Crossing Costa Rica with manpower

12 people, two weeks, 273km by raft, bike and foot: Mark Stratton sets out to traverse Central America

7 mins

Venting its fury, the Pacuare’s white water buffeted and pirouetted our raft as if we were playthings for some river god’s amusement. Between truculent eddies there was time to savour iridescent blue butterflies and wonder if jaguars peered at us through an impenetrable veil of rainforest. But when the white water reappeared, all attentions refocused on making adrenalin-fuelled progress towards our Caribbean goal.

Livingstone achieved it. Shackleton didn’t, but became a household name trying. Marco Polo prevailed but took decades to do so. Now it was my turn to cross a continent.

This time there would be no encounters with hostile tribes or months stuck on polar ice. Instead, I was off to Central America’s eco-paradise, Costa Rica, for a coast-to-coast traverse of one of the narrowest parts of the continent.

I would join a group for a two-week self-propelled crossing, hiking, cycling, whitewater rafting and kayaking from Pacific-side Quepos, over the Continental Divide, to the Caribbean Sea near Moín. This 273km journey was made all the more appealing given Costa Rica’s reputation for pura vida – a happy, pure life.

Perhaps my greatest concern, assembling in the capital San José to meet my fellow adventurers, was that I would languish behind a group of ultra-fit athletes. And while our group of 11 did include a chiselled Italian action man and a triathlon Iron Woman from Colorado, it proved to be a cosmopolitan group of mixed abilities: from first-time adventurer Michael, a doctor from Indiana, to Latha, a female software engineer hailing from India. I relaxed even further when Maria from Mexico City confessed to not having been on a bike for 12 years. Yet everybody seemed to share a determination to have fun and make the crossing.

“You’re going to experience a lot of stuff,” promised our group-leader Juan-Carlos Nelson, in his lilting Caribbean twang. “Some pain, some joy and plenty of adventure”.

Such ‘stuff’ started in the sleepy seaside town of Quepos on Costa Rica’s mid-Pacific coast, a four-hour drive south of capital San José. It lay 7km from Manuel Antonio National Park, a coastal rainforest that we explored that afternoon – although I must admit to being unimpressed by the crowded trails and overly fed capuchin monkeys. Not to worry: our journey promised to take us through the country’s Central Highlands, away from the popular parks, to explore a conservative rural heartland of Tico culture that few travellers experience.

Saddle up and away

On Quepos seafront the next morning we adjusted saddles, strapped on helmets and posed for group photos by the Pacific Ocean before beginning two days of cycling and hiking. I hoped the black vultures circling overhead were not too portentous, though when Michael tumbled off his mountain bike and drew first blood before we’d rotated a chain’s length, I began to wonder…

The 26km cycle inland from Quepos was an easy warm-up. We soon graduated from tarmac roads to rough tracks through undulating fields of pineapples, bananas and oranges; hummingbirds hovered over vivid-yellow Corteza amarillo flowers and resplendent palm orchids. Then it was off with the padded cycling shorts and into hiking boots at Esquipulas, our first transition point. From here we headed into the hills for a 13km trek, climbing gradually towards Costa Rica’s Continental Divide – a central spine of growling volcanoes.

Time for a coffee break

Gaining altitude amid chestnut-mandibled toucans, we hiked into the coffee-growing belt at Naranjillo, a hamlet named after the naranjilla, a local fruit that resembles a hairy orange. Here we camped on the soccer field; the local farmhouse supplied us with a jug of milk. “We buy food from the villagers, and rent the camping space,” explained Juan-Carlos. “The money helps the community.”

In the evening we relived the day’s adventures while admiring starry formations to match the constellation of scrapes and bruises on serial-crasher Michael’s legs.

Thereafter we commenced a well-oiled daily routine led by Juan-Carlos, the master of over 50 traverses. This involved departing early to get a head start on the energy-sapping heat; carbo-loading on lunches of tortillas, guacamole, gallo pinto (rice and beans), refried beans and fresh fruit; and reaching campsites or hotels by late-afternoon for a well-earned rest.

