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I have always been fascinated by the fact that the rivers in Pangola are all connected to much larger rivers down streams, the Rio Torro merges with the Rio Sarapiqui, which merges with the Rio San Juan and into the Bara Del Colorado that forms a large delta on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. I have taken the trip from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui to Tortuguero in a tourist boat. I have seen the river banks flash by in the comfort of that boat at god knows what kind of speed. I have always wanted to explore the possibility to see if it was an option to offer that trip from Cinco Ceibas Rainforest Reserve & Adventure Park. I have come to the conclusion it’s not.

From Rio Torro to Rio Sarapiqui, to Rio San Juan and finally Bara del Colorado

Many years ago in January of 2009, the same trip was set up for trial with a professional guide who was going to bring the right river equipment. Luck had it, if you want to call it that, that a 6.1 earth quake hit the east side of the Poas Volcano and caused major damage to route 126 from Poasito to Vara Blanca. Sixteen kilometers of road was destroyed, many houses flattened and over thirty people died in either collapsed structures or landslides. The quake cause many landslides that blocked the upper part of the Sarapiqui. The pressure of the water that formed behind the blockage caused by mud, rocks, debris from houses and trees eventually gave way and a five meter wall of mud, mixed with more debris washed out lower parts of the river valley. A bridge in San Miguel was whipped out and taken with the debris down the river. Luck? Yes in hind side, if we where to go onto the rivers the day after, we would have been paddling among a huge debris field full of mud, trees and mangled vegetation. However, the plan was never abandoned.

Finally, the plan got traction again. I contacted several friends who are up to adventure and physically able to manage a trip as proposed and eventually Alan Reynolds, Augustin (Peter) Pieters and myself agreed to go. I invited Dow Williams who is very capable because he camps, climbs mountains free style and is the outdoors kind of guy but he was in the middle of his climbing season and could not go. Jos Schaap, also capable, declined because he is in the middle of setting up a new business and had no time to take off. Lastly, John Passidomo declined after seeing a picture of a huge crocodile basking on the river bank of the Rio Sarapiqui. I put together a schedule and description of the trip, anticipated distances, equipment, and a bit of history. Allan and I had several reviews of the event and Peter was in charge of logistics and contacts.

The Northern Zone of Costa Rica

Several items became immediately clear. Nobody had attempted to do what we were going to do. Jose who works one of the boats of Sarapiqui Adventures had never heard of anyone going down the rivers in kayaks. Maybe the stretch from Rio Sarapiqui to the coast, but from the Rio Torro? Crazy proposal. Other item that was very clear and of concern, once you where on the river, what you brought is what you have, there is no way back. Therefore, preparations where crucial. At Cinco Ceibas the equipment for the kayak tour consists of sit on ocean kayaks either singles or doubles. They have in the front side of the hull a lid that opens a compartment for storage. On the back is a small rack that can support gear also. The weight cannot be too much since that would interfere with the stability of the kayak.

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Peter decided to risk it. Only a few days before the trip he realized he needed a tent. His idea of bringing a sleeping bag that he last used when he was a kid was soon abandoned. A mutual friend decided to loan him a tent and luckily I had a spare sleeping bag. He contributed with a bag of snacks. Nuts, health bars, tuna cans, crackers and juice boxes. The night before we laid out our gear and supplies. Allan brought high-tech toys such as his Ipad with gps tracking and a topographic map he downloaded. Later it turned out that rivers mysteriously disappeared and roads did or did not exist. But it was an awesome tool to see where about we where. He also brought a water proof camera, which was crucial to record our adventure. I brought my camera as well, but due to the wet environment, I never took it out of my dry bag. In hindsight, we all brought too much gear. Clothing, food and water, we could have done with much less. Never needed bug spray until the last night at the coast.

I picked Alan up at the airport in San Jose; his experience with Spirit Airlines caused him to abandon any further thoughts of ever flying with them again. He did use his return ticket. It took him one and a half hours to check in despite the fact that he pre-checked and already had a boarding pass. Apparently people where waiting outside in a long line to check in, many missed flights. Welcome to traveling during holidays in the USA, Memorial Day traffic. He arrived on time, but it took another hour in the Costa Rican system. Here is the real horrendous part of his first impression on arrival in Costa Rica…. First stop: Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, we needed a few last minute items and Wal-Mart was the closed and most convenient stop. Peter needed another last item: wet shoes. In Wal-Mart the employees walk around with an apron that declares: Can I help you? In Spanish: Puedo ayudarle? I did find the shoes he was looking for, but in kid’s sizes. So in my best Spanglish I asked “you have those in adult sizes?” To my surprise: No only for kids. I guess adults in Costa Rica don’t play in wet weather. Luckily for Peter I had a pair of Teva’s at my house. Next stop with Allan, lunch in the mountains. Al’s introduction to beans, rice, beans and rice and beans & rice. And coleslaw. Next stop Cinco Ceibas Rainforest Reserve & Adventure Park, our base from where we would take off the next day. We enjoyed a great dinner at the house with Peter, Jackie and three volunteers. Jesper from Holland, and Macy and Stephani from Austin, Texas. I made a comment: “Our last meal” That was not appreciated by Jackie.  Everyone went to bed early, the next day we would take off.

