Down the Rapids of the Balsa River

I should have known the instant our guide, Dani, told us the name of our raft that this was going to be a trip to remember. We would be rafting down the Balsa River on the "Titanic".

The bus load of people that got dropped off at the send off area were split into five groups. Max and I got matched with a guide named Dani along with two other pairs of people; a pair of friends of Denmark and a pair of friends of Germany. We knew from looking around at the other rafts, which held smaller children and more elderly individuals, that we were going to be the rip-roaring, "fun" raft. We had four ladies, two guys, plus our guide - all physically fit - all in our late 20s/early 30s. We were ready for a good time, and Dani was not going to disappoint us! The two ladies from Denmark manned the front of the raft, Max and I were in the middle, and the German pair were situated in the back with our guide. Dani kicked us off the shore and we began our journey down the Balsa River.

Having never been rafting before, I was nervous. I slipped my left foot under the inflated thwart, the crosspiece in the raft, and my right foot in a loose pocket stitched to the floor. I actually felt secure until the first section of rapids. The raft went down sideways with the left side, the side I was on, headed down the rapids first. We hit a bump and my right foot flung out of the pocket. My body and my right leg were flailing over the side of the raft as my back smacked against the water. I tried to wiggle my left leg free out of fear, at any second, my leg was going to snap. Thankfully, my team was able to pull me back into the raft, straighten out our direction and make it down the first section without further incident.

Down the next couple sections of rapids, we quickly noticed that Dani was driving us straight down the hardest parts of the rapids whereas other groups would divert down the less intense section. One of the Denmark ladies had a similar experience to me in that she half fell out of the raft, but was quickly pulled back in. Every now and again, Dani would yell for us to put our paddles together, above our heads, and yell "Pura Vida", which is a Costa Rican motto meaning "pure life". We were continuously solidifying ourselves as the "fun raft".

We were all working well off each other, synchronizing our strokes, listening and helping each other. We were truly a team. So when we approached the last section of heavy rapids and Dani asked us if we wanted to go down the Heaven Route or the Hell Route, without hesitation we all shouted "Hell!" Dani made a joke about the raft tipping, which none of us thought anything of, and proceed to yell "forward...forward..." as we all began to strong-armed paddle forward. After a few seconds of intense paddling Dani told us to "Stop!". We glanced up just as we were headed straight for a rock formation on the shore which resembled a ramp. Without a second thought, our raft was tipping, and dumped five of the six of us completely out of the raft. One of the Denmark ladies remained in the raft, and pulled her friend immediately out of the rapids. Max and the German woman were nabbed up quickly too, which left myself and the German man to "enjoy" a ride down the rapids.

After flipping backwards and rolling through the rapids, I came up for a much needed breath. I was keeping calm. I didn't want to waste my breath on shouting for help. My raft, along with the four other rafts that went down the rapids in front of us all knew we were in the water. I felt confident I would be saved...eventually.

My paddle was gripped tightly in my hand. I knew if I was close to the raft that I could use the paddle as an extension of my arm and get pulled in to safety, but once I cleared the water from my eyes, I realized just how far away I was from the raft. Screw this paddle! I could hear Dani yelling for me to swim for the raft. Now, I am not a strong swimmer, but even a skilled swimmer would have difficulties swimming up stream in rapids, in 4 feet of water coated by rocks. Swimming to the raft was not going to happen. As I replayed our safety instructions in my head, I knew my next option was to try and swim to the shore. Again, trying to swim perpendicular to rushing, white water rapids must be easier said than done. I failed again. On to step three...belly up, feet forward, and float down the rapids. Sound peaceful? I assure you, it's not. The dips in the rapids acted like slides, spilling you into a pool of more rapids. I never had enough time to clear the water from my eyes before getting sucked below the rapids again. I was blind. Water involuntarily rushing through my nose and down my throat. In the brief moments when my head was above water, I would try and spit out water and take in a breath of air, usually only getting half a breath in before being pulled back under the fierce river. At one point, I broke rule #4 of "Don't stand in the river" because I was literally on the brink of drowning. I NEEDED to get air. I got my one deep breath before the rapids washed over me, pulling me into the "near-death" water slide. Moments before sheer panic was about to set in, I saw a glimpse of hope. The rapids leveled out enough where I was able to clear the water from my eyes. I saw another guide standing in the water with the safety rope (another thing we went through in safety training). He threw it in the water downstream, which is where I was headed. Within seconds the river had swept me passed him and was frantically searching for a slim rope in the murky river. Just then, I felt it and thought to myself "whatever I do, I CANNOT let this rope go." I gripped tightly as the river pulled my hands down the length of the rope causing serious rope burns on my hands...but it beats drowning to death. It became quickly apparent that holding onto the rope with both hands would surely drown me, so I resorted to sacrificing my left arm...whatever that meant, as long as I didn't drown. I felt like Spiderman in the scene when he is trying to hold the two halves of the boat together, each half pulling him in the opposite direction. That was me. The guide pulling me left and the river pulling me right. Somehow the guide was able to hang on to the rope despite me acting like a large trout dragging on the fishing line because the next thing I knew everything felt calm. Next to me the rapids rushed around a bend in the river. The guide ran over to me as I lay, conscious, looking up at the sky. He lifted me up by my life jacket. "You are okay. You are okay," he said while I stood, spitting up water. Two guides looked over my body to make sure I didn't have any breaks or wounds. I only noticed a few small cuts on my hands, but other than that I was okay. I noticed the German man, who must have gone down the rapids with me, was also standing beside me. Him, along with the guide, helped me over to a raft because I was shaking so badly I could hardly stand in the flowing, 2 feet deep riverbank. The guide knelt in the water so I could flounder into the raft, followed by my German compadre. The group we joined, sailed us down the rest of the rapids to where the Titanic was waiting for us, along with Dani, Max and the three other ladies. We hopped from our savior raft to the Titanic, and coasted down the calm part of the river. Dani jumped off the end of our raft and said "feel free to jump in, the water is very calm through this section." The German man and I looked at each other and shook our heads. I turned around and dipped my feet in the water, but was not going into that water again. As I splashing my feet in the water, I noticed my legs. Dozens of bruises were already forming, especially around my left knee. It was funny that during my "slide down the rapids" I didn't remember experiencing any pain in my legs even though it was obvious they were getting smashed against rocks the whole time. My body was only focused on breathing, and holding onto that rope. Thank you adrenaline!

The trauma was over, but the tour wasn't. The five rafts floated over to another riverbank for lunch, where the German and I were celebrated for going down the rapids. Congratulations and high fives from the guides made us a feel like we completed some sort of right of passage on the river that our fellow tourists did not experience. We enjoyed the rest of the tour by going down more tame rapids, taking in the scenery and spotting wildlife, all the while feeling like we conquered the Balsa River.

For anyone wanting to raft in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, check out the link below. We rafted the Balsa River, Class III & IV.

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