“Buenas Lineas,” says our guide Arnaldo Cespedes. “Good lines.”
We just finished scouting a Class IV rapid called Robin Hood on Costa Rica’s Rio Naranjo and are peeling out of the eddy. The “good” line is left of three rocks marking the entrance, right of the two following holes, and then back left above a lower hole.
“Eddy out at that iguana,” comes his next advice. Sure enough, we catch an eddy just below a creature straight out of Jurassic Park to boat scout the next drop.
Welcome to kayaking in Costa Rica with Amazing Vacations, where your guides will use everything from squirrel monkeys to blue morpho butterflies to describe your “buenas lineas.” And their team has it just as dialed off the river, shuttling you around so you can boat six different rivers in as many days, with cold beers waiting with your shuttle rig at every takeout and staying at beachside hotels and midstream jungle lodges in between.
The beginning of an amazing paddling vacation
After overnighting at the Your House hotel near the airport, we’re met by our driver, Gustavo, the next morning and whisked away to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific. Also on board is our lead guide, Arnaldo, who clues us in on what’s in store on our trip. After a quick mango smoothie stop, which we sip while walking across a bridge to see crocodiles sunbathing on the banks of the Rio Tarcoles below (“Don’t worry,” says Arnaldo, “there won’t be any where we’re going”), we pass through the surf towns of Jaco and Quepos, stopping at a beach overlook with a plaque commemorating the Costa Rican Olympic surf team that competed in Japan. It’s a weird dichotomy: We’re in total surf country, but on our way to run rivers. Only in Costa Rica, I muse, as we continue on.
Passing towering Guanacaste trees, Costa Rica’s national symbol standing sentry over rice fields, soon we arrive at the Hotel Manuel Antonio on a jungle-lined beach. We stroll and swim before the rest of the group arrives, via their own shuttle after a side trip up north at Playa Catalinas.
Our national park visit the next day is a customized option we added on, for good reason; it’s one of the most magical and most visited parks in a country known for them. A short walk takes us to the entrance of Manuel Antonio, where our guide Andre instantly sets up his Swaroski spotting scope on a tripod to point out an amazing array of insects, flora and fauna we would have otherwise missed — from the tiny eye of a tree frog, and, even smaller, their sparkly, waterdrop-like eggs dripping from a vine, to a bat clinging to the underside of a leaf and a snake head protruding branchlike from a vine. Walk five steps and he’s pointing out a Jesus Christ lizard, so named for its ability to run across water.
We also spy plenty of bigger creatures, from Jurassic Park-like iguanas and slovenly two-toed sloths to whiteface monkeys, who, in their black kippah-looking hats, harass tourists and go for backpack zippers. The sloths, we learn, host up to 100 different types of insects in their fur, getting affordable housing in return for cleaning duties. The meddlesome monkeys, meanwhile, are even smart enough to rub themselves with poisonous millipedes to evade predators.
Andre gets most excited when we spot the elusive toucanette, a hard-to-spot smaller toucan. At the end, we’re turned loose at the park’s crown jewel: a trio of quintessential jungle-lined beaches, one ranked one of most beautiful playas in the world. After cooling off with a swim, the rest of the group hikes the trail back to the hotel while Dave and I bypass a “Peligro” sign to take a rock-climbing shortcut back dodging a tidal surge.
After a Costa Rican breakfast we’d get used to — rice, beans, eggs and fried plantains, and goblets of Costa Rican coffee — we head south toward Dominical, packed into the van with fearless Gustavo leading the charge. Stopping by a “paneria” for a to-go (“para llavar”) lunch, we drive over the three rivers we’ll run in the next three days: the Sevegre, Naranjo and Guavo. I peer out the window over the bridges for a glimpse of their character: emerald green and no crocs.
For a side jaunt, we detour up to the “Cataratas Nauyaca,” one of Costa Rica’s best waterfalls. It’s a steep, hour hike to get to the two-tiered bridal veil, but worth every drop of sweat for the avocado plunge pool at the bottom. Arnaldo shows us a secret spot where we can swim behind the veil.
Soon we’re pulling into the quaint beach town of Dominical, where our “official” tour begins. Surrounded by plantations, estuaries, mangroves and marshes, it’s a tranquilo Costa Rican surf town with a chill vibe, where groms rip the shore break and vendors sell art and colorful apparel from booths along a wooden boardwalk below row of palms.
