Even as Costa Rica's oldest-running rafting outfitter, there's still plenty to discover to offer your guests. That's why I'm motor boating around Panama's Bocas del Toro archipelago with Rafael Gallo of Rios Tropicales. We're scouting out a sea kayak itinerary for a new 10-day combo trip he's unveiling: three days paddling his crown jewel Pacuare river and staying at his eco lodge, followed by four days sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and snorkeling out of the Casa Cayuco eco lodge in Bocas' Bastimento National Marine Park.
Paddling the Pacuare
Rescuing a sloth from your kayak is a slow process—not surprising, given the victim.
That's what we find on Costa Rica's Pacuare River, paddling up to an obviously stunned Folivora at the base of a cliff, clinging to a rock just above a rapid. We extend our paddle, it latches on with all three toes, and then we grab the scruff of its neck like a cat and ferry him over to the other side.
We're lucky we even saw it; most of the time, our eyes are either on the rapids or facing upward toward the countless waterfalls cascading from the sides. Some are massive, like 200-foot Huacas, and some mere trickles, but they're all picturesque ribbons of white threading a backdrop of primordial green.
That, of course, is when you have the time to look at them. The 21-mile stretch drops 1,150 feet to its sea-level takeout in Siquerres, riddling it with Class II-IV rapids. Combine this with its primary rainforest and en route jungle lodge — complete with bar, hammock-lined deck and rooms plumbed via a gravity-fed Pelton wheel — and it's hard to find a better, more accessible jungle rafting trip in the world.
My trip starts with a van ride through Braulio Carrillo National Park and its Turrialba volcano, Costa Rica's most active. The day before, I had mountain biked from 12,600 feet near its summit down to town 11,000 feet below, stopping only for a lunch of veal and a block of the region's famed Turrialba cheese. From there, we descend 1,000 feet into the gorge, passing fence posts sprouting with leaves.
At the bottom is a pool of deep, green water; the river is low and clear, matching the bank's emerald foliage. It also means ample beaches, several of which are littered with cat tracks. It's an oncilla, one of six felines in the region, including jaguars, puma, jaguarundi, margay and ocelot. Adding to the zoo are monkeys, sloths, giant tapir, peccarys and more birds than you can count, from toucans and parrots to orioles and green macaws.
Trailing two rafts in a kayak, I have to keep my eyes on the river. Five miles of rock-dodging rapids brings us to a bend where our lodge straddles a creek — and, yes, waterfall — on the right. To build it, Gallo floated everything from lumber to beds and bar in on rafts, an impressive feat for all its appointments. The rooms, complete with fully plumbed bathrooms, are as romantic as the flower- and waterfall-lined setting, with towels folded into heart shapes atop the beds.
The formula — combining a world-class river trip with eco-conscious lodging — works. Rios has won a host of ecotourism awards, including Trip Advisor's Gold Medal Green Leader Award and National Geographic's Geotourism Award for sustainability. Encouraging guests to plant trees to offset their carbon footprints, to date it's protected 2,000 acres of rainforest while creating the largest private rainforest reserve in the region.
In the afternoon, I hike to waterfall rockslide plunge pool into a deep cauldron above the lodge, swimming in four other emerald green pools en route. At one pool, a battalion of blue morpho and zebra longwing butterflies take flight, glimmering against the cascade (Costa Rica has a whopping 10 percent of the world's butterfly species). Later, I hike across a suspension bridge downstream to swim below another waterfall. The trail is the escape route during rain-fed high water. Other options for your layover day include horseback riding, zip-lining, bird watching, eco-hiking and rappelling through, yes, a waterfall. And, of course, hammocking while watching other rafters and kayakers paddle through the Class III rapid below your front porch.
Two guests return from zip-lining with stories of whisking through the canopy alongside howler monkeys, and a small boa constrictor guarding one of its tree-top stations. Snakes are as common here as shades of green, including the venomous fer de lance, which can have up to 90 babies per year, and viper, which camouflages itself in heliconia flowers. Note to self: Be careful smelling. A guest gets startled by a harmless green vine snake near the porch.
A deckside happy hour of cacique-infused Jungle Juice leads to a dinner of Jungle Chicken with raisins, coconut and macadamia nuts prepared by lodge manager Doña Dina — a local who has 15 children, all the boys but one working here as river guides. Helping serve is Salatier, a Cabecar Indian who lives in a village an hour's hike away. The largest indigenous group in the country, the Cabecar are one of the few Indian tribes the Spanish never conquered.
The next morning, a light rain patters the roof, overriding the sound of toucans. After a breakfast of fresh fruit, banana pancakes and rich Costa Rican coffee, I hop in my kayak and follow guide Diego, clients Curtis and Leeann from Canada, and safety kayaker Walter down the heart of the canyon. The rapids come as quickly as the waterfalls. Wake-up Falls appears around one corner, and 200-foot Huacas the next, both bordered by Class IV rapids.
