Rafting the Rio Chiriqui: My First Ever River Rafting Experience!

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"Rafting the Rio Chiriqui: My First Ever River Rafting Experience!".

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Rafting the Rio Chiriqui: My First Ever River Rafting Experience!

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Language Travel Consultant, François-Xavier Boulanger-Nadeau, shares with us one of the most popular eco-adventures among our Spanish students in Boquete, Panama: white water river rafting! If you're going to study Spanish in Boquete, a rafting trip should top your list about things to do in Boquete!

Even though it had been a short night, I was already up and rummaging through my day-pack at 6 in the morning, making sure everything was ready for the day. A towel and a change of clothes, an abundant quantity of water and some trail-mix, a bandana to prevent the sun from burning my balding head and waterproof sunscreen. Ah, and lest I forget, a point-and-shoot in a ziplock bag. Or should I put that ziplock bag in yet another one, just to be sure? How much is enough?

You see, I was just as excited by my upcoming whitewater rafting tour as by the fact I decided to write about it. As a photo aficionado, writing about an adventure implies taking pictures. In turn, picture-taking with a non-waterproof camera while rafting implies even more excitement, the kind that isn't really pleasant (I recommend you save yourself the stress and simply bring a waterproof camera).

I headed over to Panama Rafters, right next door to Explora Ya's Boquete office, where I met Josue, the guide who would drive the group to the river. As we drove around, first to collect the other guests from their hotels and then heading to the river, the guide explained how the tour would proceed.

We would raft a total of 12 kilometers, the first half hour on a relatively small affluent called Rio La Barrigona. As it has a relatively slow water flow, it is appropriate for novices to get a feel of what's coming (or for experienced rafters to play around a bit and admire the scenery) and then joins the main course, Rio Chiriqui. He paused for a moment as a bridge crossed La Barrigona, upstream from our starting point and thus still weak and low.

La Barrigona, a minor river arm that leads you to the Rio Chiriqui
La Barrigona, a minor river arm that leads you to the Rio Chiriqui

The guide kept talking as the short 30 minute drive to the river came to an end, having told us about the particularities of the different rivers in the region and the specific challenges that were awaiting us on Rio Chiriqui. He underlined the fact that there were a few keeper-holes on the river, the most challenging enemy for a raft; it is a kind of whirlpool that pushes the raft against a standing wave, shaking it while keeping it prisoner. It requires good team coordination to get out of.

We were already in the mood for some action when we arrived at La Barrigona. Josue started setting up the raft and equipment while we met Tiny (pronounced Teeny), our rafting guide who was waiting for us on location. Our group - first-timers, all of them - carefully paid attention while he explained the different orders he would be yelling to keep us safe on the river.

We quickly got in the raft, flexing our collective muscles and synchronizing to Tiny's yells as we learned to maneuver around easy obstacles. The first part of the river was quite simple, with a few rapids interrupted by ample, slower parts during which the guide exposed his knowledge about the trees and the birds we could see by the river. By the point we heard a distant rumbling getting closer, the team had been getting comfortable, but then the guide said - "Now we're getting on Rio Chiriqui - get ready!"

We understood why La Barrigona was only a minor arm of Chiriqui as the waters merged chaotically, carrying us away in much stronger currents. The rapids threw us all over the raft and all over the river for so long that it seemed it wouldn't stop, with the river braiding minor arms away and back in the main river. Tiny knew which arms of the river we had to take, and the entire team was hanging on his every order to make sure we would not get stuck against random rocks or tree stumps poking out of the river.

Just as suddenly as the rapids started, the flow ebbed down, and our guide, laughing, welcomed us on Rio Chiriqui!

Tiny, our rafting guide, welcoming us to the Rio Chiriqui
Tiny, our rafting guide, welcoming us to the Rio Chiriqui

The river then alternated more tranquil parts with the rapids, so when the action was in a lull the guide told us about the local fauna and flora, or sometimes simply stayed silent as we wordlessly observed the beauty of the natural environment. This went on for more than an hour until, right at the point where everybody felt tired and ready for a break, the guide announced we would stop for lunch before the river's most intense rapid.

As Tiny prepared sandwiches for everybody, I went around to enjoy the views around. Outside of the twist and turns of the river's rapids, the landscape was surprisingly flat, but the views were even more magical than what could be seen from the river.

Vegetation surrounding the Chiriqui River
Vegetation surrounding the Chiriqui River

The food was great, and we made sure to get our blood sugar levels up with some fruit juice before facing the rest of the river. The biggest stretch of rapids were awaiting us right after where we had stopped; high standing waves making the entire raft jump, exciting currents sending us spinning and weaving arms of the river that would make us go off-course.

Out of breath and with burning arms, we heaved a collective sigh of relief as we saw the end of the rapids approach. "It's not over yet!", yelled Tiny, but too late; a twisting current turned the raft facing towards the shore, and we smashed sideways into a large standing wave. The raft didn't move away to either side, but rather stayed in place, shaken vigorously as the strong currents pushed it against the standing wave which pushed it right back, while water washed over in huge splashes. All we could do was hang on - we had been caught in a keeper-hole.

Yelling over the sound of the rushing river, I asked Tiny what we should do - we tried paddling off but it made no difference, so he answered we should wait a bit and see the raft would get thrown out by the strong heaves of the waves. After one or two minutes, each of us quite shaken and often barely hanging on to the raft, Tiny explained that the keeper-hole held the raft in place but was not dangerous to someone who fell off - he would be taken downstream by the river and out of the rapid zone in less than 10 seconds. He said he needed to jump off and swim to the shore, at which point I could throw him the rescue rope with which he would tow the raft out.

This procedure worked without a hitch and a minute later the raft cleared the end of the rapid. Tiny jumped back in. One of us had lost his paddle to the currents, unable to hang on to it at the same time as the raft, so we quickly headed downstream aiming to catch up with the stranded tool, looking carefully in the surrounding waters to make sure not to miss it.

The rest of the river drifted by fast with the adrenalin and euphoria of the keeper-hole very present in our minds. We caught up with the paddle, observed the tranquil flora, swam along the raft during quiet parts of the river, and quickly it was time to make a landing where Josue waited for us with the car. While our guides stored the equipment away, we chatted excitedly about each of our favorite parts of the river - in the end, everybody had his own view of how he vanquished Rio Chiriqui, but nobody could forget that the river also came close to beating us.

The Chiriqui River
The Chiriqui River

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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2 Responses to "Rafting the Rio Chiriqui: My First Ever River Rafting Experience!"

  1. […] This is a guest post I wrote for the Spanish school I currently frequent in Panama, Habla Ya Spanish Schools. This IS a personal endorsement, which I give voluntarily and without remuneration – it is an incredible school and I have been impressed by their level of professionalism. You can read the rest of my guest post on Habla Ya’s Blog. […]

  2. Rafting Rishikesh says:

    Wow! I am sure you had a great time… and had quite an adventurous trip. Your river guide seemes like a very experienced and daring gentleman…
    We organize rafting in rishikesh you may contact us if ever you visit India.. :D


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