The weather was off; rainy season was at least three weeks late. The rivers were low and the rafting companies in La Fortuna and Sarapiqui were complaining about the low level of the water. It was hot and dry, plants were yellow and wilting. During our trip Mother Nature decided to play catch up. After a nice breakfast prepared by Jackie, we gathered our bags and headed for the kayak house. Each had their personal gear, a bag of food and eight bottles of water. Each had a dry bag. That was a mistake; everything should have been in dry bags. Juan was waiting with the kayaks and helped load them on the pickup. Off to the Rio Torro on the other side of Pangola, we discussed going onto the Rio Cuarto before and then flow into the Torro, but the water was too low and we would have to climb over many logs with fully packed kayaks.

At the Torro we packed our gear in the front and secured bags under the lid of the compartment. We tied other items to the back. The area that was not fenced to the river was open but steep and impossible to decent with our kayaks so we had to climb over or go under barb wire. The farmer who did that deserves a medal for keeping rats from his fields by using barbed wire. We all made it somehow to the river. Kayaks on the bank, we were ready to go. Peter set the gps, our intent was to record the entire trip. My mind was racing, not from anxiety, but running through the list. Did we have what we needed? On the bank were the pickup and the lonely driver, no farewell party. We took off down the river, totally dry and clean. A few cows stared after us.

At the Rio Toro checking gear, the starting point of the trip

The Rio Torro did have water in it. It was coffee with cream color from rain in the mountains. All the water we would encounter would start on the east side of the Poas Volcano range. It may be totally nice weather in Pangola, but if it rains in the mountains only thirty kilometers away, it will show up in the rivers. The first few tens of meters we used to adjusting gear and get used to the feeling of the kayaks: how to balance, and how to counter weigh it when necessary. All of us had experience with kayaks. Al has one at home and takes it out often in Naples bay. Peter has been on the kayaks at Cinco Ceibas. The first few kilometers were smooth going. The weather was good, and would stay good for most of the day.  Soon the river changed, rapids, fallen trees and other obstacles became a problem.  Mostly we went around it but sometimes it was impossible to avoid.
                                      
Al was the first to flip over.  For some unexplainable reason, Al had a towel wrapped around his neck that he had used to wipe down the seat. As if you were nor going to get wet. In any case when he flipped over among some rapid flowing water, logs and other obstacles he emerged again without the towel. Luckily his glasses were still around, since he had used a set of earplug cords to tie those around his neck. He managed to get back onto the kayak, but it was obvious that some of his gear was wet since the lid of the compartment was not water proof. A quick inspection confirmed a water logged kayak and bags with soaking wet contents. Al, who is very innovative, cut one of the water bottles and used it to get the water out. A day later I would find out that that first roll over caused a bruise the size of a soccer ball on the side of his torso.

Lunch and snacks became a real treat on the river banks. Especially for Peter, who is on some sort of superman training spree and convinced himself that on a daily basis we were burning 1000 calories.  Therefore, an extra can of tuna or sardines is justified.  The first stop for lunch on the Rio Torro was on a rock littered sand bank with a few logs buried in the mud. It was also a great urinal since everyone found a spot to mark his territory. So far the only evidence from other humanity was an occasional muffed sound of a tractor, truck or motorcycle on the road or farm field adjacent to the river. In addition we crossed under two bridges, the only ones during the entire trip. A few houses from some of the towns or farms looked deserted. All in all, we only saw less than a handful of people. Howler monkeys in groups of various sizes stared from the canopy above the river at the kayaks going by. Many cows are still confused as to what came along. Some got spooked and took off. After bridge number two Peter and I speculated how long it would take us to get to the Sarapiqui. I think it’s fair to say that after hours of going over smooth, and at moment’s rough, water we all wanted to get to the end and relax a bit.

Wet but still in good spirits

Al managed to set the record with flipping over three times, Peter two and I one. Peter claims that he liked to roll over on purpose; however it was clear he totally lost it. He also lost his two Dollar sunglasses and a t-shirt.  By this time, all his clothes, tent, sleeping bag and all other gear was soaking wet. Al did not fare much better, most of his stuff was also wet. I managed to make a quick rollover and most of what I had was still dry. Before I flipped over I was convinced that Peter was going to push me over since he felt we were a team and therefore should all suffer the same ordeals.