A sunset beer on the beach ushers us to the Fuego Brewery for another before we head back to the hotel and meet the rest of our guides who have just arrived from Turrialba hauling a kayak-filled trailer. Davis is a longtime raft and kayak guide, who, when not guiding, works his family’s cattle farm outside Turrialba. Daniel is a former MMA fighter and Ju-jitsu instructor who will be guiding the raft.
All friends who grew up raft guiding and kayaking on the Pacuare and Reventazon, they’re led by Arnaldo, who started kayaking at age 7, getting up at 4 a.m. to practice rolling in his neighbor’s pool. Former U.S. slalom racer and ex-pat Ray McLain — whose statue graces his hometown whitewater park in Wausau, Wisc. — took Arnaldo under his wing early, such that Arnaldo would get in trouble at school for drawing pictures of rivers and kayaks in class. His early gear left impressions also.
“I remember my stomach getting all itchy from the fiberglass,” Arnaldo says of his early days kayaking. Eventually, he made it onto the Costa Rica National Slalom Team, where he vied for Olympic berths on the World Cup. He’s also competed in world freestyle championships, international extreme slalom events and, regularly, his annual hometown Cacique Extreme race on the Reventazon’s Class V Peralta section. “He’s the best kayaker in Costa Rica,” says his partner at Amazing Vacations Walter Centeno, 36, who was born at the Reventazon takeout near Turrialba. And Walter is no slouch, either; he started kayaking at age 14 and has been guiding rafts for 20 years. Walter might be holding down the fort back in Turrialba, but the entire crew is genuine, friendly, and grotesquely talented.
After introductions, we settle into a traditional casada dinner at the Hotel Diuwak and rest up for our first river: the Sevegre.
Onto the Rivers
After breakfast — rice, beans, scrambled eggs and fresh fruit — we load into the van. Before leaving, four macaws flutter from a nearby Guanacaste tree. They’re red, white and blue here, but green over on the Caribbean side. Chris, a guide here on the Pacific side tagging along to take photos, breaks out his bird call app to try and get them closer.
By now, our group has started earning nicknames, which we discuss on the ride. Karen got harassed by a whiteface in Antonio National Park, so she’s Monkey Karma Karen. Her husband, Mike, who jumped off a swinging bridge into a river pool on our hike back from the falls, is Must Huck Mike. Tres Cuartos Tim earned his from switching his hotel room twice, and Sin Carne Dina is given hers for her veganism. I became Eugenio Peligroso for ignoring the “Danger” sign on our shortcut back to the hotel. And it was Big Water Dave, a friend from Steamboat, who put the trip together, so his stays. (We won’t mention that his wife would soon earn the Bootie Beer Betsy moniker.)
When the narrow, jungle-lined dirt road gets too steep for our van, we pile into the back of the truck for the final bouncy descent to the river, peering over a Jackson Rock Star strapped to the roof.
We arrive at an oasis of a waterway, as green as the banks of the jungle lining it. Play waves seem perfectly sculpted for playboats like the Rock Star I’ll be using. The other paddlers are in an array of kayaks from Amazing Vacation’s arsenal, from Mambas and Burns to Antix’s, Axioms and Karmas. Our lead guide Arnaldo is in a Liquidlogic Mullet, business up front for any rescues he might have to make and party in the low-stern back for executing slalom/squirt pivot turns on any eddyline he chooses. Those who aren’t kayaking tag along in either two inflatable kayaks for the Class III stretch, or hop in a paddle raft piloted by the well-pectoralled Daniel.
We make our way down 8.5 miles of sparkling wave trains, lined with foliage straight out of the Jungle Book. The only thing missing is Mowgli. We see spider monkeys, macaws and more, whenever we can take our eyes off the Class II-III wave trains. Arnold points out a great surf wave for me and then proceeds to launch a big-aired Kick Flip off of it in his Mullet.
As the most popular commercial raft run in the Dominical region for its safe rapids, predictable flows and beautiful scenery, it’s a good barometer for us as well, a chance for Arnaldo and company to assess our skills before we embark on harder runs. While I’m enjoying some upside-down time in my Rock Star, the raft team spies a sloth in a tree.
