Western Panama has fantastic white-water, some of it truly world class. The main commercially run rivers are the powerful Río Chiriquí (east of Boquete ) and Río Chiriquí Viejo (west of Boquete, near the Costa Rican border).
Even experienced rafters will likely find the runs here thrilling. They feature very long wave trains, relentless runs, hair-raising moments, and lots of variety. There are also much more peaceful sections of the river where timid beginners can get their feet wet.
One of the great things about rafting on these rivers is the sense of solitude. Yours may be the only raft on the river, and you may not see a soul along the banks. Other than the occasional cow, all rafters are likely to encounter are forest, gorges, tributaries, and huge, beautiful birds. And, of course, big water.
Gentler rides, featuring Class II and III rapids, are available on the nearby Río Gariché, Río Dolega, and Río Majagua.
Part of the Río Chiriquí has been dammed, and the sections that remain wild can only be run between June and November, when there’s enough rain to keep the river flowing. The Panamanian government is authorizing dams all over western Panama, and other wild rivers are endangered, including the Chiriquí Viejo, one of Central America’s most spectacular white-water rivers.
If you have an opinion about this, send an email to ANCON, Panama’s largest environmental non-profit (ancon [at] ancon [dot] org, www.hablayapanama.com ). The Habla Ya website has detailed information on the endangered rivers.
Chiriquí River Rafting (tel./fax 720-1505 or 720-1506, cell 6618-0846, rafting [at] panama-rafting [dot] com, www.panama-rafting.com ), enjoys a great reputation as a highly professional operation and the best white-water outfit in Panama . The company is run by Hector Sanchez, who was for years in charge of recreational services for the U.S. military bases in the old Canal Zone. He’s fully bilingual, as are some of the guides and other staff members. The rest speak enough basic English to get you through the rapids.
The company offers different day trips on these two rivers, with rapids varying from Class II and III to solid Class IV. The most hard-core, and expensive, of these is the Palon section of the Chiriquí Viejo, a four-hour blast through deep canyons. It costs US$105 per person. The cheapest is a gentle, 45-minute ride through Class II rapids suitable for families with children as young as five. The price is US$85 per person.
Some of the rivers can only be run during the height of the rainy season, approximately June–November. The water level is too low at other times. There’s always water in the Chiriquí Viejo, but during times of heavy rainfall it can be too rough to run.
Prices include transportation, equipment, and a picnic lunch by the river. Five-day packages that include rafting, hiking, a boat trip around Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí , and other outdoor activities are also available.
Contact the company as far ahead of time as possible. Many trips require a minimum of 3–4 people, so advance warning helps the company coordinate groups of sufficient size.
A newer operation is Boquete Outdoor Adventures (cell 6474-0274, www.boqueteoutdooradventures.com ). It offers full-day rafting trips for US$90 per person and overnight trips for US$150 per person (four-person minimum). A kayak “sampler” trip on gentle rapids is US$80 per person, two-person minimum.
The company also offers guided overnight hikes to the summit of Barú, multiday white-water and sea-kayaking trips, deep-sea fishing excursions, and other outdoor adventures.