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February 24, 2010

Pacuare River

Filed under: Costa Rica 2010, Travel — anotherheader @ 1:29 am

Rafting Rio Pacuare

At 6:15 the next morning we stepped through San Jose’s muggy warm morning air into one of Costa Rica’s ubiquitous small white buses with a yellow “Turismo” sign affixed on the side.  The bus had come to the hotel to take us to our next adventure.  With a small portion of our baggage alongside, we were off for a two-day rafting trip down Rio Pacuare (pronounced pah-KWAH-ray).

Four hours after the bus picked us up at the hotel, we were at the rafting put-in.  The Pacuare River, featuring Class III and IV rapids, is considered by some to be the world’s best jungle rafting experience.  At the put-in, it was hard to tell.  The green-blue, not quite warm river water flowed gently through a forest that was regenerating after being harvested not so long ago.

Once on the raft, we passed gentle Class II and III rapids made easier by the low waters of Costa Rica’s dry season.  An hour on the river and forest was now primary.  High-canopied jungle surrounded us.  Intense iridescent blue flashes of the impossibly large and fast-moving Blue Morpho butterflies (Mariposas Morfo Azul in Spanish) confirmed that we were indeed no longer in Kansas.

It was not long, about an hour and a half, before the guide’s calls directed the raft into an eddy.  We were at the Pacuare Lodge, our home for the night.

The Pacuare Lodge’s complex consists of a large open hewn-log main building surrounded by several support structures and numerous small casitas that function as rooms for the guests.  With lacquered tropical wood and comfortable overstuffed chairs, the lodge could be part of a tropical resort anywhere.  But the lodge is not just anywhere.  The Pacuare lodge is very remote and difficult to access.  Completely off the grid, Pacuare Lodge meets even a stringent interpretation of eco-friendly.  Food, propane, and basic supplies are brought to the lodge by river raft or by a sketchy back road. The minimal electrical power used by the resort is generated by a private hydroelectric power plant on a small stream up the hill from the grounds.

Time to get wet

At the Pacuare Lodge, eco-friendly does not mean that the accommodations are basic.  Each casita is well appointed and comfortable even without any electrical power.  The screened-in cabins are lit at night by candles.  There is no heat or air-conditioning.  It was not needed.  Inside the rooms, the temperatures were comfortable day and night.  With the open-air design, the sounds of the river and the jungle continuously rolled through the room.  Gentle, humid breezes pushed the sweet fresh smells of the jungle past our bed and created an atmosphere that is powerfully relaxing.  We didn’t miss the modern conveniences at the lodge.  OK, we did miss having hot water.  The solar water heater on the roof of our casita was not up for the challenge.  Fortunately, cold showers in warm climates are almost bearable.

A jungle frog found on the trails near the Pacuare Lodge

Meals at the lodge were also good.  A far cry from dehydrated cardboard camp food, we ate pretty much as well as we would in Costa Rica.  There was even a well-stocked wine cellar at the lodge where a decent bottle for the evening’s meal could be found.

The lodge is staffed by a fixed crew and by the raft guides who matched their stays to those of their rafting clients.  Word got out amongst the river crews that Becky was a former raft guide and C2 racer.  With the guides, her canoe racing past made her a minor celebrity.  Perhaps her eminence amongst the river runners was several steps away from reaching the long extension ladder of fame.  But it seemed like it meant much, much more to Becky.  Personally, I’m just hoping that it won’t be long before she stops referring to herself in the third person.

Multiple day stays at the Pacuare Lodge are possible.  It would not take long in this peaceful environment to reach the protozoan level of relaxation.  For us, though, the next morning we were back in the rafts and once again heading down the Pacuare.

A waterfall sprinkles Rio Pacuare in the Dos Mantanas gorge

Below the lodge, the river builds with Class III and IV rapids.  With the low water conditions during our visit, the river was boney and required tight maneuvers to get through the rocks.  The low river flow also meant that the rapids were mellower.  On the riverbanks, it was easy to see how much higher the water level reached during the wet season.  When it rains, the Pacuare must rock and roll in a turbulent flow of big whitewater.  “Beck” has already put a Pacuare wet season return visit marker on our travel agenda.

Our casita at Pacuare Lodge

“Beck says that we must return when the water is high,” the ex-raft guide formally known as Becky insisted.

I knew just enough to merely nod my head.

The low water flow of the river was less of an issue as the river moved through two steep-walled gorges.  Here the Pacuare rafting experience becomes unforgettable.  The near vertical walls of the river’s channel are draped in lush primary jungle foliage.  Frequent small streams plunge a hundred feet or so down the near vertical basaltic riverside cliffs producing waterfalls that often terminate directly in the river.  The river water, the gorge, the waterfalls, and the vegetation create a scene that would have looked surreal in a Hollywood adventure movie.  Is rafting the Pacuare part of the Tico’s pura vida?  If I knew exactly what pura vida meant to the Costa Ricans, maybe I could say.  I can say, however, that the Pacuare River was my favorite river rafting experience ever.

It took over five hours on the river to reach the raft take out.  A shuttle bus ride put us back at our San Jose hotel after six.

Air paddling

We had missed the big event in San Jose and, in fact, the country.  Celebrated with the party like fervor similar to soccer celebrations around the world—flags, honking horns, and all–the elections in Costa Rica are a big event.  Costa Rica has a high literacy rate, 94.9%, and a high proportion, just short of 70%, of the eligible voters in the 2010 election voted.  This year, Costa Rica elected a woman, Laura Chinchilla.  Laura was a very popular candidate.  I don’t know much about her politics, except that she is firm and honest.  At least that’s what the numerous billboards expounded.  “Laura—Firme y Honesta” is imprinted on my brain.  Repetition is the key to re-education.

Heliconia blooms on the Pacuare Lodge grounds

At the hotel we met Knobs in time for dinner.  Somehow, Knobs had made it past Costa Rican immigration and customs authorities.  Tomorrow we would all head out in search of an active volcano.  I’m just hoping that “Beck” is less well admired by the volcano gods.

The Pacuare Lodge:

More Pictures:



  1. Looks like a blast!

    Comment by Greg — March 1, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

  2. Looks wonderful! I expected to see a pic with Becky in the guide’s position!!
    I think I would like this trip….

    Comment by Gail — March 9, 2010 @ 4:50 am

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