Goodbye Winter, Hello Costa Rica
THE WHITEWATER IS NEARLY nonstop-fun and feisty Class II-III rapids spiced with rock gardens, gnarly holes, and playful surf waves. Exotically pristine, the warm, clear Rio Pejibaye courses through a hilly, emerald-green corridor that is home to ever-elusive jungle cats, monkeys, raccoon-like coatimundis, peccaries, and sloths. Squawking green parrots, crow-sized black-and-yellow oropendulas, and keel-billed toucans whir overhead. No, I’m not in Illinois anymore, I dreamily muse as we float in a pellucid pool between whitewater stretches. It’s a bit jarring to think that just yesterday I was sitting at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, where temperatures were below zero and the windchill factor was minus 21.
This is our first full day in Costa Rica, a tiny, mountainous country half the size of Kentucky, and already our group of five paddlers is of the opinion that a better winter getaway for whitewater boating cannot be found. Our goal was simple when we conjured up this trip a few months ago. Hailing from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois, we wanted-no, needed-to escape the cold, dreary upper Midwest in February for a balmy week of river-running. Costa Rica, positioned near the southernmost end of Central America, seemed the logical destination. Several of us had been there before-to hike, backpack, even sea kayak-and we had been impressed by its environmental diversity. A winter escape to this land of wild and scenic rivers, friendly people, and idyllic tropical climate made perfect sense to this group of whitewater aficionados. Especially when the alternative was to stay home, watch the thermometer plunge, and slip into a numbing state of paddling hibernation.
Our vacation plans were made infinitely easier by a small outfitter called Costa Rica Rios Aventuras (CRRA). Based in Turrialba, a bustling agricultural town in the southeastern mountains of Costa Rica, the business is the brainchild of Ray McLain, a former national marathon and whitewater canoe champion, American Canoe Association Instructor Trainer, and team manager and coach to many top-class young boaters. In 1995, McLain, a retired chemical engineer with Procter & Gamble, left Green Bay, Wisconsin, to establish his dream company just 10 degrees north of the equator.
Ray McLain, founder of Costa Rica Rios Aventuras, died January 23, 2003, after being diagnosed with advanced colon cancer about 17 months previously. He was 65. Read Larry Rice’s obituary here.
Gathering at CRRA’s headquarters the morning after our arrival, we were greeted by our personable and enthusiastic host. Tall and slender, with cropped white hair and bright blue-gray eyes, the 64-year-old McLain explained that within a couple hours’ drive from Turrialba are enough rivers or sections of rivers-from creeks to big stuff-that a person could do a different run each day for two weeks. “It’s really a whitewater boater’s hot spot around here,” he said effusively. “We’ve got warm water and temperate weather in safe, beautiful surroundings.”
Getting geared up for the river couldn’t have been easier. All we had to bring from home was our clothes, cameras, and any items of a personal nature. Everything else-airport pickup, shuttles, guides, accommodations in clean local hotels, tasty meals, and paddling accessories-was supplied. Of course, boats were part of the package, too. From its humble beginnings of only a few watercraft, CRRA’s flotilla has grown to some 60 hardshell kayaks, inflatable kayaks, Shredder catarafts, and open and decked canoes. With just a tinge of pride, Ray noted that “I’m pretty sure we have the most whitewater boats under one roof in all of Central America.”
An outfitted trip’s success or failure, however, particularly in a foreign land, depends more on the quality of its guides than that of the equipment, and in this respect we were extremely fortunate. Don and Bettina George, our co-leaders, were old acquaintances of mine. Both are veteran whitewater instructors who have been teaching at the Nantahala Outdoor Center since 1981, and this was their fourth consecutive winter season working for CRRA. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to be employed and have fun paddling at the same time,” the always upbeat Bettina said. “Not to mention there’s no better way to learn Spanish.”
Ray had left to Don and Bettina the task of custom-designing our paddling itinerary for the next eight days, and when we heard what was in store, we couldn’t have been more pleased. On the agenda were whitewater rivers that would take us from forested mountains to bucolic countryside, from dark jungles to rolling savannas. “With so much variety, there’s guaranteed to be a river run to suit everyone’s taste,” Don had said as we loaded up the four-wheel-drive Chevy Suburban and headed off into the Costa Rican countryside.
UPON COMPLETING OUR DELIGHTFUL first day warm-up run on back-to-back sections of the Rio Pejibaye, we return to the edge of Turrialba, where dinner is waiting for us at Ray’s comfortable ranch-style house. When Ray asks us what kind of paddling day we had, he gets bombarded with superlatives: “Perfect!” “Fantastic!” “Awesome!” “The best ever!”
“Good, that’s what I like to hear,” he says, smiling. “That’s why I’m in this business. Seeing people have fun on the water is my reward.”
Continuing to use Turrialba as a base, we spend the next three days on what is arguably one of the most scenic whitewater rivers in Costa Rica, the Rio Pacuare, which plunges down the Caribbean slope through a series of spectacular canyons. The Pacuare’s four-mile “Top” section isn’t particularly long, but mileage isn’t everything when river-running: the narrow river is packed with a near-continuous gauntlet of technical Class II-III action, perfect for the open-boaters as well as kayakers in our group.
Later that afternoon, after playing the rapids so hard my arms feel like overstretched rubber bands, I can hardly believe that we’ve had this fine river all to ourselves: not one person, no houses, no roads, nothing except a backdrop of mountains and forests draped in mist and clouds, resonating with the songs of birds, the rasping of cicadas, and the insectlike call of poison dart frogs. “Back in the States, this place would be swarming with boaters, and probably dotted with second homes,” I tell Don as we drift between rapids. He nods in agreement. “That sense of solitude is one thing I really like about paddling in Costa Rica,” he replies in his honey-smooth Georgian drawl. “Some people think the Ocoee or Chattooga are whitewater nirvana, but for me this is paradise found.”
The following day finds us below the Top section, on what Ray, during his initial, sometimes confusing, scouting forays, has named the “Upper Upper” section. “It’s a 10-mile stretch with a couple of Class IVs and lots of good solid Class IIIs,” says Bettina, prepping us during the drive over from Turrialba. “This is one of my favorite runs. The gorge is visually stunning, remote and wild.”
Right from the start there are tricky rapids to catch our attention, and they only get better and more frequent as we progress downstream. The river volume, about 500 cfs, is perfect for our purposes-not pushy, but still with plenty of water to make things interesting.