Trans Mateo Tours was a small but dedicated group of customer service representatives, drivers, trip leaders and the like who sat behind the counter of a gated up office in downtown San Jose. The owner, Enrique, perched on a stool all day, greeting travelers in need of advice, adventure, airport transport and everything in between. He kept a laminated trip calendar on the glass counter and used it to explain every sojourn with the utmost of enthusiasm. Whether you felt like ziplining through a cloud rainforest, hopping on a sailboat to a white sand island, strolling around in a butterfly garden or riding a Jeep to a boat to a Jeep to a volcano (everybody in Costa Rica knows what “Jeep Boat Jeep” means), Enrique could make it happen.
Anna and I stopped in to inquire about day trips. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to accomplish during my stay: zip lining, horseback riding, hiking, seeing animals but not bugs, swimming, sunning, eating, drinking, dancing, and lounging-- so I walked in with an open mind. Enrique plopped the trusty old calendar between us and plunked his finger down on Sunday. For a nominal price, Anna and I could have door-to-shore service to a rapid mountain river just an hour outside of town. He said they’d pick us up in front of our apartment and not to worry about payment until the van brought us back. It all seemed simple enough.
A powder blue cargo van arrived at 6:00 AM the next day. No one else on our street was awake yet, so we figured it must be for us. We skipped around to the front door sporting our backpacks and crosstrainers. The driver was sporting a confused look on his face. He started in rapid spanish about needing a paper. I was beginning to wish I’d brought a notary with me on this trip. I tried my best to defend us, which consisted of explaining the past in the present while Anna stood vigilant, pretending she understood everything I was saying.
“Enrique tells us we go with you to the river and pay him after,” I said.
Many confusing words.
“So… It’s okay?”, I asked.
“Si si si esta bien. Vamonos.”
“Si!,” I exclaimed... to a cargo van full of elderly Puerto Rican tourists.
We shuffled our way to the back, nodding and smiling at them as we passed.
We plopped down in the very back seat. I turned and whispered to Anna.
“What the hell kind of tour is this? Everybody’s eighty. I thought we were white water rafting.”
“I don’t know, honestly. At least he let us on.”
She was awfully optimistic for six o’clock in the morning.
We spent the next half hour or so twisting and turning around dirt roads cutting like fusilli through rows and rows of pesto green mountains. What I wouldn’t give for scenery made of pasta. Outside of what appeared to be a long, flat ranch with an unfilled swimming pool, the van stopped to let on a twenty-something Tico. He was short in stature, with dark skin and short black hair, donning fluorescent orange swim trunks, and a blue t-shirt that read “Rios Tropicales.” He had fancy black sunglasses dangling from a string around his neck. Not surprisingly, he was holding a stack of papers.
First in Spanish, he explained we were to sign the waivers that stated it was nobody’s fault but our own if we died that day. Anna turned to me with widening eyes, hoping I was taking it all in so I could report it back to her. I craned my neck to listen, nodding authoritatively like I knew what was going on. Lucky for the both of us, he gave the English rendition next: fill out the form, don’t take anything you want staying dry, apply lots of sunscreen (looking directly at me) and check off whether you want fish or chicken for lunch.
The Puerto Ricans marched off the bus loud and lionhearted, handing the Tico their waivers as they made their way into the great unknown. I hung back to read the fine print, trying my best to keep the SPF 50 from dripping onto the page as I slathered up my second coat. I was doubtful I had any legal rights in the rainforest anyway, so I scribbled my signature, shrugged my greasy shoulders and said a little prayer my backpack would be there when I returned. If I returned.
Once outside, I was struck by the stark contrast of scenery between this rural mountain area and the city center just 6 kilometers east. Here, everything was quiet; lulled into tranquility by a blanket of vegetation, nestled safely in a valley surrounded by streams that dripped down from the mountains. The microclimates of Costa Rica were a fascinating reminder of how seemingly disconnected each ecosystem was from next. An hour away from San Jose, you could easily bake in dry, hot sunshine. Another hour would carry you into a wall of humidity the likes of which your hair has never seen.
Rows of lightly painted houses sprang up from the tiered dirt roads lining the forest. They were small and practical, covered by flat roofs and with clothes hanging on ropes from the windows. With the exception of schools, churches and corner stores, they were the only buildings in sight.
We followed our fearless, fluorescent-bottomed leader down a well tread path to the Pacuare River. Three of his cohorts were waiting at the shoreline. A sturdy, dark skinned man with long, tightly wound dreadlocks was pumping air into a blue and yellow raft. A second and noticeably flimsier grey and red raft was being tended to by a tall, thin Tico with brown curls. A third leader appeared in the distance, his arms wrapped around a bushel of oars. All three of them moved with swiftness and purpose, leaving me somewhat convinced of my safety. I had my concerns about the gray raft but I crossed my fingers we’d end up in the other one.
As we waited for them to sort everything out, a series of loud, kamikaze-like insects flew into our faces, likening us to schoolgirls, squealing and shaking our hair out with our hands for fear they’d gotten stuck in our scalps. I think they were drawn to all my sunscreen. One jumped out from a crease in the raft and divebombed back in our direction. “Great,” I thought. “They’re lurking around in there.”
