Mike and I move over to the Caribbean coast, past the grimy Puerto Limón and into the small town of Puerto Viejo. All throughout Central America the cities on the Caribbean coast have had a very gritty, seedy feel with abundant poverty and run down buildings. Puerto Viejo is certainly no exception. There are many English speaking locals here who are keen to sell us all manner of drugs and services we don’t want to know about. We camp at the massive “Rocking J’s” hostel, which has a bizarre feel and we soon refer to it as a ‘backpacker resort’. It’s in a huge fenced compound with a private beach, bar & restaurant and even has signs warning that it’s not safe to venture outside the compound.
Rain comes down in torrents hour after hour and word filters down that the only highway south to Panama has been washed out, so we spend a couple of extra days here, constantly struggling to fit in with the vibe.
On our way down to the border at Sixaoloa / Guabito banana fields stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see.
The line up waiting at a washed out bridge
The actual border is a huge old one lane bridge spanning an enormous river. It really doesn’t look in good enough condition to drive over, though the big trucks are having no problems. On the Costa Rica side we fill out another tourist card, get an exit stamp in our passports and I hand over the paperwork for the Jeep all in about 5 minutes.
Driving over the bridge is kind of a challenge because it’s very narrow and crammed with people walking in both directions carrying their worldly possessions. Every time a person wants to go in the opposing direction I have to stop so they can squeeze by without worry. Immediately in Panama I am directed to park literally in the middle of the road and pay $4 for the usual fumigation. The guy is so intent on doing a good job he sprays a small can inside the Jeep and says not to go in there for ten minutes, making me feel a bit uneasy.
I grab an entrance stamp for myself before getting the Jeep inspected by a military guy who pokes around for a long time, and seems somewhat disappointed when he doesn’t find anything. I walk down a little way and purchase a months worth of mandatory insurance for $15 USD. The guy behind the counter thinks he’s on a winner when he says it’s $30, not realizing I can read the sign in Spanish that clearly says it’s $15.
Questioning everything is becoming a way of life.
Back at customs I exchange copies of the Jeep documents for an official looking piece of paper allowing entry for one month. I have a good look over the form and am satisfied it’s correct before we drive off into country number ten after a very easy border crossing.
We make our way around the north side of Lake Arenal, a beautiful windy drive along the lush green shoreline with Volcán Arenal looming in the distance. At first I don’t think it’s all that impressive, but as we get closer and closer I retract that statement. The town of La Fortuna sits just a few kilometers from the volcano and was decimated in 1968 during a major eruption. To this day red hot lava flows down the side of the mountain, creating some spectacular views. Everything in town is very touristy and expensive, including $60 volcano tours and $90 (!) hot spring resorts.
As soon as Mike hears mention of white water his eyes light up like a crazy man and we quickly find ourselves at Costa Rica Descents, clearly the best outfit in town. The guys are really friendly and down to earth and give us a couple of different options. We can go part-way up the best river in town for a day of class II and III rapids paddling kayaks, or we can jump in a raft to tackle the class IV and V rapids further upstream. We’re really torn on what to do here and finally decide that piloting our own craft is the way to go. Mike has a solid season under his belt and is confident in a small play kayak. I’ve done a lot of flat water paddling in canoes and kayaks, but very little white water and am less confident about the small kayaks. The guides recommend a “ducky”, which is an inflatable kayak they describe as somewhere between a raft and a kayak or a one man raft.
Dan and his trusty little boat
We pile into a mini-bus and set out for the river, nervous and excited at the same time. A couple of other tourists are along and they’ll be in a raft with a guide while two other guides will run safety in kayaks, along with Mike and I. We arrive at the put-in and get a quick briefing on what we should and shouldn’t be doing. I’m told my little craft will treat me fine as long as I keep it straight through the rapids and don’t wrap it around any rocks.
Keep it straight. No Rocks. Sounds simple enough.
Keeping it straight
The water level is controlled by a dam far upstream so we wait around for half an hour for the water level to rise, though I get the feeling it’s just to build the tension in the air. Mike and I opt to walk around the first rapid which doesn’t look very friendly at all and play around for ten minutes in a calmer area getting the hang of things. Our guides are pros, and Mike looks pretty confident in his little kayak, making me feel like the absolute novice in the group.
