Costa Rica Delivers Flood-Stage Rivers, Kayaking Down Volcanoes And 40′ Waterfalls (oh my)

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costa rica expertA note from the Publisher: The Costa Rica Blog Network has chosen to feature the following article for its lengthy and in-depth look at some of Costa Rica’s greatest paddling opportunities as experienced with a local flare. Thanks to Karl for submitting his personal account to us. We hope other serious paddling enthusiasts do not miss your advice: “visitors to Costa Rica should not miss this gem.” Pura vida!

Featured Author: Karl Gesslein (visit the Awaken Spirit Blog)

Par for the course.
Par for the course.

When I first arrived I felt like I had died and gone to paddling heaven. Everywhere I looked huge landslides had removed parts of the road. The rivers were swollen and running that dark coffee brown color. Several bridges had recently collapsed, others were closed because the recent rains had moved the foundations. This is how my Costa Rican vacation began … 11 straight days of class IV-V rivers.

For the past week it had rained nonstop and things had been way too high to run. Finally there was some relief and the sun was starting to peak through. They had refused to let me take my kayak on the plane because of some silly trade embargo against Costa Rica for the holidays. Even worse than that my flight was delayed three hours so the car rental place was closed. They were nice enough to leave a note though, so that was cool. There was some Costa Rican sleeping behind the rental car counter, I asked him if he had my car, he told me to sleep in the next car rental booth over in Spanish. I followed a very attractive Australian woman I had met on the plane to a local hostel. Apparently she was going to Costa Rica to do conservation work with Sea turtles. Once at the hostel I tried to get a room with her which the woman at the counter found quite amusing. She put me in a room with some scuba diver from London who apparently also followed another attractive woman from the airport on sea turtle conservation work. Man what a racket, get all these attractive woman to do conservation work and lure unsuspecting Gringos into your hostel. Me and the limey stayed up late into the night talking then finally crashed out.

Seeing the conditions of the roads and the lack of road names and directions I decided to skip the rental car option and set off to try to catch a bus to Turriabla. I spent about 15 minutes trying to get a taxi and none of them stopped. Finally some weird dude in a totally crappy blue truck stopped and asked me where I wanted to go. He already had another passenger with him and so cargo in the bed so I figured, what the heck. He didn’t speak any English so it was a pain. I told him I wanted to go to the Turrialba bus station and he wanted to drive me all the way to Turriabla (for a mere $50! …. not). The truck was kind of beat and the door only opened from the outside, the guy had obviously been drinking alcohol and every once in a while when the engine sounded like it was going to die he would hit the cigarette lighter. Bad regulator I’d guess and his battery was probably getting fried from continual overcharging. After driving around in circles for a while in San Jose and asking about 10 ‘real’ taxi drivers where the bus station was we finally made it. I was thankful and paid him and tried to catch the bus. Only problem was I had no Colones and it was Saturday so all the banks were closed. Although the bus ticket was only about $2 I had only American dollars and 2 credit cards that I have yet to get work in any atm in any country other than the US. I tried a couple of ATMs for fun just to see if I could navigate the menus in Spanish but no money. Finally I found some dude with a shotgun standing outside of what appeared to be an open bank. They were very polite folks, changed my money and I was off to Turrialba.

People in Costa Rica are very friendly but most of them don’t speak any English at all. At first you tend to think that everyone is talking shit about you or trying to rob you blind but after a while you realize that Costa Ricans are some of the nicest, friendliest people around. They definitely give Australians a run for their money … Australians are without a doubt the friendliest people in the world. There are a few key things to know however. Stealing is socially acceptable and common place in Costa Rica. Anything is fair game, including water bottles, tie downs, and even lengths of small rope. The other thing that happens is special gringo pricing. If you ever think you’re getting overcharged just smile and say “Es la Prica de Gringo?”. To which they will undoubtedly reply “No, no, El prica del Tico”. In my time there luckily I was never overcharged, even by the drunk guy with the crazy blue truck.

