After three months of escaping to the beach, we decided to try something a little more adventurous this weekend! My Lonely Planet guide listed the Sarapiqui Valley as one of the top destinations for white-water rafting and kayaking, and it is a mere two-hour bus ride from San Jose. So we packed our bags and caught a bus straight after work on Friday.
This meant that we arrived in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui at around 8 p.m. We then took a local bus to La Virgen, a town that was close to the river and had a promising-looking hostel that we had researched online. We weren’t exactly sure where to get off the bus, but we were very happy with ourselves for being so adventurous and we were sure that we could figure it out.
When we saw signs of civilization (I use this term loosely to mean a grocery store and a bank), we got off the bus and tried to find our bearings. Our hostel was nowhere in sight and the people we asked for directions pointed us in different directions. Mercifully, a young guy took pity on us and walked us to our hostel… which was desolate. Literally. There were no lights on and no people around. So our new friend Omar, in between chatting with us in Spanish, called us a cab to bring us to some accommodations that might be open. After nervously waiting on the side of the dark country road for 15 minutes, I was regretting our decision to travel off the beaten path. I longed to return to tourist-strewn beaches. But our cab finally turned up and Omar rode with us to Cabinas/Bar El Rio.
Our luxury accomodations
The Cabinas El Rio are a bunch of weird, triangular cottages that line the road to Bar El Rio, which is a bar on stilts located high above the Rio Sarapiqui. We forked over 10 000 colones (about $20) to stay the night. The inside was clean, but kind of looked like the motel in Psycho… so that was comforting. Omar chatted with us for a long time (he was clearly starved for new company in this tiny little town), so we grabbed his Facebook info and said goodbye. We put down our bags, tried to connect to non-existent Wi-Fi and turn on the non-functioning TV. We were too scared to venture out again and find food, so we split a bag of Goldfish crackers. We resigned ourselves to talking for the rest of the evening and vowed to find a nicer place to stay the next day.
In the morning, we looked up how we could go white-water rafting in my Lonely Planet guide. We headed down the road to Hacienda Pozo Azul, an expensive resort and tour company. We booked the next white-water rafting trip and settled in to breakfast at their restaurant. We were worried that it might be expensive, but we were too hungry to care. Turns out, a luxurious spread of orange juice, coffee, a fruit plate, eggs, gallo pinto, toast, ham and cheese was only 3000 colones (or about $6), so we were pretty pumped.
We took a seat on their deck that overlooks that Rio Sarapiqui, as well as a bunch of bushes teeming with hummingbirds, to eat our traditional Costa Rican breakfast—Lauren even tried the gallo pinto this time, but we agreed that rice and beans for breakfast is a little odd.
View of Rio Sarapiqui from Pozo Azul’s restaurant
Our tour was supposed to start at 11:30 a.m. so we had a little extra time after breakfast that we spent looking at the horses, playing with stray puppies (they’re everywhere!) and exploring the resort’s small butterfly garden. Lauren opted out of this last bit since she’s kind of freaked out by butterflies. I don’t get it either…
Apparently the rafting tours run on Costa Rican time because it was 12:30 p.m. by the time we left, but that did not dull our excitement. We volunteered to go in Luis’s raft along with two other twenty-something girls, and mercifully no children. I eagerly sat in the front of the boat, and Luis quickly went over the commands that we needed to know and we were on our way. He was a little too soft-spoken to be heard over the roaring rapids which was terrifying as we surged through the class four rapids (that’s class four out of five, by the way), but he was cheerful and seemed to know what he was doing. Halfway through the trip, Luis asked me to switch places with Lauren. I thought this was to give my arms a break or so that I wouldn’t be the one that was always plunging headfirst into the oncoming waves. Turns out, he just wanted to ask me if I liked beer… A lot of Costa Ricans seem to love chatting me up in Spanish. I guess I look kind of Latina with my olive skin and dark hair and eyes, but I barely speak any Spanish! I always feel like I’m disappointing them when I stare back blankly. And they are always very confused when I look to the blonde for a translation.
After our long rafting trip, we headed back the Pozo Azul’s excellent restaurant where Lauren ordered fish and I headed to the all-you-can-eat buffet. We ate until we were stuffed and sat for a long time looking out on the river while listening to the classic 80’s music that the restaurant constantly played. We tried to find another place to eat and sleep, but La Virgen does not really have much else to offer. So we bought a loaf of bread for breakfast (like real backpackers!) and some beer for me/boxed wine for Lauren and headed back to El Rio. It was a few kilometres down the road, so we found a cab. They don’t have official cabs in La Virgen, so we bartered with the driver before getting in to ensure we weren’t overcharged.
Back at the hotel, I excitedly cracked open a beer. The bag-boy at the grocery store had shaken his head at me and pronounced my beer choice “malo“, but I knew it couldn’t be that bad. I was wrong. It tasted like someone had taken beer, watered it down, and then stirred a spoonful of salt and a little bit of lime juice into it. Pro-tip: if you’re ever in Costa Rica, don’t buy Rock Ice Lime beer. Stick to Imperial or Pilsen, which are actually really good.
We ate dinner (and some drank some non-gross beer) at the bar that doubled as the reception desk for our hotel. It has a cute, family-run kitchen with tasty meals, a friendly, if odd, proprietor, and entertaining karaoke. We went back to our room and marvelled at all the stars we could see outside the city and tried to find something to do for the rest of the night. When you’re with someone for over two months straight, you start running out of untold stories, but we delved into weird childhood anecdotes and embarrassing stories to entertain ourselves.
The next day we headed back to Pozo Azul to go white-water kayaking. Since we had mastered rafting, we wanted more of a challenge. Apparently kayaking is pretty tough to teach because the first thing you need to learn is “the roll”, when you get flipped over in the water and have to right yourself. This terrifying feat is apparently very difficult and will take up too much time in a kayaking lesson, so Jeff of Tropical Duckies, has come up with a solution. He uses these inflatable kayaks, which are much more stable than regular kayaks, so you can jump to learning how to read white-water right away. He judged us as being athletic enough to handle the more difficult set of rapids (Class 3) to which he only takes 3 out of every 10 groups. We were nervous but excited!
This “more advanced” set of rapids began at Jeff’s house, where we got to meet his adorable daughter and equally adorable puppies. We suited up, learned a few basics strokes and were soon headed towards our first set of rapids. Jeff gave us instructions before each set of rapids. Some of these were extremely counter-intuitive, such as, “Lean into the waves” and “Run into the wall at the end, the current will bring you around”. But we followed his instructions and survived! As it turns out, white-water kayaking is the best! Lauren and I may never be the people who run Class six rapids; as Jeff put it, “There are five classes. Well technically there’s six, but Class six is unrunnable. Until you run it, and then they become class five”. But it is definitely something we can both see ourselves doing again and getting good at. We spent about 3 hours with him, with a break for some river swimming and fresh pineapple. Jeff is an interesting guy—slightly socially awkward, but he clearly loves what he does. We bussed back from kayaking with him and then once again feasted at the lodge. We ended up hanging out there for a few more hours, taking full advantage of their Wi-Fi, coffee, and gorgeous views.
The weekend might have lacked social interaction, but we managed not to kill each other (which is impressive if you know us) and had a lot of fun on the river. So all in all, I think our venture was a success!