What do you get when you join a trip with Amazing Vacations Costa Rica, running six rivers in as many days with world-class guides, and a few of your tripmates bring along their Alpacka Gnarwhal packrafts? When it comes to hitting an uber-sweet play wave on the coveted Pacuare River, and the guides decide to give it a whirl, you get what could possibly be the world’s first packraft Kickflip.
That’s what lead guide Arnaldo Cespedes, a former Costa Rica National Slalom Team member, showed, anyways, after we pulled over for lunch on the jungle waterway and surfed a Slater special. Then, after us hardshellers had had our fill, he hopped in one of the Gnarwhal packrafts—the company’s most whitewater-worthy craft, complete with self-bailing floors—and proceeded to rip a series of freestyle moves in front of an audience of macaws, sloths and squirrel monkeys. The piece de resistance, after surfing, spinning and even rolling the craft, was, yes, a kickflip, executed to perfection and even, after practice, staying in the hole.
“I wasn’t expecting how responsive the boat would feel,” said Cespedes, who started kayaking on the Pacuare and Reventazon at age 7, often getting up at 4 a.m. to practice rolling in his neighbor’s pool—and taught by former U.S. slalom racer and ex-pat Ray McLain. “Once I adjusted all the straps I felt pretty snug, so I think that helped make the Kickflip way easier. It wasn’t too much different than doing it in a kayak.”
Indeed, a pry stroke, backside paddle plant on the opposite side and body-contortion-into-a-backdeck-roll position saw him pivot up and over into a perfect packraft kickflip, landing back in the hole to keep surfing. Even the macaws were squawking their approval.
Of course, it took a paddler of Arnaldo’s caliber to pull off the move. A fromer member of 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, his hometown Cacique 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. “It doesn’t surprise me that he could pull it off.”
Cespedes also put it through its paces later in the trip on the Upper, Upper section of the Pacuare, a Class III run the rest of the packrafters handled with aplomb punctuated by a harder, Class IV+/V rapid called Which Way Do I Go? He ran it perfectly, providing an inkling of what the craft is capable of. “I think the boat can run even harder whitewater and would be perfect for some of the runs we do here that require lighter packing and hiking in through the jungle to access more remote river sections,” he says. “Pura Vida!”
On our trip, we had a ragtag mixture of boaters from the Pacific Northwest (the packrafters) and Colorado. Beauty of it is that if you have significant others that aren’t into paddling their own craft, they can hop in with world-class guides like Arnaldo and Daniel and raft down right alongside you. In our group we had three pack rafters, three whitewater kayakers, four rafters and one go-between (Brian), who tried a bit of everything.
After overnighting in San Jose, we headed south to the surf town of Dominical, by the end of the drive already seeing crocodiles, a sloth, macaws, monkeys and iguanas. Staying in Dominical the next three days we ran the Sevegre, as well as Baru and Guabo, classic Class II-IV runs that let us paddle straight into crashing ocean waves of the Pacific (they were a little bigger than the ones we surfed on the river).
Then we crossed over the Divide to the Caribbean side, spending the night at the Turrialba Bed & breakfast before running a two-day-with eco-lodge-overnight on the world-class Pacuare. It was here where Arnaldo executed his packraft kickflip, which could well be a world’s first. “I don’t know of anyone else who’s been able to pull that off,” says Alpacka’s marketing director Emily Doig. “It just shows what these boats are capable of.”
Watch Packraft Kickflip Here
Read more on the Gnarwhal and Find Specs Here