White Water in La Fortuna
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999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.