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Sun Zones
Between adrenaline rush and total relaxation lie 16 perfect winter escapes, just hours from home. Get the February issue to discover them all. Here, we bring you a Central American foursome. From CHARLES GRAEBER's ripping run through Panama to the Serengeti of Costa Rica, Adventure leads the way to hot fun in the wintertime.

A River Rips Through It
Welcome to Panama's wild west, where the rapids are strong and the men are nervous.

Photo: Charles Graeber
The author anticipates the pleasures of Chiriquí white water.

Hector says: "Carlos. Carlito. Come on, you guys. You're not going to die."

We're stretched out in hammocks on Hector's porch in Boquete, Panama, watching the sun settle behind a dormant volcano like a fat orange bird. Hector Sanchez is one of the best guides in Panama, a man whose words are usually reassuring. But my father just shakes his head and smiles. "Frankly, Hector," he says. "I'm not so sure."

Frankly, ditto. This isn't some father-son cult thing involving black Nikes or Guyana punch. It's not a death wish, hardly a death-possibility. It's just fear.

My father is a physician and teacher, nearly 60; I'm in my early 30s, but we have a lot in common, including a name (first and last) and a passionate curiosity about Latin America. Ten years ago, we spent a few bonding weeks bumming around Guatemala, climbing temples and active volcanoes. This trip, we've explored Panama, playing at the surf camps of the Pacific coast, trekking the rain forests around the town of David, and diving the pirate cays of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago off the Caribbean coast. The Shangri-la town of Boquete is the last stop and the highlight, where we've planned a long weekend running the rapids of Chiriquí province, in Panama's western highlands.

The reason Panama offers prime rafting is its breadth—or lack thereof. This Ireland-size S between Costa Rica and Colombia occupies the thinnest piece of Central America. In some places, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are only 30 miles (48 kilometers) apart.

It's this slim continental waistline that marked Panama for a canal. It also makes it a natural for white water. Most of Panama's 500 or so rivers start high up in the Central Range—the local stretch of the Continental Divide bridging the Rockies and the Andes. These rivers, like all rivers, flow to the oceans; in Panama's case, the hypotenuse between mountains and sea makes for a short but wild ride. The result is a series of river systems so steep, they're only a few degrees away from being waterfalls.

Most paddlers with Hector's Chiriquí River Rafting company sleep in a rustic dorm with bunk beds on the Finca El Bajereque coffee plantation just outside Boquete. My father and I, however, are staying elsewhere on the grounds—at Hector's home, a handsome wooden lodge. Boquete is one of those perfect mountain paradises of burbling brooks and green, terraced hillsides, where the nights are cool, the coffee is steaming and locally grown, and anyone who visits is tempted, if only for a moment, to ditch their old lives and relocate.

Some come to escape the lowland heat, others to stalk exotic quetzals or explore the mountain trails on foot or horseback. But most come for the rivers. More than 15 different runs are within a few hours' drive of the lodge, from beginners' riffles along the Río Estí, to Class V-plus water on the Río Los Valles and Río Caldera.

It was here that my father and I discovered that we share something else besides family ties and a love of Latin America. It turns out that we are both afraid of white water. Scoff if you will, Hector, but my father and I are white-water wussies.

Alba-hydrophobia is hard to explain to the unafflicted. Risk is a definitional aspect of adventure travel, and white-water rafting is no exception. And yet thousands of people yahoo down rivers every year without incident. Some are professionals, some are amateurs, some are even account managers enjoying a corporate team-building weekend. These people, somehow, have no problem. We do.

The revelation came a few hours ago as Hector led us through our first go at white-water rafting—five breathtaking hours on the Río Chiriquí. The Class IV flumes tossed our boat like a feather on a fan, and we paddled hard. And it was fun, at least until we smacked a rock and dumped into the rapids.

While most of the other paddlers pinballed through the rocks and emerged downstream, bruised but fine, my father and I did not. We were sucked beneath the surface, tumbled in an underwater spin-cycle of heads and rocks, then pushed back up—breathless and directly beneath the raft. Moving fast in furious water, scraping for handholds on the raft's slick rubber underbelly, we struggled for several long seconds before either of us found an edge and pulled ourselves to air.

