River tubing the Cahabón River in Guatemala

Just read about the tragedy of Ms. Huang who went river tracing at Hualien, Taiwan, which unfortunately took her life, and it reminded me of my own encounter with death.

It was a rainy day, and I was already 4(?) months into my trip in Central America. Might have been too used to the sight of bloated rivers by then that I did not even think much about the activities that I will be doing or the potential danger that i might face. The guides did not mention anything about the condition either.

DSCN4884
Bloated Rio Cahabón

With the “just do it” attitude, we followed the guide without any questions – hiked to the viewpoint, swam at beautiful natural pools, and explored a cave (which was totally awesome by the way), before finally heading down to Rio Cahabón for river tubing. Just to sit more comfortably in the tube, I stupidly took off my life jacket and placed it on my lap instead. dumb move. I was not even good at swimming and the river was full full full at that time.

I don’t know how this works but, strangely, I was moving rather slow compared to the fast-flowing river and the rest of the group were soon all ahead of me. They would turn and shout instructions at times. So at one point, they were shouting “move to the right” since there was a small dip in the middle. I kept paddling and paddling, not knowing how “right” should I go and they were all too far away from me to gauge ): Then I flipped out of my tube when I hit this shallow part but quickly grabbed on to it. So my entire body was in contact with the water now, and we (the tube and I) continued to be carried away by the water, looking at my red life jacket as if it was being swallowed.


Then there was this skinny tree trunk sticking out from the woods, which I luckily hit(!!), and the tube got stuck there. Holding on to my dear life as the force of the water kept pushing my head under it and I my hands would slip off the tube anytime as the diameter was too big for me to hold onto properly. Think I was crying at this point as I seriously thought that I was gonna drown. I couldn’t even shout for help as I struggled to keep my head above the water.

My hand was slowly running out of strength, but no one was in sight no matter how long I waited. So I gave a quick thought to how I can escape from this and dived into water before I pulled the tube under the tree branch from the other side – it was a gamble. A huge one. My hands could have slipped away from the tube when I went under, and I would have drown with no life jacket nor the tube to hold. But luckily I managed, that is why I am still here writing about it. Kept on kicking myself towards the mangrove where I can stop and rest after escaping from the force of the river – totally drained.

The only voice I heard throughout the ordeal was of my then partner’s, the only person who stopped and came to me through the forest. Going through such an experience, you could imagine it was like the knight arrived. I wouldn’t want to go on that river anymore, at least not by myself, and I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, so I was very fortunate to have him there beside me.

Though shaken, we had no choice but to go on that river again. Fortunately some local (which was not even someone from our hostel) saw us and decided to float down the river, guiding us where to stop according to where we stay. If not for him, we would have continued down the river, and who knows, fall off a waterfall and die!

Here is the part which makes me boil: To ensure everyone’s safety, guide(s) would usually do a headcount before moving on to the next stop. I did not saw my guide for once when we were in the river (even my partner knew how to stop and help me out), nor by the shore waiting for us. So we walked on our own towards the hostel and to my horror, the group were jumping off a bridge of 10m high (exact height unknown) into the full fast-flowing river! (maybe this part of the river wasn’t as fast(?) but i watched videos of other people jumping off the bridge and when they surfaced, it was pretty far from where they initially landed so…. ) not that important because, when i went over, he still smiled at me and asked “are you going to jump?” F************* Y***************!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! after all that just happened to me which you were totally oblivious to seriouslyy????

Felt like giving a flying kick to his butt at that moment.

Fast-flowing water of Rio Cahabón
Fast-flowing water of Rio Cahabón
Safety Tips

Tours run are not yet properly managed here. No safety precautions are being taken as far as I know. They have no rules and guidelines to adhere to, or at least no one is there to ensure that those are being followed. So my word of advice when choosing to do an activity would be (1) observe the conditions by yourself (2) activities are available to satisfy different wants/needs of visitors; you don’t have to do anything if you are uncomfortable with it. It is your own holiday, and your own life to protect after all. (3) KEEP THE LIFE JACKET ON no matter if you are a good swimmer or not. Especially during the rainy season when water level is high and force is strong.

Nobody welcomes mishaps, and what happened to Ms. Huang was really unfortunate. Hope her experience and mine would serve as a reminder for all to take safety measures at all times regardless of the situation.

Here, I take the opportunity to offer my condolences to Ms. Huang’s family.


2 thoughts on “River tubing the Cahabón River in Guatemala

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Makes me shiver by realizing I experienced exactly the same, nearly ending my life in river Cahabon in January 2014, near Utopia hostel. I fell off the tube twice and my husband (himself a European guide) saved me but we needed destiny’s approval for that more than his skills. The official guide refused to take us the previous day so we asked if we could go on our own. They said yes and gave us the tubes. Of course, we were stupid but it does not mean they need not have warned us previously. I think it was a turning point in my life since then I feel I am living a different life I am thankful after all, it was such a shock. It is deeply moving me to see your photoes of the river. I am thinking we should publicly let tourists know about this somehow. Thanks again.

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    1. it was also this experience that made me realise how dangerous these activities could be. hopefully the operators or tourism department have realised this as well and have emphasised on some safety measurements.

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