Paddling Costa Rica’s Rio Patria
For years the Costa Rican town of Turrialba was a whitewater destination for boaters from around the world. Inside local restaurants, pictures of slalom legends and kayakers line the walls, reminders of the pull the surrounding rivers once had.
Although Turrialba’s exotic reputation remains alive in the photos at local establishments, many in the kayaking community regard the area’s rivers as yesteryear’s adventure. The arrival of expensive outfitters and shuttles looking to capitalize on Turrialba’s popularity has only further solidified the area’s image of providing predictitible, catered adventure.
A trip to run Turrialba’s rivers doesn’t, however, have to follow recent stereotypes. With a do-it-yourself attitude, cheap accommodations (on the floor) can still be found, shuttle drivers can be bargained with, savory local fare can be found for pocket change, and – despite not pioneering the area’s rivers – untamed adventure still lives in the rainforest. I had been in contact with Ben Stookesberry about doing a trip to this region and expected anything but the regular on one of his missions.
Ben and I traveled to Turrialba to meet with Shannon Linanne, who had been living and vacationing in the region for about a month before hand. We had been studying our options and a few conversations with locals helped solidify our plans. Those two continued south after our expedition to run some whitewater in Columbia, too scary for me to follow.
We had paddled for three days on mostly class IV, IV+, and a couple of class V rapids. The beauty of the Upper Pacuare, Upper Rio Orosi, and Pascua of the Reventazon astounded us but left the group hungry for a multi-day with steep drops. Ben, Melissa Newel (a friend from college who was working at Costa Rica Rios), and I decided to seek out a little more remote section of river named the Rio Patria, contained in El Parque Braullio Carrillo. This is literally some of last virgin rain forest left in Central America. After gathering what little beta we could find, we were under the impression that the Rio Patria was approximately 10 miles long, contained some class IV/V rapids and had a one hour long bushwhacking portage.
We contacted our guide, got up at 4 o’clock in the morning, drove for two hours to the trailhead, and continued hiking our heavily loaded boats for four hours on a slippery trail down to the river. With all of our camping gear, food, safety gear, and cameras; each boat maybe weighed in at 70-85 pounds. The hike was difficult; every horsefly in the vicinity immediately took a liking to my gringo flesh. After putting on and beginning our river running it became apparent that the river was a little more challenging than we had planned. Melissa was definitely a class V boater at this point, even though she had little low volume experience. With a watchful eye we helped her navigate down the boulder strewn rapids with plenty of pin potential.
Immediately we knew when we had reached the portage that we had been warned of; the river walls grew upwards and formed a steep canyon. After gorging up, the water careened down a slide, capped by a 10 ft. terminal- looking pour over falls. This was followed by a 20 ft. pour over, with another violent hole below it. Then a ramp led accelerating water over a cascading 70 ft. waterfall. Ben believed this drop would auto-boof a boater into the realm of spinal injury.
We started carrying our boats on river right, bushwhacking through the dense jungle. With a quick look, we believed we could rope our boats from tree to tree and reach the riverbed again without too much trouble. Starting by free rope repelling 20 – 30 feet at a time, tree to tree, we made our way slowly about 100 feet down. With daylight fading our thoughts turned to finishing the decent and worrying about our gear later. Leaving our boats we pushed on, thinking we would find a way downstream to hike back up the next day and retrieve our gear, we kept repelling.
“Real” repelling involves a device and someone else controlling your rate of decent. With time in mind we were using a self-rappelling technique where you wrap your hand around the rope and shimmy down like an elementary school kid in gym class. Melissa went first down to the last tree we could see in the twilight. I had tied one end to a tree and the other end to Melissa’s shoulder strap for some-sort of safety. As she started down her hands faltered on the rope. In some of the most terrible seconds of my life, I heard the rope slipping through her hands and a short scuffling on the cliffside. Unable to help and unsure what really happened I envisioned that her lifejacket, where the rope was attached, had pulled off. “I’m O.K.!” yelled Melissa. Luckily she landed on the last tree before a huge freefall of at least 90 feet onto rocks. Melissa had fallen about 20 vertical feet and landed on a spot that was no bigger than a park bench at the base of the last tree. In disbelief, I tried to relax as I performed the same free hand repel with my white knuckles gripping the rope. At that point I vowed to learn more about climbing gear and purchase some for my next self-support trip.