First I saw a hand, then a watch, and then my father, coughing up a lungful of water. His helmet was almost sideways and his life jacket was up near his nose, and yet, somehow, he had retained his sunglasses. "Charlie," he sputtered. "I thought you were dead."

"That's funny," I wheezed, meaning the opposite. "I thought you were."

Now high and dry on the porch, our guide puts the flip in perspective. In the past several weeks, Hector's outfit hasn't seen a single dump. Our trip, with two spills, was a fluke; probably the combination of a small raft, inexperienced paddlers, and pure chance. And while our time underwater seemed like an eternity—or at least, I learned afterward, long enough for the other paddlers to have a full conversation about where the hell those Graebers had gone—we were always within range of two strong young guides: One guide with our raft, the other in a kayak. Both were armed with ropes and CPR skills. Our spill wasn't as bad as it seemed. It even had an upside: In our honor they jokingly renamed one of the rapids Graeber Falls.

"Remember," Hector said, as a cool evening mist settled over the coffee fields. "The Chiriquí is a strong, young river."

You said it, Hector. But nowhere is this vigor more evident than in the river we are to paddle tomorrow, the Chiriquí Viejo. As its name suggests, the Viejo is the older of the two rivers, a grizzled drainage on 11,400-foot (3,475-meter) Volcán Barú. We'll be paddling a section the locals call Palon, or "big stick," which white-water aficionados consider one of the most exciting and pristine raft runs in all of Central America. This ten-mile (16-kilometer) rip drops an average of 150 feet per mile (46 meters), culminating in what local river guides call Fear.

Fear is the toughest rock-stuffed hole raftable in the Palon section of the Chiriquí Viejo. To defeat Fear is to control it, which requires strong technical skill and precise teamwork. Otherwise, a raft is cracked against the rocks, then flipped like a sneaker into the mouth of a vicious Class-V washing machine. If the raft is thrown clear of these introductory maelstroms, it encounters a six-foot (1.8-meter) drop and a huge standing wave. This is Fear. For white-water wussies like my father and myself, it's both tomorrow's destination and this evening's anxiety.

Travelers often refer to Panama as Central America's diamond in the rough—a country where the tourism infrastructure hasn't caught up with the country's bounty of natural wonders. As a result, over the past two weeks, as my father and I have explored some of the options, we've discovered a refreshingly simple truth: Adventure travel in Panama feels, essentially, like an adventure. There are no lifeguards or helicopters waiting to save you from your own mistakes; personal security is a personal matter. It's up to you, and your outfitter.

Despite the perils inherent in running high-class rivers, Hector Sanchez makes you feel like nothing could be safer. And in Panama, nothing is. Hector is, in effect, the father of Panamanian white water. As a U.S. Army R&R director, he basically invented the sport in this country by being the first to raft many of these rivers back in the early 1990s.

To keep things interesting, Hector, of course, favors the rough stuff. His approach to white water, like most everything else he puts his hand to, is deceptively simple: Leave nothing to chance, especially safety. His military attitude runs the young guides ragged, but to good effect; Hector's outfit was the first in the Boquete Valley; today, it still has a perfect safety record. Even on Fear.

That night, my father and I meet at the sink in our common bathroom. Standing in our underwear, toothbrushes in hand, brings us both back 25 years.

"You know, you don't have to do it," I say. I am beginning to feel guilty about inviting my old man onto the river of death.

My father runs the faucet for a moment. "I appreciate that," he says finally. "You know, you don't either."

We look at each other for a long moment, father to son, man to man. Then we brush our teeth and go to our beds.

"Knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door . . ."

The song is blasting through the truck speakers as we corkscrew higher and higher to the put-in for the Palon, up into the lush green mountains, up past terraced farms and cliffs, up through the clouds to an overlook of the whole of the valley, perhaps the whole country, perhaps even—hey, isn't that Costa Rica down there?

"Knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door . . ."

My father hears Dylan; I know it's the Guns N' Roses cover. But either way, a glance across the stacks of helmets and paddles crowding the backseat confirms that we both hear the same thing: an FM augur of mortality.

