Winter Paddling- Costa Rica

I read Andy’s article about paddling the Shohola in the winter and thought I would share an opposite point of view on the subject of paddling in the winter- Go somewhere warm! Shorts and flip-flops work for me.
This January I paddled in Costa Rica with some friends. I have wanted to do this for a long time but didn’t want to go alone. Chris Scalisi has been raving about how wonderful it is for years. So when Butch and Monica told me they were going this winter, I asked to join them and Cameron and Kerri on their trip.  John Hense also joined us at the last minute. We left NJ in mid-January during one of the many cold waves (it was as low as 4°C the week were gone). It’s a constant 70-80° with moderate humidity in Costa Rica in January. It’s the dry season, so it only rains once in a while rather than all the time. We paddled with Costa Rica Rios, a very reputable outfitter in Turrialba Costa Rica.
I admit I was more than a little nervous about paddling in a strange place, in a different boat, in a country with snakes and bugs, but there really was nothing to fear. The water is warm and clear in January, and the rivers are relatively low since it is the dry season so most of the Class IVs turn into Class IIIs with a lot of rocks.
Our first task was to pick out and outfit a boat from the large selection at Costa Rica Rios. I had selected a Mamba 7.6 as it is somewhat similar to my boat (not so much, but it was a good thought). It fit well and was comfortable. The more adventurous of our group selected play boats for the first day. We headed out to the Paso Marcos section of the headwaters of the Pacuare. Don’t ask me where it is, you get on a dirt road and drive a long way into the wilderness, the road gets worse and worse and finally you are there. We paddled a short section before lunch to warm up. It was labeled Class II, but a bit different than our home rivers. There a lot of rocks and the rapids are nearly continuous with lots of bouncy wave trains. I had a bit of trouble getting used to the boat and didn’t handle it too well. John took a real beating on the second rapid as he bounced his way down a rock garden upside down, finally rolling up at the bottom. It was very beautiful and remote. After lunch, we drove even further on the dirt roads, which got worse and worse as we drove up the mountain. The river may be Class III, but the road was Class V. We had to leave the van behind and all rode in the pick-up truck with the trailer of boats behind us. We got to the end of the road where a small stream crossed the road and the road continued straight up from there. We walked. I was amazed that the pick-up truck actually made it up the hill from there. We were at the put-in for the afternoon run which was called Class III, even further upstream on the Pacuare. Again, the rapids were nearly continuous with lots of rocks. It was challenging and fun, and again very beautiful. We are survived the first day, with only John taking on a few bruises and scrapes. We went back to the B&B, sat in the Jacuzzi and drank beer before dinner. After dinner, we were treated to a dance lesson. I am much better than kayaking than dancing, but after a few beers, who cares?
The second day, the playboaters all switched to river-runners for the Sarapiqui river. It was a long drive, but at least the roads were paved the whole way. The Sarapiqui was also Class III for the first day, and again, shallow and full of rocks. The character of the scenery is a bit different here. The river is wider and the surrounding land flatter and more open, but full of birds and other wildlife. We saw monkeys in the trees and identified lots of different birds on the trip.
A few of us spent a second day on the upper Sarapiqui while the others suffered through an intestinal distress. The boys all started on the Class IV section. Since I am basically a chicken, I opted to start further down and meet them. Big mistake! One guide and I started on a small side creek with no water and bumped and scraped our way down to the meeting place. It made Class IV look like a walk in the park. I’ll know better next time. The rest of the trip was more bouncy Class III. We scouted one drop and I got back in my boat to head down and immediately flipped over while leaving the eddy at the top. Luckily, I rolled right back up and made the line. Definitely not a place I wanted to by upside down. Butch and John were quite relieved to see me come back up as there were no guides left at the top.
The guides were all terrific and very friendly. I especially liked our videographer, Steph. She’s from Canada, an awesome boater and really encouraging and supportive. She really helped me calm my nerves about being in a new place and encouraged me to go for it. I made a special effort to smile every time I saw her out on the bank with the video camera.
We spent the last three days on different sections of the Pacuare, starting on the Upper and ending on the lower, while by-passing the Class V section in between. It was incredibly beautiful, with steep mountains on both sides, waterfalls rushing down to meet us, birds flying, lush greenery everywhere. I got so wrapped up the beauty that sometimes I forgot to look where I was going. We stayed overnight in the jungle camp on the riverbank, just watching the birds and enjoying the view. I found the famous frogs of Costa Rica when I turned on the shower in the morning. They jumped right out of the hot and cold knobs. (It was a very short shower for me).
One of the awesome and special things about paddling in Costa Rica for me was the wilderness and emptiness of the rivers. Most days we were the only boats on the river. On the last day, we probably saw 10 rafts go by. Ten rafts in a whole week! That’s a big change from paddling in the Northeast. The rivers seemed more continuous and had more gradient than I usually paddle. I did have a bit of trouble learning to handle the steep walls and sharp turns. They got me every time. The Mamba turned out to be an ideal boat for this style of river. It was maneuverable, stable and punched holes well. I’d better be careful when I get back in my boat. If I try to punch holes in that one I will spend a lot of time upside down.
Would I go back? Yes, absolutely. It was a great experience and I think I would enjoy it even more the second time as the nervousness that I experienced this time would be gone. I’ll probably spend even more time enjoying the scenery instead of gluing my eyes to the guide in front of me.
Here is a link to the video of our whole trip.
Enjoy and join us next year![vimeo http://vimeo.com/58502158]

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