Halfway down we pull over to another cascading waterfall a short hike up a side creek. As if on cue, a legion of squirrel monkeys greet us before we take turns hanging in a small room behind the veil and getting our backs massaged by the cascading plume. Ho-hum…another back rub from a pristine waterfall.
After driving back to our hotel, where we’ll stay three nights, toucans greet us — macaws in the morning and toucans in the evening. Happy Hour is spent at sunset on the beach again toasting an incredible day. Daniel joins us after a beachside training session for his upcoming Ju-jitsu tournament. There aren’t too many places, I muse, where you can paddle a great whitewater run and then watch the sun set behind shortboarders ripping up shore break waves.
In the morning, Arnaldo hosts a roll lesson in the hotel pool for those who want it (ahem, Betsy). Then, fueled by breakfast and Costa Rican coffee, we’re on the road at 8 a.m. for the Naranjo River (The “Orange,” like our sunrise), which drops steeply from the coastal mountain range above Quepos through a beautiful jungle gorge. En route, Arnaldo weaves a strikingly realistic grasshopper from a blade of grass, a trick he learned as a kid. He also relates a story about getting attacked by bees on a first descent attempt of Turrialba Creek back home. The swarm forced them to drop their kayaks and run a half mile into the creek for cover, while the bees guarded their kayaks whenever they tried to return. “They knew,” he says. “They were waiting for us.” After two hours trying to retrieve their boats, eventually they covered themselves with mud to go grab them. “We looked like soldiers,” he says. By the time they got back to the creek, it had dropped too low to paddle and his partner, Julio, was throwing up from his bites. And it ended up being a different river than the one they even set out to do. Still, we place our trust in him for the Naranjo.
At the put-in, where, as if on cue, squirrel monkeys swing from the palms above, Daniel tells me that he memorizes guests’ names by associating them with a wild animal — of which there are plenty in Costa Rica. I don’t ask which one he’s using for me or my wife.
With the river running medium, we put in below the Class V El Choro Gorge, which lessens to III-IV at lower flows. Still, we face a Class IV right off the bat and Mike takes a swim from the IK in the first rapid, banging his knee and scraping his knuckles. It’s a step up from the Sevegre, but the rafters are in more than capable hands with Daniel calling the shots.
“It’s like a tropical Numbers,” Dave says of the Class III-IV classic on Colorado’s Arkansas River.
We scout one rapid, a boulder-strewn Class IV where Arnaldo offers “Buenas lineas”, picking our way down the right and avoiding a hole at the bottom, which Arnaldo kick-flips. Seeing as he doesn’t get mangled, I hop in also for a quick windowshade. Shortly later we catch the iguana eddy.
With lush canyon walls rising straight out of the water, banks overgrown with jungle, we bounce through continuous Class III whitewater before the gradient slackens and we begin passing farmlands and palm plantations. At the take-out, where seven dogs greet us, Gustavo is waiting like clockwork as the guides break out cervezas and a fruit-filled lunch. That night at our sunset beach toasting the day, we get the entertainment of Arnaldo, Chris, Davis and Daniel hopping in their kayaks to get worked by the pounding shore break. Everyone on the beach, even the grom surfers, claps when they emerge drenched, water dripping out their collective noses. “Beat-down,” Arnaldo says afterward, but with a huge smile. “But we saw a huge manta ray soar completely out of the water right behind us.” Now that’s something you don’t see every day after boating.
Class IV to Crashing Ocean Waves: The Rio Guabo
“Today we have a new command for the raft,” Daniel tells his crew at the put-in of the Guabo the next morning. “Makarena.” Then he moves his hands from his face to his stomach and starts gyrating his MMA abs. The “dancing” command is to help get the raft unstuck.
We’re here right after the rainy season but before the dry season, but the river is still low. We’re lucky to be able to run it; it’ll be over in a couple weeks. When he yells “Makarena!,” it’s to get everyone bouncing around like jumping beans to get the raft off a shallow rock.
Indeed, the river is likely flowing about 400 cfs when we put on in an emerald pool as green as the jungle — about the flow of what our Bailey Canyon creek would be back home in Colorado. But it’s a Costa Rican river, so waterfalls help it pick up steam quickly.