My father looks out the window, where the road drops off within a hand's breadth of the wheels. Then, glancing down at our thin ribbon of river in the distance, he begins to sing a different song: "What goes up, must come down . . . "

At the put-in, Hector squats on the road, playing out the scenarios we might encounter. He demonstrates how to straddle the side of the raft in heavy surf, how to throw the safety line, and how to offer an oar to a man overboard without cutting the swimmer with the sharp paddle blade. Then he hands us a form. The standard adventure-outfitter legalese now seems laced with articulated threat:

"Participants may be jolted, jarred, bounced, and thrown from the raft, thus exposing them to rocks, boulders, white water, undercut rocks, fallen trees, strainers, and floating debris, which, in turn, may cause the aforementioned risks or drowning."

My father and I sign, each with the same name. If I could articulate my thought at this moment, it would be: What the hell.

We have already survived the rapids of El Perro, "the dog," and La Culebra, "the snake." We rode the rooster-tail waves of the Australian, punched through the hydraulics at Juan de La Juardia, and avoided the cliff-smashing momentum of El Martillo, "the hammer." We even survived Graeber Falls. Now all we have to fear is Fear itself.

As promised, the Chiriquí Viejo is both beautiful and fierce. Most of the descent requires a paddler's constant attention and hard work. In a rare slow stretch my father and I jump from the boat to cool ourselves in the brown water. Sheer cliffs tower overhead, topped with corotú trees and 40-foot (12-meter) waterfalls. Riverbank rocks are studded with fossilized shells from a forgotten sea.

Then the river seems to disappear in a wash of spray. This is Fear, announcing itself with the rush and noise of a frenzied stadium crowd, and just as quickly we are in it, gritting our teeth, whooping like cannon fodder, paddling as though our very lives depend on it. And when our raft finally explodes back to the surface beneath the final standing wave, we find ourselves seated, upright, and alive. We have met the river on its own terms and, however fleetingly, have beaten Fear.

My father and I touch oars in a plastic high five. Then we put our paddles back in the water and start the next rapid.

"Look there," my father says, pointing excitedly into the jungle. "I think I saw a brontosaurus."

I look. At the moment, anything seems possible.

Chiriquí River Rafting: $55 and up per person for rafting trips; $10 a night per person for lodging (+507-720-1505; www.panama-rafting.com).

More White-Water Base Camps

Hidden in an old-growth rain forest, just two and a half hours northeast of the capital, San José, Ríos Tropicales Lodge is a stylish base camp for outfitted rafting trips on seven nearby rivers, including the Class III-IV Río Pacuare. Post-paddling, guests enjoy swimming holes with natural water slides, hiking trails that wind through the thousand-acre property, and two new river-skimming zip lines. $250 per person, including meals and two days of rafting (+506-233-6455; www.riostropicales.com).

Toss in a few wildebeests and you might think you're in the Serengeti. At Rafiki Safari Lodge, built in 1999 by a South African family, local artifacts and wood are used to add Costa Rican accents to the classic safari tent camp. The nine platform tents come with private porches, furniture built from downed timber, and running hot and cold water. Guides lead descents on the Río Savegre through remote canyons studded with Class III and IV rapids. $250 per person, including meals and two days of rafting (+506 777 5327; www.rafikisafari.com).

Set on a working cacao plantation at the edge of 425-square-mile (110,075 hectare) Pico Bonito National Park, the upmarket Lodge at Pico Bonito is the gateway to the Class III-V Río Cangrejal (green water roiling through a jungle-draped gorge a thousand feet deep (305 meters)) and two other seasonally raftable rivers. The Class V steeps of the Coloradito and the Corinto (in the lodge's backyard) are favorites of expert kayakers. For dry-land fun, guests hike the lodge's network of jungle trails—complete with waterfalls, swimming holes, and wildlife observation towers—and arrange day trips to see the caimans and tropical butterflies in the nearby Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge. $317 per person, including two nights' lodging, meals, and one day of rafting (888 428 0221; www.picobonito.com).
—Cliff Ransom
Photo by Charles Graeber

For more wild winter escapes—including Hawaiian hideouts, the bays of Baja and Caribbean eco-resort—pick up the February issue of Adventure.

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February 2004

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