water to roll me up to all that nice beautiful air just mere inches from my face. I panic. I eject, blaming the paddle. The water is cold but luckily this is big water so there aren’t many rocks to hit. I pull myself to shore where Jill and the raft are waiting for me.
I’m cold now, a bit shaky, but surprisingly OK for the length of the swim. I get back in and make it through the next rapid. Nothing major happens there but after the rapid Jill discovered a frog in her boat. I only mention this because seeing her scramble out of her boat at shore was rather hilarious. After that we had a couple more good runs of rapids and then a lunch break, where Jill fell out of her boat because the very poisonous Amazonian poison dart frog that was still in her boat was attacking her. We had just learned about the poisonous frogs in Quito and so this just had to be one of them. The local kids on shore got the frog out of the boat and made a new pet of him…not so poisonous after all.
The problem with lunch breaks when playing in cold water is that the water is always colder after eating. This means you’re a little bit less “responsive” to the challenges ahead. Almost immediately following lunch I flipped over again. Tried a roll, maybe two, who knows, and went for a swim again. This was a big rapid…not so much fun to be gasping for air while going through huge huge huge waves.. What made it worse was that between this rapid and the next one the river was very wide, very shallow, and very fast. This made it impossible for me to get to shore while being dragged along the bottom. Ow. Swam the next rapid from start to finish, as I’d not had an opportunity to get back into my boat. This rapid was called the Rock Garden. Ow. Made it through with Jill paddling beside me giving me support. Have I mentioned lately that I have an awesome wife? This swim, two rapids long, was at least a kilometer, maybe more. By this point the cold water and the rocks had both taken a pretty serious physical and mental toll.
I really don’t remember what caused the next swim…but swim I did. It was right after the previous swim through the rock garden. Generally once you start a day like this, it finishes like this. Somehow Jill ended up swimming too. I think because I was already in the water she panicked and missed her roll. Now we were both floating with not much time before the next rapid. The raft pulled us both in and got both of our boats onto the raft. While hanging onto the raft, about to be pulled in, we went over a rock, with me serving as the cushion between the the raft and the rock. Although this likely hurt, I was mostly too numb to notice. As I got pulled on board Jill was getting into her kayak and was launching off. As I was getting into my kayak the raft guide, Harry, said you have 30 seconds to get out before we enter the next rapid. He lied. I had more like 10. I was out in probably 12 but it was too late. I was going over again. This time though the raft had a bit of trouble (likely from being so close to the rapid with me and my boat still on board) so most everyone got to swim this time. Jill, the remaining safety boater (remember, we were working today) managed to tow one of the rafters back to the boat. We all take five after that.
My fifth swim occurred when I bumped into an upside down Jill. As she came up from being upside down I went over. I swam. While recovering from this one I started to shiver a lot. Too much time in very cold water. The next swim was when I bumped into right side up Jill. She goes over and I see her come up again as I go over. Since the water was smooth, and I still couldn’t roll, I decided to try to wait for her to come to get me since I saw her roll back up. I began counting slowly underwater. One, two, three, slow down, four, five; I made it to seven before ejecting. When I did finally eject I found that she was out of her boat as well (her second swim, my 6th) so I’m glad I didn’t push it to ten. That was all I was glad about. When recovering from this one I discovered that all the rafters thought my hands along the side of the boat (me calling for Jill to come and get me) was me drowning. They were quite freaked out. More fun.
After this we take a break to visit a small little Amazonian canyon. A nice break where Jill gives herself a mud facial. No picture of this because Jill had the camera and would not allow me to take a photo. Please post angry comments telling her that you want to see what she looks like with a mud facial. After this I swam once more. I didn’t even bother trying this time. My boat went over a rock and into a decent sized hole. I ejected and thankfully the raft came right over the top of the same rock to knock my boat out of the hole.
Not a banner day for me, that’s for sure. Hence, Ibuprofen was in the cards…mostly because of that really, really long swim with the really, really shallow water. The raft guide (who was actually the person from Couchsurfing who told us about Tena) told me that the problem was not my paddle, as I’d suspected, but probably the boat. He encouraged me to try it again in a different boat, not knowing if I’d be ready or willing, I pondered the idea…
Before I say anything else I think it is of the utmost importance to recognize the fact that someone here turned 26 (not me, I’m already 27) on Friday when we arrived in San Gil, the self-proclaimed adventure capital of Colombia. To commemorate the occasion in style we celebrated with juicy steak, delicious cake, and exquisite Chilean wine. This was of course AFTER we set up our whitewater excursion for the next day. Priorities.
The water level was, as seems to be the case with us 100% of the time, low. As we prepared for our first river trip without a kayaking guide, just following after a raft, and without any staff that could speak English, we noticed that the equipment was a little subpar. By subpar I mean that my paddle was missing a 1/3rd of its surface area…another first for me. The river was a strong (the water was surprisingly pushy for the low water level) class II river with a couple of III’s thrown in there. Thankfully this made it the easiest river we’ve done yet and so we don’t have any stories of blood and gore for a change. On the other hand, the poor condition of our equipment allowed us each to save the other when upside down for the first time. Nevertheless, we had a great time on the Rio Fonce.
Finishing the river early in the day we headed for the nearby towns of Barichara and Guane. We had hoped to walk back (about 6k along a “delightful” trail) from Guane to Barichara but as the bus left Barichara for Guane and began its rather steep descent into the valley below…we were less than pleased with our chances of making it back before nightfall. While in the Guane museum – filled with hundreds of fossils and pieces of colonial history from the area – we were more concerned with the amount of time it would take to walk back than with the new dinosaur skeleton discovered in the valley a mere nine months ago.
With three hours to do it and being told that was the most it would take, we started the trail and finished in less than half half our allotted time…silly us for being worried. The path itself was created by a German some years ago to commemorate the trail the indigenous used to “commute” in the time of the Spanish conquest. We passed many fossils in the rocks, we could identify some fish and clams, as well as a couple of still alive gringos and a man on a mule. When we finished, way ahead of schedule, we celebrated with some delightful grilled meat purchased from a street vendor (cost $1) and then warmed up with some yummy hot chocolate.
Boquete Outdoor Adventures offers the usual array of adventure activities: whitewater rafting, canopy tours and multi-day trips. Luckily for kayakers they also have whitewater kayaking equipment and tours. We’ve contacted a number of adventure outfitters throughout Central America looking for whitewater kayaking equipment. 90% of them never got back to us and the other 10% tried to sell us on rafting tours. Jim, owner of Boquete Outdoor Adventures (Boquete, Panama) returned our email [ad#reviews] within 24 hours and not only ran down our options but gave us plenty of information on the surrounding area and other activities. We opted to attach ourselves as kayakers to a pre-booked rafting trip, but when we arrived in Boquete we found that the group had canceled. Without a second though Jim told us that the two of us could do the river anyway with just kayak guides so we headed out early the next morning on the Rio Chiriqui. Our guides, Demus and Jose were excellent, really experienced kayakers who knew how to have fun on the river. The guided us down without babying us and despite my hesitations (my previous river run was awful), they made sure we challenged ourselves. Although they were professional and focused on safety, it was more like kayaking with friends who knew the river rather than paid guides, which made the experience even better. The Rio Chiriqui was a pretty straightforward Class III at lower levels, and we were able to read and run most of the sections without a problem.
Although we did not do any other tours with Boquete Outdoor Adventures, our experience kayaking was great. We highly recommend them for adventure activities.