To reach the Pacuare River it takes about 2 ½ hours form the Capital of San Jose in the Central Valley where 60% of the small population of this central American country live. The distance is only about 70 miles but until you’ve experienced Costa Rica's highway 32 you may not know the true meaning of curvy, mountainous road.
With only two lanes in most parts, and at times 3,000 feet above sea level, and twisting like pretzel in places, passing is not a good option. Get behind a farmer on his tractor or a fully loaded produce truck carting pineapples or mangoes and the 60 mile trip can take up to three hours.
Once the Talamanca Mountains are crossed we dropped down on the coastal Caribbean place where tropical fruit and African palm plantations are common sight. “Mammon’s” a fruit native to Costa Rica are sold alongside the road by ambitious Ticos and Ticas. Along with some homemade ceviche (fish in lime juice with vegetables) and “Aqua de Pipa” (a fresh cold coconut with a straw sticking out of one end) - Costa Rica’s version of “bottled coconut water” we were ready for the Pacuare.
Rivers are Classed I to VI, with Class I essentially an easy ride and Class VI impassable under normal conditions. The lower Pacuare is rated a Class III to IV, offering tremendous thrills for a white water rafting experience.
While I had rafted once before on the famed Gauley River in West Virginia it had been 20 years ago and Portia – bless her spirit had never been rafting – so choosing a Class IV river for a first timer showed true heart!
There were seven boats all together that day under the banner of Rios Tropicales one of several "official” rafting companies exploring the twelve micro climates of this tiny but incredibly diverse nation in Central America.
One boat was the “cargo boat” five carried 6 rafters plus the guide and one raft had eight thrill seekers plus the guide. The rafts called “balsas "or “botes” by the guides, are durable inflatables without seats, motors or luggage space. It’s a lean mode of transportation. After all – everything gets wet even if you’re lucky- Unlucky - or "fun" depending on your view- means leaving the balsa quickly and unexpectedly on the treacherous rapid and being totally immersed in the frothing waters.
“ Forward”, “Stop”, “Right back”, “Left back”, for close to five hours on the river these were the words shouted at us by our guide Enzo. Less common but even more critical were the commands “Get Down” or “Lean In” as these orders were only given at the most dangerous part of the rapids when the risk of being thrown from the raft onto a hard shallow rocky bottom was high.
The Pacuare runs through some of the best scenery in a country known for its stunning topography. Waterfalls or "cascadas," fall from the high cliffs, huge boulders formed from volcanic rock jut from the river bed and towering plants and trees line the banks as the balsas make their way down the river; sometimes plummeting as breakneck speeds and other times lazily drifting with the current.
When we had the "easy drift" as the guides say, rafters would get in the river to swim a little or "go" if you know what I mean. Despite the flow from the mountains the water was a pleasant temperature and even soaking wet nobody ever complained of being cold.
Of course, there was little time to complain about anything as we hit class III or even a few class IV rapids. To those familiar with rafting, it is well known that the best thrills come from the class IV and V rapids. Class six is basically impassable to all but extreme sports fans and class II is pretty mild, so the Pacuare is the perfect river for those seeking thrills but not willing to risk injury.
Billed as a trip for "moderately experienced" rafters it was bit daunting for Portia - who, as said before, had never been on white water. Since I had the advantage of having rafted both the upper and lower Gauley in West Virginia where there are several class V rapids, it made her participation all the more daring. Of course that was thirty years and fifty pounds lighter in the past so it didn't give me much of a leg up!
Overall it was thrilling trip and one that would bear repeating in a year or two. Enzo was great and so was Rio Tropicales. Professional and fun would succinctly describe their operations. One very cool aspect of the trip was the variety of companions we had in the bus, at the camp and on the river. On our particular day, over eight nationalities were present and about half were Costa Ricans and that is unusual on group excursions at least as far as I have seen over the years.
It was unique to hear the various botes on the water with French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, English and Swedish wafting over in a cacophony of international laugher and joie le vive for life amongst companions bound together by the love of adventure and nature.
