Surf & Turf: Adventures in Costa Rica
by MICHELLE GAGNON
As I looked over the lip of the cliff at the rest of my whitewater rafting group, I contemplated the fact that that the nearest hospital was a two-day trek through the jungle. I closed my eyes and pushed off the rock, holding my breath as the cool water closed over me. I surfaced to enthusiastic applause: all we faced now were two more Class V rapids.
Rafting surging sections of the Rio Pacuare was just one of many adventures I experienced on my 14-day multisport trip through Costa Rica, from surfing the pounding crests of La Playa Grande to riding horseback from the Arenal Volcano to the Saint Elena rainforest.
For the two-day rafting portion of my trip, I signed up with Horizontes Nature Tours, an adventure sports operator based in San Jose, Costa Rica's capital. Even the van ride to our rafting launch proved edgy; my fellow travelers and I chatted nervously as we skidded along the edges of cliffs that plunged hundreds of feet into lush canyons.
After carrying the rafts and paddles to the river's edge we were divided into three groups. I shared my raft with Pam and Bruce, a married couple from Arizona, and our guide Manuel, a charismatic teenager who spent the greater part of our two days together yelling "Paddle, paddle!" over the roar of the river. It was late November, and the Pacuare was swollen from the recent rainy season. Manuel ably steered us through rapids that ranged from Class II to Class V. Sensing our exhaustion, every so often Manuel pulled us off the river to lead us through small pools and waterfalls.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived at the peaceful Pacuare Lodge, a collection of thatched huts nestled deep in the jungle. A simple lunch of fresh papaya and tuna salad on homemade bread was followed by a nature tour to a nearby waterfall; Manuel and the other guides pointed out numerous howler monkeys and birds en route.
After digging around the base of the falls for several small, clay-like stones, Manuel demonstrated how the Cabécar natives painted themselves startling shades of red and blue. We took turns drawing glyphs on each other, and arrived back at the lodge looking like a lost tribe.
Of course, jungle tribes rarely return to a village that includes a two-story open-air palapa, a hammock lounge and a bar serving bottomless guaro (a sweet and surprisingly potent local sugar liqueur). After dinner, we retired to the lantern-lit lounge to chat and play poker. The guaro flowed freely, and by the end of the night, a few of the guests required assistance stumbling back to their cabanas.
The Day After
Despite our revelry, we awoke early the next morning to tackle a newly installed ropes course near the lodge. The Pacuare looked even more impressive when viewed from a platform a hundred feet above ground. After a quick late-morning snack we grabbed our paddles and climbed back into the rafts. Manuel warned us that the river ahead was more treacherous than what we had already traversed, so he had enlisted another guide to help us paddle.
We spent the day alternating between adrenaline-pump-ing rapids and quiet floating. At some points the river narrowed, and the trees above met to form a thick green canopy. Vines trailed in the water, and the calls of birds faded as we approached, then began again as we floated away. There are few places in the world where wilderness is still as palpable as it is in Costa Rica, and seated on the fringe of the forest, I sensed the press of trees and wildlife reaching out behind me for miles.
It was late afternoon when we reached the pullout. After dragging the rafts from the water, we watched the sunset while sipping beers outside a local cantina. By a stroke of luck, some of my fellow rafters had rented a car and were headed to the same destination, La Playa Grande on the Pacific coast. The next day, after a five-hour drive I was deposited outside Villa Olivia, a beach house rented by some friends for their family's Thanksgiving celebration. After stowing my belongings in the "Zambezi room," featuring wild animal prints on every available surface, I strolled to the water's edge and felt the warm waves lap my feet. The moon was enormous overhead, with the only visible light flickering far down the beach in Tamarindo.
Early the next morning my friend Thayer woke me with a knock on the door, declaring, "Surf's up!" At dinner the night before, her boyfriend Mark had regaled me with stories about the legendary surfing here. A novice surfer at best, the stories didn't help assuage my fears; but as I took in the sweep of the beach, I figured this was as good a place to die as any. A protected sanctuary for leatherback sea turtles with limited public access, the pristine beach was dotted with only a handful of other beachgoers.
