The Kalu Yala Blog

The Chagres Challenge

Connect with Ellie:

August 4, 2010

by Ellie Schwing
Posted In: Adventures in the Tropics

4:30 A.M. Alarm goes off waking Betsy and me. We wipe our eyes pondering how we can get out of this early start to go whitewater rafting (despite being excited all week)!

5:00 A.M. Picked up in an Adventuras Panama truck from the Intercontinental Hotel.  We shake hands with our guide and hop in the car, going directly back to sleep until breakfast.

6:00 A.M. Arrive at a roadside restaurant, a cinderblock box building with 4 tables inside, each with 4 chairs. We find out that before each excursion, the rafting company tells them the number of people they’ll need to serve. I don’t know how they feed rafting trips consisting of more than 12 people because of the pequeno (small) size of the restaurant. However, our eggs and coffee are amazing, not to mention the hojaldras – flat fried dough – which reminds me a lot of my hometown beignets! There was no powdered sugar sprinkled on top of these, but I improvise with coffee sugar.

6:30- 8:00 A.M. Sleep in the back of the truck, bouncing like rag dolls through the trails of the Chagres National Park.

Chagres National Park

Chagres National Park in Panama

8:00 A.M. Sign wavers (too tired to read how we’re signing our lives away) followed by preparing for our hike, the first part of the Chagres Challenge.

8:00- 10:00 A.M. Walk up and down the mountains of the beautiful Charges National Park. Half way through the hike we stumble through a swarm of yellow jackets. Of course, I’m stung by one and drop my water bottle. Still too tired to move quickly away from the swarm, I casually pick up my water bottle and am stung a couple more times. The spreading pain shocks me into finally waking up.

10:00 A.M. Arrive at the water where we will put in the boats once they arrive. Our “crew” consists of us and 12 local Panamanian friends who are about our age. They swim in the waterhole while we take in the view. About thirty minutes later horses arrive with our boats tied to them. Adventuras Panama arranges for a local campesino (term for a farmer outside the city, or a person who lives in the country) to strap the deflated boats to their horses and carry them down the trail to the river.

Horse that carried the Adventuras Panama whitewater rafting boats

One of the horses carrying rafts

10:30 A.M. 3 tour guides manually blow up the rafts with pumps while we put on our life jackets and helmets. Time to start our 7-hour rafting adventure!

Inflating the rafts

Our guide had to inflate the rafts with a pump

We begin on the Rock River,” and yes, it’s full of rocks. There are barely any rapids and we get stuck skimming on rocks the entire time. If the boat isn’t flowing downstream the way our guide wants he physically moves the boulders to create a path for the boat.

Ellie with out rafting guide on the Chagres

Me with our rafting tour guide aka the River Master

11:30 A.M. The mouth of the Rock River and the Chagres River meet. The Chagres River is less rocky and the rest of the trip feels more like the white water rafting adventure I’d been hoping for!

1:30 P.M. Time to eat lunch – turkey and ham sandwiches with fresh pineapple!

Betsy with our rafting crew on the Chagres River

Our whitewater rafting crew

We continue rafting for the next 6 hours. During this we raft through the canyons of the Chagres and follow beautiful scenery. I jump off the boat mid-ride, climb a large boulder and jump off!

Later in the afternoon the tour pulls over the boats again. One of the guides hops out and climbs down the rocks about 100 yards away with a bag of rope and a whistle. The other guides tell us we’re heading down a small waterfall (the only Class 4 we will go through today) and if we fall out we should swim hard to the right. I’m excited for the adventure but I think Betsy was secretly a little scared; when the first branch came our way she fell to the bottom of the boat (spastically). I just dipped my head under. Her reaction was a bit over the top, but very entertaining (Thanks Bets).

5:30- 6:30 P.M. We pass 3 Embera villages (one of the indigenous tribes in Panama) on our way out. Our final pull over is to climb out of our rafts and into canoes. The rafts cannot go through the last part of the river because there is no current and would take forever.

The canoes are made of a long carved-out piece of wood. Everyone sits with their legs crossed and in a single file line. The narrow boats each hold 8 people. There is a man in the back controlling the engine and a man up front with a very large stick directing the boat, feeling for rocks and anything else we might hit. We stop a couple of times to shift weight. We can’t move because it rocks the boat too much. I think we’re going to flip multiple times (exactly what I want). Stopping and going for 45 minutes, we arrive at our destination. The same cars that dropped us off are waiting for us. The boats are deflated and we part ways, getting in our assigned van.

Embera Village

We passed 3 Embera Villages

Betsy with our Embera canoe captain

Betsy in the canoe with our captain

Betsy and Ellie in the Embera canoes

Team Etsy in the carved out wooden canoes for the last stretch of the Chagres Challenge.

On the way home, Betsy sleeps (of course, she can do it for a living) as I pick our tour-guide’s brain with questions.

8:00 P.M. We arrive home after a 16-hour day, dead to the world, the Chagres Challenge a warm memory we won’t forget.

8 Responses to “The Chagres Challenge”

  1. Caitlin says:

    This sounds like a cool trip! So wish I could have gone with you! Glad you are having fun…miss you!

  2. caroline wade says:

    Awww! I’ve been reading your blogs and your pictures are beautiful! Miss you kid!

  3. sue youngerman says:

    Those guys must have some serious lung power-manually inflate the rafts?! Looks beautiful, glad you are having such a great time. Oh, I was waiting on my car to be serviced and picked up a really old (maybe 2004) issue of Travel Magazine, and saw an ad for Kala Yalu-thought of you!

  4. clare landry says:

    Looks amazing! I might be coming to Panama in December/january …will you still be there!? we need to catch up on all those art class chats! xo

  5. Bade Scruggs says:

    a) I love that you improvised coffee sugar for some mock beignets
    b) wish I could have gotten to go white water rafting with you
    c) this trip sounds like an experience of a lifetime and I am so happy for you!!
    d) I miss you

  6. Mary Kostmayer says:

    Sounds like an amazing trip! I don’t blame Betsy for sleeping on the way back, seriously long day! Do I need to hack into my sisters fb to see more pics?? Miss you Ellie! xox Mary

  7. Katie Schwing says:

    OK so.. yellow jackets!! i would have had to swing and jab the EPIPEN! HA but that sounds like a blast, now you just have to come whitewater rafting with me in Montana :) one question..??? have you run into any snakes yet??? HAAA and does EVERYONE know your fear?? well i miss you and i know you’re having soo much fun. luv you!

  8. [...] may have noticed we talk a lot about the Chagres on this site. I do hope you have a chance to read Ellie and Betsy’s whitewater rafting trip or Anne’s Walker visit to the Embera village. Great activities and trips aside, with an area of [...]