The termination of the Rio Toro at the merging point of the Sarapiqui where Jose was waiting with his boat

Eventually after many false expectations to see the Sarapiqui after the following curve in the river we made it and saw the mighty flow of the merging rivers. And there was Jose on the guide boat with a fishing pole in his hands and a big smile on his face. All three of us felt an enormous sense of satisfaction that we had made it so far and after over five hours on the river the gratitude was complete. We asked Jose how far down the Sarapiqui the house was where we would camp that night. Only two kilometers down the river on the left bank. Jose’s sense of distance is a bit off since it was over five kilometers. We arrived in the town of Tambor at three in the afternoon after thirty-six kilometers and six hours of kayaking. River tourism with stops along the shore has never been developed on the route we took. For example, the house we stayed at on the river apparently has overnight facilities, but to get there with your equipment from the river is quite an ordeal. The bank is slippery and steep. No steps, all mud. To pull the kayaks up the bank at an angle of more than forty-five degrees is difficult. It’s even more difficult with kayaks loaded with wet gear and water in the hull. But even though we were tired we managed to put everything in the garden.

Unpacking our gear we hanged all the wet clothing on poles around the area. The weather was fair so far, but clouds were moving in. Soon we had to find a dry place to hang them and we were able to hang them on clothes lines under the roof of the house. Setting up camp was next. Here is where you can analyze a person’s character. Peter borrowed a tent and all he had to do was get it out of the bag, throw it and it was up. Al went to an outdoor store and bought a comfortable tent. I bought a cheap single person tent for $ 15.  I wanted to keep my gear at a minimum. I also had a blow up mattress with pillow and a tropical sleeping bag. Peter had absolutely nothing dry, his tent, sleeping bag and all his clothes were wet. Nothing was drying and daytime was fading. Al had similar problems. I was fine except all my clothes were wet also. Soon dinner was ready. We sat in a kitchen and had chicken, rice and beans. I had green tea bags and the lady cooked warm water for me. The food was so-so, but we were hungry and ate most of it. After dinner we walked around a bid, kids were playing soccer at the same time when a guy walked the field with a mower. A pair of scarlet macaws flew over seeking a roosting tree for the night. And soon it was dark; we sat down on a concrete bench and drank some Centenario.  That did not last long, sitting the whole day in one position on a kayak and then on rough concrete bench is no fun. By seven we were all in bed. Except Peter who had to take another stab at my tent and shook it pretending strong winds were blowing it away. Then the dogs started. Growling and barking right next to the tent, I was sure that at any moment they would attack and run off with a few of my toes, but they kept it to meaningless growling. Then some guy with an old pickup came home and proceeded to unload it right next to the tents. It was a long night and rain storms moved in and out. Peter, already wet, also had to deal with water pouring into his tent. He did no sleep a wink. I do not recall what time it was, but a horse decided to join the fun and started snorting next to us. All of us accused the other of snoring, but I know for sure it was a horse because I found the next morning the evidence: one pile of fresh horse poop and the horse in the middle of the road close to the house.  We got up early, so early that we were the first ones in town. Breakfast thee, coffee, watered down sugar with a color, eggs, rice and beans, and some rubber cheese. We gathered all our wet stuff and put it in plastic bags. Jose piled everything onto his boat except our lunch and snacks. We needed to keep our passports handy for the border check. We climbed with our kayaks down the muddy river bank and settled down for another day of adrenaline.

The second day was going to be very rainy

The sky looked ominous, but we were in good spirits and mostly had already wet clothes on anyways so the rain would not make a difference.  According to Jose from Tambor to the Rio San Juan is two kilometers. Of course it was close to four.

The Rio Sarapiqui merging with the Rio San Juan

The weather was dry up to the Nicaraguan border post. We must have been the first to arrive. Some guards were fully dressed others still walked around in their civilian clothes with towels and toiletries. The border check point is located on north east corner of the San Juan and Sarapiqui and this vantage point allows for monitoring all boat traffic on the river.

The Nicaraguan side has no power or road infrastructure. It’s only accessible by boat. Al and I gave our passports to Peter, Peter and Jose went to the guards in military grab holding AK 47’s. Peter swears that the guys took the safeties of their machine guns. Then the storm came in and let loose a serious rain shower. Al and I were getting soaked waiting in our kayaks at the dock. A long boat came in from up the river full with people that looked like deportees going into Nicaragua. Among them one tourist with a video camera. The rest were all wrapped in plastic with life jackets on. The guard let them all go due to the rain; it was obvious that he didn’t want to get wet. Another boat came down, this time from the way we had come, with an old guy and a heavy set lady. They looked like they lived on the little skiff, a pile of what looked like groceries sat in the middle under a black piece of plastic. The guard was not interested in them either. Our party was of interest. Al and I waited enough and soaking wet climbed onto the dock to see what the holdup was. We were convinced that Peter Waiting in the rain at the border was just waiting under the shelter and drinking a cup of Joe with the guards.