Once I hit Turriabla I was quickly given a boat which I had about 2 minutes to outfit and was shuttled off to the Lower Pacari. The Lower Pacari is a 20 mile run which we were going to run as an overnight with an oar rig for support. At the put in I met Jess, a Kiwi safety boater from New Zealand, Alice and Philippe that worked for Jungla. There was two other newlywed guests that were lowly paying customers like myself. It was a fun group and we paddled down the first couple miles of muddy water with pretty big holes. The dialogue went some thing like this

Guide: “Watch out for that big hole on River Right.”
Me: “OK got it, big hole on river right”

Then I would promptly make a beeline for the aforementioned “big hole” to evaluate for myself exactly how big these hole were. Needless to say I got worked a few times and these holes were pretty big, bigger than most anything in NY with the exception being the black at really, really high water. It was reminiscent of Canada’s Ottawa at 11+ ft or the Gatineau only it was bigger and much more continuous. The rivers in Costa Rica change a great deal right after flood season. It was pretty amusing to hear Felipe say “Now Karl, there is a really big hole around the next corner in front of this big waterfall and several people have drown there.” Finally I would solemnly swear not to go into it, we would round the corner and this frightening monstrous hole would be totally gone.

Creekers take note … Everyone in Costa Rica paddles in play boats, there are dozens of ripe class V first descents to be had. The biggest problem is once it rains the roads get washed out and the creeks become inaccessible for a day or two. Costa Rica is the promised land for creeking though, the creeks I saw were big and steep and did not have hardly any trees in them. But I digress…

The campground was amazing, beautiful open air gazebos with nice lawns and beautiful bushes which attracted hundreds of butterflies as well as small hummingbirds. Hiking through the jungle I saw huge iguanas, snakes and some of the most beautiful birds and butterflies I have ever seen. It was truly magical. I think I liked the ants best. There were lots of different kinds and they were everywhere. It was amazing to me to watch them tirelessly toil for the greater good of the community. I thought about how nice humanity would be if every person cold put aside their selfishness and self-servingness and work so hard for the greater good. There was also the most brilliant blue butterflies I had ever seen flying around everywhere. Apparently they were on the endangered species list, but you’d never know with how many I saw on the Paquari.

After everyone ate enough food to explode a pig and consuming enough alcohol to drop the aforementioned pig into a coma everyone crashed out. The next day we followed up the rest of the 20 mile run through beautiful jungles and deep gorges with the occasional indicator that people inhabit these spaces. It was very scenic and I truly believe that no trip to Costa Rica would be complete without a trip down the Lower Paquari, even though the water never got big enough be classified as class V it was solid class III-IV.

That night I slept outside at Jungla and the next day I got on the Pasqua with a great boater named Mario. Mario didn’t talk to much but his river personality was great. We both hooted and hollered the whole way down, crashing though big 5 ft high waves and dodging Greyhound bus sized holes. The Pasqua was a really, really fun class IVish run which was quite continuous for the whole 10 km stretch. There was no shortage of play on this gem. The Riot Superstar I was in developed 2 4 inch cracks around the cockpit rim. This made things a little more complicated because I had to stop frequently to empty water out. Jungla was nice enough to ‘loan’ me another boat so I switched over to using a Wavesport Kinetic for the rest of the trip. I think if Jungla had any clue how many boats I had broken in my sorted paddling career they never would loan me anything. It’s tough to get your hands on a good boat in Costa Rica . Most people paddle XXX and EZ’s probably because those are the easiest to sneak on the airplanes as surfboards. The whole time I was there I only was 1 creekboat, which might have something to do with the lack of creekers in Costa Rica. Everyone there runs class V, even big stuff in the smallest of play boats.

On day 4 Alex, Ryan and I headed over to the Orosi which was the only river that I ran in Costa Rica that we hit at a level that was a little too low. The Orosi was more like a boulder choked NY creek than most of the other huge rivers that we had already done. It was tight and technical. The one significant drop on the run, Dragon Spine did not have enough water to run without subjecting your boat and body to unnecessary abuse. Other than the one big drop (which was less than 10 ft) the rest of the run was fun class IV boogy boating with small 4-5 foot boofs and lots of nice eddies to catch. With a lot more water this run could be considered class V and it was quite fun and very continuous.

