Posted by: davepidgeon | April 22, 2009

Recess in God’s playground

Alison, back right, and I paddle down the Río Pacuare.
I turned my head to investigate what was happening behind me. Alison, who just five days prior had sparkled in her wedding dress, wasn’t where she should have been. Her seat in our inflatable raft was unoccupied. I craned my neck to look into the churning river. She wasn’t there, either.

The raft was slipping away from the rapids which nearly overturned our boat. Alison remained out of sight.

Then, with a large gasp of breath, Alison emerged above the waterline with her orange PFD vest and helmet still on, and a new smile. I reached out my hand, but she floated beyond my grasp. José, our river guide, bounded from the back of the raft, lunged so his chest came to rest on the boat side, grasped Alison’s PFD vest and lifted safely back into the boat, soaking wet but surprisingly chipper.

José, a rafting guide for Adventuras Naturales, pulls Alison out of the water (Adventuras Naturales).

José, a rafting guide for Adventuras Naturales, pulls Alison out of the water (Adventuras Naturales).

With Alison back in the raft, we continued our journey down the shimmering green Río Pacuare as it gurgled and churned its way through remote Costa Rican lowlands toward the Caribbean sea. We didn’t want some pampered honeymoon. Alison’s unexpected plunge into the Pacuare answered our wishes.

We set out on the Río Pacuare under mid-morning skies from the Pacuare Lodge, a serene and sylvan eco-lodge tucked deep in Costa Rica’s eastern rainforest, which runs downslope from the central mountains to the Caribbean ocean. After three days at the lodge spent on zip lines in the trees or hiking to waterfalls, where there’s not a single glass window in your bungalow and barstools can be occupied by birds and lizards as much as people, the only way guests return to civilized society is a 14-mile trip on a raft down the Río Pacuare. You and your luggage (conveniently stowed in drybags) are loaded onto inflatable rafts led by river guides (the night before he probably served as your bartender) who direct passengers through the Pacuare’s Class III and Class IV rapids. You are guaranteed a good soaking.

Alison and I joined another couple in José’s boat. We took off from the lodge down an S-turn in the river, and for the next five hours we directed the raft passed hills thick with rainforest and boulders, some the size of cars, which turned the river into a natural washing machine, spinning the river’s mysterious turquoise-green color into rushing walls of white water. Forget honeymoon pampering at those all-inclusive resorts. Nature has a way of including you in its own sort of resort should you choose to celebrate your nuptials on the Pacuare.

At times the river meandered more calmly along flats long enough to relax our hearts and slow our breathing. Occasionally we would see a white pillar of water spilling down a rock face into the Pacuare from some tributary whose spring remained hidden in the jungle, or we would spy Ticos who had hiked deep into the forest to camp on the riverside and spend the Easter holiday weekend fishing.

There was something soul-pleasing to be so distant from contemporary life. Take your frozen drinks with your umbrellas from Sandals Resorts. Our honeymoon was better spent channeling our inner Magellan.

After navigating a series of difficult rapids which rattled our teeth and jarred our bodies, our raft entered a deep gorge where rock walls rose up so tall the treetops blocked out the sun. The river ran calmly and deeply here, and José urged us overboard to swim alongside the boat. We jumped into water so unforgettably green, caused by an unspecified mineral richly deposited in the Pacuare, river guides said.

As Alison and I floated on our backs in mirth and wonder at the site, José moved to sit on the bow of the boat and dangle his legs into the water. Here he was, a 34-year-old divorcee playing out an adventurer’s fantasy – working full time for the lodge’s parent company, Adventuras Naturales, as a rafting guide who also bartended and spent his days either leading guided hikes through the rainforest or serving as your belay partner during a run on the lodge’s zip line tour. You had the sense, though, that the Pacuare served as something therapeutic to a troubled past for José, who talked to us about starting his own Costa Rican tour company, something any business-savvy Tico would think about doing since tourists are the country’s most lucrative import. He seemed at the precipice of his next stage. No more time for rafting the Pacuare to escape the rift between who once was his wife. Time to move on.

Costa Rica is God’s playground, and we all were at recess.

Back in the boat, I kept gazing at the tree tops, spying brightly-feathered birds darting across the river with their wings spread or to marvel at the astounding variety of tree shapes, too numerous to fathom for a man used to the rugged but less diverse Appalachians.

But just as you slip into meditation with your surroundings, the rush of coming rapids signals for your attention. “Forward!” José calls (here at home, I still hear his voice). I want to lean forward again in the raft and dip my paddle into the water, accelerating as boulders approach. I want to pull my paddle backwards through the water using my legs and back for power, keeping my eyes on the whitewater rising up ahead. Brace for it; not time to watch the treetops anymore. The boat dips, the water above the bow crashing in. I want to let out a “woooo!” again. I want to continue on down the Pacuare.

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