It’s 6 am. Some girl is yelling. In Russian. From the next story up. Her friend answers from close by outside our window. For the next hour and a half every Russian chick in the hostel is in the courtyard outside our room Skyping their boyfriends. Loudly. Excitedly. Annoyingly. Every room in the place is around this courtyard so whoever isn’t up yet, is now. Drisdelle opens the door and there is a girl sitting directly beside it. Hello. Hello. Door slam. Guess we’ll just get up then. Hard to win a good night’s sleep on this trip. No matter how peaceful a place seems, wear earplugs anyway.
We get geared up and go down to the spot where we’d booked our rafting adventure yesterday. Except it’s not there. Walk around the block. We can’t find it. Scout around for about 20 minutes. That’s so weird. Could have sworn it was here. Right beside every other adventure vendor. MacKay heads back to the hostel. The receipt had the address on it. Just as he gets out of earshot a storm door rolls up garage style right beside us. It’s the girl from yesterday. Above the door it just says laundry service. Wtf? She starts pulling out signs and setting them up. All the adventure offerings are on them. Ahhhh ok. We were in the right spot all along.
MacKay gets back and we check in. Got about 30 until the bus cones so we throw down some breakfast from a local joint around the corner.
Bus comes at 9 and we hop on. The bus then goes to another adventure place down the street. Then another. It goes around to all the adventure places in town and picks up more people. We do about 4 laps of Baños before we’re on our way. It takes about 40 mins to get to the rafting spot.
As we pull up a group of 4 blonde girls (who we later find out are from Denmark) are stripped down to their skivvies, putting wet suits on.
We get out, get wet suits, shoes, life jackets and a paddle. Now we’re in our skivvies, tossing our stuff on the bus. The wet suits are super tight, form fitting against our tight, Olympic figures.
Our guides name is Giovanni. He gives us instructions on what to do in case we fall out of the raft. Don’t lose your paddle. Hold the rope on the side of the boat. Feet up. Let the rocks hit your ass, “More meat back here”. He asks for a volunteer and demonstrates how to pull them into the raft. So much time is spent on what to do if you fall out our the boat flips, everyone was looking around rather hesitant. What are we getting into here?
They bring out the boats and we all get in, 5 to a raft, to practice taking directions for paddling. With us is a Dutch couple blessed with Aryan good looks. Lars is kind of goofy with a high Germanic giggle. Jolan is an angelic seraph from the plane of bliss. We all take positions on the edge of the raft. MacKay and I are up front, right and left, Drisdelle and Lars in the middle, Jolan behind Lars, left back, and Giovanni on the very back to steer.
Giovanni instructs us in the 5 basic commands that we’ll need on the Rio Negro: Forward, backwards, right back (left paddles forward), left back (right paddles forward), All in (off the sides and onto the floor of the raft. “We really gonna need to do that?” Drisdelle echoes my thoughts.
Giovanni tells us to come up with a team name. If we had had real coffee instead of instant this morning the brainstorming session would have been much more interesting. When G comes back, Lars’ suggestion of Flat Tires is all we’ve got.
G says the river is class 3+ with some 4+ rapids. Drisdelle has a flash back to the Kern River tubing disaster where he almost died, got stuck on a rock in the middle of the river, and had to be rescued. But that’s a story for another time.
We all drop into the raft ungracefully, floundering unbalanced with the river bounce, and take up positions on the edge of the boat. Giovanni pushes us away and we’re off into the rushing currents.
“Forward!” we’re all paddling hard to Gs orders, “Together, 1 and 2, use your bodies”. We sync up and push towards our first set of rapids. We dip in and the raft rumble-drifts quickly into the white torrent alongside jutting rocks and screaming Danish girls. “Forward!” and we’re paddling hard, over a drop and smash through a wall of water. MacKay and I take the brunt and we’re instantly drenched head to toe. “Thanks, man!” Lars is patting me on the back. A few more sets and we crash out back onto calmer waters.
Slight breather before the next set of rapids. They look marginally more challenging. The boat starts to drift slightly sideways just as we enter them. Now we’re going over drops and I’m facing backwards. I slip my left foot deeper under the small strap that is the only thing keeping me remotely stable on the side of this thing. The discomfort level is pretty high flying backwards down these rapids. Still G is yelling “Forward!” and we’re madly paddling while I’m still completely unstable facing the wrong way. A few close calls, we’re at the peak of a wave and it’s still “Forward!” But my paddle can’t even reach the water, the front of the boat is way above it, “Keep going!”, Lars is urging me on, we crash down, I’m flailing to maintain, water everywhere, can’t even see, it’s running from my hair and helmet down my face, “Don’t stop”, we’re in the air again, boat slightly more forward thankfully, paddling air again, “Forward hard!”, smack back to the water, another waterfall all through us, MacKay gets hit hard, he’s going over, fuck, I reach out for his life jacket with one hand, other clutching the paddle, we rise and fall again, MacKay’s head dips and instead of grabbing his life jacket his head drops and my two fingers go right in his mouth, gaaawckshhheerck, and latch to his lower jaw, my fingers scrape against his upper teeth and I have no time to think, I pull him forward by his lower jaw and back into the boat. “Forward hard”, no time, just paddle hard, couple more drops and we’re out of the rapids. “Holy fuck, dude!”, “I know, glad i got my Tetanus shot”, “That was crazy!” He’s wiggling his jaw back into place.
