Rafting Thrills in Central America.
Rafters negotiate the intricate narrows.
Hector Sanchez has the style and good looks of a man who has spent a lifetime outdoors. Held together by a wiry, near six-foot physique he appears every bit the “best river guide in Panama ” as touted by Lonely Planet and other travel guides. Before starting Chiriqui River Rafting in 1994 Sanchez spent two decades as civilian Director of Outdoor Recreation for the U.S. Army South in Panama. As a young man he received the Carnegie Medal for courage and outstanding bravery when he saved a drowning swimmer in Rockaway Beach , California. Today, he is standing in front of four new clients beginning his talk on safety with a company video featuring rafts and kayaks careening down Chiriqui River waterfalls. Three minutes into the video he switches it off and informs us that “you won’t need most of this instruction.” The four novices, here for a day’s outing with Sanchez’ company, breathe a sigh of relief and take this as a sign they didn’t make thewrong decision after all.
Sanchez moves through a demonstration of paddling technique and a review of the commands his guide will use during the trip. “All forward” he says firmly. “All back” he calls out. “Left forward, right back, right forward,” he commands. He tells us about “high side” which is the order for all rafters to move to one side of the raft if it is forced up by the rapids and in danger of going over. Because we are rafting the Esti River with mostly Class II rapids, we don’t expect to hear that instruction. We learn, however, why whitewater rafting in Chiriqui is the biggest in Central America . The majestic Baru Volcano peaks out at 11,490 feet on a ridge of mountains that run from Costa Rica through the center of Chiriqui province. Panama is a very narrow country and from atop the volcano is a breathtaking view of both the Pacific and Atlantic on either side of the isthmus. When the rains come and the waters rush down the mountainside, they have a very short distance to travel before reaching the sea. The steep descent becomes the fast moving Chiriqui, Chiriqui Viejo, Esti, and Gariche rivers.
Guide’s view of a safety
kayak speeding ahead.
Finally, Sanchez goes through the procedure one uses if a rafter goes overboard. He explains how not to get tangled up in the lifeline and be sucked under and how to scramble back to safety if you’re tossed into the rushing current.
Hector Sanchez is known for his safe approach to rafting and his students are paying very close attention. It’s as if their lives depended on it, which, in fact, they do. He has never “lost anybody on his trips” he says by way of reassurance, and the neophytes begin to wonder who might be the first.
We have signed our liability releases and indicated beneficiaries for our life insurance policies and we are, well, sort of ready to go.
Tropical surroundings can make
putting in points tricky.
Sanchez leads us to a van where our young guide Leignadier “Len” Santosawaits. At twenty-one Len has four years experience with Chiriqui River Rafting and is one of those seen in the company video skillfully maneuvering the big rapids.
We pile in with our gear, wave goodbye to Sanchez, and head south for the hour’s drive to the Esti. Near our put in point we pick up another young man who will drive the leap-frog route down river meeting us for lunch and, we trust, an end-of-day ride back to the town of Boquete .
Hallelujah! CelebratiMother Nature’s force.
This part of Panama still feels quite wild, and as we approach the river, we see it is wide and moving very fast. We don our life vests and helmets take charge of our plastic paddles, and with some trepidation slide into the surge.
Len works to get us oriented by calling out a number of commands and soon we are doing 360s down the middle of the flow.
Over the next two hours we handle the rapids well, gain confidence in our abilities and feel relaxed for most of the morning’s ride. Along the way we see egrets, kingfishers, cormorants, blackbirds, hawks, and impressive vultures hovering overhead. We joke about how they are working this part of the waters in anticipation of our demise.
On the river banks we see lizards and large iguana. Thriving in the massive shade trees overhanging the river are numerous epiphytes with varieties of purple and red flowers. We watch a river otter catch fish and then swim alongside close enough for us to look into his eyes.
Twice we see Ngobe-Bugle (Guaymi) Indian women washing clothes along the river’s edge. The air smells soft and fragrant with the flowers that surround us. Of the climate in this part of the country it is said to be like eternal Spring. We climb inside our thoughts for brief stretches of time and soak up Panama’s luscious nature. In silence we seem to acknowledge that we are somewhat awed by where we find ourselves on this particular mid-week day.
The raft doubles as an improvised picnic table.
After shooting two hours worth of Class II rapids, Len guides us to a landing under a highway overpass and we meet our number-two man who has lunch already set out. We make sandwiches with cold cuts and fresh bread, slurp sodas like we’ve been in the desert, and polish off sweet treats as though they might be our last. After thirty minutes of rest we are back in the raft and heading for the homestretch.
Safety kayaks attend the
more challenging river routes.
Underway only a few minutes we get sideways in what appears to be the only Class III section of the trip. We hear Len shout “high side,” but are slow to react as the raft rises up out of the water, flips over and dumps us into the rapids.
We emerge in the churn with four of us in sight and grab lines to the raft as it tumbles down the wash. “Where’s Jon, where’s Jon!” our raft mate Tanya hollers, her startled eyes searching for her husband in the gushing waters that engulf us. Within seconds he shouts back that he’s okay. Later he tells us he had been underneath momentarily before swimming free on the other side. Without hesitation Len scrambles up top pulling each of us in before getting to his position. With four slightly disoriented, nervously laughing passengers clinging to the middle of the inflatable, he takes control expertly guiding us backwards through the rest of the stretch of rapids before spinning around to face the downward flow. “Wow what an adrenaline rush!” I hear myself shout, soaking wet and still not completely sure what just happened. But in the moments of calm that follow, Robin, Tanya, Jon, and I see each other’s broad smiles and realize in our expressions this was precisely the adventure wewere after when we traveled all the way to Panama.
Moments of calm contrast the
excitement of the day’s journey.
Back in Boquete the van climbs into the mountains on the outskirts of town finally reaching the lovely, Spanish-style home of Linda and Hector Sanchez. Perched on a hillside with a view akin to the Alps , the Sanchez family lives on a farm where, with three grown children returning from time to time, they nurture 12,000 coffee plants.
Still charged with the excitement of our day we share our story over a cup of Linda’s freshly brewed coffee made from plants within our view. We talk about life in the mountains of Western Panama and hear about the arrangement Sanchez has with each of his young guides. He trains them until they become expert rafters and then pays them well for doing something fun and exciting, but they must stay in school and get their education or they can’t work for the company. We linger over coffee and conversation into the late afternoon before riding back to town with Linda Sanchez where she teaches English to Spanish speaking locals.
The next day we again visit Sanchez in his village office where he works in his affable manner to welcome the next crop of newcomers. We are holding fast to our experience in rafters’ paradise, but soon will be on a plane bound for Panama City. In Boquete, though, the rainy season is about to begin and the best whitewater of the year may be only a few days away.
An expert paddler rides the wash.
Hector Sanchez’ Chiriqui River Rafting runs trips daily (4 person minimum) year-round. Milder rivers are suitable for ages 5 and up. More technical Class III, IV and V whitewater recommended for seasoned rafters. Put in points are within 90 minutes of Boquete, except Chiriqui Viejo. which is 2½ hours. On river rafting lasts 2 — 5 hours.
Guides, transportation to and from the river, lunch and all safety equipment are included in the cost of between US$80 — US$105 pp (At Press Time.)
Let’s go again.
Chiriqui River Rafting
Entrega General, Boquete, Chiriqui
Republic of Panama
Tel: (507) 720 -1505
Fax: (507) 720 -1506; Cell: (507) 618 -0846.
For International access from the USA add 011 before dialing.
— Feature by Jim Hollister, Jetsetters Magazine Luxury Travel Editor; photos by Greg Von Doersten and Alfredo Maiquez.