By Misha Troyan, Costa Rica, 2007 -- As soon as I see Jorge I know this won't be a Disneyland jungle ride…
Three day-old beard, expedition sunglasses, fleece jacket, Jorge fits every part the adventure guide. He looks like he has just shrugged off his pack and crampons from an assault on the south face of Everest. But intimidating at first, Jorge is disarmingly friendly, like every other Tico I've met up to this point. He has the easy manner of someone whose hobby is also his job.
As we travel from high on the Cordillera Central down into the Caribbean lowlands en route to picking three other rafters, Jorge shares his knowledge of Costa Rica's history, geography, culture, and economy with us - how Cartago was Costa Rica's first capital before it was destroyed by the still-active volcano Irazu; how banana workers' biggest danger during harvesting is not tarantulas, but snakes hiding in the bunches; and how Jorge's favorite brand of coffee is Café Rey (I now have four pounds of it in my freezer).
Jorge's education only slightly distracts me from the display our driver, Mongo, is putting on at the wheel, a performance that would make NASCAR proud. Our small Toyota minivan whines with the strain of Mongo's enthusiasm (read: tardiness) as we charge up dirt hills with reckless abandon, then shutter and rattle down gravel roads at break-neck speeds. I pay close attention to Jorge's lessons in an attempt to take my mind off the thought that every white-knuckle hairpin turn might be my last.
With a screeching halt, we arrive at our launch point at the Pacuare River. The series of cordilleras that split Costa Rica from northwest to southeast create a watershed, catching the abundant rainfall from the east coast and channeling it into the Caribbean lowlands. As a result, there are several major rivers that drain into the Caribbean Sea, and at roughly 83 miles long, the Pacuare is among the longer of these rivers. While other rivers (Telire, Chirripo, for example) offer rafting as well, they require multi-day carry-ins or helicopter transportation to reach the river. Only Pacuare offers the combination of incredible scenic beauty, adventure and convenient drop-in locations.
Our fate on the river will be left in the hands of the guides from Costa Rica Expeditions, an adventure company based in San Jose, Costa Rica. Founded in 1978, CRE was the first white water rafting company in Costa Rica and continues to set the standard today. While some adventure companies send out as many as 20 rafts at a time, CRE outings are limited to 7 boats per trip in order to assure quality service and safety. It offers one- and two-day excursions through rapids of various degrees of difficulty (from I to IV+ depending on time of year), and a new gourmet trip, where in addition to a white water adventure, rafters are treated to top-notch dining, complete with fine linen and crystal, with quail or lobster served fresh. The guides are all native bilingual Costa Ricans ("Ticos") and average more years of rafting than any other company. (See a detailed itinerary for the Two-Day Pacuare Trip.)
After our safety briefing, we are introduced to the other two guides - Siau, who will be responsible for guiding the raft with our gear down the river (and later dinner), and Alejandro, who will be responsible for guiding us down the river. Jorge will follow us in the safety kayak. I say a silent prayer that Mongo is no longer responsible for anything. The air is warm but not humid and the river water is just cool enough to take an inviting dip. As we drift under towering canopies and canyons walls, Alejandro tells us about the local tribes who live in the area, problems with poaching and deforestation and politics. At times each rafter seems to be lost in thought, scanning the trees for a sloth or howler monkey until our reveries are broken by a waterfall cascading from high off the canyon walls. Occasionally we stop and trek up a small feeder stream to find a pristine swimming hole, the water is a cool and clear escape from the warm air, or a multi-tiered waterfall, inviting us to sit and enjoy it's cool mist.
By late afternoon, we reach our camping site. Perched up on a hillside at a bend in the river, it consists of a dozen one-person tents on platforms bordering a central outdoor dining area. One by one the rafters disperse themselves around the campsite, some hitting the cool showers (with drinkable water) to wash the day's exertion off, others simply slumping down in their tent to relax and reflect on the day.
When Alejandro approaches me and invites me on a hike to a small town nearby, I am initially hesitant. I look at one of the other rafters as he lounges in the shade of his tent, an open book lying flat on his chest that rises and falls with a rhythm of someone fast asleep and yearn for a bit of rest. But then I realize Hey, pal, you're in Costa Rica. Time's a-wastin'. Sleep when you get home. I agree and Alejandro's eyes immediately light up. I lace up my soggy shoes, grab my camera and away we go.
Up! Straight up! This is no scenic hike, it's a commute.