Next set of rapids and it’s MacKay and Drisdelle facing backwards this time. Ok, Giovanni has got to be fucking with us. Up, down, crash, water, flailing, “Forward!”, rock bounce, “Backward!”, spin, splash, “Keep going!”, wipe face, splat, “Whoa!”, brace, kra-sploosh, rebound, totally off the raft in the air, find it again bouncing back up to me, rush of water, gaaah, push into it, quads/hammies taught against the force, trying to keep inside the raft, MacKay’s going over!, life vest grab, back in, crack, water face palm, I’m going over! reach out, find MacKay’s knee, back in, “Forward!” Jeeeeezaaz! paddles in, 1 and 2, “Right back!”, fuck what was that one again? Me forward, spin, “Forward Hard!”, huff aaarrrh, “Forward Haaard!”, 1,2,1,2,1,2, edge of the river bank, ahhhhhhhhhh.
“This is fucking awesome!” It was. We were having a blast. Most fun we’ve had yet. It was a hard push but the water was refreshing. The rapids were equal parts terrifying and exciting in the controlled chaos of Giovanni’s paddle.
Midway through the Rio Negro we pull up to the side and everyone hops out. G explains that the rapids are to big ahead. We’re gonna get out and walk past them. “Maybe one could stay with me?”, I offer to stay back, thinking he needs help pulling up the raft. Nope. Ok in. Ohhhh shit, you wily river master! He’s taking me over the falls. Solo. Alright, no turning back now. Damn. Those are big. A series of 4 drops corkscrew through a large set of boulders. The first and last drops are almost the length of the whole raft. We’re gonna flip for sure. Dig under the strap with my foot. Paddle ready. Steady breath. G politely angles the nose front first. No messing around here. “Forward!” He steers out slowly and finds a line. “Stop! Ok look” i turn to face him, “Forward, the whole time. Don’t stop. Comprende?” “Si.”
We drift in calmly, staring the beast down. The current grips the raft. Here we go. “Forward! Forward Hard!” Paddles down, Ohhhhh sheeeeeet! (This all happens in 2 seconds) Over the lip, loud rushing water, raft tilts at a dangerous angle and we’re falling to the second platform, the boat buckles when we hit, I’m thrown forward, water erupts, pushes me back, head shake it off, keep going, keep paddling, we slam into the rockslide walls, oof, splash, gaaah, spit it out, paddle, the front dips forward to the 3rd drop, back end swings and smacks the rocks, jostle, quick look, water flick, G is grimaced, pushing off the rock with the paddle, water filling up the raft, adding weight, paddle, paddle, slip over the third, aff, quick roll into the 4th, a boat-length drop, clench, waaaah, paddle in the air, can’t help it, arched back, the boat slams into the river, drops under, water up to my chest, wave way over my head, disoriented, phfffff, phhhaa, the raft rebounds out of the plummet, front shoots up, out of the river, water drains, “Forward hard!”, smash down, paddles thrusting, water pulling us back into the falls, “Hard! Haarrd!!” Body forward, back, forward, aaaaahg, are we winning? Yes. Yessss! “Stop! High five!” Haha i reach back with my paddle and we clap them together, smack the flat side on the water, Kraack!
Back to the riverbank, everyone in. “Jesus man, how was that?”, “Fucking mental”. More rapids, more entering backwards, more life vest saves, we found a large rock and ‘surfed’ against it, Giovanni steering us into it until a whole third of the boat is under and we’re in water up to our shoulders. Whoa, dude we’re slipping under! Haha, he pulls us back out.
The last set of rapids is quite large, not as big as the solo drop, but with a sequence of 4 – 5 ‘waves’, a decent steepness, and whipping around a corner slightly. It’s a tumultuous bitch. “Let’s do this!”, Lars is confident. Jolan smiles. We’re off. This one is five quick sky high launches, drop, crashing into the next wave, through, over, back down, MacKay in my lap, me in his, Lars pushing against my back for support, “Holy Fuck!”, bending, turning, back up, the boat is near horizontal, I’m in the air, perched on the side, back arched way back, Lars too, he grabs my arm, he’s almost two far back, aarrrg, push against it, don’t come down this way, ahhhhg, crash-wiggle, we’ve done it, phewff, “Forward!”, fawk, paddle, 1,2, we got this now.
We pull to the side of the river. “I’m sorry, but this is the end”. We were tuckered. But it felt good. That was amazing. We give all the paddles to Jolan and the five guys 1-2-3 lift the raft up the side of the cliff to the road where the bus has come to meet us. Disrobe from the wet suit. Find our clothes again. We meet some ppl from the third boat. Aussie guy with an English girlfriend. “Been to Bolivia then? “, I point to his Death Road Survivor shirt. “Yeah mate, best place yet”. Hmmmm we’d heard that s few times now. Can’t wait to get there.
The bus stops at a place for lunch. Didn’t even know we got a lunch. This is 25 bucks well spent. MacKay and i grab some well earned beers. The lunch is this incredible dish we’d only eaten 6 million times on this trip: rice, beans, salad, and chicken. We scarf it into our craving bodies.
Most people crash out on the bus ride back, but we’re a bit excited about the next part of our day. Off-roading around Baños mountainside.