After we completed navigating the white water we put in for a great late lunch and cold beers and spent a good hour and a half retelling our "tales of daring' to fellow rafters before we boarded our buses and made the trip back over the Talamancas to arrive at our respective hotels.
On our second trip, we took to the waters of the Pacific Ocean completely on the other side of Costa Rica. Tortuga Island was our destination and Manta Ray, a seventy foot catamaran was our vessel of choice to make the 25 mile trip off the northern end of the Nicoya Peninsula in the Nicoya Gulf.
Calypso Tours have been making the run to Tortuga Island for over four decades; they are one of the longest running available tour boats in the country and their reputation is not only solid it’s well –deserved.
Our day started with private pick-up at the Marriott Resort in Belen. During an hour and a half ride to the Pacific Coast port of Puntarenas – meaning Sand Point – our lovely guide for the day, Isabella, gave us the run down on what we could expect during the twelve hour day of activities. Speaking impeccable English, Isabell’s warm, embracing personality started the early morning off just perfectly.
When we arrived in Puntarenas we were dropped off at a private dock-restaurant used by Calypso for a tropical breakfast of eggs, “Gallo Pinto” and fresh native fruits served with the ever present Costa Rican coffee, heralded by many to be the best coffee in the world.
Making the morning even more special was the small but bright calypso band that played marimbas, congas and miscellaneous percussion providing a light and airy Island feel to our morning repast.
Finished with breakfast we boarded Manta Ray for the stunningly visual ride to Tortuga Island. The Pacific coast of Costa Rica makes a visitor understand why the name means “rich coast.” Dotted with protruding rock formations and volcanic upwellings, this section of the mid-Pacific coast is truly a National Geographic vista.
After a little over an hour underway, we arrived at Tortuga Island where we were taken to a private campground maintained by Calypso Tours. Tortuga is not a private island and anyone with a good enough boat can visit and spend all the time they like. It is not permitted to take anything from the island as it is a designated national park called the Curu Nature Reserve.
The Island hosts a plethora of wildlife, some native and some unusual domestic animals that were brought here before the island became subject to preserve regulation. Included in this menagerie are small pigs with bristling hair hides, peacocks and some of the most unusual chickens to be found anywhere.
Of course, there are native small deer, a myriad assortment of birds both shore and sea types, crabs, lizards and some of the coolest vegetation including flowering trees and swaying palms.
After a brief orientation and time to put our stuff up and select a personal picnic table for the lunch we were promised later, we were taken to a small launch and floated to a cluster of nearby rock formations to enjoy a couple hours of snorkeling.
While there were several species of beautiful ocean fish to be seen, those accustomed to diving or snorkeling on reefs might be a bit disappointed as the variety of marine life was limited. The real thrill was just being in the clear waters that had a perfect temperature for swimming in the sea.
After the snorkeling adventure, we returned to Tortuga for a delicious four course meal of pineapple and macadamia nut encrusted chicken breast with salad, more fresh fruit, garlic bread and a complimentary glass of white wine. A bar was available for those choosing to drink more but we noticed very few people drank much. Perhaps it was the tropical sun and idyllic atmosphere but the theme of the day seemed to be laid back and, as they say in Costa – “tranquillo-Pura Vida.”
After lunch and an appropriate time to digest, the launch returned to the shore to offer fast, banana boat rides. The object here was pure fun with the added task of not getting thrown into the sea as the small, but fast boats pulled you through the water riding on what really did look like a giant banana.
After the thrill ride, everyone chilled out for a few hours before we boarded Manta Ray for the ride back to Puntarenas; this time taking a different route to afford us a view of the Nicoya Peninsula and varying shorelines.
Manta Ray was now party central as everyone gathered around the semi-circular bar at the back of the boat to imbibe and talk about their homes, the day and anything else that came to mind as the sounds of Calypso music played in the background.
It was a picture perfect day and the setting sun reflecting across the volcanic islands reminding us all of how beautiful this small Central American country is and why so many Americans travel here every year to see for themselves. If made me feel quite justified in having made the trip 53 times myself.