I perched on the front of the bouncing rubber raft like a figurehead, clinging to the side straps for dear life, forgetting not to scream as wave after wave slapped my face and filled my mouth.
Peals of pure laughter followed my shrieks of joy while my raft mates paddled furiously. Then all was calm. I turned, still sputtering and quaking with delight, to see the paddlers high five with their oars, shouting “pura vida!” (Costa Rica’s “pure life” equivalent to “aloha”) and high-fiving me the normal way, being as I was without paddle at the moment.
It’s the traditional way to paddle through the Class-V Cimarrones (Wild Horses) rapids on the Pacuare River in eastern Costa Rica. One team member is elected to ride the bow like a bucking bronc. It was my first time river rafting, so my number came up — a baptism by whitewater that capped an exhilarating three days on the river.
Costa Rica was the first Central American country to introduce commercial river rafting in 1983. It was also the first to offer zip line adventures. This time was not my first zip line experience through the rainforest canopy. That happened in Costa Rica eight years earlier.
My latest weeklong adventure did, however, see my first waterfall rappelling experience and my first time mountain horseback riding. It was the first time I’ve done an extensive swinging bridge trail. And on my birding life list, I recorded many a first.
My first Costa Rican adventure on this visit opened my eyes to the incredible wildlife of Tortuguero National Park in the northeast. As we paddled kayaks into the depths of the jungle, our group’s sharp-eyed guides from Rio Tropicales adventure outfitters picked out birds and lizards from insane, super-human distances.
During the paddle and the next morning’s early boat tour from our overnight stay at Mawamba Lodge, I began recording the new birds on my list: great green macaw, green ibis, tiger heron, collared aracari, keel-billed toucan, sungrebe, green kingfisher, boat-billed heron, rufous motmot and northern jacana among them.
The lodge, balanced between jungle and beach habitat, maintains butterfly houses, a frog garden and bird-riddled vegetation. I saw iguanas, poison-dart frogs, owl and blue morph butterflies, a small boa and the striking, vocal oropendola bird, named for its showy yellow tail. Costa Rica claims more species of birds than all of North America — nearly 850.
A couple of small caimans, a crested green basilisk lizard running Jesus-like across the water, a tree sloth, howler monkeys: It’s a jungle out there in wild Costa Rica, and I saw all of these and lots of crazy insects in a week’s time.
PADDLE AND A PRAYER
Highly respected Rios Tropicales, the second such outfitter in the nation to open in 1985, makes a series of river adventures an unforgettable, seamless experience.
It begins with a bus ride to the company’s operations base in Siquirres. There I dropped my luggage in a locker after stuffing a small backpack to see me through three days. After a typical Costa Rican lunch of salad, pasta and black beans and rice, the tour group traveled to the river in the rain, first by bus, then tractor-drawn wagon.
At the river, our guide Andres, and oar boatsman, Leo, stowed our packs in dry bags and loaded up coolers full of the food and drink we would need in coming days.
Our first day of rafting would take us downstream seven miles, beginning with relatively gentle Class II and III (out of a possible, but not likely for amateurs,VI) rapids.
After a lengthy tutorial that included terms like “falling out,” “tipping over” and “foot entrapment,” I was simultaneously excited and prayerful about this longtime bucket wish of mine.
My favorite terminology became the “lean in” and “get down” instructions, which I often found myself executing without prompting.
Andres expertly commanded my six-person team to paddle around rocks, down drops and through more than a dozen patches of rapids in quick succession.
Pacuare River is known worldwide for its variety, challenge and rainforest wildlife — often named among the planet’s top 10 commercial rafting destinations.
Rios Tropicales owns 2,000 acres of surrounding rainforest where founder Rafael Gallo has built a rustic lodge and activities for spending a day or two between rafting excursions.
The best rooms line the raging river and its soothing nighttime white noise — not quite loud enough, however, to drown out the morning howler monkeys.