Unfortunately I started feeling sick while running the Orosi and by the time we took off I was so sick I could barely carry my boat. We took out at a washed out bridge, it was great fun to watch the huge excavators drive around on the riverbed trying to clean up the mess and creating a foundation for the next bridge to be put up. I should make a note about Costa Rica roads and construction here. In Costa Rica they don’t really build a lot of things to last. For the most part it seems like they throw up bridges and roads wherever they feel like. When the bridge or road washes away they just do their best to rebuild it. People in Costa Rica drive like crack crazed junkies too. 18 wheelers will pass you going up a mountain where there are totally blind curves, People swerve all over the road to try to avoid the humongous s potholes that seem to be everywhere. They often have 2 roads that go to the same place, when one road gets too messed up and becomes impassible they simply close it. They then alternate back and forth closing one of the two roads, whichever is worse, futily trying to repair the other road but never really seem to get ahead. Cars, buses and trucks all tailgate worse than anything I have ever seen anywhere. It’s not uncommon to ride in the back of banana trucks equipped with nothing but a ‘safety sheet’ which is another term for a bed sheet which you throw over your head if you see cops. Worst of all, nobody wears their seatbelts! All this is part of the Costa Rica philosophy which is reflected in one of their common sayings “Pura Vita” or “Pure Life”, Needless to say this is my kind of place.

That night I had a fever and the shakes. I didn’t think I would be well enough to boat, but the next morning I did feel OK so Ryan and I headed up north to Sarapaqui to boat 3 rivers up there as well as the Polo Azul waterfall (35ft). We arrived at Sarapaqui Outdoor center with plenty of daylight left to run the Upper Sarapaqui with a really nice guy named Eric. The Upper Sarapaqui was more big water class III-IV stuff that got pretty big in places. Near the beginning was a rapid called Morning Coffee which had a lot of really big holes. The river started out big and got easier as we went down. It was interesting to hear Eric tell us about how much the river had changed. We had a grand time and got back to the camp which was at the takeout right around dark. The Sarapaqui center was totally different than Jungla or places in Turriabla. It was way lower budget, getting more ‘secondary tourism’ or people who only wanted to pay like $60 and do a 1/2 day of rafting. The center reminded me of the book “The Lost Boys” everyone there was very young and the outfit was basically running without anyone over the age of 18 supervising that I could see. It was fun to mess with the silly tourists, I would talk to them really fast in totally bad Spanish and watch as they looked at me helplessly. It was easy for me to forget that I too was one of these silly clueless gringos, in fact I was worse then them because they probably would tip their guide and all I did was bought them dinner which rarely cost more than $2. That is another thing I should mention to the Costa Rica traveler, there are little Soda’s everywhere where you can sit and eat outside. The food is great and unbelievably cheap. For $2 you can get a soda and a full plate of meat, rice and beans.

