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December 30, 2005

Paddling and Canyoning in the Rio Guabo

And once again, I have procrastinated writing up an adventure that would require many pages to describe in sufficient detail. Unfortunately, by now I have forgotten many of the details; but at least that makes it feasible to write this up in a finite amount of time. So here we go, the heavily condensed version of 3 days worth of surprises.

The Rio Guabo looked like an attractive river for exploration by kayak -- about the right gradient (25 m/km), relatively easy access, and nice canyon topography without ridiculously steep and high walls. So we decided to give it a try.

We put in near the community of El Valle, by hiking in along the very heavily-used trail from the road between David and Chirriqui Grande. It was as easy a hike with kayaks as it gets -- almost all downhill, at the perfect gradient for pulling the boats along (or getting pulled by them,occasionally). After about 20 minutes, we came to the river. It was bony at first, but soon we came to a confluence which almost doubled the flow. From there on, it was very pretty class II paddling, until... well, all that gradient had to be somewhere.

In this case, in the last 2 km of the run. By the time we got there, we had a group of 30 locals following us along the river. We explained what we were doing, but they were still a bit wary of us and warned us many times about the dangers below, telling us it was too dangerous too continue and we would have to go back. So we continued carefully, started scouting more and more and paddled some fun drops. When we came to a reasonable takeout opportunity, we decided to leave the boats behind and continue on foot before paddling any further.We were, of course, told we could not walk any further. When I pointed to a trail and asked where it went, lcoals said it goes nowhere and the owner does not give permission to use it.

So we continued in the river bed jumping off rocks into the water, bouldering and swimming along. After a few minutes, the family who had been following us appeared ahead of us. They had used the trail that goes nowhere, apparently without getting caught by the vicious owner. After further warnings about not being able to continue, and essentially a repeat of the situation, we finally decided to turn back; it was starting to rain and we only had two hours of daylight left.

On the way back (the family decided that the forbidden trail was ok to use, as long as we were quiet, which they weren't), we were told that people had come here before to survey for a dam. They were extremely worried about the possibility of having their river dammed, and apparently some people in the community thought we were there to further explore dam-building possibilities.  We made it quite clear to them that damming is about the last thing we wanted to do with rivers, and told them we would investigate for them what's going on.

When we got back to the boats, we were warned that the owner of the pasture we were going to walk across had "wolf-dogs" and that we could not walk across it; it would be much better if we followed the family back to their house, only half an hour away (or 10 minutes, as they called it). We decided to face to wolf-dogs and the mean cattle farmer, and hiked across the pasture up the hill towards the road.
When we finally made it up to the house and apologized for not having asked for permission to walk on the people's land, they first showed the expected reaction: They were extremely friendly, said it was no problem, showed us where the gate was, and helped us with the boats. 

Then, they proceeded to invite us to stay at their house, as long as we wanted, and insisted that we at least stay for dinner. We did, and spent a couple of hours of nonstop rapid-spanish conversations... a very nice evening even though we only got half the jokes. The accomodations were wonderful, a little thatched hut all to ourselves, and I even had Internet reception, but no power to recharge my laptop. Surreal...

We ended up staying two nights, going on a hike to a waterfall with them on the first day, and building a mud stove with them for their kitchen on the second day. Along the way to the waterfall (which we never reached, but that's another long story) we took a little bath in a creek- notice the hand sticking out of the waterfall?

We went back the Rio Guabo canyon on the second day, and continued downriver on foot. In one spot, we had to use one of the throwbags to rope down a steep slippery rock, and in a few places wehad to jump from rocks a few meters high into water less than two meters deep. We took the son of the family along on this hike, and although he had lived there for 19 years, he had never been in this part of the canyon. It was quite an adventure for him as well.

After about two hours, we made it to the road bridge, and walked back to the house along the road in about 20 minutes.

A couple weeks later, I talked to ANAM -- and before I even asked about a dam, while talking about how locals perceive gringos in plastic boats, the guy I talked to asked if people assumed we were dam surveyors. Apparently, this is pretty common. He is investigating if there are any permit processes for dams pending, and I have not heardback yet.


Posted by rick at December 30, 2005 10:56 PM


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