Having worked as a kayak guide in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Chile, I have definitely been a part of “experiential education” in paddling in foreign countries– both first-hand and second hand.
Over the years I have watched the logistics of our own trips improve, as well as of colleagues running similar trips, based on experiences we have had both good and bad. In addition in my seventeen years guiding, I have crossed paths with independent paddlers and observed experiences they have had–both good and bad.
After all these years, if there was one piece of wisdom that I could impart to those planning a solo trip: don’t assume that showing up to paddle in a foreign country guarantees the best use of your time and/or your money.
On the other hand, if you have plenty of time and a healthy sense of adventure, then have at it! But in doing so there is a common-sense checklist that is good to follow. I have by no means come up with a complete list, but merely one that might help make sure your trip does not end up another bad story written up in the American Whitewater journal.
1. Any decision you make should be based on the “Would I do this at home?” question. Somehow boaters wander off to a foreign country and do things they would never do at home. Example: would you get off a bus in the middle of the night, in the middle of New York City, struggling with a boat, paddling gear and suitcase, and not worry about being mugged? No? Well, same rules apply in another country!
2.Transportation. If you rent a car make sure you do a thorough exam of the rental car before you drive off. And have the rental company sign the checklist. Once you are in paddling mode, don’t suggest a local drive your shuttle for you without knowledge as to whether they a)have a license, b)have experience driving a car, and c) are not going to take your vehicle joy riding while you are on the river. Think I am kidding here? These suggestions are all based off experiences private boaters have had.
3. Buses. Watch your personal items. Not just watch them–keep them between your legs at all times. Don’t forget that every person on the bus is aware you are a foreigner and probably have a lot more money than they do; hey, you had the money for a plane ticket which is all but unheard of for just about anyone riding a bus.
4. Don’t plan your trip assuming that you are going to show up somewhere and find fellow boaters ready-and-willing to paddle with you. It may take a few days to find some folks. or it could be never. Some people have the best luck running into some awesome boaters to team up with. I have commiserated with others who have wasted their whole week without ever finding someone to paddle with, or those who have been stuck paddling a single river because no one in a foreign country owns their own car. Heading somewhere solo? Network ahead of time and prearrange meeting up with people whenever possible.
5. At home would you put in on a flooded river you had never paddled? with people you had never paddled with? late in the afternoon after spending way too much time finding the put-in? and not be entirely sure where the takeout was? If your answer is no, don’t do it in a foreign country either!! Take the time to find out a little about whether the rivers from local outfitters–are they at good water levels/the takeout obvious from the river, and your shuttle guaranteed. And try and let someone know where you are headed in case you get in a jam and are not off the river by dark. It is nice to know someone might care enough to mention you have not returned!
6. Language skills? Are Americans the only ones who assume that everyone in a foreign country speaks English? Break the mold! Learn at least a few helpful phrases before you head out.
7. Valuables. It is not a good idea to leave valuables in a hotel room–especially if you chose the budget hotel in town to save some bucks. Nor should you leave valuables locked in your rental car parked in an isolated rural area. And wandering around town with a valuable camera around your neck, a wad of bills in your wallet, and a backpack nonchalantly hanging off your back might not be the best idea.
8. In many countries as an interest in kayaking has increased so has the desire to obtain paddling gear, not always legally either. And this scenario does not just involve locals who envy your gear enough to take it off your hands. Other foreigners have been involved in shady gear issues.
9. The old calculator trick. If you go to exchange money and in blind faith accept the number you are shown on the street changer’s calculator as the amount of money you should receive, you stand a good chance of being ripped off. The fact that it looks kind of like monopoly money is distracting enough; do your own math ahead of time so that you know what amount of the currency you should be getting.
10. And finally the passport…your ticket home (and as great as your trip will be, welcome will be the return home also). It is not such a great idea to lose your passport. Before you head out of town, make copies of the name page and then in country make a copy of the page with the ingress stamp just in case. Do not leave your passport hanging around in a hotel room when you are not there. Lock it in the hotel safe or carry it physically on you. And speaking of the return home…make sure you know what the exit tax is for the country you are leaving. Exit tax you ask? That is the amount of money you will have to pay at the airport before you can board your plane. And it is very clear: no exit tax paid, no flight home!
Just one last thought for you: if time is an issue and you are looking to make the most of your trip, think about supporting an outfitter–either in-country or an established international company. Those outfitters have worked very hard to make their trips happen and they will not be in business if the paddling community does not support them. And in many countries, it is the outfitters-local and international, who have put a lot of time and energy into working with the local community to try and keep rivers from being destroyed. They have invested in that country which in turn makes it possible for all of us to paddle there.
You are using your time and money to travel to a really cool place. Make sure you have the best time possible! There is no better way to rejuvenate your passion for kayaking than making your kayak the vehicle you use to explore new countries and new cultures. Pura Vida!