I want to stop, to spy into the trees, look for a story to talk about, but every time I look up, Alejandro has gained thirty feet on me. Sweat begins to pour off my face as we march up through the dense, steamy jungle. I've forgotten to put DEET on before we left and as we muck our way up the soggy, muddy path, I expect to be devoured by mosquitoes. Yet I'm surprised that there are almost no insects at all. In fact I have yet to be bitten by a single mosquito since arriving in Costa Rica (a record which will last another week until I reach the Pacific coast). But as we rise higher, it grows visibly cooler and the jungle around us thins. When I finally catch up with Alijandro, he is staring out over a huge expanse of green rolling hills, partially blanketed with canopy. He has a smile on his face like the proud smile of child showing his parents a hand-drawn picture from school. It is a smile of sheer exhilaration.
"Beautiful," is all he says. All he needs to say. We trudge along a dirt road now, sharing stories with each other when I ask how much longer until we reach the town.
"We're here," he tells me matter of factly. I look around. Aside from a couple of scattered houses in the distance, a cow here and there, I seemed to have missed something.
"Bajo Tigre is a very simple town. Electricity only one year," as he points to a simple power line nailed to the trees. "Pura vida, eh?" he smiles. We continue along the road until we reach two small, single room buildings painted brightly. A hand-painted sign in front reads "Bajo Tigre" and above, "medicianales." Alejandro explains that this is the school and the herb garden in front is the village's natural pharmacy. He explains how this tiny school recently hosted American students for a day as a sort of exchange. He muses on the fact that even though the children didn't speak each other's language, they still enjoyed themselves immensely, especially when they played soccer.
"Who won?" I ask, trying to hide the patriotism in my voice.
He smiles, recognizing it. "Costa Rica always wins."
We wander around for some time while Alejandro occasionally stops to say hello to passing children or to a friend in front of his house. I wonder what it would be like to live in a town like this, to be away from the bustle of cities and color television and email and fast food and rush hour traffic.
Before long, the sun begins to set and it grows cool, so we slosh our way back to the campsite. The breeze has completely died and a delicious smell lingers about the campsite. I wander over to the outdoor kitchen to find Siau and the other guides reclining while a pan full of his "secret sauce" simmers on a stove among several other pots and pans. I catch myself peeking under lids and foils like a kid who can't wait for dinner. If there had been a fridge, I would have head my head buried in it. Siau hands me a beer and shushes me out.
While dinner cooks, I take a refreshingly cool shower during which I refuse to acknowledge what might be lurking at my feet (I would later see a river toad the size of my shoe flopping past my tent). When I emerge, I am amazed to see that candles now illuminate the entire campsite. Everywhere I look, candles cast a soft glow over the darkness - lining footpaths, tents, any available surface that can hold a candle. We sit down at a picnic table complete with silverware, wine glasses and candles, finally enjoying what we've been smelling for the past hour - delicious chicken smothered in Siau's secret sauce (a tomato-based sauce with various herbs and spices), garlic bread, fresh salad and of course, rice and beans, the staple of every Tico meal.
When Jorge fills my glass with red wine, I am caught off-guard. A candlelight dinner with red wine under a full moon is not what one usually expects from a river rafting trip, and judging from the others' reactions, I am not alone in feeling bliss. Our conversation runs from the day's experience on the river and the favorable impression of the camp to constellations and beyond. When full stomachs and red wine begin to tug at our eyelids, we retire to our tents one by one. As I lie in my tent later that night, listening to the hush of the river below, I try to count the different insect sounds I can hear. I get to seven before falling asleep.
The next day on the river makes me realize day one was simply a warm up. We alternate between churning class III and IV rapids and easy stretches of sheer canyon walls with trees rooted in the rocky ledges. As we approach a set of rapids, Alijandro prepares us up for the run, reminding us about commands and safety, before hitting the rapids. After a blur of white water and oars and rocks and whoops, we emerge soaked and smiling, sometimes one rafter lighter than when we started. Between rapids I plop into the deliciously cool water and float down the river like driftwood, staring into the sky. An old footbridge spanning the river passes overhead. A Great White egret. A flock of parakeets.
By that afternoon we are disappointed to hear the approaching sound of traffic. As we round a final bend, Alijandro informs us that we have reached Siquirres, and that beyond lies the Caribbean lowlands and finally, the sea. No more rapids. We have spent two days exploring one of the many aspects of Costa Rica's rugged beauty and as I scramble ashore, I wonder where the current of travel will take me to next.
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