words by Mara Kahn
photos by Larry Rice
The explosive, body-tingling roars reverberate up and down the lush river corridor. Instinctively I grip my paddle tighter. Jaguar? Costa Rica's largest carnivore is extremely rare and usually nocturnal, but in this land of startling diverse wildlife, anything seems possible.
Paddling the swift current of the Rio Penas Blancas, my comrades and I maneuver our four tandem canoes around several jungle-lined bends before spotting the source of all this guttural angst. A troop of agitated, lustrous black howler monkeys is jumping about in the highest trees, glaring and grimacing at us through the leaves. You'd have to hang out underwater to hear a louder animal on the planet—only a lovelorn, mate-seeking blue whale puts out more decibels than a defiant howler. As we paddle closer, the stocky, bearded, big-balled alpha male once again sounds the alarm. Unwilling to endure the bellowing crescendo, the eight of us keep moving on this fine, sultry February morning.
It was just yesterday that I arrived at Juan Santamaria International Airport and noticed all the dreadlocked surfer dudes milling around with their flashy, seven-foot fiberglass boards. Ordinarily I'd be tempted to join them, but this time I wasn't in Costa Rica to catch the waves on the sun-baked playas. Or to ride a raft down any of the highland's steep whitewater rivers. Instead, I was headed north into the Caribbean lowlands, a little traveled interior region not far from Nicaragua, an emerald green hinterland of wetlands, rolling sugarcane fields, remnant rainforests, and luxuriant, rarely paddled, quickwater rivers. I was eager to get to know the landscape and experience the deliberate, unhurried intimacy you just can't get stuffed into a bedroom-sized raft with shrieking strangers.
Costa Rica holds bragging rights to endless beaches, fertile valleys, rugged cloud-forested mountains, and more than 100 volcanic cones.
That evening in the hillside suburb of Escazu I met up with my paddling mates for our 11-day, seven-river adventure—a decidedly non-shrieking crew. We were a cozy group of six. Normally, my boyfriend, Larry, and I scout our own rivers, plan our own itineraries and lug our own boats and gear. But early on we realized that finding put-ins and running shuttles would be nearly impossible in this northern backcountry of unmapped, unsigned dirt roads. So we found the consummate outfitter: BattenKill Canoe of Vermont (800-421-5268, battenkill.com), one of only a handful of companies offering canoe trips in this astonishingly varied country. With 12 ecosystems crammed into an area the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica holds bragging rights to not only endless beaches and fertile valleys, but also to coastal plains split by rugged, cloud-forested mountains and rimmed with more than 100 volcanic cones.
We met our guide, Carolyn Parker, a strapping outdoor woman with short-cropped dark hair. Her co-guide Carlos Mairena, a genial Tico with warm brown eyes and a comedic streak, would serve as trip naturalist. Though not required, everyone had some canoeing experience, which would no doubt prove helpful on these moderate-to-quick flatwaters, with random Class II rapids, stray boulders, and six-foot crocodilians tossed in for thrills.
"The only hazard you'll really need to watch for is strainers," Carolyn counseled us, referring to any obstruction in the water which allows the current to pass through. In a nation where the average annual rainfall is 100 inches (with some steep eastern slopes fetching an implausible 25 feet), downpours and floods can tear out copious bankside vegetation, creating these midstream nuisances. Last month's heavy rains had, in fact, done just that, contributing to the current debris load on many of Costa Rica's rivers.
Gazing outside our white-linen restaurant to its peaceful sunlit patio, languorous with purple and pink bougainvillea, I was having trouble envisioning torrential downpours and floating kapok trees, but implicitly trusted our guide's advice.
It's our second day on the Penas Blancas. With the river to ourselves, the group moves smoothly through a narrow tunnel of green upon green upon green. Small waterfalls rush between the exposed roots of towering mahogany trees, emptying into the quick-flowing water. A kaleidoscope of birds flits in and out of the steamy forest: red-rumped tanagers, shimmering violet hummingbirds, yellow-tailed Montezuma oropendolas as long as my arm. Iridescent blue-green swallows perform graceful arabesques above the water while a skeptical-looking green heron silently observes us from his lofty perch.
Paddling closer to one tree to admire its immense white flowers, the blossoms begin to quiver ecstatically, then leap from the branches and fly away. "Cattle egrets," Carlos laughs, but that's far too plain a name for these gregarious small herons, who sport buff chests and spiky orange crests during breeding and delight in hitching rides on bovines or congregating in trees. As if on cue, a sun-cured cowboy in a big-rimmed black hat rides up through a small clearing looking for strays, a reminder that there's trouble even in paradise. Beyond this verdant jungle-lined river lies a sea of pineapple, coffee, and cattle. Even though Costa Rica's national parks and reserves are the envy of the world, the sad truth is that much of the country's unique flora and fauna remain at risk from ongoing deforestation.
Drawn into a calm side eddy, we practice peel-outs and ferries, maneuvers which move a boat across the current to the stream's far side. All eyes are on us as Carolyn asks Larry and me to demo a precise ferry, starting with the boat angled upriver. Solo, I'm not yet very good at this, but as a team Larry and I make all the right moves and sweep cleanly and swiftly across the river.
