(Yes that is the hotel balcony and takeout for top Pacifico. Photo: Cutch)
By the time we are putting on to the top Chirripo Pacifico, the day has already been somewhat of a scenic-drive bust. We rallied early, passing through San Isidro, and heading one valley south, to the San Rafael. The San Rafael is a low volume run that is very steep and inviting, but after a thorough look we determine that the water level is too low. Now it’s mid-day, and we have finally returned to the place that we stayed last night, because it is the takeout for the top. The top is a little on the low side as well, and I start off the trip by slipping on the polished rock, and tumbling 5 ft into the river with my boat and paddle, directly above a small falls at the put-in. The Top section is 1 mile long, drops 507ft, with two scouts and zero portages. Muy contento.
Back in San Isidro we gas up and Ferdinand makes a few calls while Joe and I eat snacks and trust in Ferdinand. Our original plan was to head back to Alajuela to stay at Cacho’s (Mi Tierra) for another night. That plan was thwarted by the threat of unlicensed taxi cab drivers of San Jose blockading the roads around the city in protest (of the licensed taxi cab drivers). Instead we end up going straight to Turrialba that evening. We arrive late and meet up with the local crew in the city park, Julio Garro and Arnaldo Pérez. Tomorrow we plan to run the Rio Vereh, which according to Ferdinand has gradient in the high 700fpm range. Sounds a bit loose.
Day 6 - "El revo de la novia"
While packing for the trip I asked Tina if I could take her paddle. “If you break it you buy it.” A third of the way into the run I become inverted for the first time, floating around in a huge pool trying to figure out how to roll with Tina’s broken paddle. The 40 footer had about an 80-degree angle on it at the bottom though the hit was surprisingly soft, despite the broken paddle. I opted for the far right line, which you had to kind of pivot and drive across to get to, since a tree is still stuck in the lip. We had good flow so the left line around the log went, but the seal launch into the pool at the lip was burly, as was the drop above it that would be a stout and clean 10 footer if it weren’t for another log. I’m super stoked as I roll up and collect the other half of my paddle.
(The best drop of the trip? Naa, Cutch seemed to think Ron Jeremy was better even after this slick line.)
The day started out interesting. Breakfast was filled with the city bustle of Turrialba, in contrast to the easy mornings of San Gerardo. Ferdinand was apprehensive and thus Joe and I were inquisitive to say the least.
Chalo was originally going to be our shuttle driver, but once the championship bull rider found out we were going to el Vereh he knew it was time to crawl into his boat for the first time in two years. Three beers prep on the way to the put-in took off the edge from the night before and once he cut off the soles from his shoes to fit in the boat, we were off. Arnaldo and Julio round out our trip, both Tico river rats that work for the local raft companies. They are solid.
Arnaldo, Ferdinand, Julio and Chalo drop the falls as well. Chalo self-rescues from his first swim as I piece together my 4-piece Werner breakdown and we are off to tackle the whitewater below, which is stacked. Every horizon is a 5, 10, or 15-foot drop, and most everything goes with the good flow. We are getting into a rhythm with leapfrog scouting and smiles as we make our way down the canyon. The pools and surrounding is surreal. By far the most remote corner of Costa Rican jungle we experienced.
It’s my turn to scout. I jump up to check the next horizon line to find that it is the final drop of the run, and this final 12’ grind drop literally ends in a pool at the confluence with the headwaters section of the Pacuare. We stop for lunch and celebration as the rain begins to come down, taking shelter under the lush overgrowth of the jungle. As we peel out into the higher volume Pacuare we are treated with a few miles of high-quality big water class IV whitewater that is experienced by few.
We spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in a flurry of activity. Heading back to our rendezvous point, we charge into Turrialba to check out of our hotel, eat dinner, and get to an internet café before close. We pile back into the Suzuki and Ferd rocks the evening drive to his place, where we grab another bent shaft paddle. You could say that he has one lying around, since it’s here that Ferdinand manufacturers Blue Pool paddles and helmets. We arrive back at Mi Tierra late, and sleep well.
I could have kept sleeping well for hours. If our trip were any longer, then this would surely be a rest day. Instead, we figure we should do a second descent of the lower section of the Rio Candelaria. First-hand beta from the inflatable kayakers that made the first descent told us of stout drops in the top canyon, a sieve warning, and that they were overnighted only to wake up the next day and paddle around the corner to the takeout. From the topo map the gradient looks reasonable (especially when compared to the Vereh), with most of the action in the first six miles. We are hoping for a possible access point at a trail, because otherwise it’s going to be a long paddle out (the difference of about an eight mile run, or over likely over 20). Yet, we are confident that we will run some of the drops that they portaged which will save time, and even with a long paddle out it will be okay because we have a shuttle driver and will be deep in a Costa Rican river canyon.
We wake early in preparation of a slightly long drive to the put-in, and for the unknown factors that we may encounter on the Rio Candelaria. Joe, Ferdinand, and I look tired. We meet Miguel, and Raul who is driving Miguel’s van that he uses for a rafting business. Andre is joining us as well, and we make our way to the top of the same pass, and eat at the same place that we did on day two. It’s a full-circle kind of feeling for the trip. We stock up on food to take on the river, and hustle to the put-in. The flow is lower than our last visit here, though adequate once we negotiate the first read-and-run rapids of the canyon. Once in the gorge we encounter two stout rapids in close proximity. I get routed in first, and bring extra speed in expectation of a big hole, judging by the lip. I hit, ender off my stern, and bring it forward and to the left. The entire right side of the pool flushes into a not so friendly undercut. Joe goes next, gets back endered into the hole, and swims into the nice eddy below. After a week of relatively clean lines by our trio, I am thankful to witness some carnage, and ponder if Joe views it as a requirement to swim on all of his international trips (editor’s note – I once went to Mexico without a swim).
A rapid we started referring to as The Cube follows just below. It’s a tricky scout, and portaging looks to be pretty much out of the question. A short boof up top leads to a left channel with a nice 10 footer that I fully plug. It’s deep. The right side line is ugly, though it would still go in a pinch. Below the canyon opens up. It’s dry here, so the jungle has a Washington state feel with moss covered rocks and open gravel beaches. The sun is shining, and ten or more tributaries pour in from each side of the canyon walls in spectacular displays. The class III cruise leaves for plenty of time to enjoy them. As far as 2nd descents go, this one is ridiculously mellow and good.
(1st descent team: Miguel lays it down on "Cubo")
We stop for lunch at an old wooden footbridge. There are ranches on the hills above us, but the road is washed out to this access point. We continue paddling off the edge of our topo map and into a lengthy paddle out through a large and remote valley. Jesus Christ Lizards walk on water, or rather, run across the river in front of us on their hind legs. Miguel smiles, “Hauling ass!” The JC stands probably 8” tall, and crosses 50 yards of flatwater without getting his head wet. A few bends later I’m sent into a flurry of backstrokes as two cows run across the river, splitting our group of five. Even the Ticos think it’s bizarre. Herons and flycatcher birds abound. Towards the end, a biblical tree root rests on its side in a gravel bar with a vulture perched at the top - a good 30 feet off the ground. It is the perfect paddle out to a weeklong trip.
On the drive out we pass through perfectly farmed rows of pineapple trees and check off a visit to the Pacific coast as we drive by fully lounged out in the van. After dinner everyone except Raul sleeps as we make the haul back to Alajuela. Power nap handled, we vow to finish off the trip right, with a night on the town.
Story by Kyle McCutchen
Photos by Joe Keck, except where noted.