When we got under the shelter, we noticed right away that there was something wrong. One guard was filling in a small booklet and was interrogating Peter with questions. Jose was staring at the rain, didn’t want to get involved. It turned out, we did not have the receipts for the kayaks and therefore we cannot prove we are the owners. I don’t think they ever had seen a group of kayakers coming down the river and that may have caused suspicion also, who the hell would go to Tortuguero in a kayak? So, papers had to be filled out and question answered. Several items seemed to be important: these vessels did not have the required

Nicaraguan flags. Who’s the captain of the kayak, where is the registration number on the hull? I think eventually the guard realized the stupidity of those questions also and after completing a full report they let us go. Jose proudly displayed the Nicaraguan flag on his boat.


The weather did not improve, soon it came down in buckets and the wind picked up. At one point we practically did not move. Paddling against rain and wind in a wide open river is no cake walk. We drifted apart; I could see Al and Peter ahead of me in the gray curtain of rain. I remember from my sailing days to find an object in the distance and to keep on going for that, and after that find a new object. I focused on a black spot on the river ahead of me, when I got closer, I could see it was an enormous tree that had stranded on a sand bank in the middle of the river. I beached my kayak and got out to stretch my legs. In the distance Al and Peter were battling the elements; I could see their paddles going in rhythm. I sat down on the log and marveled at the spectrum of nature around me.

Rain and wind
In the distance through the sheets of rain I could see the jungle and once in a while hear howler monkeys bitching about the weather. It’s one of those few moments that you think you are alone on the world. Lonely Planet. Peter and Al faded into the mist and it was time to go. I could have sat on the log for an hour, or hours after hours. It was a magical place. Al and Peter were waiting for me in front of an island piled up with logs and other debris. The rain was still going strong.  Further down in the drizzle of the rain we noticed three pinkish dots in the muted colored landscape. A closer look revealed three beautiful pink spoonbills on a sand bank.

A stop for lunch on a sand bank

Kilometers down the river we had to check in again with the Nicaraguan authorities. This time it seemed much more of a military base. There was also drag equipment from the latest attempt of Mr. Ortega to steal more land from Costa Rica. That dispute was settled in the international court in The Hague a few years ago. But the equipment is still there and will probably sink there eventually.  It looked like it was equipment from the fifties and only a miracle can explain why it was still operational. The guards here were not very friendly, not that the previous ones were, but this was downright hostile. Peter swears again that the safely came off. There was one guard that came down to the river to inspect our papers; he had full military grab on and a cap that hid his eyes.


The kind you read about that when the opportunity presents itself shoots and rapes women and children. Only Peter went ashore to the border control building to show our passports. The guard kept an eye on us with his AK 47 leveled. No pictures were allowed. Not that there was anything highly secretive, but not allowed regardless. Peter practically ran back with the documents, gave it back to us and off we went to the other side. When we were out of ear range, I declared; “that was one nasty mother ******!” No one objected.


On the Costa Rican side across from the Nicaraguan military post, we immediately realized there was something going on when we got closer to the check point. Lots of police and other trucks and several coast guard boats together with lots of security guards and other officials were surrounding the buildings. It turned out that the newly elected president Mr. Solis was paying a visit. When we got to the dock, a policeman glanced at our papers but instructed us to immediately leave. We saw the president walking into the police station with officials and the press behind him.


Two powerful coast guard boats were on standby at the dock. People were taking pictures of us, we must have been quite a sight; three guys soaking wet in dirty clothes on small kayaks just came from the hostile shore. Later we heard that the president pledged four million dollars for border improvements. We were tired from sitting so long in the same position and wanted a cold beer. Some shouting back and forth fixed that problem, five hundred meters down river was a little place that sold beer. We went for it. Another steep river bank slippery and covered in mud was our last obstacle to get a cold Imperial.
I am sure we startled the folks in the Delta Lodge on the Rio San Juan. They had not expected any visitors today. We walked in and a little kid was running around, an old guy, who turned out to be the owner hanged in a rocking chair and watched a blaring forty-two inch TV and a lady who turned out to be the mother of the boy sat on a wooden bench. Chickens ran around at the entry where chicken poop and mud made it impossible to step onto the large white tiles with clean shoes. After introductions, I grabbed four cold ones from the refrigerator. The place was divided in two sections, the front was the enclosed area with the kitchen and the white tiles, the back facing the river, had a wooden deck and a view of the river and Nicaragua. We sat our weary bones down on the hard wooden benches and enjoyed our freedom from the Nica’s and our beer. I never realized that a river can be such a divide between countries. We drank on the land of the free, in this case Costa Rica. I pulled out my guide line to see where we had stranded and Al got out his IPad. All of a sudden we realized that that one cold beer had saved us from a great mistake. This was the place we needed to stop for the night. Beyond was the national park with no facilities. That must have been fatigue. We paddled from seven in the morning until one in the afternoon and did thirty-one kilometers. Mostly in very bad weather.
We inquired for rooms and made a deal for a private cabin for each at $ 20 a night. With showers, a toilet and a clean bed. Back down at the river we grabbed our gear and I hanged up all the wet clothing, tens and sleeping bags on lines next to the kitchen. Only through natures miracle poked the sun through the clouds.


