Panama in Three Movements: Boquete Part 2: Great Adventure

After the pleasant surprise of our amazing hotel, we were ready for the “adventure” part of our vacation. At 7:15 the next morning, our guide and the Boquete Outdoor Adventures van arrived to pick us up. We stopped a few places around town collecting others before heading south to the Chiriqui river.

The adventure part of the day began sooner than we expected. After about an hour, our van turned off the main road onto a dirt road that wound through the jungle toward the river. The road turned to mud, and soon enough, we were stuck in the thick paste.

Everyone hopped out of the van. Nate and FP helped shove the van out of the muddy ruts, and our group of 7 climbed back in for a few more turns. Soon enough, though, it was clear to the driver and our guide we weren’t going to make it all the way to the river. Out of nowhere, a pickup truck appeared. Five people jumped in the back the truck while the rest of us waited. I was a little confused as to who the truck belonged to, but it turned out to be two more guides, who had ferried the boats and gear to the river’s edge. I stood on the road slapping mosquitoes and got to know the others in our group for a while before the truck came back for us.

Once we were at the river, our guides went into professional mode: they instructed us how to paddle and what to do if someone fell out. We donned life jackets and helmets before clambering into our rubber vessel.

Sadly there aren’t any pictures of us rafting. We were to worried about the camera landing overboard, and we didn’t trust the wet bag to keep it safe. So you’ll have to make do with my sub par illustration skills:

Rafting was supremely awesome. I had been afraid that I wouldn’t have the strength to keep up with everyone, like my super athletic brother in law and sister, and that I would get tired, but everything was fine. We only paddled during the rapids, and the rest of time the current carried us along. The weather was perfect: we weren’t a bit cold in our wet swimsuits. A light rain fell briefly, but it was completely enjoyable. Occasionally we saw a big bird or an animal in the trees along the river banks. We saw a blue morpho butterfly for a few seconds, too. The sky was blue, the trees were so green, and the water was refreshing.

Our boat guide made it fun, too. He told us to call him “Toro”, or the bull, and he proceeded to whoop and holler down the river, splashing and dunking us in calm water. After about 2 hours, we beached both boats and the kayak onto a small beach. Almost without our realizing it, the three guides spread out bread, vegetables, fruit and sandwich filling for lunch. We ate and avoided the weird guy from the other boat. After the break, we headed back down the river for about 2 more hours.

I was disappointed when El Toro told us we were heading into the last rapid. I could have gone on longer. We anticlimactically pulled alongside a muddy bank and trooped up to a gas station where we changed our clothes. The guides deflated the rafts before loading everything into the back of the waiting pickup and van. Nearly everyone’s head was bobbing with sleep on the drive back to Boquete.

To summarize: rafting, I’d do it again. The trip was a little expensive ($90 for the day trip), but it was worth it for the experience.

Next up: zip-lining. This was a little bit of a disappointment. We were looking forward to this as our other big splurge activity during our vacation. Like the day before, the company picked us up at our hotel.

We were trucked up the mountain in a giant diesel truck lined with benches to the bottom of the zip-line. We watched the group before us zip down their last line and arrive at the lodge. Then, we suited up and went for instruction.

We got the hard sell on the danger of taking our cameras with us, but this time we didn’t give in. Once again, we loaded up in the back of the flatbed truck, and we wound our way further up the mountain. At the top, we took a short trek through the jungle to reach the first platform.

All the guides but one clipped on and zipped ahead of us. I thought maybe they were just there for fun, but I later realized they were all stationed on different platforms to catch us. One had a camera, and he was the nominated documenter of the trip. That detail became important later.

There were 12 lines, ranging in length and speed. The views were gorgeous, but once I was on the line, there wasn’t time to enjoy them, because I was busy concentrating on braking and keeping my body straight. The glorious flying feeling on each line only lasted a few seconds before a guide was grabbing me, unsnapping my carabiner and clipping me on to the next line.

At one point I decided I wanted to really experience the speed of the line. All the tree trunks were wrapped in padding, so I figured that if I didn’t brake enough, I’d just hit the padding, and it wouldn’t be too bad. I zoomed down the line. I saw the guide’s face as he waved for me to brake in the middle. I ignored him. Then, just as I neared the end, instead of letting me hit the tree, he put his body in between me and the tree. My foot, perfectly positioned near his crotch, made a direct hit. He took the full impact of my speed right where it counts.

With a cry of pain, he doubled over. I was too high to touch the platform, but he left me swinging from the line for a good 2 minutes while he recovered. That ended up being the highlight of the day for me.

Back at base camp, the guides gave us the hard sell for the photos they took of us in action. Our documenter put all the photos and video clips he took into a 10 minute video set to music. They made a big deal about having us sit down for the showing. We hadn’t shot a lot of photos because we were busy holding on, and they knew it. The photo CDs were offered at the bargain price of only $10. We declined, mostly out of principle, because they did have some good shots of us.

Next, they told us we had to wait an hour before the truck could take us down the mountain. And, how convenient, they had a restaurant where we could order food. And it was also coincidentally 1 p.m., just in time for lunch. One couple who was part of our group had wisely packed sandwiches. We hadn’t, so we toughed out the hour until the truck arrived back at base camp to take us down the mountain.

All the upselling left us with a bad taste in our mouths. The experience cost about $80 for an hour in the trees with the other 3 hours split between travel, instruction and BEING MARKETED TO. I’m glad I did it (and have the certificate to PROVE it), but I probably wouldn’t do it again. Unless it was free. Then I would.

I could have stayed in Boquete a day or two more. Circumstances conspired against us, and we never did end up touring a coffee farm. FP and I met a friend whose father owns a boutique coffee farm, but we only saw the outside. No cupping for Nate and me. We weren’t terribly disappointed though, because the next day we were catching a bus to the beach, local style.

Goodbye, Boquete and hello, Bocas del Toro!

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