Our Near Death Experience
When you arrive in Pavones to surf the second longest left break in the world, and the swell is so non-existent that you end up napping on your board all day, you may find yourself searching for alternate adventures. Luckily for us, tubing the river came highly recommended.
Unlike our previous hiking experiences, we were adequately prepared the 2-hour trek ahead. So we packed some small backpacks, grabbed our rafting tubes and starting walking at about 1:30pm. The hike was pretty steep at times but nothing we hadn’t tackled before… and seeing the wide cool river at the end made it totally worth it.
At this point in the trip, we’re traveling with our friends Matt, Jess and Ronald. Matt met us up in Nicaragua and Ron and Jess flew all the way from New York to join in the fun. We thought about tying all of the tubes together but realized some of the rapids were a bit too narrow to do that safely. So it was every man for himself.
Based on the length of the hike, we figured the ride down couldn't be more than an hour. We got started at 3:30pm and after the first few rapids, we were laughing like little kids, spinning and rushing down and over all of the rocks and boulders, paddling hard to avoid the whirlpool-like eddies and sticking together so we could enjoy the fun as a team.
The host at our villas warned us to stop every so often to check out the rapids below, just to try and anticipate any large, sharp rocks that might make them too unsafe to pass. So each time we heard the water roaring up ahead, one brave soul would venture down the rapids first and then warn the remaining tubers: “Paddle hard left!” “Butts up you guys! And stay to the right!” then we’d try and wait for everyone to get through them before moving on.
After making it through a rough spot, we started yelling to warn the group. Jess was the last to get tossed down this particular rapid where we’d all just barely avoided a huge rock sticking up in the middle. We’re telling her to “stay left and keep your feet UP!!” but at the last minute, it spun her backwards, her tube took a dive and sent her feet flying over her head at which point she end up doing three backflips over the rapids then went under. “JESS!!! Everyone, WAIT! JESS!!!! ARE YOU OKAY? Everyone STOP.” Then thankfully her head pops up, still covered by her hands in the “international position for falling out of your tube while rafting” (thank goodness we’d just learned this during a GUIDED white water rafting trip the week before).
And that’s when we realized that yes, this thing could get pretty dangerous. And we now understand why people hire guides for the larger stuff. But we’re about 30 minutes into this trip and there is no way out except down the river, because it’s surrounded by 40-60 foot cliffs. We're quite literally rafting through a canyon, and while its absolutely beautiful, there’s no riverbank to hike on.
Despite being a little shaken up, Jess handled the tumble like a champ and for another 15-20 minutes, we’re all giggling again as we speed through the canyon. This is the COOLEST thing we’ve ever done, taking an unguided rafting tour through one of the prettiest and most secluded rivers we’ve ever seen. These are the kinds of places that are so secluded and difficult to get to, it’s what keeps them undeveloped and perfectly pristine.
The sky is changing colors up overhead and as we tube along, we’re appreciating the mossy walls, low hanging trees and beautiful cool blue water contrasting against the dark tunnels of high Cliffside. But then we start to realize JUST HOW DARK those high slippery, black cliffs really are. And as the sun sets, it’s pretty hard to see one another. “So… um, guys… how long did the host say this tube trip would take? It’s been over an hour, we’ve got to be nearing the end right?”
Then down a few more rough rapids, overturned tubes, around a couple of bends, ducking under a giant fallen tree, through a few more narrow dark canyon walls, dodging more tree stubs and looking back, our friends have suddenly turned into silhouettes. The water is still moving quick and its pulling us further and further apart, plus the rapids are getting pretty hard to see. We can’t really hear each other very well over the sound of the rushing water making it even harder to stay together. And it’s getting dark really fast now.
I round a corner, I’m now totally by myself, and think I see a silhouette stopped in the middle of the river. Thank goodness, it must be Matt or Tyler? I have no idea how far back Ron and Jess are now. I get closer, dig my feet in the gravel to stop my tube, and see Tyler in the river and see a darker blob up on a huge rock to the left, that must be Matt. Tyler says, “It’s too narrow and steep, we have to climb over this one, we can’t see the other side”. Sure enough, I look down and it’s practically a pinball machine, with hardly enough space for the tubes to slide through. We’re waving at Ron and Jess now to slow them down. Stop here guys!
Climbing over the slippery, sharp rocks to bypass this rapid, there’s no other way back in except to toss your tube down into the water and quickly jump on it before it gets pushed away. There are no visible rocks on this side of the rapid but still to be safe, we know we can’t jump into the rushing water too deep. There’s hardly any daylight left so there’s not time to do anything but go for it. So one by one, we make the leap of faith and we’re all fine. Physically. But mentally we’re pretty anxious and no one really wants to say it out loud.
Group meeting, when the river slows down, WE PADDLE. We don’t have any time left to float. We know it’s scary and we can't see much, but we have to keep up our speed or dusk is going to turn into pitch black darkness. It’s 5:15pm, and being that it’s Central America, the sun set at 5:12, last light is only about 30 minutes after that. From this point forward we have to stay together too, just on the off chance some one flips over and gets hurt. We can’t be separated.
So Matt takes the lead (becoming our MVP), Jess and I link our feet together and use double the momentum and brain power to tackle the rapids, while Ron and Tyler take up the rear to make sure no one gets left behind. We’re communicating constantly, and we’re paddling as fast as we can any time there is a lull. Everyone’s eyes are searching for the final bridge we know will indicate the ocean is close and our journey is over. Where is it?!?! We’ve been rafting now for TWO hours.
Matt’s yelling, “Guys I think I see something!! That shadow overhead… you think that’s it?!” We’re all yelling now, YES that HAS to be it! And a gigantic weight lifts from our shoulders. We’re standing now, RUNNING to the beach. Guys we made it! I can’t believe we made it!!
All 5 of us are standing on the rocky river bank, where we literally had a group hug. And then we had about 5 shots of tequila. If that’s not the most intense session of teambuilding I’ve ever heard of, I don't know what is.
We hadn’t eaten since breakfast but with that much adrenaline pumping through our bodies, no one was hungry. We spent the next couple of hours letting out all of those terrible fears we were all thinking but no one wanted to say. What we’re we going to do? Climb a cliff and camp in the jungle? Spend the night on the river with the monkeys, sloths and I don't even WANT to think about what reptiles could be hanging around.
By 7pm we were starving and had some incredible BBQ. Cheers to us and to anyone who ever wishes to tube the Rio Claro.
The most important take away? Get in the river earlier than 3:30pm.
Wear water shoes, tennis shoes or keens (these saved us). Make sure you find some good tubes in town (we were able to do this too). If you really don’t mind looking silly, we wish we’d also had life jackets around our butts for added cushion ;) And helmets probably aren’t a bad idea either if you’re really worried. But it all depends on the level of the river during your visit. It was perfect for us, had it not been dark (and the locals can tell you about the conditions when you arrive, don't be afraid to just ask around).
Stay safe out there in the jungle ya’ll. You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.
All in all: Best $10 I’ve ever spent (tube rental). Pura Vida!
Meg (+ Tyler)