On day 6 Ryan and I set off with a boater named Afro to run the Upper Toro. It had rained a lot and not a lot of people had been on the river since it ‘changed’ including our guide. We all agreed before hand to go slow and scout stuff. It’s funny that most of the roads in Costa Rica totally suck except for the roads that are made by the power companies which are pristine and well-built. The put-in was at one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. If you take away the power house it would have been a lush valley with several 100+ ft unrunnable waterfalls pouring into a deep canyon with dark red river rocks littering the bottom. The dam was releasing one turbine worth of water and up above the release there was some really nice 10-20 ft class V drops in a boulder garden. I went to go scout it to run it in the Kinetic, but Afro went Costa Rica azy with his whistle after about 10 minutes so I didn’t see much. What I did see was enough to give any full-blooded creeker a total hard on, there was lots of drops and it looked like the further up you hike the more there is to creek. I boated a few small drops then we started off down the river. Afro went non-stop for about 1 mile. I got pretty winded then got sideways pinned on a rock on a little class III rapid. Ryan was close behind and got caught on the bow of my boat. He pushed himself off and eddied out while I spend about 2 minutes working pretty hard to pry my boat off the rock. It was a good thing that I got pinned with my head above water. After I got unpinned I signaled to eddy out. We stopped 2 or 3 times on the way down and every time I was thoroughly winded. The volcanic rocks were a beautiful red color as was the water. There was something in the water that was very irritating to the eyes and by the end of the run all three of us looked like we had smoked way to much pot. Our eyes were red and swollen to the point where we could barely keep them open. After about 2 miles of class 5 it got to be easier class IV and III until we hit the takeout at a hot springs resort and spent some time soaking in some beautiful hot coffee colored water. The Upper El Toro was an incredible run and one that is not to be missed by any class V boaters who make it to Costa Rica.

Our plan was to hit the 35 foot waterfall at Polo Azul after the El Toro run but our truck had other ideas. On the way to the put in it started overheating badly and we stopped to wait for it to cool down. We drove it to the local mechanic, and boy were we in for a surprise. We pulled into the garage and there was an older gentlemen asleep in a metal folding chair in the middle of the ‘bay’ asleep with a baseball cap over his face. It was like a scene out of a Quentin Tarintino movie. There was no tools in this shop except for one set of socket wrenches on the table and a small pit in the middle of the bay. The mechanic was pretty friendly and his parrot talked more than he did, but the guy was right on. He knew exactly what the problem and was what I would classify as a ‘class V’ mechanic. He washed off the battery with water with the engine running and stuck his arm all the way down inside the engine and then had Mac turn it on. Hardcore. He worked for about an hour on it flushing the cooling system and pulling the thermostat. Total price for all that work? 2000 colones or about 4 dollars. Unbelievable, next time my car is broke I’m going to drive it down to this guy to fix.

We got to the put in at the Polo Azul about 20 minutes after the sun had gone down and we still had a 15 minute hike. We hiked quickly through the jungle and scout the beautifully spectacular Polo Azul waterfall under cover of night. Both Mac and I had clean runs then we paddled several miles of easy class III to get back to the takeout.

The next day we were supposed to run the Rio Colorado, but couldn’t get a guide and there wasn’t water anyway. Ryan and I headed back to Turriabla to run the Peyubai with a quick stop at the local drug store. I had been pretty sick for the last several days and it was getting to the point where I was wondering what the hell I was doing in a foreign country in unfamiliar territory with an unfamiliar boat running rivers I had never seen with people I had never met while I was so sick that I could barely carry my own boat. There aren’t conventional doctors in Costa Rica, instead people just go to the drugstore, tell the pharmacist how they feel and the pharmacist asks if you want pills or a shot. Pretty cool, and cheap too. The antibiotics made me feel better on the drive to the put in. There we found a bunch of cows grazing in a field. We snuck through the farmer’s field and put in on the river. Apparently its quite common for the locals to charge kayakers for using the put ins whether or not they even own the land. It’s important to carry a dollar or two with you anywhere you put on. Once we put on the Peyubai there was several nice meaty class IVish rapids. There was plenty of water and after a mile or so it let up and was much more class IIIish till we hit the takeout.

The next day I ran the Upper Pacari with Jess, Cynthia and Hoarhey. I did a number on myself at the first rapid when my sun block covered greasy palms slipped and I whacked myself in the face with the end of my paddle blade. Big scar, lots of blood, everything about it was cool except for Hoarhey trying to put tape over the scar to keep the skin together. First couple of rapids were pretty tame then came some class IVish stuff followed by blood hydraulics which was a class V run above Bobo. Bobo was the entrance to Bobo falls which had a nasty hole but could be snuck with a clean 8′ boof on river right.