"Showoff!" I can hear Barry and Irene, a vivacious retired couple from Winnipeg, teasing me. Okay, yeah, but I've got it made—my partner has 25 years experience paddling rivers worldwide. In fact, he's such a pro all I have to do is sit or kneel blissfully in the bow and react to his quick, expert directions. For Barry and Irene, however, this is their first river outing. Though they've shared many happily married years canoeing the lakes of backwoods Manitoba, a twisting stream with a vigorous current and unexpected obstructions presents a new challenge.
Leaving the safe haven of our eddy, the eight of us venture downstream. "Keel-billed Toucan!" Carlos cries out as the brilliantly plumed, 20-inch-long bird glides by with folded wings. The toucan's rainbow-streaked beak makes it instantly recognizable, a banana-shaped proboscis so colossal it looks totally fake, like it's been fastened with black tape onto the avian's small green face. Gawking at this surreal creature, we give scarce thought to the half-submerged tree ahead on the right. Larry and I manage to skirt it, then turn to keep an eye on Irene and Barry pulling up the rear. They're having trouble avoiding the outermost branch and catch its edge, upsetting the boat's balance. That's when Barry does what's most instinctive to novices, the worst possible thing to do: He grabs an overhanging bough to try to stabilize, and over he and Irene go.
The water is warm and both Canadians are proficient swimmers, but the shoreline here is a jumble of overhanging vegetation. The water is deep, and the current is pushy, propelling Barry right into a nasty strainer—a 20-foot wide tangly mess of logs and brush stretched halfway across the river's breadth. Grabbing a thick limb, Barry shouts above the hissing river. "Which way should I move?" He's at risk of being trapped beneath the debris by the whooshing current—it's a potentially fatal situation.
Within moments Carolyn arrives on the scene, fiercely stroking her boat upstream. She's alone in her tandem, having unloaded Barbara, her canoe-partner, downriver. By now Irene's managed to swim into shallow water and her concern shifts to her hubby. "I'm okay," Barry shouts to his anxious mate, then pauses. "For now."
Cool and calm, Carolyn directs Barry to start moving to shore. Slowly, tentatively, he negotiates his hands across the chaos of branches, logs, and snarled brush. Suddenly, with a dull sound, the huge strainer shifts. Quickly beaching her boat, Carolyn wades upriver, thigh-deep, and throws Barry a perfectly aimed, perfectly timed rope. Carolyn is built like an Olympic disc thrower, but even with all her power and my added pull, it takes considerable effort to haul Barry in against the flow. Finally back on shore, he laughs in relief with the rest of us, kisses his thoroughly soaked wife, and apologizes with a heartfelt sigh for his very first capsize in 36 years.
“that's why we keep coming to Costa Rica, to witness this unfolding extravaganza—here where the wild creatures still put on a dazzling show and where intimate, tree-lined streams are waiting to be paddled.”
Parboiled into serenity at the nearby Tabacon Hot Springs, we're feeling festive and relaxed that night in the packed, open-air restaurant in the rural town of La Fortuna. The eight of us crowd around a long wooden table, joined by our shy Tico driver, Luis. Smooth-moving, raven-haired waiters in crisp white shirts glide between tables, while we happily devour filete de pescado, fresh fish with hearts of palm, empanadas, turnovers stuffed with rice and garlic chicken, and platano, fried sweet plantain. Barry shares a bottle of warm, mellow Chilean wine in gratitude for today's rescue, which now seems like a most excellent adventure. The dining room's enormous open-pit grill spits out fiery flames while the nearby volcano Arenal begins to hiss and sputter. Glowing like an incandescent ruby in the dark, its cratered dome looms just four miles away from our laugh-filled, lighthearted table.
The countryside buzzes with excitement all around our white mini-van, topped with our candy-red canoes. With the Rios Fortuna, Arenal, and Penas Blancas under our belts, it's time to head to more isolated country, northeast toward Nicaragua. Incessantly honking trucks, their flatbeds crammed with shouting Ticos, urgently pass us on the narrow twisty roads. Smiling children on horseback wave brightly colored banners, and in the villages flags flutter everywhere, green and white striped, canary yellow and red. Turns out we've hit upon Costa Rica's national election day, a once-every-four-years event in this democratic oasis of peace and stability. Oscar Arias, former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has a razor-thin edge in an extremely contentious race. What concerns Larry though is Carlos's disclosure that in order to cut down on drunken political brawls, cerveza is not available on election day. Anywhere.
Wine, however, is inexplicably permitted, and flows freely at our comfortable jungle lodge in the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, one of the world's finest remaining Mesoamerican wetlands. We arrive late afternoon, just in time to spot our first Great Green Macaw after a long bumpy ride over dusty roads. The following morning, jazzed on potent Costa Rican coffee, we walk down a muddy path for our 7 a.m. departure. Even before launching on the Rio Frio, which winds through the heart of this remote refuge, we sense this place is different. Largely unaltered by humans, Cano Negro pulses to the rhythms of the seasons. And with the rainy season just passed, its ephemeral lakes and wetlands have surged. The wide river before us is heavy and swollen. No other humans are in sight, and for the entire day we'll have this enticing riparian corridor to ourselves.
