A mere two weeks of anticipation went into our last minute trip to Costa Rica for a week of jungle hucking. The decision to bail on all of our family obligations for the Thanksgiving Holiday was made like many great decisions… at a keg party. I managed to squeeze in 9 days to vacate, which included a day to travel on each end. Joe had 8 days, so it was clear from the beginning that this was to (hopefully) be a no-rest-day type of trip. Recruitment of a third or fourth member was unsuccessful, as was any significant planning. The day before departure I booked my first nights stay at Mi Tierra in Alajuela, begin to fight off a nasty sinus cold, and pack for my first international adventure.
The day before consisted of two flights, from Denver to Houston, and then Houston to a late arrival in Alajuela (San Jose). After an amusing taxi ride from the airport, I arrived at Roberto Cacho’s place covered in sweat and in good spirits because all of my “wave ski” equipment made it intact. Even better is that my “wave ski” strongly resembles a large Pyranha Karnali, and with the paddle bag it only cost me $100 extra through Continental Airlines. Mi Tierra is inviting, with an open entryway in front, nice lobby and covered patio dining area, a pool, tons of plants and nice rooms. Andrey Coto Robles, the night watchman and kayaker, greets me and takes me to my room. Soon after I meet the owner, Roberto Cacho. I’ve exchanged a few emails with Cacho, and he has already come recommended as “the man” after proving himself as the driver of choice for a handful of trips that Gary Edgeworth and others have completed. He’s also friends with Ferdinand, and apparently I’m going to meet the Costa Rican paddling legend, and Olympian, in the morning. This is a very good thing.
The first few drops of the Rio Orosi start off with a bang. I haven’t paddled in months so it was a nice class V warm-up of a few boulder garden drops and one big hole to miss. Then a nice class IV paddle out leads to the takeout, where I promptly puke. We continue to the Rio Macho. Flows are too low for the 400fpm+ upper mile, so we hit the lower mile instead, which is still great low volume single-track creeking. Fun and I’m starting to get into the groove of kayaking once again. We stop in town for a delicious meal and head back through the traffic mayhem of San Jose to Mi Tierra, where Joe has now arrived.
Ferdinand arrives at 5:30am. We’re barely awake and unorganized. The five of us pile into the van with Cacho at the helm, and head south of San Jose, to the top of a pass that overlooks the entire city. There’s a great restaurant at the top, and the fact that Joe and I are hanging out with three Ticos that speak English helps our Spanglish translate better. We scarf down a good breakfast and drive down a few thousand feet of twisting dirt road into the Rio Candelaria valley for what is supposed to be like an 8th or 9th descent, according to Ferdinand.
He should know. Our fearless leader has been at the forefront of local creeking exploration for the last 20 years. If he hasn’t been there, he’s talked to the sickbirds that have. His first-hand knowledge trumps that of the Chasing Jaguars guidebook, which I brought for the weekend because Ferdinand has plans to go to a wedding. Joe and I are hoping to persuade him to do the noble kayaking thing and bail. We’re both pretty sure that he’s testing us today, and as we charge into the first drops of the Rio Candelaria, I’m quite stoked to be the guinea pig.
Let's get ready to rumble
The Rio Candelaria is a worthy find that the Ticos started running in May. We start on about 350-400cfs at the start, with some great class IV warm-up drops that get progressively steeper and longer as the canyon narrows to our first scout. As we creep around a cliff ledge we’re welcomed with the view of a mini-gorge containing a genuine slide-to-boof, followed by some burly looking ledges in sequence below. The bottom pool is probably 45 feet below us. Eddies break up the drop into three perfect steps. We scout from both sides, set safety and run in pairs with good lines by all.
Immediately below is a drop that hasn’t been run yet, and probably will be. The scout from the top showed ugliness, so we hiked up and over the steep canyon wall, then roped the boats back down the other side for our first Costa Rican portage. At the bottom I’m overheating in my shorts, long sleeve rash guard and drytop. I brought the lightest gear I own and it’s too much, although this ends up being the warmest river corridor of the trip.
We meet up with Cacho at the first bridge, and regular takeout, and he’s already arranged for a ride out for us with a 4x4 jeep. We decline and continue downstream as the rain picks up. As I peel out of the first eddy and head downstream a lizard jumps into a small hole directly in front of me. I eddy out and he goes running across the river next to me. Two back-to-back class V drops serve as the crux of the next 3km, which is apparently a 1st descent. The banks are farmland, portaging and scouting are easy, there are lizards everywhere, and life is very, very good.
