Picture of river We spent Saturday and Sunday of our trip to Costa Rica rafting on the Pacuare River. Our tour was through the company Aventures Naturales and they really did a fantastic job overall. We were picked up at our hotel early on Saturday morning. On the way to the river we stopped for breakfast where we had our first experience with several staples of Costa Rican cuisine. Gallo Pinto, a rice and bean mixture is ubiquitous and particularly present at breakfast. Natilla is a dairy product which is somewhere between sour cream and custard and goes quite well with the gallo pinto. Lizano sauce, the national condiment of choice, also goes well with gallo pinto (and eggs) and is a mild vegetable-based sauce. It was about a three hour bus ride to the river through some impressive valleys filled with coffee and banana plantations.
Picture of entrance Aventures Naturales and other tour companies that run the Pacuare offer one day trips, but covering fourteen miles (23 km) of river three hours away from San Jose leads to a very hectic day. We chose the much more relaxed two-day version. As a result there was only a few miles of river to cover the first day with relatively small class III rapids. This brought us to the Pacuare Lodge (owned by Av. Naturales) - a rustic encampment on the banks of the river. Rival tour company Rios Tropicales also has a riverside lodge farther downstream. There is no road entrance to the lodge - we were told it was about a 45 minute walk to the nearest location a truck could get to. There is no electricity or hot water yet most other comforts are taken care of it so it is closer to hotel lodging than it is to camping.
Picture of pacuare_hut For instance, this was our particular hut for the evening. There were around nine of these spaced around the grounds and barely within sight of one another. Inside they contain a bed, candles for evening lighting and a small private bathroom. There is mosquito screening on the open windows - we certainly didn't have a problem with mosquitoes although quite a few fireflies managed to work their way in. One other couple from Puerto Rico were also spending the night here and two guides - Louis and Max made for six of us total at the lodge overnight.
Picture of rope_walk It was only noon (somehow) when we arrived at the lodge, but before lunch we had a canopy tour. The canopy tour (designed and created by the Original Canopy Tour Company) exists in several locations around Costa Rica and was first intended to be a somewhat exhilirating way to see the higher echelons of the rain forest. The Pacuare Lodge features a shortened version of this with very little emphasis placed on the ecology of the canopy and almost all the emphasis placed on excitement. Platforms attached to trees up in the canopy are connected by zip lines. One at a time we would each attach to these lines (with safety lines as well) and suspended from them we would zip across to the next tree. There were also two exceptions. Shown here is a close-up of one of those. Between these two platforms we walked with our feet on one cable and our hands on another. A safety line was anchored from the ground which thankfully we never tested. Not content with just that, halfway across is a cargo net so you can climb up to a higher set of wires and finish your traverse from there. All of this is perhaps 50 ft (15 m) off the ground.
Picture of canopy_tour Here is the finale of the canopy tour. When we saw this from the ground we had no idea what it might signify. We got a hint from the platform when we noticed the hose running up from the ground. Melanie's exact words were: "Is this some kind of water slide - bungee jump thing?" Yes, yes it is. Hosing off the blue pads (and the hapless person sitting at the top) you launch down it much like a water slide until it spits you out and the belay rope (running up on the right side of this picture) catches, leaving you swinging around and greatly desiring to be standing on solid ground again. That's David in the foreground providing scale to all this. Other platforms can be faintly seen behind this tree stretching back towards the jungle. Also of note in this picture are the nests of weaver-birds. They are the elaborate dangling structures which were pretty much everywhere around the lodge. A nice cluster of them can be seen to the lower right of the slide. Male weaver birds have to build a new nest each year so most of them are actually abandoned. These birds also have an extremely unique call.
Picture of waterfall So after the white-water rafting and the canopy tour, we were finally allowed to rest a bit and have lunch. Louis and Max whipped up some excellent tuna salad and fruit was abundant. Fruit is generally abundant at every Costa Rican meal. Particularly we had quite a bit of watermelon, cantaloupe, guava, papaya and pineapple. After lunch we took a short hike back from the lodge to this waterfall. The Pacuare river runs down the eastern slopes of the Talamanca Mountains towards the Caribbean. Literally hundreds of tributaries join it many of them in spectacular cascades either directly into the main river or just off of it. This was just a small ways in from the river. It was still daylight but the grotto carved out by the waterfall plus the thick jungle foliage blocked out most of the light.
