Day 45 : La Fortuna to San Jose

Today was both white water rafting and journeying to San Jose. Cecylia, Aaron, Keryn and I were being picked up at 8:30am for the drive to Rio Toro and the rest of the group headed off to the bus station at 7:45am. The Desafio van would also be taking us on to San Jose after the rafting so we were getting an excellent service. We got breakfast from a bakery around the corner from the hotel. On the walk down the road I noticed that the volcano was clear of clouds and the morning light was on its flanks, probably as clear a view as we’d ever get, so I got the camera when back at the hotel and walked to the Parque Central to get some postcard perfect photos.

A sunny morning in La Fortuna.
A sunny morning in La Fortuna

The van arrived to pick us up and we were introduced to Carlos who would be our river guide. I have forgotten our drivers name (I must start writing these things down closer to the time) and we also had a third Desafio staff member, Kimberley, along as pseudo-guide and translator for the journey to San Jose after the rafting was complete. Kimberley seemed to think we were crazy to go rafting after a night and day of heavy rain.

We drove out towards Rio Toro and had one stop a few minutes from the river to get changed, go to the toilet and fret over our decision to go rafting. None of us had been white water rafting before and this was a grade III and IV river (grade VI is the highest and implies almost waterfall conditions, V being pretty extreme). There was to be another boat on the river as well, four more tourists and another river guide.

Arriving at the river there was a conference of staff on the overlooking bridge to decide if the river was safe for rafting. Carlos had earlier told us that the river is dam controlled and each day a certain amount of water is released into the river. Desafio ring to find out the daily level of water, the maximum is 66 kilowatts (I think that was the measure Carlos used, I could be wrong). Today, with the previous rain, the maximum flow was on the river, all 66 kilowatts. It took a few minutes but eventually we got the go ahead, we would be rafting Rio Toro.

Kit was handed out, helmets, life jackets and oars. We walked down a trail closer to the river and were given a safety talk going over things like the instructions Carlos would be giving and what to do in case we were dumped into the river. It was a comprehensive induction but did seem like quite a lot to take in, thankfully we had ten minutes of practicing on the river before we tackled the first rapid.

Aaron and I were at the front with Keryn and Cece in the middle and Carlos steering and belaying instructions from the rear. Most of the time we were either paddling or not, occasionally the left would paddle forward and the right reverse, sometimes we had to duck into the boat to avoid a collision and sometimes we had to all pile on to one side of the raft to prevent a flip. Turns out we weren’t so good at the last instruction.

The first few rapids were fine and entertaining. The river was swollen and high on its banks meaning the water was flowing very fast. This also meant that most rocks were less of an issue than when the river was lower, we just floated or bumped over each one. Hitting the static swells created by submerged rocks left us all saturated within minutes, occasionally we would all be submerged in the spray as the raft went briefly underwater. It was very cold at first but we warmed up with the paddling effort and the adrenaline raced around our bodies. Ahead of us was one of two canoeists and he would negotiate the rapid ahead and signal the presence of rocks and changes in the flow of the river. He was also there to help if needed. One final task was that of photographer, one of the canoeists would photograph us as we went through some of the rapids. We bought the CD at the end of the trip and you can see some of the photos here.

Hitting the swell.
A sunny morning in La Fortuna

Tourists in the brace position going underwater.
Tourists in the brace position going underwater

It was all going well and we were growing in confidence and also enjoying ourselves more and more. We came to one rapid that had a large bolder in the middle of the river and the flow steered us in its direction. We thought we’d be steered around the bolder but instead found ourselves pushed sideways into the rock surface. It took seconds; Carlos was yelling “High side left!” trying to get those on the right to move to the left to weight that side down and push us past the rock. Cece and I were on the left and reacted far too slowly, the raft pushing up the bolder and tipping the raft. Aaron saw what was happening and jumped rather than be dumped, the other three of us were tipped into the river. For a second or two I didn’t know up from down and then I popped to the surface. Another few seconds were required for me to realise I was facing upriver and that was why I was breathing water so I turned around. Ahead of me I could see Cece floating down the river and next thing I know I hear Carlos shouting “Grab the rope!” and a rope sails over my head and lands to mine and Cece’s right. We both took hold and assumed the appropriate position so Carlos could pull us in. Behind me was Keryn and Aaron was holding on to the safety rope on the rim of raft. Carlos pulled us all to the boat and once we all had hold of the rim rope then dragged us back on board one by one. We were all a little shaken, confidence knocked, but assumed our positions and we continued down the river.

