Whitewater Rafting on Panama’s Chiriqui River

Rafting the Chiriqui is not for the timid. photos: Martin Li.

Whitewater Rafting on Panama’s Chiriqui River

By Martin Li

My whitewater rafting career is almost an hour old. So far so good. We paddle our way confidently towards the Bajo Mendez rapids which, to the untrained eye, look no different from any of the other rapids we have already successfully negotiated. But the side of our raft hits the gigantic rock in the centre of the frothing channel and flips over. With virtually no warning I’m in the water and under the capsized craft. Struggling for orientation. Struggling for something to grasp onto. Struggling for breath. Welcome to rafting on Panama’s Rio Chiriqui!

After what seems like an age, I see daylight above me again and finally break surface. Gasping for air I scramble towards the raft and, with my four bobbing companions, swim to the safety of the shore pushing the raft in front of us. Reaching land we cough and splutter, and catch our breath, then break into raucous laughter.

Funny this might have seemed in retrospect but capsizing wasn’t in the script. Tiny, our pilot, hadn’t flipped on this river for nine months and conditions were fairly mild. In periods of heavy rain sections of the Chiriqui can reach Class IV or Class V (the most difficult classification) but today nothing is supposed to be more than Class III.

Known as the “Valley of the Moon” by the local Guaymi Indians, Chiriqui province lies in Panama’s western border with Costa Rica. The region’s rivers, including the Chiriqui, bound down from Volcán Barú which, at 3,475 m, is Panama’s highest peak.

The hilly landscape is lush with dense cloud forest, interspersed with orange groves and coffee and banana plantations. Where exposed on escarpments, roads or footpaths, a high clay content gives the soil a bright red tinge.

Launching the Craft

Our journey starts innocuously enough. Launching the craft from the base of a steep bank of boulders we push onto a serene section of river in bright morning sunshine. Ahead of us lies 27 km of pristine, sparkling and largely untravelled water.

In the bow sit Charlie and Carlos, a father and son from America. Next to me is Juan, a local guide, and behind the four of us sits Tiny, our pilot. Accompanying us in a sleek kayak is Leinadier. He plays a vital role travelling ahead of us to check our intended route is safely passable and helping anyone who falls overboard.

Hector Sanchez, whose company we’re travelling with, pioneered much of the rafting in this area. Our first inkling of potential trouble should have come when Hector decided to change our original raft for a smaller one when one of our intended party failed to arrive on time. “This smaller one will give you more thrills,” he chuckled. Thanks Hector!

Our second warning should have come when Juan announced shortly into the trip: “We’re soon going to be in hot water!” I’m deceived into thinking he means this literally and not metaphorically when we reach a couple of riverside thermal pools in which we relax. But this innocent statement also comes only minutes before our ill-fated encounter with Bajo Mendez.

We ride section after section of rapids. The raft bucks and shimmies its way around huge boulders of varying shapes and sizes and over smaller obstacles. Large waves rock us violently and shower us with spray. We occasionally run aground on boulders and have to shake ourselves loose.

“All forward!”…. “All back!”… “Right forward, left back!” commands Tiny as he steers us through steep foaming pools with his four crew paddling for all their worth. “Down! Down!” he shouts and we collapse as low as possible to increase balance, or to pass safely beneath low overhanging branches. Our paths through corners often run so close to massive walls of rock I’m amazed when we somehow don’t slam into them.

A Bucking Bronco of Water

“Relax!” cries Tiny and we obey as best we can. We’re often still in the middle of a bucking bronco section of river. All he means is that we no longer need to paddle.

We shriek and squeal in equal measures of exhilaration and terror as we crash through sections of river so steep we can clearly make out the gradient. “High five!” and we raise our paddles in triumph and relief as we successfully reach the calm after a storm.

The beauty of our surroundings matches the fury of the stream. The river carves its lonely course through dense cloud forest and canyon gorges. Its banks range from vertical rock faces, steep banks of red clay and boulder piles to small isolated beaches.

We pass occasional fishermen who reel in their lines reluctantly as we approach. At intervals we see cormorants, hawks and kingfishers. An iguana surveys the river calmly from a rock. A pair of otters show us the elegant way to negotiate the river. A couple of young children from a local village playing beside the torrent wave us a happy “Hola!” as we pass.

Although we’re totally soaked within minutes of setting off we never feel cold. The sun shines obligingly throughout the descent and the water is warm and comfortable… even when massive waves break over the raft and threaten to knock us over.

We go ashore for lunch at a small shaded beach. We turn the raft over on the sand and lay a table cloth across the bottom. Lunch is delicious but I’m hoping I never have to see the bottom of the raft again.

The Chiriqui is no respecter of lunch breaks and there is no chance to ease ourselves gently back into the flow. No sooner have we regained the river than we’re riding another fast wave train. The good thing about rapids is that they never creep up on you. Even in the occasional sections of calm, the roar of not-too-distant white water is ever present. When we’re in the rapids, the noise can be deafening.

Colder Water

The Rio Caldera joins us over a steep bank of boulders. A little further down the clay-colored water of an underground stream changes the Chiriqui from blue to brown, at the same time lowering the water temperature.

Sections of the Chiriqui, such as Bajo Mendez, are quite technical and require much work from the crew to navigate safely. More enjoyable for us are the sections of equally wild wave trains which are free from large rocks. In these sections Tiny can steer the craft without our help and we can simply relax and enjoy the rodeo.

“Ride the bull!” screams Juan as we launch ourselves into another cauldron. However, this bull doesn’t like being ridden. We’re soon surrounded by tall angry waves. Nothing unusual in that but the river suddenly parts before us to reveal a hollow of alarming proportions. We’ve passed the point where we can do anything about it and plunge headlong into the abyss, hitting the wall of water on the far side of the “bowl”. The bow of the raft rises almost vertically and in a fraction of a second we’re once again all floundering beneath a capsized craft.

Another Flip

What makes this flip scarier than the first is that when we surface we haven’t been swept to calmer waters but are still surrounded by frenzied froth. Fortunately for me, I surface somehow clutching the rope on the side of the upturned raft. We make sure everyone is all right and once again slowly manoeuvre ourselves to shore. We’ve lost three paddles downstream. Even with a spare, two of us have to ride the next rapids as helpless passengers before Leinadier can reunite us with our oars.

The good news is that we capsized in Picazon de Deer. Had we gone over in another set of nearby rapids we would have risked serious injury on some sharp submerged rocks which resemble upturned razor blades. I’m relieved Tiny chooses not to share this fact with us until after we’ve safely passed through.

As the afternoon shadows lengthen, the gradient starts to ease and our progress becomes more assured. Even so we still encounter further scary moments where we steer straight into bubbling hollows resembling the one which capsized us the second time. I take a deep breath and prepare myself for the worst, although happily we ride these waves without further mishap.

Hector has another descent planned for us the next day: the more demanding Class IV Palon section of the Chiriqui. He describes this course as suitable for “intrepid first timers” or “seasoned rafters”. Intrepid? Possibly. Seasoned? To an extent. Seasoned enough to know I’m not yet up to the most serious thrills the Chiriqui has to offer. Maybe next time.

Martin Li

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