As great as the Sevegre and Naranjo are, the Guabo quickly becomes our favorite, growing with our opinion of it as more tributaries enter. If the Naranjo is a Tropical Numbers, this one’s a Tropical Chattooga, we decide. It even has limestone like the Southeast, only, oddly, it often runs parallel to the current, creating narrow, tight-walled corridors you ride through as if at an amusement park. Add the river’s slides, cascades and small drops and you want to get right back in line to run it again.
But it’s not an amusement ride. At an abrupt horizon line comes Las Canoas, the only Class IV+ on the run. Since it’s low and manky, leading directly onto a vertebrae-crunching rock, we portage on the right while Arnaldo and Davis bounce down its side. Daniel, meanwhile, runs the raft off the drop solo, and the last second putting in a Jujitsu-like J-stroke to avoid wrapping on the rock. Later in the run I see him wading knee-deep pulling the raft solo; I doubt too many of his adversaries in this weekend’s tournament are training this way. “It’s good for my grip,” he says later. It must work; he won the last tournament he entered.
Later, we bypass the Gringo Eater hole by taking a sneak on the left. It earned its name on a high-water run when it surfed seven kayakers at once.
When the river finally flattens out, we follow a flock of snowy white herons around bend after bend. They’re joined by ibis and tiger herons that stripe across the sky. Eventually, we paddle under the highway bridge and see the ocean. But not before Karen discovers a boa constrictor on a branch hanging over the water. It had just eaten something, its belly making it look like the snake that swallowed the elephant in The Little Prince.
Soon, we paddle straight into the crashing ocean waves in the town of Dominical, straight from Class III-IV into a saltwater surf sesh. Like clockwork, Gustavo is there with a cooler of iced-down Imperial beers and the van, waiting for us after an ocean surf session. A quick beer and clothing change and he whisks us away, up and over the Talamanca Mountains to the Caribbean side of the country and the world-class Pacuare.
Crossing the Divide
As we crank tunes — Reggae seems oddly appropriate — and climb up the western foothills of the Talamanca Mountains, Arnaldo points out other Class III-IV rivers in the Rio General Valley. But he also talks up what awaits us on the Pacuare. “Nothing against the Sevegre, Naranjo and Guabo,” he says. “They’re incredible rivers. But the Pacuare is the crown jewel.”
With that, we continue ascending, freezing in our flip-flops, an 11,000-foot-high pass and one of the highest road points in the country. It’s known as Cerro de la Muerte or “Mountain of Death” because in the early banana plantation and coffee days it entailed a four-day journey on foot or horseback. Luckily, we have Gustavo.
We stop at a roadside café for a quick snack (“Yippee” cookies for Big Water Dave) before crossing the divide and dropping into the Turrialba Valley.
The Wifi password at the Turrialba Bed & Breakfast is appropriate: “river rafting.” We check in with civilization briefly, then enjoy a beer and the region’s famed Turrialba cheese on its rooftop deck with views of the Turrialba volcano, Costa Rica’s most active, and then beeline to bed. It’d been a long day, running the Guabo surfing ocean waves, and then crossing the Divide.
After a homemade breakfast — flapjacks, with the table’s rotating inner circle delivering butter, syrup, eggs and fresh fruit — we’re back at it, piling into the Gustavo-mobile for a quick tour of the Naturalba Coffee Farm, whose owner is a friend of Arnaldo’s. We learn how beans are grown (they’re ripe for picking once a year when they’re red), husked, dried and roasted (700 degree C. for 12 minutes max). Then we sample, boy do we sample, vats of coffee as fresh as it comes, loading our bags up for Christmas gifts and cupboards back home.
From there it’s onto the crown jewel of the trip: the Pacuare, a name the Cabecar tribe — the largest indigenous group in the country, and one of the few the Spanish never conquered — gave the river, meaning “Little Macaw.” One of their villages is just an hour’s hike away across the river from our put-in.
A pool of deep, green water greets us riverside, matching the bank’s emerald foliage. Cat tracks from an oncilla — one of six felines in the region, including jaguars, puma, jaguarundi, margay and ocelot — texture a nearby sandbar. Gearing up, I relate to the group how on an earlier trip here I helped rescue a sloth we found stranded and half-drowned at the base of a cliff. It was a slow process—not surprising, given the victim, an obviously stunned Folivora —with it latching on with all three toes onto our paddle shaft before we grabbed the scruff of its neck and ferried him to the other side.