We change at the takeout and Ferdinand and I walk to a nearby swimming pool and shelter, where we stock up on beers and water for the drive home. We passed the test. Ferdinand hatches a plan to head to the “Pacific” a day early, and will be picking us up at 5:30am… sharp. We don’t know where we are going, where we are staying or how scared we should be. "In Ferdinand we trust," which would become the theme of the trip.
Ferd, Joe and I load up and hit the road early, charging through the streets of San Jose prior to the major rush hour traffic, and after a quick stop at Ferdinand’s house, we head southeast at a steady climb along the Pan American Highway. The pass tops out at just under 11,000ft. Shortly after cresting over the other side, we turn off onto a dirt road that according to Ferdinand, drops roughly 3000ft in 2.5 miles. It certainly feels like it.
This back road drops us into the Rio Buena Vista valley, where a busy creek cascades through a boulder garden riverbed with a few good vertical falls. Along the sides are pastures and farms, and we delicately tiptoe across a garden to get to our put-in. At a few points the river narrows down with some good bedrock rapids. The loose riverbed is continually shifting, partially due to a huge flood that scoured the river bottom and rolled the massive boulders into new positions. Combined with steep whitewater, we have good reason to scout a few extra times. We make good time and continue the rest of our drive to the Chirripo Pacifico for some roadside scouting of the classic boulder garden whitewater.
After completing the Rio Buena Vista we had officially made more class V moves than the previous two days combined, so Joe and I kind of figured the day was pretty well over. As we’re headed up the Rio Chucoyo, a tributary to the Pacifico, I start getting a sense from Ferd that we aren’t done yet. The force wasn’t as strong in the backseat of Ferd’s Suzuki, because I hear Joe crack open another Imperial at about the time I’m questioning my first. Another 4wd road later we are checking out four park-and-huck type drops and the first one is the definition of a jungle huck. A twisty, sliding entrance leads to a boof into a lateral hole that you have to punch, then turn with the current 90 degrees, and drop roughly 20 feet into a huge pool.
That night we check into a great place in San Gerardo owned by Maria. A suspended covered walkway leads to two upstairs rooms, with a shared bathroom and open hallway that connect balconies overlooking the confluence of the Rio General and the top Chirripo Pacifico. We hang our gear on the railing since there isn’t any wind. The town is quite and we sleep well. San Gerardo may not have any raging party scene, but for serious creeking aficionados San Gerardo is the Durango of Costa Rica.
In the morning we are treated to these little tiny peppers, known as denti de perro. They bite with fire, and are a delicious addition to the pinto gallo, huevos, and fried plantains that we are enjoying at Maria’s place. It’s the kind of fire that I’m hoping will deliver me safely down the main Chirripo Pacifico.
A damn fine Tico breakfast in the jungle hideaway. Notice Cutch trying to keep the denti de perro from burning their way right out of his stomach.
Ferd says good morning on the Pacifico
The main Chirripo Pacifico is unreal. Huge boulders in a rural canyon make a maze out of the river, and the gradient keeps us on our toes. When it comes down to quality, this river ranks at the top of the list. The first moves of the day are a mere 50 yards downstream of the put-in, and class V. A few drops in and we come to a big drop that we are forced to run on verbals. Once in the rapid it’s a battle through a series of laterals and holes, complete with a 5’ drop at the end with a bad hole that I dig away from. Joe takes the first beating of the trip as he flushes over the second half of the drop upside down, and in the wrong channel after confusion on the beta. “Sorry” says Ferd. “You can’t really scout that one from anywhere.”
We continue down to one of the crux drops of the run, Upper Beast. The line is a complex mess with a simple solution… drive right or get stuffed. We portage Lower Beast, a drop that has yet to be run in its current form, due to a huge ugly hole.
At the lip of Ron Jeremy, we get out on an island where we beach our boats and wade a side channel to scout. Looking down from the top is a solid 200 yards of class V+ multiple-move whitewater, dropping close to 150 feet, with the tallest drop being about 8ft.
In the lower stretch Ferd spooks a Basilisk Lizard by paddling under a branch, and Joe and I forget entirely about the whitewater to catch a look at the prehistoric beast. At the takeout Ferdinand runs shuttle while the local ticos give us a thumbs up and inquisitive looks. After we confirm that we aren’t about to do any more jungle hucking at the moment, we get on a mellower pace for the afternoon. We eat ice cream snacks and hang out in front of the gas station, checking out the action on the main dirt road before heading to the cloud forest for the rest of the available daylight. A good meal and another night at Maria’s, which is conveniently located next to a bar, makes for an enjoyable and relaxed evening.
To be continued......Stay tuned as we attempt to find an answer for the "Best Drop of the Trip."
All photos by Joe Keck unless otherwise stated. The narrative is by Kyle McCutchen except for my additions in italics.