Another beer and a warm lunch. Fish, very crispy fish, rice, beans and coleslaw. The TV showed some very corny film from the seventies, bell bottoms and funky hair, that none of us recognized. Peter certainly not since he was the boy on the trip.

Right after lunch it rained again even though the sun was shining so whatever dried on the line was soaking wet again. Nothing would dry on the entire trip. We took the wet stuff back to the cabins and everybody had some resting time. Al read a book; I took a nap and Peter caught up on some emails. He was the only one who had service because of his national phone and the police had a phone tower.  This was the end of the road. From here on there was no more infrastructure, the town of Delta was where it all ended. We all skipped dinner. That lunch was enough.

The cabins were simple, but clean and comfortable. There were four wooden beds with foam, sheets and a pillow and a bath room in the back and balcony up front. Some local kids were playing soccer before the
darkness chased them inside back to that enormous TV. In the privacy of my cabin I endured the onslaught of nature trying to get in. Most were successful. The first group consisting of black beetles found a hole in the screen and poured inside attracted to the light. The second group, consisting of three bats, flew for most of the night acrobatic circles under the ceiling. The most and certainly loudest did not get in, but that was not necessary. The cabins were build on stilts and that was certainly wise, the rain caused flooding all around the buildings and fields. A tremendous diversity of frogs liked that and decided to have an orgy that night, not for a few hours, but the whole night.  I listened and came to the conclusion that there were at least five different frog species involved. While the sound is interesting and pleasing, the volume is not, I did not sleep well that night. The rain did not help either.

The next morning it was fairly clear, the cloud cover was low, but it was dry. Humidity was close to one hundred percent. We gathered for breakfast, eggs, rice and beans. Nicaragua was still at the other side of the river. Again we descended the treacherous slope with our equipment down to the river. We practically skied down. With muddy shoes and wet clothes on we were back on the river at seven.


There was something mystical about this morning, we all realized it was our last day to get to Bara del Colorado, we did not want it to end. We let the river drift us down and take in the scenery, here the river was almost half a kilometer wide, the sun tried but failed to get trough, in the distance was a farm house surrounded by a few large ceiba trees. There was absolutely nobody around. Just the three of us on our kayaks. We took some pictures to memorize the moment. Jose had made a habit of showing up hours later and gave us a head start. I think he also wanted to stay dry as long as he could. We soon started to see the first wild life, spider monkeys, birds, and basilisk lizards. In general the weather had spoiled the chance of seeing wild life, animals and birds do not like to be exposed in heavy rain. At one point Peter and I took a route along the right bank of an island while Al stayed on the left. Mistake: every survival guide always encourages groups to stay together. It took us more than a kilometer along the shore of the island before we merged with the main river again. We saw Al dutifully peddling in the distance ahead of us. Peter and I did hear a large animal in the bushes, we saw more monkeys, a trogon and we scared a caiman into the water.

We had entered the national park, but were amazed to see that the islands were used by what appeared squatters who had cattle, pigs and shacks. Occasionally we would see banana plantations also.  We could hear the surf of the ocean crashing onto the beach in the distance.

Another stop for lunch, so far we had only seen one police boat with what we speculated where illegal’s who were going to get dropped off at the not so friendly Nica military check point. The entire trip we saw less than five boats on the water.
Finally we arrived at the entry to the Tortuguero canal on the right side flowing into the Bara del Colorado. The water was going at a good speed but was clear and dark from the tannin, when it merged it kept the water along the shore clear for at least a kilometer.

Crocodile tracts on the river bank We did not enter the canal; instead we kept going towards the coast. By kayak to Tortuguero was not practical, the first part was against the current and it would have been another thirty kilometers. After a while the river kept on getting bigger and definitely with more volume. There was a patch of low lands across the river full of cattle, on the near side horses and marsh land. We made a stop for a snack on the sand bank. It appeared boats stopped here to dig up sand for construction and concrete mix.  Among the holes were dog prints. A pile of coconuts with chopped off lids was the only indication that humans frequented this area. It was dry, but the sky gave all indications that it was temporarily, humidity was high.

We enjoyed standing up from the torture of sitting on a hard plastic kayaks for three days. The snacks were a welcome break. We picked up the garbage put it away and off we went on our final leg.

Soon we could see the coastal high power lines that come from Limon all the way along the coast. The town of Bara del Colorado is definitely not a tourist attraction.  First building on the south side we encountered was the Silver King Lodge. A lot of aged boating equipment, but beside some guy on the dock who completely ignored us, the place was abandoned. Further along was another non-descript place and soon we passed a boat grave yard with discarded tourist boats. We arrived at the last water front lodge. Lodge is a very grand word for these establishments. A water roach motel is more appropriate.  This last place had a long dock perpendicular to the river. All made from hard wood many years ago. A heavy set old guy sat in a homemade wire rocking chair watching nothing go by the whole day; that is until we showed up. It reminded me of that old song “sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide go away….”