Mike crusing along
Setting out the guide shouts one final instruction – “Stay close to me, and go exactly where I do.” I’m full of adrenaline and I move into the first set of rapids and very quickly get the hang of things. I learn my little craft can scrape over and bounce off rocks just like a raft. I also learn it can’t maneuver and move across the river like a kayak. In the third set of class III rapids the guide in front of me skillfully moves from river right to left to avoid a series of shallow rocks. Despite my best attempt I find myself going straight down the middle of them and making things up as I go along. I feel amazing when I move along full steam and spot rocks, holes and obstructions and avoid them, all the while grinning like an idiot and paddling my little heart out. Of course I can’t keep it up forever and get stuck right in the middle of some big water & rocks, which turns out not to be a big deal when I wriggle my way off again.
Stoked on that one
We continue in this fashion for what feels like hours, threading around rocks and riding the biggest wave trains the river has to offer. Each one is a new challenge and it’s amazingly exhilarating to be completely in control of my own craft. At the top of a big set our guide laughs hysterically and instructs us – “There’s a huge hole at the bottom of this one – hit it as hard as you can!”. Following instructions yields the desired result as my craft and I almost completely submerge and I just manage to stay right side up and paddle out.
Hitting the hole dead-on as instructed
The only incident of the day comes when Mike grabs the raft during a brief rest break. He’s upstream of it and the current grabs his kayak and pulls him under in a split second. The water is shallow and the raft is literally on top of him, so he can’t roll right side up, causing those in the raft to run around frantically trying to help. He ends up pulling his deck and going for a swim, thankfully only his pride a little dented.
Paddling hard to stay straight
The river mellows a little and moves from mostly III’s to mostly II’s and we have some really fun wave trains to attack and play around in. Our guides also relax a lot and after some encouragement are soon surfing standing waves and trying to spin 360′s off rocks. At the take-out they cut up a watermelon and a couple of the best pineapples I’ve ever had in my life and we eat them right there on the side of the river. They also let it slip they were expecting both of us to swim multiple times, so we’re both bursting with pride at our performance.
Mike looking serious
This is the first time I’ve been in control of my own white water craft and needless to say I’m completely hooked and can’t wait to get out again. The guys at Costa Rica Descents have paddled all over North and Central America and it really shows – they were amazing and I highly recommend them to anyone in the La Fortuna area.
The river crew with fresh fruit
We finish out the day with a soak in the free hot springs just near Tabacón Resort. There is more hot water here than I’ve ever seen, quite literally a rushing river of it, complete with rapids and natural water slide. This youtube video shows how to find it (easy) and also gives a good idea of just how much hot water there is.
A backpacker I met a week ago confirmed that Rincón de la Vieja National Park in the North of Costa Rica is most definitely worth a visit, and the mention of a natural hot spring is all the encouragement I need. We first make our way to the Las Pailas Sector (entrance), pay the $10 USD entrance fee and set out on an 8km hike to the summit of Rincón de la Vieja, the active volcano. We hike through extremely lush, dense forest for a couple of hours before finally breaking tree-line and starting a steep muddy scramble through small shrubbery. This vegetation also gives way and we find ourselves on a rocky, barren trail with the summit standing tall in front of us.
Hiking up to the peak
A couple of hundred meters further on we find ourselves quite literally on top of the world at 1,916 meters (6,286 ft) and are completely awe-struck by the view. When the clouds part we can see Lake Nicaragua to the North and the Pacific to the West. Close by is the crater of the volcano, which is immense and doesn’t look at all real.
On top of the world at Rincón de la Vieja
We walk a knife-edge trail to the crater rim, and stare in utter disbelief. The first thing to strike us is the color of the water in the crater lake – the strangest milky-white I have ever seen. The next is the far side of the crater wall that has gas loudly hissing out under high pressure from a couple of different places.
It’s hard not to think the earth is alive when confronted with this spectacle on such a grand scale.
From this angle the rock looked like it was floating
There are of course no fences of any kind and while sitting on the rim eating lunch we discuss our chances in the event of even a minor eruption.
Not good, we decide.
The milky-white lake in the crater
A couple of different places list this as one of, if not the, best hikes in Costa Rica and Mike and I throughly agree – the amazing views and alien-like features of the active volcano make this a fantastic hike.