Picture of hammock Besides the handful of huts and a bunkhouse for the guides, the Pacuare Lodge does have a main lodge building. It's a long A-frame structure with a kitchen and dining area screened in on the bottom floor. Above is this lounging area strewn with hammocks, couches, and board games. Here Melanie is partaking of two important aspects of Costa Rican life. The hammock, and Imperial, a local brew which is probably the most common beer in the country. As night fell (about 5:00 local time in Costa Rica) our fellow travellers Jorge and Chiqi plus our guides and us played a few rounds of Jenga. The one additional rule which applies to Costa Rican Jenga (apparently) which I don't recall from home was that the loser of each game has to do a shot of guare. Guare is the local moonshine equivalent, it is distilled from sugarcane but it's not quite as strong as rum. Melanie points out that this rule encourages the person who loses to continue losing in yet more spectacular fashion.
Picture of lodge_grounds Later Max and Louis prepared dinner for us (chicken, red snapper, and vegetables). It began raining during the meal (it is a rain forest after all) and continued for approximately the next 13 hours. Finding our way back to our hut via flashlight, we bunked down for the night amidst the sounds of rain on the roof, the river rushing by, and the occasional distant thunder. The next morning it stopped raining before breakfast. We wandered around a bit in pursuit of local wildlife including the toucan and the brilliant blue morpho butterfly. Neither of these creatures was willing to come close enough for a good picture. We packed up the rafts and headed downstream towards more impressive rapids.
Picture of waterfall_jump First came one more side trip. A ten or fifteen minute hike up a tributary brought us to this waterfall for a bit of a swim. More exciting than that was the climb up to the ledge on the right where we could (ignoring common sense) jump off into the pool. Melanie claimed that looking down would have dissuaded her from jumping, which she did promptly before the camera could be recovered. This is actually Chiqi jumping off the ledge but I expect it would look about the same regardless of who it was. At least with a disposable waterproof camera.
Picture of lunch_spot We met up with Sunday's one-day tour in time for the biggest rapids of the trip, an impressive long section of class IV water. One rapid involved paddling through a waterfall pouring off the cliff high above during the crucial (steering-wise) moments. Just below one of these rapids we stopped for lunch. Several sections of the river looked like this with rolling heavily-forested hills on either side. In several places rope bridges spanned the river which are used by the Cabecar Indians. The next four pictures show a sequence of our raft "surfing" in one of the rapids. For those unfamiliar with the practice, surfing a raft involves paddling upsteam into a rapid so that the water pouring over the drop hits the front of the raft. This often raises the rear part of the raft out of the water completely. This can lead to an exciting ride before the raft is spit out, or it can lead to an exciting flip. Notice by the relative happiness (and presence) of everyone in the last picture that we did not flip.
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Picture of raft Other sections of the river were more gorge-like such as this one. The calmer sections of the river (and there aren't many) lead to swimming. The light blue mist in the top left corner of this picture is actually the spray from a low-volume waterfall high above.
Picture of aventures The trip ends in the town of Siquirres where Aventures Naturales has yet another facility with changing rooms and a bar (of course). This is our entire group, from left Chiqi, Max, Louis, Jorge and us. We were bussed back to San Jose afterwards. The highlight of that ride was definitely the Braulio Carillo National Park which sits high above San Jose. The road crosses through the mountains up there and in a torrential downpour we hurtled through in near darkness with what appeared to be vast dropoffs on either side. Driving may be more adventurous than white-water rafting or canopy tours in Costa Rica. Ticos (the local name for native Costa Ricans) are truly among the friendliest people we've ever met, unless of course you put them in a car. We were told before our trip by one experienced local that the shortest measurable length of time in the universe is that expanse between which the traffic light turns green and when people start honking their car horns. This turned out to be true. In some cases it was so true we began to suspect psychic abilities. Anyway we'll leave driving in Costa Rica for the next page.
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