With each rapid we negotiated successfully we got the confidence back. We stopped at a designated rest point and talked about the experience so far. Even with the dumping we were all thrilled with the experience and couldn’t wait to go back onto the river. The guys in the other raft were similarly enthused and as a number of them had rafted before it was interesting to get their opinions on the experience. Everyone said this was the best rafting they had ever experienced. Three people from the other raft had also been dumped into the river. We had watched then come out on one of the early rapids, someone at the front flung across the boat and into the river and the unbalancing causing two others to follow.

Back on the river Aaron was able to video us going down a couple of the rapids. Our guide was pogoing on some of the final rapid waves; he’d jump as the raft hit the crest of the wave and come down in the trough, appearing to jump five or six feet into the air. Aaron videoed one such jump and got a YouTube moment, the raft shifting right as Carlos jumped se he landed on the side of the raft and was dumped into the water. The guide on the other raft thought it was hilarious, as did we novices. Heading into one of the last rapids Carlos warned us that we would need to go high side left to avoid a tip when we hit the rock wall at the bottom of the rapid so we all prepared. We got to the bottom and followed the shouted instruction which at the time seemed a little strange; the wall was too our right so we were on the wrong side of the raft. As the photos show this was intentional and Carlos was pulling the raft over to tip us out. It was probably the safest place on the river for a quick swim with the water after the rapid slower and deeper than usual so we were easily taken back into the raft, three of us swimming over to be pulled in and Cece taxied over by a canoeist. I think we all enjoyed this planned dumping and as a bonus Aaron managed to catch the whole thing on video.

Aaron notices the approaching wall.
Aaron notices the approaching wall

Cece and Brendon start to move left.
Cece and Brendon start to move left

Tipping over.
Tourists in the brace position going underwater

Splash!.
Splash!

There were only a few more rapids to negotiate, we could see a bridge coming up and our rafting would end shortly after this point. The most exciting rapid was near this point. We paddled to the left of the river and were pushed/steered between two large boulders down a drop which would have only have been a few feet but looked like a small waterfall from our vantage on the raft. There were no more dumpings and we were sad to leave the river, this had been an amazing experience.

A short walk from the river was a building where we got changed and had fruit to eat. The consensus was still the same, this was the best rafting ever. Carlos came with us to the restaurant where we were to have lunch and then left while we ate. He was a good guide, we always felt confident and safe with him in charge and you can’t ask for much more. Lunch was tasty.

The drive to San Jose took about three hours with most of us dozing along the way. We stopped to look at an impressive waterfall in the La Paz water park, standing in the rain looking at the huge volume of water being pushed through the rocks into the pool below. Aaron walked up the trail that went behind the waterfall and looked cold as he watched the water fall in front of his eyes. Continuing we drove over hills shrouded in white clouds, the rain a constant companion.

Aaron a speck against the power of the waterfall.
Aaron a speck against the power of the waterfall

San Jose appeared as a slowly increasing conglomeration of buildings. There didn’t seem to be a defined edge, the houses just got closer and closer together. It seemed to take ages to negotiate the one way streets that made up the city centre but we eventually arrived at Hotel Aranjeuz and Josh was there to greet us. We said goodbye and then found our way to our respective rooms where we had time to unpack a little and then get ready for the farewell meal which was only a few hours away (and Keryn catalogued the many bruises gained on the day’s river adventure).

The meal was held at Café Mundo, a fifteen minute walk away from the hotel. The food and service were very good, we shared a couple of bottles of Argentinean wine with Leah and Dylan. Josh gave a short speech thanking us for making the trip a success and Pat returned in kind, letting Josh know how much we appreciated having him as our guide. Keryn and I agreed with Pat that Josh was the best guide we had ever had; nothing was too much bother, everything was organised as much as it could be and problems were always worked around without complaint or panic. Josh also gave the impression he wanted to be guiding us, he loved the countries of Central America and would do his upmost to share that love with those in his company. I’d travel with Josh again in an instant.

We moved on from the restaurant to an Irish pub and had another few drinks. For those that we wouldn’t be seeing later we said goodbyes and then a group of us walked back to the hotel. Travelling with GAP from Mexico City has had lots of highs and a few lows but overall it has been a varied, interesting and enjoyable six weeks. What with email and Facebook I think we’ll keep in touch with many of our fellow travellers for a long while yet.

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