The water was startlingly warm and clear - I could see straight to the bottom almost eight feet down. After learning in the frigid waters of Northern California, it was re-freshing to be surfing in only a bikini and rash guard shirt - by 8 a.m. I could already feel the sun beating down on my hat. After waiting an inordinately long time to bolster my courage, I spotted a refreshingly small wave on the horizon and began paddling.
After four strokes, I felt the water surge beneath the board and jumped to my feet. The wave crested, and I was swept towards the beach in a rush of water and air and light; my first wave of the day, and already the best I'd ever ridden. I stepped to the back of the board as the water dissolved in white breakers, then sank and immediately turned and paddled back out, all fears now far behind me.
I had to be coaxed in from the water for lunch. After allowing the standard half-hour for digestion, we hit the water and surfed until the sun was low on the horizon. At twilight, the enormous rocks to our right cast purple shadows across the waves, and the sky glimmered with pink rays. The water deepened to navy beneath us, and as I caught the last wave in, I thought that this was as close to paradise as I had ever come.
The final leg of my journey took me to the Arenal Volcano, active since 1968 and producing huge ash columns, explosions, and glowing red lava almost every day. It was difficult to tear myself away from the beach after a week of stellar surfing; only the promise of an active volcano lured me off my board. Wanting to stay close to the action, I rented a small bungalow at the desolate base of the volcano, which I was assured offered a spectacular view when not surrounded by a low-lying layer of fog.
Though the fog prevented my viewing Arenal's lava flows and eruptions, it was still a dramatic location. Nearby, I soaked in the soothing waters of exotic Tabacon Hot Springs, and the rainforest grounds around my hotel, Cabanas Areñal Paraíso, afforded excellent birdwatching.
During my stay at the hotel, the manager arranged for me to join a group traveling by horseback to Saint Elena rainforest, situated near the more frequented Monteverde National Park. After crossing Lake Arenal in a small motorboat, we met our guides and horses; I affectionately nicknamed mine "Elmer" as he appeared to be one step away from the glue factory.
We started the ride by fording a small stream, where the water lapped at my ankles as Elmer struggled to gain footing on the slippery rock bottom. Despite his appearance, however, Elmer proved to be an avid canterer - once he got started, it proved nearly impossible to slow him down and I spent most of the ride tugging desperately at the reins while trying various Spanish-sounding versions of "Whoa!"
We rode for miles on narrow dirt paths, descending into rainforest then climbing onto bluffs that commanded spectacular views of the treetops. I was struck once again by how green and dense the countryside was, and how little civilization had encroached on this part of the country. Howler monkeys screeched indignantly from enclaves among the branches, and we kept our eyes peeled for the elusive "quetzal," a rare bird native to the region. Lizards scuttled off the road
as we approached, and as we ducked under low-hanging branches I kept my eyes peeled for brightly-colored snakes.
We emerged after several hours onto the dusty streets of Saint Elena. The air was brisk and clear and smelled of rain, and we were greeted by a rainbow arcing over the treetops. I climbed off and gave Elmer an appreciative pat on the neck.
That night as I lay in bed and felt the soreness of infrequently used muscles, I fought a wave of sadness. Two weeks were not nearly enough to experience all that Costa Rica had to offer, and I resolved to return as soon as my bank account permitted.
For information on operators and lodging, contact: Horizontes Nature Tours at www.horizontes.com; Arenal Horseback, Mountain Bike, and Canopy Tours at www.arenal.net; and Villa Olivia/Casa Mirage at La Playa Grande at 800-444-5089, firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.costaricaconexion.com. Or contact the Costa Rica Tourist Board at www.tourism-costarica.com.
For information on additional programs and tour operators, go to the Activity Index under "Costa Rica."