It was already nudging 30°C the next morning when, after an early breakfast, we began a hard yomp up the forbidding-sounding Cemetery Hill, a vertiginous climb up coffee-coated slopes to 1,600m. Here, ripened red beans were being plucked, to be transported to Santa María de Dota, our day’s end destination in Los Santos Valley. That evening we toured the Cooperativa de Caficultores de Dota to experience the full coffee process, from grading the beans’ quality to roasting, and to sample the brew of, we were told, “chocolate, vanilla and orange” aromas.

What goes up…

This caffeine shot was welcome because the next day was a monster. According to Juan-Carlos, the 47km of cycling – including a two-hour morning ascent to the Continental Divide’s summit at 2,430m – was the hardest part of the trip.

During the first gruelling climb, I initially failed to notice Turrialba – currently Costa Rica’s most active volcano, its plume of smoke rising like a slow-burning cigar.  Sweating prodigiously, with my raised heartbeat thudding at my temples, I’d settled into a low gear and was pedalling trance-like – an automaton on waning batteries.

If the summit arrival ultimately lacked romance (it’s piggybacked by the busy Pan-American Highway), I felt genuine exhilaration achieving it without stopping, and celebrated with a calorific breakfast of empanadas, starchy yucca and tamales, leaf-wrapped parcels of rice and meat.

What goes up, of course, must come down. The afternoon gifted hair-raising descents via the pretty village of La Estrella, with its powder-blue church, and along rutted clay tracks into the pine-forested Orosí Valley.

“Take care,” warned Juan-Carlos, who looked anxious as we rattled downhill, “or this descent could be the last of your trip.” So armed with advice from experienced American mountain bikers Shelly and Amazonica (“lower your saddle, squeeze your thighs around it and stick out your heiny”), I rumbled down-slope with newfound control – although my cojones endured new teeth-gritting levels of vibration. The crevasse-sized cracks added to the thrills and spills of a descent that saw brave Michael’s already mole-hilled legs acquire mountainous contusions.

When it appeared, the Rio Perlas Spa Resort was manna from heaven to my chafed and now bowlegged gait. The spacious villas were set in luxuriant gardens of bottle-shaped palms, with orchids that lured blue morpho and clearwing butterflies. Soaking in its geothermal swimming pool for three hours, imbibing Flor de Caña sugarcane rum, banished all aches and pains… at least temporarily. Tough as the day had been, it had also been a fine one: I’d learned a lot about mountain biking – including innovative ways to crash.

Heart and soul

This respite gave me time to reflect on my growing delight at seeing a very different side to Costa Rica than on my previous visit in 1998. I’d certainly been wowed by the country’s biodiversity in the popular national parks, but had found it too Americanised compared with other Central American nations. Yet I’m sure I discovered Costa Rica’s true soul the next day during a wonderfully scenic 65km cycle into the Rentevazón Valley.

Beyond Orosí’s whitewashed colonial Spanish church, which dates back to 1743, a succession of coffee plantations and fincas (small farms) came and went, sandwiched between cow pastures and hedgerows of vermilion mother-in-law’s tongue (aka the snake plant). Later we biked through plains of swaying sugarcane, where workers twirled machetes and rode to work crowded on old trucks. The land was so fertile that bromeliads grew on the telegraph poles. And the local welcome was original and warm. “No other trips come through here so the people are pleased to see us,” Juan-Carlos explained.

Much of this day shadowed the Talamanca range: mountains capped by rolls of clouds induced by the looming presence of Costa Rica’s two largest volcanoes, Irazú (3,432m) and Turrialba (3,328m). The latter is currently the country’s most active cone, though it last erupted in 1866. We had no idea that its status had been upgraded to ‘Yellow Alert’ that very day. I could only imagine the spectacle from the nearby hilltop hacienda (where we stayed that night) had Turrialba erupted.

