January 23, 2014: A Raft in the Mountains

Elana and I stumbled out of bed at 5:40am, and were waiting at the curb in front of our lodging by 6:00am. Today, we had booked a whitewater river rafting adventure tour on the Río Yaque del Norte, up in the Central Range mountains. After our tour van collected us, we attempted to snooze a little more, while the van collected a few other people for the rafting. The sun sidled into the sky, in shades of pink, and I realized that this was the first proper Dominican sunrise I’d seen.

The total travel time to our rafting site was about 2.5 hours. During that time, I slowly ventured into full consciousness, read a bit of my book, then watched out the window as we passed back through Santiago and as the low tropical forest trees began to be interspersed with pines and other mountain-esque trees.

When we arrived at the rancho that hosts the rafting, we were delighted to discover that they were feeding us breakfast, including endless coffee. They even scrounged up some cassava bread, which is made of naturally gluten-free yuca/manioc/tapioca (a crop of many names), specially for Elana and me. Elana’s Peace Corps friend Riya was waiting for us at the rancho; to our delight, she had been able to arrange to join us for the rafting (but had transited in separately). We ate on a wooden deck overlooking the river, enjoying the peace and remoteness of the spot.

After breakfast and adequate caffeine refueling, we switched into swimsuits and river gear, collected our lifejackets, helmets, and paddles, and piled into a large, bench-lined truck to get to the launchpoint for our rafting trek. Once there, they divided us into raft groups; the three of us were in the same raft, along with our guide and a German tourist named Max. We all settled into the raft: Riya and I in the back, Elana and Max in the front, and the guide perched behind.

After a brief safety and rowing-technique talk, we hefted our raft down the hill and into the river. Moments after leaving shore, we drifted by a little cement platform far up the hill above, on which a dog stood and barked loudly at us, as we floated inexorably away. This gave the experience an entertainingly ominous Splash Mountain feel: I was reminded of the ride’s animatronic forest creatures singing worriedly as you (and Brer Rabbit) float toward your almost certain doom.

There was almost no warm-up period: within minutes of getting in the water, we were hitting sizable rapids. On the first large rapid, the raft tilted enough to fling both Max and Riya overboard. We quickly reclaimed them, however—and the guide claimed he’d done it intentionally to spur Max into paying closer attention to the called-out rowing signals.

After that first dramatic rapid, everything was very fun and fairly smooth. Before each big rapid, our guide would tell us its name (from “Terminator” to “Mike Tyson” to “Cemetery”—encouraging names, all), then give us a heads-up on anything unusual we should be aware of for that rapid (like if there would be extra-big rocks on one side). Then, we would go speeding through it, sometimes rowing heartily, sometimes all scooching down into the bottom of the raft, paddles held up, to ride the roughest bits out. Several times, we would pass through a rapid, then the guide would row us back into it so that we’d all be splashed thoroughly and then swept back out again.

The scenery along the river was phenomenal. Far off behind us, there were half-clouded, purple-blue mountains. Most of the rapids ran within a river canyon, with the canyon and valley walls rising sharply on both sides of us. The valley walls overflowed with plant life, with trees (mango, mimosa, pine, palm, and many others whose Spanish names I heard, then forgot) growing up in every possible hillside space. Where there were no trees (and even where there were), low-growing shrubs and vines massed up and tangled together.

¡Qué hermoso!
¡Qué hermoso!

The canyon rocks themselves were shaped and curved by wind and water. Wild berry vines dangled down some of the canyon walls (another guide even climbed up and picked some). I also spotted the tasty edible gourd tayota growing wild, as well as some stunning crimson-and-white, star-shaped flowers growing out of a rock crevice. Every now and then, we’d see a power line or a rickety thin wooden bridge hanging high across the river. Several of these had been located by enterprising vines, and were swathed in green.

