White water rafting the Chiriquí Viejo river, Panama

Chiriquí Viejo river, Panama, 1991

I finish pumping up the raft before boarding it with a small team of daredevils. I check the safety gear one more time. We are about to start the first white water rafting descent of the Chiriquí Viejo River in Panama. No one has ever done so. For that matter, no one has ever rafted in Panama. As we are in the middle of the rainy season, I know we will be facing class 6 rapids, out of 6: life threatening rapids that have never been conquered by any human being. I feel my adrenalin pumping as the current takes us into the unknown. Not seeing what is awaiting us behind the next bend, my only reference point is the thunder of water. There is no room for hesitation and I must decide fast: either we stop to do a shoreline scouting, or we run the rapids. This one, we will run despite its loud and impressive noise level. While paddling as hard as we can, the raft gets heavier and harder to manoeuver as it is filled with water. We need to get out of the rapids fast to scoop the gallons out with buckets. Flipping the raft at several occasions, I need to ensure the cohesion of the group and its motivation to continue until dark.

We end up with a few cuts and bruises, but more importantly a huge pride, being the pioneers of the white water rafting exploration of Panama!

Chiriquí Viejo river, Panama, 2016

White water expert with US military training, Hector Sanchez bravely paved the way in 1991, opening Panama to white water sports. Today, it is thanks to him that we are rafting down the Chiriquí Viejo River at the border with Costa Rica. Things have evolved slightly: we don’t need to scoop buckets of water out of our top of the line self-drained raft ; our Indian guide Umberto was trained by Hector himself and knows the river very well ; the dry season weakens the flow rate making the toughest rapid to go through on our way, a class 3. Still, white water rafting this 15-kilometre section of the Chiriquí Viejo river remains an adventure.

Today, the river seems calm, as we are floating down on our bright yellow raft. Noisy parrots fly over. Kingfishers and herons hunt for fish in this highly biodiverse environment, home to birds such as the blue-crowned motmot, the flame-colored tanager or the endangered quetzal, and mammals like howler and capuchin monkeys, sloths… The water temperature is mild and the sun warms up my skin. Local kids are cooling off in the river, while their parents are washing their clothes or fishing. A few splashes of water wet my upper legs as the raft makes its way on the white waters. In my head, I replay the safety instructions Hector explained vividly before we entered the raft.

With Barú volcano by Boquete being the highest point of Panama culminating at 3,475 meters, and the proximity of the oceans, every river in the Chiriqui area of Panama presents high gradients, creating an exhilarating playground for white water sports.

Our guide starts commanding us: “Forward, forward, paddle hard forward!” I see why: we are approaching a class 3 rapid, a maze of white waters that end up pounding on a cliff in a 90° bend. The raft starts bouncing up and down, and I keep my eyes narrowed to be able to see where we are going as Umberto screams: “down”! A big tree hanging over the water almost knocks me out of the raft, but I am safe on its bottom, unlike one of our team members who is launched into the white whirlpool! With everyone safely back on board and getting into calmer waters, we look back on the rapids. Umberto explains: “It is a class 4 to 5 rapid in the rainy season”.

Indeed, the rainy season must be a completely different experience. When we had fun on the Chiriquí Viejo River, which is pretty much the only option in the dry season, the rainy season opens up a wide variety of white water opportunities, from beginners to experts. Beyond offering exciting adventures, going down on every one of these rivers is a fantastic way of exploring the biodiverse flora and fauna of Panama.

Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau (text & photos)

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2 thoughts on “White water rafting the Chiriquí Viejo river, Panama

  1. Pingback: The ultimate guide to Panama! | Best regards from far,

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