Darkness descended just after I peeked down the vertical slope from the last tree. There were no more trees to break up our decent. Our other smaller ropes were above us and we needed two ropes to reach the bottom. Anchoring into Melissa’s savior arbol we spent the chilly night without food or water. On about a five foot ledge, that was maybe two feet deep, we waited all night long. We all had some serious rope burn that we enjoyed the rest of the trip. We were tied to one another as we continually shifted into different cramped positions, in a futile attempt to rest.
Our minds were mulling over the chain of events that left us in such an unbelievable position which lasted 11 long hours. Sitting on the side of a vertical face all night, with no sleep, in the rain, taxed my already weary body. Ants decided we were in their path and when light came we all looked like chickenpox had ravaged us in the middle of the night. In the morning, Ben performed an absolutely amazing free climb back to our gear, sending it down to me. I lowered Melissa, on a webbing-rigged harness, using two throw ropes tied together. We then lowered all the gear down to her. Ben and I both performed self-rappels with a belay device that had been stashed the night before, finally reaching the riverbed intact, minus one throw rope.
We started making our way down the river, finding it to be all runnable, but very challenging (some sections dropped at approximately 400 feet per mile). Boating, scouting, portaging, and filming a few drops, took more time than we anticipated. Providing us with constant challenges, the riverbed was choked with boulder gardens, a few sieves, and some un-portagable rapids. El Rio Patria was a mighty adversary worthy of respect. As the light faded away again, we found a sandbar to setup our small shelters. A thin layer covering rocks provided me with no sleep for the second consecutive night. Not being completely prepared, our iodine tablets had been used up and we decided it would be better to drink from the supposedly clean river than dehydrate. Eating cookies, breadn’tuna, a Snickers bar, and some dried plantains was fortunately enough to keep our bodies warm and nourished.
With determination, we continued in the morning by kayaking down an ever-growing flow of whitewater, fed by side streams, which continued to drop at an amazing rate. Melissa rose to the occasion, getting flipped and rolling again and again. Ben’s amazing boat scouting and river running skills proved a true asset. As he worked his way down one rapid he became vertically pinned, quickly exited his boat and got to shore unharmed. After an hour of setting z-drags from different angles the boat was pulled free. Ben and I helped Melissa portage multiple times, and then ran some really challenging rapids in the most gorgeous and remote area I have ever been.
It was so rewarding and amazing when the river finally merged with El Rio Sucio (meaning Dirty). The Sucio appears to have the color of Tang. It comes from an active volcanic area, its orange color coming from its high concentration of iron oxide. We knew that this confluence meant that the takeout was only 30 minutes away. The most welcomed site, after starting to think we would never arrive and that I would miss my flight the following morning. Exhausted and happy to be in one piece we finished our expedition at dusk, three days after our initial walk to the put in.
Diego, our guide, had begun to question our safety after waiting at our takeout without contact for a day and a half past our agreed meeting time . He contacted the government, which decided to mobilize a search and rescue party. This method would have taken days to reach the middle of the jungle area we had been in, but they were organizing when we arrived. Melissa works for Costa Rica Rios Adventures and her friends there had planned a rescue team to kayak down after us in the morning.
At the takeout, we wearily walked up the banks and were bombarded by the media. Feeling like the paparazzi had gotten a hold of us, we were surrounded by three camera crews, five shutters clicking from newspaper reporters and various requests for interviews. Simultaneously we received chastising from the Red Cross, park officials, and the search and rescue party. We were weary and battered, but in ecstasy from the epic journey we had just completed. At a small restaurant we watched ourselves on the national news, eating one of the greatest tasting meals of arroz y pollo ever served. The next day stories on us were featured in four Coasta Rican newspapers.
After being shuttled back to Turrialba (four hours later), packing quickly, sleeping for three hours, and finally getting a ride to the airport, I was on a plane back to my life in Los Estados Unidos. The whole experience seems so surreal now, but looking back I would not have traded it for anything. Physical exhaustion, sleep depravation, flesh eating insects, rope burns, and an aching back all seem to be secondary to the overall feeling of exultation that electrified me. It was an experience that I will never forget and feel fortunate to have had.
We were told later that only a handful of groups had ever been down the Patria, accounting for the lack of local information. It was not a first descent, but an epic one.