At one point, our entire expedition (four rafts) stopped so that the more adventurous types could go jump off a 25-foot rock into a deep river pool. After much waffling, Riya and I decided to go for it (while Elana video-recorded us). I went first, crept to the edge of the rock while the guide gave instructions, then leaped off with a mighty shriek and landed safely in the water far below. Aflutter with adrenaline, I swam back to the boat and got to watch Riya make the jump as well (hers with a more impressive, warlike scream). Here’s a video of our jumps (first mine, then Riya’s), with fitting musical accompaniment:

At another point, our guide, ever-mischievous, distracted me by pointing at some imaginary bird off in the forest, then flipped me off the raft and into the shoulder-height, calm water. After my initial startlement, I savored the feeling of floating along with the river’s current. Elana also jumped in and swam for a while with us.

As with 27 Charcos, it’s hard to detail every last moment of the busy, rapid-filled day, as the numerous adventures blur together somewhat—but suffice to say, it was ridiculously, giddily fun.

Unbelievable beauty.
Unbelievable beauty.

When we reached the end of our rafting adventure, we leaped off the raft and piled back into our truck-with-benches. Thanks (once again) to this wonderful weather, we were quite comfortable and warm—even in our open-topped truck, even way up in the mountains, even though we were sopping wet with river water. We had a surprisingly delectable Dominican-style lunch back at the rancho, then all piled back into our van for the 2.5-hour return trip to Cabarete. While I didn’t particularly want our mountain rafting expedition to end, I was very glad we’d had the chance to see that part of the country, however briefly, as we would have been hard-pressed to travel to that remote, inland region otherwise.

Back in Cabarete, Elana and I rested for a bit at our hotel, then did a quick dinner and some shop-browsing on the main drag. We bought a mamey sapote (Pouteria sapota) fruit from a fruit stand, and once we were back in our room, we added two new fruits to our fruits-we’ve-tried list:

  • The mamey sapote looks like a potato or sweet potato on the outside, and opens to reveal bright orange flesh and one large, long, nifty-looking seed. It had a nice texture, but neither of us liked the taste: to me, it seemed like the offspring of old apricots and over-smoked salmon. (It’s possible our sapote was over- or under-ripe, so I’d still try this one again just to make sure.)
  • We also cut up and sampled the mamón (custard apple) that we had bought in Samaná, since it had needed 3-4 days to ripen. This one, with its rosy rind, creamy white flesh, and black seeds, smelled wonderful, and tasted surprisingly close to milk or egg. However, it had such a mild flavor that it was hardly worth navigating around all the seeds for.

It was our final night in Cabarete, even though it felt like we just got here. The time has flown by. Once again, I fell asleep to the sound of another tropical rainstorm drip-dropping outside the window. I will miss so many aspects of this place.

5 thoughts on “January 23, 2014: A Raft in the Mountains

  1. I don’t know why you bothered to tell us that the German tourist’s name was Max. ALL German tourists are named Max, aren’t they?

    Are trucks-with-benches called “colectivos”? They are in Costa Rica, anyhooo.

    What a wonderful day you had. So beautiful, so exciting. I’m atwitter with envy. Lovely post.

    1. Some German tourists are also named Hans. Or Hans-Max.

      No, this was a standard truck-with-benches for river rafting like you might use on any U.S. rafting trip, not a colectivo. For everyday public transit, you can sometimes ride in the back of medium-sized trucks, which are referred to as camionetas.

  2. P.S. I love the screams. I don’t like the way it looks like you’re about to hit a rock on the way down.

  3. Champions of the world, indeed! What a great day, and thanks for taking the time to document your adventures for us stay-at-homers….I love the rocks formed by detail, the fruit discoveries and fresh delight with each new sunrise….did Max leap into the river from the rocky promontory?

    1. Thank you, Ms. Syd! I appreciate that you appreciated the rocks in particular.
      Max did not dare leap from the highest part of the rock, as we did, but he did leap off from a lower and less impressive boulder.

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