Prior to departure, when I was still cooking the trip up in my head, I envisioned all the potential worst-case-solo-travel scenarios through and through. Muggings, pickpockets, unwanted sexual advances and kidnappings were all definitely on the radar. There’s one jerk in every travel forum who tries to convince you you’ll be kidnapped for ransom no matter where you go. “Don’t step one foot outside your five star resort jacuzzi or you’ll be sold into the banana trade!” Regardless-- tarantulas, snakes and steroid quality mosquitoes seemed like a far more realistic threat to me.
“Aren’t you nervous about traveling alone with all your money and travel documents?,“ people would ask.
“No. I’m mostly nervous about giant, hairy, tarantulas crawling up through toilet seats and killing me dead.”
When I googled “Costa Rican spiders” (thirty times), the petrifying, furry, orange and black one was the most featured image to appear. Feel free to look if you’re brave. To me, the likelihood of getting tag teamed by an assassin Halloween spider and a rabid vampire bat far outweighed that of a golden-haired gringa being swindled by a local. As far as I was concerned, I was in Jumanji and there was no Robin Williams to jump back into the board and look for a solution. Thus, I was always on guard.
They started dividing us into two groups with, as far as I could tell, little or no logic. Six able-bodied people were ushered over to the blue and yellow raft. They hopped in effortlessly. Anna and I both took note of the situation before locking eyes. Scanning our peripheral vision, we realized we were surrounded by four tiny Puerto Rican women ranging from about 65 - 80. You have got to be kidding me was the look we were sharing. They seemed timid but excited, climbing into the rickety gray raft meekly. It bucked around beneath them the way inflatables do, making you feel like you’re bouncing your body off a giant rubber trampoline whose sole job is to eject you into the atmosphere. The second you plant a foot down, the other side of your body springs up until you’re forced to lift that foot to counter balance. And back and forth you go until you finally sit your heavy butt down like a toddler with a full diaper.
Our, shall we say, Captain, held Anna and I back while the other four boarded.
“I’m gonna really need you girls to work today, okay?,” he asked. “The water is low and we need all our strength to row down the river. Anna, I’m going to have you at the front. That’s the most important spot.”
“Oh, okay. Of course,” she replied. You could tell she was starting to rethink the whole thing. Not so happy we got on that bus now now are we? She threw her oar out ahead of her and hurled herself up to the front, trying not to lose a flip flop along the way. I made a halfhearted attempt to boost her but lost balance, almost taking out a Boricua with my oar.
“RULE NUMBER ONE!,” yelled the Captain. “Keep. Your oars. Below. Your shoulders.”
His eyes burned a hole in my face. It was the sunscreen incident all over again. I lowered my head to avoid eye contact, pretending to adjust my life vest which was cutting off circulation to my diaphragm. I noticed the bottom of the raft was submerged in an inch or so of water. Awesome.
The perky blue and yellow boat came bobbing alongside us on its way to the first set of rapids. The six sprightly, young rafters were tapping their oars into a giant high five over their heads. They were cheersing in solidarity to their upcoming adventure while we were getting yelled at and taking on water like the Titanic. They waved at us as they passed, the dreadlocked captain giving us a thumbs up as he led his crew into paradise.
I looked around again. Anna was at the helm, clutching her oar for dear life, helmet and life vest fastened to the nines. I could tell she was nervous. The two women in their sixties listened intently as the Captain continued his speech, mimicking his movements and nodding up at him with gusto. The other two had to be in their late seventies or early eighties. Their eyes were completely glossed over throughout the demo. I gave them credit for trying and all that, I just wished they weren’t in my raft. On the upside, it didn’t look like keeping their oars below their shoulders was going to be a problem for them. They perked up just a little bit when he offered the Spanish rendition of the guidelines, but even then they lost interest and continued to look away.
A third boat appeared. Two men with cameras, waterproof canvas packs and a first aid kit stopped to chat as they made their way past. I was thrilled for the emergency relief options but not the prospect of an album of me splitting my head open on a river rock while a boat full of Puerto Rican grandmothers looked on in horror.
The Captain lifted his oar in the air and urged us to follow his lead. In the wake of our geriatric high five, he pushed us off the shoreline and into the swirling river.
“Okay ladies! Remember. Listen only as I say. And when I say row you row!”
I hoped everyone’s hearing aids were waterproof and turned up high.
We took on some serious speed as we coasted down the riverbank, at times getting caught in the current and shifting into whichever direction it chose for us. Turns out it’s not so easy to row straight when the river’s running perpendicular to you. Of course, the Captain didn’t care. He was too busy micromanaging us with scare tactics to think rationally.
“Anna! ROW! We need you!,” he screamed as we careened sideways toward a giant boulder in the middle of the river.
I looked across the raft at the Boricuas. The color had drained from their faces. Their oars were barely gracing the surface of the waves. I sunk my feet into the bottom of the raft and tried to straighten my legs in an effort to extend my upper body closer to the water. I figured the deeper I got my own oar in, the easier things would be on poor Anna, the Skipper.