We were kind of dazed by the fact that we made it and debating whether or not we should stay here or load our gear onto Jose’s boat and go to Tortuguero for the night. We gave it a try and talked to the man. He was convinced that his cabins were the nicest and would rent it to us for $ 20 a person, but we would all have to stay in one cabin. I proclaimed that we were not gay and the enthusiasm for the place somehow faded.

We all got out of our kayaks and went for a walk to investigate Bara del Colorado Sur. It consisted of
houses elevated in several states of serious decline. In most jurisdictions these dwellings would have been declared inhabitable, but over here it seemed to be ok. I suspect that most habitants were involved in fishing or some sort of illicit trade. In the middle of “town” was an airstrip. This was put in place years ago to allow the wealthy fisherman access by plane to go for the priced tarpons for which the mouth of the Bara del Colorado is famous. Our inspection of the area was short, basically because there was nothing to see. One curious building at the police station attracted our attention, a concrete building the size of a toilet with a bench inside of it and a gate with a padlock on it.  That was the local jail or holding pen for inmates who would be transferred later to better facilities.  Hilarious… not for the victim, but for the observer. The police was busy loading a boat with bananas, piglets and who knows what else.

It started to rain again and we headed back to the dock. Here we helped Jose to load the kayaks on his boat. We decided to put them across behind the seats and between the engine so we still had a reasonable spot to sit for the hour long trip to Tortuguero. We pulled out the bottle of Centenario and passed it around. We did it: three days and ninety-two kilometers. Our victory round of passing the bottle around became shorted when it became very soon obvious that that the way the kayaks were stored was not going to work since the water disbursed by the hull splashed against the them and cause the boat to flood. So Jose moored the boat on a sandbar and we laid the kayaks between the seats.

I jumped in to push the boat off, but the sandbar was more mud than sand and I sank into the dirt. I had to wash my legs and feet before I clambered back on board. Off we went into the increasingly harder rain and in very uncomfortable positions.


We basically had been wet for three days, that is not uncomfortable in weather that is around twenty-five degrees Celsius, but if you are flying at forty kilometer per hour over the water, in hard rain and only with a thin shirt on, it become cold and miserable.   On top of it, if you have contacts in such as in my case, every drop that hits your eye ball becomes a projectile and starts to hinder your vision. It was a nasty ride, Peter and Al had rain jackets and were relatively comfortable. Half way the canal Jose stopped and I changed positions and sat up front, still in the rain, but at least I could turn my back to it.

Finally Tortuguero showed up around the turn in the canal. This town is a tourist trap; the location is right next to the entrance of the National Park. It’s the third most visited park in Costa Rica. Today however the place was deserted. I had been there before a few times and instructed Jose to go to the dock at the Laguna Beach Hotel. I had talked to representatives of this hotel at the ExpoTur trade show a few days before we took off and told them about our crazy expedition. Dripping like river rats we stumbled into the lobby.

At least Al brought a rain jacket The guy and lady behind the desk did not ask us the usual question if we had reservations. I explained meeting their sales team at the ExpoTur and how we would like to have four rooms. We got rooms with a few dollars off as a courtesy. Everyone grabbed their gear and retreated to the rooms. First hot shower in a long time. I actually stayed under the shower for ten minutes to warm up. Next stop the bar and a cold beer with some of our own snacks since the hotel only serves buffet style breakfast and dinner.

After the beer and snack we ventured off to the beach. Luck had it that the sun tried to get through, it did not manage, but it stayed dry. We walked for about a mile enjoying the rough sea slamming onto the beach. Debris from the rivers was all over the beach, anything from plant material to plastic and glass bottles. The plant debris is fascination. Seeds, logs, bamboo post, roots, coco’s nuts and much more. Peter found an empty liquor bottle from china and a little plastic white ball. I found a bleached out stick that I used as a base ball bat on the round seeds from the palm trees. Had a few good hits, but no match with the pros.

We strolled back, hanged out for a while and waited for the buffet at seven. Dinner was with a small group. There were only a few other guest. The pasta station was by far the favorite, pick out ingredients, give it to the chef, indicate what pasta you want and what sauce and there you go.  It was a short evening, everyone went to bed early.

The next day we wanted to leave early, but the buffet time changed from six to seven for no explainable reason and in addition Jose was charging the boats battery and that needed more time. I had not realized that he had battery problems earlier in the trip and actually borrowed a battery from the Nica’s at the border. The name on the battery proudly proclaimed “Trojan”, I guess in Nicaragua name infringement is no offence. The Trojan did not hold up to its name since it was dead. Finally we took off around eight, back the way we came through the canal and back up the rivers. We made good time, Jose had managed to store the kayaks better and everyone was a little more comfortable. It stayed dry until where the canal entered the river.  Before that we made a stop to pick up some floating water hyacinths for the lake in Pangola. Definitely illegal.