Standing on the edge of the crater
Steam hissing out of the crater on Rincón de la Vieja
Back at the ranger station we take a quick dip in an extremely refreshing swimming hole before setting out on the loop trail, which is full of geothermal activity. We wind our way past all manner of hot springs and steam vents that are bubbling and steaming away in a very aggressive manner. Warning signs say the temperature is between 75°C and 95°C and the couple of places I tentatively test confirm this pretty quickly. The highlight comes in the form of the mud fumaroles, which continuously bubble and gurgle in a very hypnotic manner.
Mesmerising fumarole in the park
Not done for the day, we drive around to the Santa Maria Sector, setup camp for the night for $2 USD and after dinner make the 4km hike to the natural hot springs that are perfect for soaking. The two soaking pools are large, hot, smell very strongly of sulfur and sit beside a beautiful cold stream.
Soaking our weary legs after a huge day of hiking is amazing and we stumble home half asleep a few hours later.
Mike and I make our way up an extremely bumpy gravel road and are surprised to find a large town at Santa Elena / Monteverde. It seems common in Costa Rica for hostels to allow camping for $4-5 a night and we again find a great place with a grassy back yard for us to call home. It’s extremely beautiful and friendly here and along with that comes hordes of tourists. Almost every sign and tour contains the word ‘Eco’, which leaves us wondering exactly what the ecological benefits of an ATV tour are. It’s also much cooler here, in fact I would even use the word ‘cold’ at night, which is a huge relief after the oppressive heat and humidity on the Nicoya.
We’re not too sure how to find the good stuff without paying through the teeth, when we meet Eric, a cool booking agent. He’s just opened up in the same building as the supermarket and is very happy to tell us about a couple of free hikes & activities around town. It’s really refreshing to have someone so down to earth, who is not trying to get every last penny from us and genuinely wants us to enjoy ourselves. He’s as excited are we are and soon we’re bouncing around ready for adventure.
The hiking road to the cloudforest
Armed with our new knowledge we set out to hike into the cloud forest at the only place in the area this can be done for free. It’s a really steep muddy road that I drive up as far as possible before parking and continuing on foot. Even though it’s much cooler here we are soon sweating like crazy as we climb up and up, right into the clouds. The views from the top are said to be spectacular on a clear day, though we can barely see ten meters through the thick fog which doesn’t diminish the beauty. We move on to the second free hike, and find a massive hollow fig tree that Mike climbs into a long way.
View of the cloudforest
The giant Fig tree that Mike climbed into
Before the day is done we make our way out to the San Luis Waterfall, a beautiful 35 minute walk along a river deep in the jungle. The falls themselves are about 90 meters high (300 ft.) and hugely impressive. Swimming below is freezing, and we grin from ear to ear.
The 90 meter San Luis Waterfall
The main attraction in this area is zipline tours, and with Eric’s help we get a deal on the best outfit in town, eXtremo.
With a name like that how could we possibly pass it up?
We are harnessed, helmeted and harnessed again before being given a 5 minute safety talk. We’ll be connected to cables spanning huge distances and leather gloves are our only brakes. If the guide waves frantically, pull down on the cable, we are told. Simple enough.
Before long we are flying from platform to platform, across huge spans at really high speed. It’s amazingly good fun and everyone is really excited. Braking turns out to be pretty simple and soon I have the technique down; come in at suicidal speed and try to burn through my glove in the last meter or two. Adding a look of complete horror on my face terrifies a couple of the guides whose job it is to ‘catch’ me.
Hanging out in the treetops
The guides take a liking to me and tell me the best way to ride the tarzan swing is backwards, so off I step, completely unable to see where I am going.
Mike about to set out on the zipline
Mike coming in on the zipline
The main event of the day is the “superman” cable where we are harnessed in so we are lying down, superman style. Everyone quickly starts humming the theme song and calls of “Superman!” can be heard echoing all around. The guides let me hold my camera on this one, so I take a video of what it looks like while whizzing along. Really, really fun.
The superman zipline
It’s really hard to judge my speed in the video, so I did some quick numbers; The cable is 1080 meters long and I complete the trip in 54 seconds, making for an average speed of 72 km/h (45 mph).