Unfortunately, it didn’t do much good. We missed the boulder by about a hair and spent the next ten seconds looking around doe-eyed at one another while the Captain belted out more commands. Turns out that was just one in a series of uncontrollable run-ins with rocks. He was already thinking about the next one while we were still recovering from the last.
We went on like that for twenty minutes or so, looking certain death in the eye and narrowly escaping it each time. From pants-shitting fear to squealing joy, we flowed back and forth at the same speed as the river. I was beginning to understand the adrenaline junkie allure. There’s nothing quite like throwing yourself into harm’s way just to save yourself from it. It’s a lot like dating, really.
At the base of the rapids, the river widened and calmed itself into submission. The current still pulled the rafts forward magnetically, though, as if the mountains were invoking us. The rocks had finally dissipated and the now-quiet riverbanks gave way to shelves of forest vegetation, the echoes of birds, insects and marsupials replaced our shrieks and the rushing of the rapids.
We noticed a large, beige animal ambling through the jungle ferns in the distance.
“Una vaca!” cried one of the women.
A cow. Out having a tranquil Sunday stroll while we paid money to lose circulation in our forearms.
Up ahead, the perfectly plump blue and yellow raft was anchored on the river bank on a flat, pebbled beach. The dreadlocked guide was standing at knee-length in the rushing water. It crashed against his shins violently, the way a waterfall does when it breaks off a cliff. He struggled to stay standing, craning his body back close to the shoreline to gain traction with his hands. If he could make something look hard, I knew we six were doomed.
“Now we will pull over to shore with the others,” said the Captain. “And if you like, you can float on your back down the river.”
“Float down to where?,” I thought to myself. How were they going to retrieve me once I glided like a dead leaf into the abyss? Not one of the Boricuas opted to bob around like a cork down the Pacuare, but I could tell Anna was on the fence, waiting for me to give her that extra nudge of encouragement.
“Oh what the hell?” I said to her. “At least it doesn’t involve paddling.”
In my attempt to dismount the raft I wobbled, still managing to get one foot into the churning water and one hand on the embankment. I’ve never felt a current of that magnitude in my life. Gravity, leg strength and the leverage of holding onto the rocky riverbed meant nothing. I fell immediately to my knees, water sucking past me in giant bunches like I was spiraling down a drain. If you’ve ever been caught under a breaking wave with your legs over your head and sand in every crevice of your bathing suit, you have a small sense of just how out-of-control water can be. I was battling with the forces of nature and, as far as I was concerned, surrender was my only option.
I managed to flip onto my back like a startled beetle, clinging to the Tico the way a small child clings to her mother’s leg in the supermarket. And just as I was about to careen away without a hope or a prayer, he grabbed me by my life vest. He and his steel calves remained planted into the rocks while I flailed around like a baby in a bathtub. He held me there until Anna dismounted, assuming we’d be drifting away as a unit. At least I’d have the Skipper at my side. She cruised over and grabbed hold of my hand. And, like two otters linked up for a catnap, we let the river carry us wherever it wanted us to go.
The Boricuas waved goodbye from the safety of the anchored raft. I could only assume they cared as much about our safety as we did, because there was no way they were getting through another set of rapids without us. We were suspended in the water on our backs, the water moving us swiftly down a gorgeous stretch of river. All around us there was nothing but forest and sky. The cow we’d seen earlier was still strolling through the brush. Big, colorful birds soared and dipped above us.
“I hope there aren’t any freakish Costa Rican pelicans capable of gobbling up humans in distress,” I thought to myself. Not to mention what might be lurking down below; Parasites. Eels. The ghosts of rafters past.
The water eventually lulled us into ease. Everything around us seemed heightened; Sharpened. It reminded me of those Disney World rides that twirl you around in a little pod before hurling you down some unexpected waterfall. One minute you’re gliding along, waving at animatronic bears with banjos and the next you’re ejected into madness just in time for a hidden camera to document the terrified look on your face.
I didn’t find myself anticipating the worst anymore, though. Not in that particular moment. It felt like the next step of our voyage would sort itself out. If not, someone would just have to explain to my family, friends and coworkers that I floated straight into the Pacific Ocean and would get back to them at my earliest convenience.
And just as we were starting to strategize an exit plan, another Tico appeared, his giant calves anchored into the shoreline. We were gliding toward him rapidly, trying to line ourselves up so we could at least attempt a head on collision to slow us down. He grabbed me by my underarm and lobbed me out of the water; Anna cruising past us until another one did the same for her. We climbed further away from the water and took a seat on the slick, pebbled shoreline to catch our breath. Crawling out of a drain is no easy feat.
And just when we were beginning to wonder what happened to the crew, along came our fearless Boricuas. Oars up, eyes wide, taking in the tranquility in the same starstruck fashion. It seems no matter who you are or where you are, awe is unavoidable. There’s no masking it when you experience it. No playing it cool when you’re looking majesty in the eye.
I still wasn’t sure how we were going to get back to the lodge for that chicken I checked off on my death waiver, but I was secretly happy to have the crew back. Even if they were chanting “Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas!” in union for the remainder of the trek down the river.