Three fresh-cooked meals come with the package as do adventures including canopy zip lining, an aerial tram, mountain horseback riding, a butterfly research and gardens center tour, waterfall rappelling, hiking the 847 steps up and down the mountain rainforest trail, and a swing bridge over the river.
After two nights at the jungle lodge, we were packing up the passenger and supply boats once more to make the 14-mile paddle downstream — this time advancing to rapids in the Class IV category.
Along the way, we climbed slippery rocks up to a waterfall pool for a refreshing break. In the distance we could see the river disappear — our first Class-IV drop: a rush that left us yawning at the smaller rapids that had me anxious only two days before.
After the fifth and final Class IV of the day, at Dos Montanas Gorge, we all jumped in to float the current through the gorgeous V-shaped natural wonder — one of a continuum of scenic waterfalls, bird-flocked trees, rock fields, sheer plant-plastered walls and other breathtaking features that made my virgin river rafting initiation a go-to-the-top-of-the-life-list experience.
UNDER THE VOLCANO
Returning to civilization left me yearning for the jungle, especially with destination La Fortuna on the itinerary. Thanks to its proximity to the textbook-shaped wedge of mountain known as Arenal Volcano and its hot springs, La Fortuna attracts mainstream tourism.
I’m sure I would have enjoyed Baldi Hot Springs resort more had I not just crawled out of the jungle. Although the waters did soothe my quads, aching from those 847 steps, the overall water park make-up of slides, swim-up bars, throbbing music, caves, et al, struck me, now an eco-snob, as a dishonor to Costa Rica.
I arrived to Hotel Lomas del Volcan by dark of night, so the surprise of seeing Arenal, haloed by a smoke ring of a cloud right out the back door of my garden villa the next morning, set the tone for a day of excitement at Arenal Hanging Bridges, a return to nature I welcomed.
Thirteen canopy-high bridges revealed views of tree tops, swinging monkeys, the rufous motmot, rainforest vegetation, troops of leaf-cutter ants. And perfectly triangular Arenal, a 6,000-foot active volcano that last showed activity in 1968.
Volcanoes, rushing waters, drama-queen falls, natural beaches, rainforest and teeming wildlife: Costa Rica comes by its tourism dynamics naturally. But it also works at it with groundbreaking sustainability ethics. Perhaps Costa Rica’s most laudable “first” will see it become the world’s pioneering carbon-neutral country, a goal the government has set for 2021.
Going to Costa Rica
Information: www.visitcostarica.com, 866-COSTA RICA.
Rios Tropicales (www.riostropicales.com, 011-506-2233-6455): The outfitter offers rafting packages of one to four days on various rivers in Costa Rica, as well as biking, hiking and kayaking trips and combinations thereof. It can also arrange custom packages. Accommodations at the lodge on the Pacuare River are simple but comfortable with electricity. The hot water is not entirely dependable, however, and Wi-Fi and phone connections nonexistent. Overnight rafting trips start at $250.
Mawamba Lodge (www.mawamba.com, 011-506-2293-8181): An eco-lodge near Tortuguero National Park’s by-water entrance, it features various on-property nature attractions and tours including night hikes and morning nature cruises. Rates start at $230 per person for a double.
SAN JOSE HOTELS
If you are flying into capital San Jose and need overnight accommodations, here are a couple of suggestions. Note that high season in Costa Rica is similar to South Florida — typically November or December through April. Sales tax is 13 percent.
Hotel Grano de Oro, San Jose (www.hotelgranodeoro.com, 011-506-2255-3322): Convenient to town center, this gracious mansion-like hotel has a lovely courtyard restaurant and accommodating staff. Low season rates for homey rooms and suites with individual character range $140 to $485; high season $158 to $480.
Pura Vida Hotel, Alajuela (www.puravidahotel.com, 011-506-2430-2929): A sweet little boutique property near the airport with lovely gardens and a volcano backdrop, it offers the convenience of airport pick-up and rental car delivery. Seasonal rates range $99 to $165, in low season they drop to $79 to $125.