Kayaking the Rio Pacuare

San Martin to Siquirres
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One of the most memorable aspects of the Pacuare trip is the put-in. Local campesinos shuttle rafts, kayaks, equipment, and food 1.7 miles down a dirt path on an oxen-drawn cart. The middle Meadow River take-out could use such a rig.

Along the way to the river, the trail passes a small mill for processing sugar cane. The juice extracted from the cane is used to make sugar or the powerful white liquor known as guaro. The friendly natives may offer a sample. You'll be far better off if they do not.

From the put-in to the beginning of the inner gorge, the river drops through numerous Class II-III boulder gardens and simple drops as it becomes sequestered in the ever more verdant rain forest. The big cats are rarely seen, but somehow you just know that they are watching you warily from the dark shadows of the enclosing jungle.

Many parties camp at a semi-abandoned riverside farm on a low terrace five miles below the put-in. Hundreds of parakeets living in a huge tree in the midst of the clearing provide entertainment, but grazing cattle tend to be a nuisance. Several smaller camps offer equivalent amenities, including trails through the jungle and easy access to nearby waterfalls.

Around the next bend, the river is pinched to one-half its former width by steep rock walls. It is here that the intriguing inner gorge begins. After another mile, Terciopelo ("velvet") Creek cascades in from river left. Take the time for a hike up its canyon, where numerous waterfalls and plunge pools await the adventurous.

After Terciopelo Creek, the Pacuare continues through another one and one-half miles of jungle before reaching the zenith of this whitewater fantasyland, the Huacas rapids. Upper Huacas is a Class III+ drop through a congested boulder garden. It presents no real difficulties for kayaks, but rafts must maneuver carefully at the top to avoid boulder pins. At certain water levels, a particularly grabby hole develops at the base of the rapid. It is known as Traitor Hole, and even expert kayakers have been forced to swim out of it.

Just beyond the end of the rapid, a most incredible sight appears: A tributary stream plunges over a 150-foot free-fall directly into the Pacuare. Above the main drop, the small stream recedes from sight in a series of small waterfalls encased in slick-rock walls. The sight of Huacas Falls alone is worth a trip to Costa Rica.

Another 200 yards downstream, the lower Pacuare produces its toughest rapid: Lower Huacas. Even at low water levels, this 150-yard stretch of ledges and boulders is a solid Class IV rapid. At higher water, the holes become voracious, the pools microscopic, and the right side portage tempting.

Beyond Lower Huacas are several Class III rapids, but none are of difficulty comparable to Lower Huacas. The canyon opens up gradually after another two miles and rapids become easier and more widely spaced, with one exception. Cimarron Rapid is a steep boulder garden through which the river disperses into multiple channels. Kayaks can negotiate the rapid with relative ease, but rafts have a very difficult time of it, for frequent changes of course are required to avoid wrapping on one of the numerous boulders.

At a deep pool in the river some five miles past Lower Huacas, a sandy beach appears on the right. A short hike up the trail from the beach reveals a small Indian village of grass huts and small gardens. These indigenous people are true subsistence farmers.

All of their food is grown in their fields, gathered in the forest, or caught from the river itself. The huts are made entirely from the wood and leaves of the Cola de Gallo palm, one of the few woods that resist the rapid decay brought on by the perennial warm, moist conditions of the Atlantic lowlands.

The river is littered with dark remnants of young basaltic lava flows in the stretch beyond the Indian village. Fantastic geometric forms speak of the forces of contraction during cooling and subsequent weathering that have altered these stone monoliths.

As the river's gradient decreases and the valley becomes wider, more and more traces of man are seen: larger fields of crops and occasional huts are encountered. The river has one last set of wonders to awe the newcomer to this land, however: Dos Montanas, the rapid and the canyon.

The rapid begins as a boulder garden, sweeping from right to left, and ends in a set of large standing waves, several of which are suitable for extended surfing. One hundred yards downstream stands the river's last spectacle: the deep cleft known as Dos Montanas Gorge. As the name suggests, two mountains pinch the river into a narrow defile. The mighty Pacuare has done its work effectively, however. It has cut cleanly through the obstacle, leaving no rapids in the gorge.

The Pacuare runs in eerie quietness through the rock-walled gorge as if to evade by secrecy the fate designed for it by the hydroelectric engineers. Preliminary work on the dam site has already commenced, with bulldozers desecrating the beauty of one of the world's most majestic canyons. We recommend that you carefully scout Dos Montanas Rapid and the entrance to the gorge because of the possibility of encountering a logjam from the construction work.

All that remains now is an anticlimactic Class II-III paddle of two and a half miles to the take-out under the Limon San Jose highway bridge. Far from being boring, however, this section opens up new vistas of tropical agriculture and distant mountains. As the adrenaline level recedes and weariness settles in, one finally has the opportunity to reflect on the scenic wonders of the Pacuare River and the dam that will soon destroy them all.

The Pacuare was first paddled by the Polish Canoandes expedition in 1980. The participants included Piotr Chmlelinski, Jerzy Majcherczyk, Zbigniew Bzdak, Jacek Boguki, Andrzej' Pietowski, and Jarostaw Samsel.

The rating table indicates discharge values corresponding to various gage readings from the gage station at Dos Montanas. Unfortunately, there is no convenient gage for stream flow determination at the put-in. Minimum discharge levels for a raft trip down the gorge are in the 800-1,000 cfs range, but kayak and canoe trips at lower levels are quite enjoyable.

Substantial flows are almost always available from June until December, and occasional flows of above 1,000 cfs occur even during the dry season. Trips during January, February, and March do not provide the whitewater thrills of the wet season, but the exquisite scenery, abundant wildlife, and clear water more than compensate for the loss of action. Excessive water levels occasionally interfere with paddling, primarily during the month of October. A reasonable upper limit would be approximately 6,000 cfs.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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