But we’ll see whitewater as much as wildlife. The 21-mile stretch drops 1,150 feet in elevation, riddling it with constant Class III-IV rapids (some say there are 52 of them). Combine this with accommodations at a jungle lodge — complete with bar, cabanas and hammock-lined deck — and it’s hard to find a better jungle rafting trip in the world.
Today we run about five miles of constant Class III, following Arnaldo into squirrely eddies where we dare, while the raft team is now a well-oiled machine with Daniel. Soon, a break in the foliage on the left signals the entrance to the Pacuare Outdoor Center (POC), our jungle lodge nestled in the heart of the rainforest. We stash our kayaks and hike 10 minutes up a path to our lodge, an open-walled, palapa-roofed setting right out of a Tarzan movie (in fact, a giant rope swing they call the Tarzan Swing lies just below the lodge). It’s hard to tell the difference between the wilderness and the landscape’s gardens, as they blend with each other perfectly.
Hammocks line the perimeter, low Japanese-style couches flank the middle, while a bar and kitchen command the far side. Far below, the emerald water of the Pacuare courses downstream, viewable from rocking chairs on the deck. From the deck we’ll spy toucans, parrots, orioles and green macaws.
In the afternoon, we hike to a waterfall with a plunge pool, counting a battalion of blue morpho and zebra longwing butterflies glimmering against the cascade (Costa Rica harbors10 percent of the world’s butterfly species). We return to adeckside happy hour of cacique-infused margaritas, a local booze made from sugar cane, before sitting down to a homecooked dinner of chicken, pasta with various sauces, fresh vegetables and more. The guides know their way around a kitchen as well as they do Class IV-V.
Owned by expat paddler and entrepreneur Tom Rainieri, the POC lodge opened in 2013 and sleeps 18 to 25 people in nine individual rooms, each perched on the hillside and offering views of the jungle and river from your bed. Its crowning allure is the main lodge where we hang out playing cacique-fueled guitar (Guitar Mike, not Must Huck Mike, plays in a band back in Colorado) and listening to Daniel’s tales of MMA fighting, surviving testicular cancer and a motorcycle crash that made him lose one of his toes. “It’s why I enjoy being on rivers so much,” he says. Arnaldo adds that Daniel is planning to “go back in the cage” for one more fight. I think the rafters will be in good hands on the Pacuare’s Class IV.
We awake to the sound of toucans. After a breakfast of fresh fruit, banana pancakes, eggs, bacon and rich Costa Rican coffee, we hike down back to the river, leaving our overnight gear with Gustavo to drive a steep dirt road back to the rim. On the water, our kayaks look like the colorful butterflies and flowers at the lodge as we follow Walter, Arnaldo and Davis into the heart of the canyon. It’s a medium level, but remnants of a July flood appear as a bathtub ring in the jungle wall high above.
Cascading in through a backdrop of primordial green, side waterfalls come as quickly as the rapids. We glance upward at them whenever we can take our eyes off the river, whose rapids come one after another, forming the best stretch of Class III-IV in the country.
Today we’ll cover about 14 miles and about 30 separate rapids, many of which — like Terciopelo Snake, Double Drop, Upper and Lower Huacas, and Pinball — come in the famous 5-mile-long Pacuare River Gorge, highlighted by the towering 150-foot Huacas waterfall, whose spray nearly knocks us over in our kayaks.
Soon we reach Dos Montañas Canyon, site of a proposed hydropower dam that got defeated back in the ‘90s thanks to the efforts of local paddlers and other conservationists. Guarded by another Class IV, it funnels the river into a tranquil, deep calm section that genuinely soothes the soul.
From there, we ride a conveyor belt of fast-moving Class II. Soon, we pass under a bridge where families with kids take turns plunging into the water off a makeshift rope swing. Like clockwork, Gustavo is waiting with beers below the bridge in Siquirres, as are a handful of scarlet and green macaws and parakeets. Then we shuttle back to Turrialba and dinner off the lively town square.