Shortly later we rescue the sloth. Safely on the opposite bank, he scrambles — scratch that, ambles — into the jungle. We're now official Sloth Rescuers. We paddle on.
At Dos Montañas Gorge, the river narrows to just a few boat widths wide. It was here where Rios Tropicales staged an international rally in 1991 to help defeat a dam that would have drowned the entire canyon — and a dream trip down one of the best jungle rivers in the world.
Scouting Bocas del Toro's Basimento Island
Dave Smith, the owner of the Casa Cayuco eco lodge on the southern end of Basimento Island, meets us dockside in Bocas Town, first visited by Columbus in 1502 during his final voyage to the New World. We'd already taken one over-loaded panga ride from the town of Almirante, after walking across the border bridge into Panama over the Sixaola River, joining pilgrims coming for the Pope's visit to Panama. While surfers motorboat to shore breaks on the Caribbean side, we hop in Dave's boat for the half-hour ride to Basimento, leaving empty ceviche bowls, Balboa beer bottles and the Reggae of the easy-going Caribbean town in our wake.
Passing a maze of low-lying mangrove islands, we arrive at the dock of Casa Cayuco, an off-the-grid eco lodge on the bay side of the island. Its palm-lined beaches are straight out of Survivor … literally. The reality show was filmed just down shore, as were portions of the less-successful show Naked and Dating and MTV's Make or Break.
Thankfully, we're far away from such pretentiousness, which is what Dave and his wife, Suzanne, were seeking when they bought and began fixing up the property in 2013. "We were looking for a place on a beach where you could park boats on a dock," Smith says. "We hit the jackpot without even doing too much research; but I didn’t realize how rare it is to have both."
It's exactly what Gallo was looking for to bookend onto his Pacuare trip to offer a nine-day Caribbean paddling package.
The lodge certainly fits well with Gallo’s lodge on the Pacuare. Completely solar, all its lights are LED, with fans running on 24-volt DC from a radiant dual inverter. The rain-fed water, held in a 20,000-gallon storage tank, is purified, meaning you can drink straight from the faucet. "Thankfully, this area has a healthy mix of both rain and sun," says Smith, "so it's easy to keep it off the grid. We tried to overbuild everything so we don’t have to think about anything or give people any rules."
Much of the lodge is made from nispero — including floors, siding and bar — the sixth-hardest wood in the world. Impervious to termites, it's so heavy it actually sinks. Colorful, multi-layered Panamanian "mola" artwork hangs in the lobby and rustic-yet-elegant rooms, complete with private baths, canopied beds and hammock-lined porches.
I have time for a quick paddleboard along the beach before the dinner conch blows for homemade coconut bread, baked red snapper with lemon caper sauce and baked potatoes with organic swiss chard. For dessert: Mama llenaPanamanian bread pudding with vanilla caramel sauce. An upside-down, wooden cayuco hangs above us as our chandelier.
In the morning, Jose, who grew up on the end of the island, motorboats us out, passing fishermen in low-riding, homemade "cayuco" canoes, to snorkel the Whoville world below an otherwise innocuous mangrove island. Unless you knew, you'd never fathom the life clinging to the roots below, from finger-sticking anemones and stick-like yellowline arrow crabs to sea cucumbers and giant flytrap-like feather dusters that contract upon contact. On the way back, two dolphin leapfrog over each other surfing our wake — another bonus of visiting the country's oldest national marine park.
Later, we boat over to the tandem Zapatillas islands, sea kayaking and paddleboarding off a picturesque palm-lined beach, the breaking waves of the Caribbean on one side, the calm waters of the bay on the other. We take turns paddling between two tiny, rocky islands, each housing a lone palm tree. Jose catches an octopus, which octa-clings to our arms, and we spy green sea turtles lounging on the beach. At sunset, we surf gentle rollers past the dock, while two other guests, Terry and Christine from Nova Scotia, watch us from their candlelight table set up on the dock. Their fare: curried king mackerel and lobster caught by Jose, with mousse made from indigenous chocolate for dessert.
We're up early again, thanks to the shriek of a rednecked woodrail. Before motoring over to Starfish Beach to paddleboard and sea kayak, we take a birdwatch walk with Jose's nephew, Belamere, a strapping 20-something lad fresh from winning the previous night's regional baseball game in the village of Salt Creek. We're following a trail across the island in search of the elusive three-wattled bell bird, whose techno-, high-pitched call resembles the amplified sound of the ring hitting the hook on the dock's ring toss game. We're in luck; we both see it and hear it, the call commanding the respect of the entire jungle.
On the way back, we throw sticks in a pond for a caiman, catch the tail-end of a white-faced monkey swing, and marvel at the handiwork of a golden orb weaver, spider who spins the strongest web in the world — one synthetically emulated to make bulletproof vests.
Toward the end of our hike, we hear something else. It's the whine of a baby sloth, Belamere says. Inside, I wonder if I should go lend it a hand.