Paired off, we greet the muddy Frio with pleasure, confident in our paddling skills after five days of negotiating twisting streams, ledge drops, and well-paced currents. With the sun still hidden, we paddle past tall, elegant trees, their umbrella-like crowns rising out of the thick canopy. One of them is alive with the commotion of flapping wings and the rapid-fire calls of klok-klok-klok.
"It's a bird party!" Carlos exclaims, half-rising in his canoe to see. The frenzied mob turns out to be great-tailed grackles and the tree is the kapok, called ceiba by indigenous people. Fittingly, Caribbean islanders used its soft, straight wood to fashion sturdy canoes. And for the Mayans it was the Tree of Life, its roots extending into the underworld and its sacred branches, where the newly dead climbed, leading the way to heaven.
Why bother? You can't get much more heavenly than this succulent wild garden. Rainy Oregon has its version of green; Louisiana, Florida and Mexico have theirs; but Costa Rica is green beyond words. The intricate shapes and shades of the surrounding forest are more intense than anything I've ever witnessed, as if each chlorophyll-crammed leaf were emitting its own light.
Moment by moment, from out of the morning mist, new winged species emerge, swoop, dive, and wade: Amazon kingfishers, tropical king birds, oropendolas, ospreys, cormorants, northern jacanas, striped cuckoos, yellow-throated euphonias, great egrets. And who knew there were so many herons? Boat-billed, yellow-crowned, fasciated tiger, tri-colored, chestnut-bellied. Tossing in the swallow-tailed kite and roseate spoonbill we observed on our drive here, plus two laughing falcons mating mid-air ("fornication on the fly" Barbara quipped), we are gloating about our avian count—until Carlos chimes in, "Yes, and only 804 more species to go!"
It's true. None of us can even remotely comprehend Costa Rica's staggering biological richness. Comprising a mere .01 percent of the world's land mass, it boasts 5 percent of its known plant and animal species, more than Europe or even North America, and new species are constantly being discovered.
Unthreatened by our serenely moving boats, the teeming wildlife shows up this morning to entertain us. Sulphur butterflies light up the forest's edge with their orange-yellow glow. Broad-winged anhingas, christened "snake birds" for their pliable U-turn necks, crisscross the murky Frio, and big-headed green iguanas by the hundreds sunbathe on overhanging branches, nearly landing in our canoes as they splash nervously into the river at our approach. Jesus Christ lizards hydroplane across the Frio to get out of our way, literally jogging on water, while electric blue morpho butterflies the size of saucers flit about drowsily in the growing heat.
"Caimans ahead!" I shout as two crocodilians, a good six feet from tip to snout, leap-slide into the water with explosive speed and power. Moments later their huge periscope eyes emerge, glowing golden, checking us out. Along the Frio's wide turns, three of Costa Rica's four primate species appear in quick succession: more blaring howlers, smaller white-faced capuchins, and, smaller still, spider monkeys, the supreme acrobats of the jungle. A hundred feet above us, a dozen spiders are putting on an aerial display so spectacular it would put the Cirque du Soleil to shame. One by one the skinny, russet-backed monkeys leap boldly through the open air, like long-tailed kites catching the wind. What's next? We half expect to see one of those elusive jaguars or pumas, recorded in relatively high numbers here.
Pausing beneath the welcome shade of a banyan tree, we flip over one canoe and place it atop two others for our impromptu lunch table. The usual delectable spread follows, accompanied by juicy plump mangos and papayas, and fresh coconut water straight up from its original container. The talk gradually turns toward our destinations in the days ahead, the Rios Tres Amigos, Toro, and Sarapiqui, and whether the current political mood will permit us to venture by motorized dugout canoe onto the broad San Juan, the border river between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
All good conversation, but gradually I disappear into the surrounding thicket for some rare time alone. I don't have to walk far to find what I'm looking for. Crouching down, I watch them by the tens of thousands, line-dancing across the red dirt forest floor, marching through detritus, up and over fallen branches. They are leaf-cutter ants, and the rounded, chewed-off bits of leaves and petals they carry in their jaws look like bright green and pink parasols. It's a colossal, purposeful, exquisitely choreographed community effort, and I can't help but think what we humans might accomplish with equal determination.
Returning riverside through the emerald maze of vegetation, I suddenly realize what that other fragrance is, the one I couldn't identify on our rainforest hike. It's the earth itself exhaling, the green breath of life. Into this tiny place—this cramped narrow bridge of tectonic plates, volcanic eruptions and relentless evolution—our fertile, turning, transforming planet puts forth a bewildering profusion of life. And that's why we keep coming to Costa Rica, to witness this unfolding extravaganza—here where the wild creatures still put on a dazzling show and where intimate, tree-lined streams are waiting to be paddled.
Mara Kahn writes from Buena Vista, Colorado. Her last assignment for C&K took her to the Big Woods of Arkansas in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker.