We recently had the opportunity to go whitewater rafting down the Sarapiqui River in Costa Rica’s northern lowlands. Most people who make this trip go with one of the country’s many tour operators, but our experience was quite different. That’s because instead of a typical tour company, we were in the trusted hands of Outward Bound Costa Rica. We didn’t know much about this adventure-based leadership program before we started, but after splashing through rapids for the day, we learned a quite a bit.
On a beautiful sunny morning in downtown San Jose, we met up with Outward Bound staff, including founder and director of the Costa Rica program, Jim Rowe, and marketing coordinator, Lauren Salisbury. Jim and Lauren introduced us to a few other bloggers and journalists who would be joining us for Outward Bound’s first ever Media Day. After some brief introductions, they told us a little about the organization. We learned that the overarching goals are to teach students about themselves, foster leadership, and build character through challenging experiences. Rafting, sailing, scuba diving, surfing, endurance hiking, and solo excursions—anything that takes participants out of their comfort zone—are incorporated into the programs. Soon we’d experience a sample of this for ourselves.
After a bumpy ride through the steamy rainforest, we arrived in the small town of La Virgen. With the mighty Sarapiqui River flowing right next to us, we strapped on our helmets, fastened our life jackets, and gathered for the all-important safety talk. This was Jenn’s first time whitewater rafting. Not knowing what to expect, she was a bit nervous to say the least. Luckily one of the Outward Bound gap-year students named Zoe put her at ease. Leading the group in her very first safety demonstration, Zoe told us the different commands to listen for like “go high side” if the boat was about to flip and how to stay safe if you do fall out.
We had gotten to chat with Zoe, who is in her early twenties, during the van ride. She was toward the end of her approximately 80-day program and had realized a lot about herself in that time. She had even decided on what graduate program to attend once she returned home to New Zealand.
Pushing off from the bank, we did a few practice drills in the calmer water and then it was time for the fun to begin. Jim, the program director, was our guide and steered us through the churning class 2 and 3 rapids with ease. We repeatedly bounced and splashed through the many runs, maneuvering over rocks and getting drenched in the process. It didn’t take long for Jenn to become comfortable on the water. In just a few runs, she stopped worrying about falling off, became more confident, and really began to enjoy the experience.
Farther down the river, Jim offered up the chance for others to take over as guide. He said that they often do this with their students. Putting them in charge of the raft, he said, helped to hone their leadership skills and show them that they can do more than they think. He also said that captaining is a good metaphor for life in many respects. One example was the parent-child relationship. By putting the student in command of the boat, they realize what it is like to be responsible for others. More importantly, they also realize that it is nearly impossible not to make mistakes when figuring out the best course of action. Putting the students in this position helps them understand, and perhaps be more forgiving of, their parents’ decisions.
The program may emphasize leadership and personal growth, but as we found out, its method of teaching is pure fun. We saw it on the river and heard it from Zoe as well. Zoe had told us that she had already spent several days sailing, surfing, and that the next stop for her group was the Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama. There, they would be enjoying some scuba diving, island-hopping by kayak, and a visit to an indigenous community. For some added fun during our visit, we took part in a group jump into the river. Nine of us gathered at the top of the riverbank, holding hands, and on the count of three jumped into the swift-moving river.
For us, Costa Rica has been a life-changing place and it was wonderful to be around a group of people who see it the same way. If you or your kids are looking for a cool way to experience the country, we highly recommend checking out Outward Bound. They have adventures for high-school kids on summer break and college-age students looking for a unique way to spend a semester or gap year. And from our brief time with them, we know they will be in good hands. You can check out all of Outward Bound’s programs at http://outwardboundcostarica.org/programs/.
Thanks to Outward Bound Costa Rica for a fun and informative day of rafting. As always, all opinions are our own.