With almost 180km of our traverse completed by lunchtime on the fifth day, it was time to get wet during what proved the most inspiring and enjoyable phase of the traverse.

Riding the highs

“Try to grab the chicken-line cord around the raft and wait to get pulled in,” was the advice Juan-Carlos offered when I queried protocol in the event of a man overboard. “But if you get swept away, aim your feet downriver and hold your breath for ten seconds – the longest you’ll be under water,” he explained to us. “If you start thrashing around and drinking water it will be the longest ten seconds of your life.” As he spoke alongside the Pacuare River, which thundered by from its Talamanca origins en route to the Caribbean, I noticed a few anxious faces.

In truth, the 32km section of the Lower Pacuare was a relatively mild introduction to Grade II rapids (the scale runs I-VI), one that was punctuated by a heavenly two-night stay in Nido del Tigre (Tiger’s Nest) rainforest camp. Sheltered underneath a 30m-high canopy on the Pacuare riverbank, Tiger’s Nest consists of tents on raised wooden platforms (prudent given the size of the patrolling bull ants), all clustered around an open-sided wooden building hosting a kitchen and hammock chill-out zone. We hiked a little, ate dinner by candlelight and let the jungle sounds wash over us: trilling toucans, a nocturnal heartbeat of croaking frogs and the flamboyantly amplified flobadobadobadob call of the Montezuma oropendola bird.

After dinner we sought out glossy red-and-black poison dart frogs by torchlight, with orders not to touch – these vivid little amphibians can secrete enough venom to kill seven people if it enters the bloodstream through cuts.

I was worried – where was Michael..?

A continent conquered

The next day it was all hands to the pump as bona fide whitewater fury beckoned: ‘Double Drop’, ‘Popcorn’ and ‘Two Mountains’ were all Class IV rapids. Dress rehearsal was over.

The Pacuare’s gorge squeezed the river level to greater heights and intensity, and for six hours we were pummelled relentlessly as whoops of joy matched shrieks of alarm. We spiralled around as if in fairground teacup-waltzers stuck in overdrive, flung into each other’s laps as the liana-tangled rainforest of La Amistad International Park (shared with Panama) whizzed by. During calmer stretches we floated under crystalline waterfalls and swam with the flow towards Siquirres and our penultimate night’s camp amid a riverside banana plantation.

The next day, the Pacuare River mellowed and broadened towards the Caribbean as our journey reached its denouement in double kayaks. The 42km paddle to the sea was tough, yet offered wonderful wildlife spotting: green iguanas basked; black howler monkeys barked disapproval at our intrusion; two- and three-toed sloths sat motionless under cecropia trees. Juan-Carlos explained that these trees are loaded with nicotine, which acts as a stimulus for the sloth – though it was hard to imagine how much lazier these inert critters (who snooze 18 hours each day) could be without their nicotine fix.

Meanwhile the birdlife was unceasingly dazzling: there were herons, egrets and pelicans; ospreys and rose-eyed hawks buzzed overhead; kingfishers, in the words of poet Ted Hughes, left a ‘rainbow splinter sticking in your eye’.

Our adventure concluded with one final sweeping meander, as riverside forest gave way to mangrove and melted into the Caribbean’s creamy surf near Moín in Limón Province.

Feeling tired euphoria, we hugged and sipped champagne in the surf. It was hard to imagine any erstwhile historical explorer experiencing a greater sense of achievement or camaraderie. We’d crossed a continent. And it had been one hell of a ride.

Mark Stratton is an award-winning and prolific travel writer with a penchant for adventure in far-flung, off-the-beaten track places.

World Expeditions offers a 12-day Costa Rica Traverse, which links Pacific to Caribbean by foot, bike, raft and sea kayak. Various dates are available; trips cost from £1,590 excluding flights, but including accommodation (hotels and camping), most meals, airport transfers, equipment (bikes, rafts, camping gear), support vehicle and experienced guides.

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