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
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.
If you need to find out about a Naples real estate agent you can contact the Naples Area Board Of Realtors for more information.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.
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.
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
The termination of the Rio Toro at the merging point of the Sarapiqui where Jose was waiting with his boat
The second day was going to be very rainy
The Rio Sarapiqui merging with the Rio San Juan
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
We all got out of our kayaks and went for a walk to investigate Bara del Colorado Sur. It consisted of
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.
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.
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.
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.
Article Written By: Henk
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