While we were scouting Blood Hydraulics there was a bit of a problem. I looked at it long and hard and decided to go for it, but the others in the group thought it would be better if I didn’t. It was very frustrating not being able to run blood hydraulics because people wouldn’t set up safety for me. Stuff like that generally does not happen much in NY. I can only think of twice that I’ve ever asked anyone not to run something and when they said they really wanted to I still set up safety. It was difficult to adjust to the attitudes and customs of other cultures. It’s no wonder there is no good creek boaters in Costa Rica when they have that sort of attitude about running hard rapids. The water was big and coffee-colored. I flipped at the end of Bobo and ran the sneak boof on the right with plenty of over-reacting paddlers shouting directions and looking concerned. Another mile of class Vish stuff got thrown at us until we came out of the gorge, then it gorged up a few miles later with bigger holes and a few drops that deserved a class V rating. Cynthia had a swim lower down in a big hole. It was crazy trying to get her and her equipment in the middle of one of the tougher rapids on the river. We had waited for a week or so for the Pacari to drop to a level that was more manageable for a smaller group of boaters. This was defidently the hardest run I ran my entire time in Costa Rica and if you took away the conflict over safety issue at Blood Hydraulics it was one of my favorite.

On my last day I decided to run the Peralta section which flows into the Pasqua which I had already run earlier. I hooked up with Mario and Ryan and Inger did the Shuttle. It was non-stop big water class IV action with tons of monster holes and huge waves. There was many fun rapids like the land of 100 holes and the land of 1000 holes, I remember flipping at “Little Brother” crashing into a 6′ high wave. Once we hit the Pasqua it mellowed out a bit but stayed big water till the takeout. This was probably my favorite run, it was mile after mile of big water continuous fun and excitement, it rarely let up and there was a ton of play to be had. Visitors to Costa Rica should not miss this gem.

At the Airport I got hit up outside for the airport tax which was like $17. I’ve traveled a lot in my day and never have I been harassed for an airport tax. The woman at the ticketing counter made it clear that there was no way that I could leave the country without paying that tax. I had already tried both ATM’s and the bank whose phone line was down. I wrote a check to the American in line behind me and she gave me $20. She had brought too many bags to the airport and so I checked one of her bags under my name, something I probably could not have pulled off in the US with security being the way that it is.

Costa Rica was an interesting place to say the least. The non-touristy places were unbelievably cheap, you can go to the drug stores and buy whatever the hell you want assuming you have the money. Everywhere I looked there was washed out bridges and roads, people all drive like maniacs and no one wears their seat belts  Most septic systems can’t accept toilet paper so there is little garbage cans next to every toilet where you put soiled toilet tissue instead of flushing it. Everywhere you go the bathrooms smell unbelievably bad, the roads are more potholes than asphalt, but people still have remarkably good attitudes. People leave the doors to their homes open and even say hello to you on the street. Inger and Ryan at Jungla kicked ass, all that service and support for a mere $200/day. Man if someone would set up a service that would do all that stuff for you and give you a nice place to stay, I’d be sorely temped to pay them to do it. Logistics are such a pain in the ass. If I wasn’t tied to Upstate NY I would be sorely temped to move down there and work for them. As it goes though I guess I’ll just have to settle for kayaking low volume creeks in below freezing temperatures with other glue crazed boaters. Such is life.

Click here to read the above post on the Awaken Spirit Blog

About Karl:

Karl Gesslein has spent his life in pursuit of everything that life can possibly offer.  His goal is quite simply to have the most incredible experiences he can muster in whatever time has been given to him on this earth. As a homeschooling single dad he has traveled to about 40 countries, many of them with his son. Constant effort is put into trying to figure out how to thrive in what is essentially a toxic environment that humans create for themselves. His strongest beliefs are

– You can heal yourself, in fact your body knows how to and wants to heal itself

– If you have freedom, your health and gratitude you can find joy in this life

– You can do anything if you believe that you can

You can friend him on facebook here and follow his adventures around the globe.

Post photos are owned by the featured author (not the Costa Rica Blog Network). Please contact the featured author directly for permission of use.

Pura vida!

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