Right after entering the San Juan River, Jose hit a log with his engine. We all saw the log ahead and he swooned around it, so he thought, but a large piece must have been submerged and the prop hit it hard. Within second the engine protested with laud warning signals and the speed dropped to standstill. The engine sputtered, Jose messed with the controls and the prop came to life again, but certainly not as it had felt before. We all knew this was not good. We were in the middle of nowhere with engine problems. Jose carefully pushed the throttle and by some miracle the boat pushed onwards, until a few kilometers further the same warning sound and we were drifting again.  Again the engine started and again we went a bit further, but the times between alarms became shorter until we eventually reach the Costa Rican police station in Delta again.

No problems here, just checking our documents and with the engine protesting we went across up the river to the Nicaraguan military post. Same ceremony, bring passports to the border building have some guy record entry into the country and move on. Problem with moving on was that the engine did not start. We were all standing inside the boat covered in a poncho supplied by Jose in the rain listening to an attempt to start the engine. Jose thought it was the pump, but it could be the battery also, or no gas, or a fucked up prop or all of the above. Al suggested that Jose called for a boat to pick us up from Puerto Viejo. That would take two hours. There was a guy sitting in a long boat next to us and he tried to help out. The motor cap came off and a set of tools showed up. But it was hopeless; engine would start but shut off again. After further debate and a clean lie that we had to catch an airplane, Jose got on the phone and called
his boss. There was not going to be another boat today, instead they would send a car to pick us up. That meant we had to load our gear back onto the kayaks and paddle to the police station at Delta on the Costa Rican side. The border military had retreated into the various buildings, because their duty did not stipulate that they would need to get wet from the relentless rain. I jumped into my kayak and Jose dumped a huge plastic bag full of gear between my legs. I managed to wrap my legs around it and tried to keep the kayak stable. Off I went into the rain and off to Costa Rica. I could not move let alone look back.


I managed to struggle to the other side and finally was able to steer the kayak along the Costa Rican shore down to Delta. I was convinced that Al and Peter were right behind me, but to my surprise they were not, not a sole behind me. I could not see the Nicaraguan side because a sand bank with scrubs obscured my view; I could also not row back against the current of the river. My only choice was to continue to the little lodge we stayed before. When I got there, I could hear the TV blaring from the building. At the same slippery ramp I moored the kayak, pulled the kayak up and pulled out the large bag. I stumbled up the shore and came around the corner, soaking wet, with chickens scattering in all directions, the large bag on my back. I know I startled the family that was watching the enormous TV, a young mother tried to cover her tit and pulled a baby off and the rest simply stared at me. I grinned and tried to explain in my best Spanglish that we had engine troubles and would need to wait here for a car from Puerto Viejo. I think they understood. I dumped my bag, grabbed a cold beer from the colorful refrigerator and walked to the veranda overlooking the San Juan River. No Al, no Peter, no Jose.

However, at my vantage point I could see Jose up the river and it appeared his boat was running again. Maybe we would still go to Puerto Viejo in his boat? I took a few sips of Imperial, saw that Jose’s boat seemed to stall again and all of a sudden saw Al and Peter also with kayaks loaded with gear coming down the river. I saluted them with a toast when they got close to under the veranda; they saluted me with a host of curses. Apparently, I had caused an international border incident by leaving Nicaragua and not checking out. When I took off in the rain, guys in military grab noticed it when I was half way the river and started to shout and yell. I never heard anything, the distance and rain prevented that. According to Peter, I violated several acts and was officially still registered in the Nicaraguan system and now have left the country illegal. Peter was able to reason with them and they were allowed to leave also. Low and behold, Jose showed up soon, with his boat. He was not happy also, the Nica’s got onto his nerves and the engine problems did not help. It’s amazing how a cold beer in the middle of nowhere can relieve stress. We drank to the Land of the Free again, Pura Vida Costa Rica.

Jacin showing off Next, we ordered lunch, Al passed on the crispy fish and ordered pork, Jose, Peter and I ordered the same fish. We felt better to order what we knew than get a surprise. Rice, beans and coleslaw, same routine from two days earlier. Surprisingly Al’s pork was delicious.  Jacin, the little boy in diapers held us company and showed off. Peter apparently kept the little ball he found on the beach and gave it to him. Made his day, he ran around and threw it all over the place. At one point I put the ball in my hand and did the magic trick of guessing which hand the ball was in. Jacin was ecstatic, a new game he was not introduced to yet. It also became clear that the little boy was in charge of keeping the chickens out of the building, his mother called from the kitchen and Jacin ran and chased the chickens out. Most of them did not have feathers around the neck or butt and looked rather beat up.
During lunch Jacin decided that he needed to pee because all of a sudden his penis appeared, he wandered to the door opening and peed outside in the muddy entrance. After lunch we laid down on the hard benches for a nap waiting for the pickup from Puerto Viejo. That was uncomfortable and gave us problems getting up. A group of howler monkeys decided to use the roof of the building as a cross over between trees, but only the leading males made it and the rest stayed where they were. Occasionally the male would call, but eventually gave up and rested in the trees.

