Rafting Costa Rica's Pacuare

  |  Gorp.com

When Hollywood needed authentic jungle river footage for Michael Crichton's Congo, it didn't go to the movie's African namesake. Instead, it went straight to Costa Rica's Pacuare River, which offers one of the most quintessential jungle whitewater rafting trips in the world.
The Pacuare flows into the Caribbean from the Costa Rican highlands, picking its way through lush, tropical mountains before depositing its rain-fed wares in the sea. Its setting is so unique that in 1986 Costa Rica's government declared it a Wild and Scenic River—the first river to be offered such protection in Central America. Paddlers, of course, are thankful for this because of the river's rapids: matching the waterway's wild and scenic qualities are 32 miles of Class III-IV, emerald green whitewater. Linking the rapids are tranquil pools that reflect orchids swirling in eddies and allow plenty of time to explore side creeks, bathe beneath waterfalls and listen to the calls of the country's 850 species of birds.

Trips range anywhere from one to three days, but as Tarzan would say, the longer you can stay in the jungle, the better.
Most trips originate in Costa Rica's capital of San Jose, home of the infamous Museo de Jade, which features the world's largest collection of jade, and the Museo de Oro Precolombino, which contains more than 2,000 pre-Colombian gold artifacts. Before you've had a chance to share your museum tales, you'll arrive at the banks of the Pacuare feeling like you've just entered the Land of the Lost—thick jungle walls filled with flowers bookend the river, leaving the waterway as the only way out. After negotiating several rapids and floating through the most varied fauna on the planet—in terms of species per unit area—thatched-roof accommodations appear around a bend about halfway through the trip. At one lodge, hammock-filled, thatch-roofed huts—offering dorm- and honeymoon-style rooms—surround an even larger thatched-roofed lodge next to a gurgling waterfall. Linking the huts to the lodge's open-walled dining room, bar and reading room are bamboo-railed boardwalks that make wearing anything but river sandals sacrilegious. Don't get so comfortable in the reading room's hammock, however, that you miss the cocktail-hour bell; in true jungle fashion, all apres-paddle drinks are served in coconut shells.
After waking to the chirps of monkeys and toucans, you can lay over for a day, enjoying side hikes and pristine swimming pools. Or, better, hop back aboard your raft for another 16 miles of unspoiled whitewater, rainforest, and towering green cliffs—some of which house waterfalls that rinse your raft as you pass. And if, by chance, you still need more of a jungle fix when all is said and done, you can always head to nearby Mt. Arenal after your return to San Jose—Hollywood also came to Costa Rica to find a Congo-like active volcano.
PRACTICALLY SPEAKING

Difficulty: Class III-IV, suitable for almost everyone.
Price Range: With deluxe lodge accommodations, you'll pay upwards of $250 for a two-day trip. For three-day (with two nights lodging), inches up over $300.
Best time to go: Can be run year-round, but best in the wet season from June through December (it has been known to flood sometimes in October, once stranding customers at the lodge for three days). It can also be run in the dry season from Jan-March; flows are lower, but water is clear and there is more abundant wildlife.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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