The Upper Upper
OK, so maybe they could work on the name; it’s not the most creatively labeled section I’ve ever run. But it is one of the most beautiful, and the name is oddly fitting. It’s located above the Pacuare’s Upper section — a Class V stretch suitable only for experts, which hosted the World Rafting Championships in 2011 — hence the name. It’s a seven-mile run of “creeky” Pacuare, meaning it scores top marks in every category.
Arnaldo, who made a video once of kayaking the 18-mile “headwater” section above on only its fourth descent ever (don’t ask about a teammate’s dislocated shoulder or the “long, long hike to get to the put-in”) hopes to turn a remote house at the put-in into a lodge to offer a multi-day lodge trip on the Pacuare, portaging around the Class V section in the middle. The house is currently owned by a doctor from the U.S. helping the Cabecar tribe, and discussions are going well.
For us, it’s our final and sixth river section is as many days. After our most bouncy and remote shuttle road yet — the stretch is rarely paddled by raft companies because of its access — we near the put-in, stopping at a hanging bridge where we see a ribbon of whitewater up and down the waterway. Arnaldo hops out of the van to grab a lone stalk of sugar cane, which he peels and passes around as an energy boost for the run.
The river here has more water than the Guabo but a similar gradient, meaning the whole thing’s a rapid. Big water Dave likens it this time to a Tropical Ocoee or Gauley.
Its most challenging IV+ rapid is aptly named “Por Donde Me Voy” (“Where do I go?”), a maze of boulders that most opt to easily portage. Arnaldo, Davis and Christoper take turns paddling everyone’s kayaks down, and I follow down a narrow chute on the right that empties into a pool below.
A handful of other Class IVs, interspersed with constant Class III, cap off the run. When we reach the takeout — which you don’t want to miss because below lurks the Class V Upper section— we hike our boats up to the road where Gustavo and lunch are waiting. Sipping beers, while yielding to occasional Cabecar Indians who ride by on horseback, we try to rank the week’s six different runs, but it’s impossible. How do you rank anything better than the Naranjo or Guabo, or even the Pacuare? Or this Upper Upper section that’s perhaps even better?
Unfortunately, this is also where we have to say our goodbyes to Davis, who’s heading home to his family’s farm, and Daniel, who heading to San Jose for his JuJitsu tournament tomorrow (I feel for whoever he draws, even though they likely didn’t guide a raft for a week beforehand). Then we change clothes and hop in the van for our shuttle back to Turrialba for a farewell dinner, complete with Christopher showing photos of the week on a large flatscreen. While the rest of the group overnights, Big Water Dave, Betsy and I catch a shuttle to the airport after dinner to head back to winter in Colorado — where there’ll be no toucans, monkeys, sloths or flowers, only a cold blanket of white. And I doubt I’ll be using any iguanas or butterflies as markers on the slopes.
Info: For week-long kayaking, rafting and other customized trips Costa Rica, visit Amazing Vacations
For trips on the Pacuare, visit Pacuare Outdoor Center
The Brainstorm Behind Amazing Vacations
The idea to launch Amazing Vacations came when company co-founder Jason Tonioli was on a kayaking trip in Costa Rica and overheard Walter, Davis and Arnaldo lamenting that the company they were working for was getting out of the kayak trip business. Fluent in Spanish, he introduced himself, pitching the idea to start a new one. The idea blossomed like the nearby heliconias, and with Walter and Arnaldo running point in Costa Rica and Jason lining up a team in the U.S., Amazing Vacations was born in 2017.
Today, about 40 % of the company’s trips revolve around their passion for kayaking, with the rest incorporating customized options — often including visits to nearby Mt. Arenal and its Siriquipi River as well as an overnight on their beloved Pacuare. Perfect for spouses and families as well (who can ride in duckies or rafts), the kayaking trips include one guide for every four guests, with the main paddling months between September and March, with November the window for runs on the Pacific.
“The kayaking trips are what we truly love as the area is so special for them,” Walter says, adding that they usually start with easy rivers like the Sevegre to gauge the experience of the group.
While they have a fleet of more than 27 kayaks — all top, current models — it’s the guides, says Jason, that make the trips so memorable. “They’re the key to making it work,” he says. “They’re the best in the business and the country. It’s the most important part of the whole operation.”