The plan was simple. Take a rucksack with supplies for a couple of nights and packraft down the Rio Dulce to Livingston on the Caribbean coast.

Rio Dulce
Rio Dulce

But not everything always goes according to plan.

We didn’t foresee strong winds. And once the winds picked up so that progress was barely 100m in half an hour (and lost in less than 5minutes), it seemed sensible to turn about, head for shore and hit dry land where there happened to be a bar. And make a plan B.

The ideas were plentiful but practical options were limited. Reduced in fact to 1. camp where we were and continue the following day. 2. Return in a lancha (powered boat) back to Rio Dulce town with a local and then go the fast way Livingston in the morning.

We opted for 2. Because our interest was in trying out the packrafts fully kitted out (in preparation for the big upcoming trip), which we have now done after an afternoon of sun, the rain and finally wind on the river. And also, because our main aim is to see the river and Livingston the town, both of which are easily done without packrafts. This is not a remote river and motorized boats run up and down continually. Our adventures lie elsewhere!

Still, it was a fun (if hard work) afternoon and we learnt a lot…

1. It’s much faster paddling when there is weight on the front end of the raft. I tested the packraft on the Thames last year carrying nothing and the raft was difficult to paddle straight. With a rucksack on the front this time, the raft ran much straighter and therefore faster.

2. Make sure your waterproof jacket is easily accessible, especially if rain is likely. Tropical rainfalls like here on the Rio Dulce mean that when black clouds are overhead you will soon be drenched through. And if you can’t quickly put on a waterproof and zip up the cover, you will soon be sitting in a pool of water inside your raft.

3. Checking the forecast for rain is not enough. Asking about local conditions is important. Especially since the wind can be a major factor on open water. When an offshore wind picks up in the afternoon and blasts you in the face and catches the open blade in the air and there are waves travelling towards you upstream, forward progress is almost impossible. Better to start early in the morning when it is calm.

4. Have a long rope attached to the back of your raft. To hold onto the end when getting out onto a jetty (or steep bank). Less risk of you raft accidentally floating off.

5. Never put your paddle down on land before you are off the boat. You risk drifting off with little means of propulsion, except your bare hands. We all know the phrase ‘up shit creek without a paddle’!

6. Carry a small first-aid kit, including plaster/tape. If you’re not used to long periods paddling, you will soon get blisters on your hands (inside of thumb most likely) and will need some protection.

7. Waterproof everything. Put everything in waterproof bags or it will get wet. Guaranteed. That includes bread for your sandwiches!

8. Take water purification tablets. No need to carry all your water supplies with you. You’re on a river. But you will need to purify it if you plan on drinking it. Purification tablets/solution or iodine added to a bottle full of river water and you can drink away (of course follow recommended dosage on packet).

9. Have a backup plan. By which I mean, a way to get back to ‘civilisation’ if you find yourself unable to continue. The reason could be anything (injury, unforeseen conditions etc) and is unimportant. The get-out plan will depend on where you are. It could simply mean carrying a fully charged mobile phone…

10. Bring emergency supplies in case things don’t go according to plan. Including, importantly, beer!

I’ll let you guess which of these lessons we planned for in advance, and which we learnt the ‘hard’ way!

If you are interested, we are using Alpacka packrafts from Avanza Kayak…