Finally passed mid afternoon a mud covered SUV pulled up with a young guy behind the wheel and a Tica with a pillow on her lap next to him. Our rescue car had arrived. The guy introduced himself with a sheepish grin as Anthony and the girl, Peter and I had met before, Kathy from Sarapiqui Adventures. We loaded our gear in a hurry, put Jose on top of it in the back and I in the middle and Al and Peter at the windows. Kathy with her pillow on her lap up front. Nobody knew and asked why she held onto a pillow.

Antonio as it turned out had permission from his boss to use the car to pick us up, he also immediately informed us that he was from Alajuela, had just started two months ago and was still not used to the humidity of the lower Caribbean slope. He gave us all that information within less than two hundred meters before he got the Isuzu stuck in a deep ditch. It was very obvious that he did not know how to drive and it also explained why it took forever to fetch us. He tried to get out and put the car in low gear, but it was immediately clear, we all had to get out and try to push. From the looks of the drivers face it was clear that he was in a situation he had never been in before.

I offered to take his place and in a heartbeat he got out of the driver’s seat. Antonio had managed a perfect job and really got the car in a very difficult situation. I immediately abandoned the reverse tract after all pushed and Peter got covered in mud from the spinning tires.  I told all of them to get out of the way and I would go straight ahead, try to get traction and speed and hopefully get out of the ditch. I managed all of the above except the last part, after twenty meters the SUV slowed down and came to a halt in a steep angle stuck in the mud. No front or rear traction was possible.

We were stuck at the end of the road in the last village tens of kilometers away from any meaningful town. Our only rescue could be the police Toyota trucks we had seen up the river at the police border station. I walked with Anthony under a very dark sky the kilometer to the station for help while Kathy, Jose and Al and Peter waited by the Isuzu. When we got at the police station, police where hanging out in full combat gear, including carbines and bullet proof vest. I speculated, just in case the Nica’s came over the river and tried to raid the beer supply at the restaurant at Delta. We explained our predicament, but that did not stir them into action. When I started talking about soccer and Holanda things changed immediately and what appeared to be the police chief woman gave orders to load up the largest Toyota truck with four strong policemen. A happy Antonio and I jumped in the back with them.

A little bumpy ride on a mud slick road got us to the scene of a tilted SUV with a few hapless soles standing about. The atmosphere in the Toyota was jubilant; finally these guys had something else to do.  The Toyota came to a stop and all got out; miraculously the police had a brand new towing kid. After a few debates the consensus was to pull the SUV from where it had come from. Antony behind the wheel because this should be easy. He just did not get it. The police SUV started to drive off with three guys standing on the back bumper for extra traction. The tow line became tight and with the Toyotas wheels spinning the Isuzu started to move. If only Antonio knew what direction to turn the wheels so the car would jump right out of the ditch, but it took fifty meters before he got it figured out and the SUV was back on the road. Cheers all around. Great picture opportunity with our new friends. I offered them Centenario, but they wanted whisky which we did not have. So much for Costa Rica’s national drink.

Finally back on the road for a two hour jar boning trip to the first asphalt covered road. The truck was covered in mud, but that did not matter. Antonio aimed for every pot hole in second gear and did not ever put the car in third. Why? We will never know, but Peter indicated that it was his boss’s car and he did not want to abuse it. Kathy still holding her pillow, in the mean time wanted to test the audio/video system. First she had some Caribbean hip hop garbage on and I politely asked her if she could put on some music. She got the message and dug up a video. She loaded it into a fancy dashboard system and turned it on. The road made the video skip and although it was an improvement the plan was soon abandoned because the skipping made it impossible to listen to. She found some station that played English music and we settled on that.

Soon bladders objected and a pee stop in front of a relative fancy house took place. No house except for a few dilapidated farm buildings for kilometers in any direction and Peter decides to pee in front of the only decent house. After many more kilometers we finally hit asphalt. A long route along endless Chiquita bananas got us onto the highway to Puerto Viejo.

We went through town and on to the dock at the Sarapiqui River where Armando had been waiting for hours with the Cinco Ceibas bus. We would have arrived on the ramp by boat with all our equipment, but now we arrived by car without the kayaks. We all stumbled out of the car, how Jose had survived the harrowing trip folded on the luggage in the back is still a big miracle. He must be a tough cookie. Stretching sore limbs we greeted Armando and said our farewells to Jose, Kathy and Anthony. We piled our bags in the colorful bus and settled down on the benches. Armando skillfully drove the bus through town and everyone turned their heads in wonderment. They had never seen a bus painted by Jackie before. Eventually after another pee stop along a pineapple field we made it to Pangola and Cinco Ceibas Rainforest Reserve & Adventure Park. After three days on the river and one day trying to get back we had completed the loop. After over one hundred and eighty kilometers of pure adventure we were back in one piece. A nice dinner prepared by the ladies in the restaurant awaited us. A fancy dinner that was very welcome to us all and a great reward for what we had endured.

Article Written By: Henk

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