Jungle fever: Costa Rica traverse

By Mark Watson 6 February 2017
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Join Australian Geographic Adventure photographer Mark Watson on an incredible journey across untamed Costa Rica, from the Pacific to the Caribbean, on mountain bike, kayak, river-raft and foot.

IT’S 8AM IN THE MORNING when I grab a cold Coca-Cola from a shanty seaside kiosk in the tiny surf village of Domical, on Costa Rica’s central Pacific Coast. Coke is not my regular breakfast beverage of choice, however the mercury is already nudging 32°C and humidity saturates the air, heavy and thick.

The sun blares down on a near cloudless sky, and past the cheap Walmart tents and rusty Kombi vans of backpackers and surf nomads, four-foot A-frame Pacific barrels freight-train left and right on the shallow offshore sandbars. I mind surf each perfect green-water wave as it explodes on the sandbank until I hear JC’s voice behind me announcing that it’s time to “saddle up”. The realisation that I am not here on a cruisy Central American surf trip dawns on me and I turn towards my mountain bike, ready for the first pedal stroke into our 10-day long adventure traversing Costa Rica, from the Pacific to the Caribbean on mountain bike, kayak, river-raft and foot.

Pure life

Pedalling north along the spectacular Pacific highway, the breeze keeps the temperature just bearable, but it is not long before our knobby tyres taste dirt for the first time. We depart the smooth tarmac of the coastal road and promptly veer northeast towards looming forest-clad peaks reaching to the sky. The days ahead will lead us ever higher into the majestic continental divide where Costa Rica’s peaceful and pristine cloud forests contrast with the fire and magma of the active volcanoes to the north. Our route, however, bypasses the lava-spewing peaks, instead meandering further into the dense rainforest and coffee plantations of the central highlands. It is here the rivers and streams begin to cascade east rather than west, and where we join the Pacuare River to raft and kayak toward our final destination of the Caribbean coast.

But the cool waters of the Rio Pacuare are a long way off as we snake our way along the more sedate Rio Savegre under a blistering sun. The rapids tumble in the opposite direction, toward the saltwater crocodile-ridden estuaries of the Pacific Ocean we have just left behind.

costa rica traverse

The first taste of dirt roads was a jarring experience as rock strewn corrugations led us through endless Palm plantations. (Image: Mark Watson)

The road deteriorates to gravel corrugations and potholes and our tiny peleton of six is immediately swallowed by the haunting stillness of an endless palm oil plantations. In front of me ride Jess and Dave, siblings from Oz, and behind me step-mum and daughter from the UK, Jill and Suz. Rounding out our crew is Juan-Carlos Nelson, or JC as he has become known.

Chatting between breaths JC explains he used to play second division football but was earning only just enough to scrape by. He took a job in the warehouse of an adventure travel company cleaning kayaks, rapidly progressing to rafting and then guiding, and he has never looked back. His huge grin confirms he still loves his job.

I listen silently, sweating and occasionally grimacing, and hopefully acclimatising to the searing heat and humidity.

Pondering the seemingly endless gridded rows of palms it occurs to me we’re amongst a stand of rather important economic history. In the 1900s these same lowlands were carpeted in gold… of the banana type. It was here that the controversial and influential United Fruit Company was born, which would later control railroads, shipping and even Central American governments (see Random Quick Fact 1).

My political ponderings are interrupted when the linear tiers of palms cease and we’re confronted by a wall of dense undergrowth. The lowlands give way to rolling foothills and the change of scenery also signals a change in gradient. Our corrugated track does what it was always going to do… it simply goes up.

We have 47km to cover and with a comfortable cadence set, we work our way towards our campsite 700 vertical metres higher than our start point. Respite comes in the form of the cool flowing waters of the Rio Savegre but the refreshing swim is only a tease as we depart the river to an abrupt and steepening incline, the sun now burning through the thin foliage overhead.

My high-tech heart rate monitor works against me as my fancy GPS watch beeps urgently. My heart rate flashes in the mid 190s, my head thumps, eyes sting and sweat drips continuously from my helmet as the mercury maxes out at 37°C. I suspect the beeps are warning me I am about to die, but I daren’t look.

I barely notice a farmer sitting in the shade, looking on amusingly as I stare at my front wheel. I wheeze “Hola” as I pass and he replies with a creased grin “Pura Vida” (pure life), a greeting iconic to the friendly Costa Rican people, and fortuitously fitting for our journey. I question how enjoyable this ‘pure life’ is, however, as black vultures circle overhead.

Happily the incline soon eases and roadside brushwood merges into a denser, cooler rainforest. We continue the grind uphill into the afternoon heat but now look down onto thick forest, only sporadically interrupted by fincas (small farms). Wild hibiscus and brilliant heliconias paint the roadsides with colour while chestnut-mandibled toucans swoop from one side of the valley to the other. Costa Rica is beginning to show it’s ‘green side’, and Pura Vida starts to make more sense.

costa rica traverse

Relaxing in the Rio Naranjo following an arduous day of trekking. (Image: Mark Watson)

Mother Nature rules

The pitter-patter of rain on tent welcomes a misty dawn at our camp in Esquipulas, but the energy-sapping humidity returns as soon as the sun pierces the fog. It’s 33°C by 7.30am.

Before long hiking boots are laced in an effort to avoid the worst of the heat and we begin an ascent into the Costa Rican foothills alongside Mt Diamante where edible white ginger plants grow by the side of the road and mayflies buzz amongst the horn-like thorns of the cornizuelo plant (see Random Quick Fact 2).

Weaving ever uphill I spy rufous-tailed hummingbirds erratically zig-zagging from one blue trumpet vine to another, whilst brilliant blue-headed parrots swoop amongst the canopy.

Surprisingly a fit looking grey-haired gentleman steps out from a roadside path. It is my turn to offer the welcome “Pura Vida”, but he answers with an American twang. Hailing from Louisiana, the ageing nomad had found his paradise. Pointing to a hidden post in need of some TLC he proudly informs me, “The power stops at that pole. I’m the last house. It’s as far away as I could get whilst keeping the luxury of electricity.” I grin with an understanding smile and we briefly exchange pleasantries before I leave him to meander downhill whilst I chase down my crew in the opposite direction.

Amongst occasional rain showers the flora and fauna offer awe. Orange Julia butterflies provide splashes of brilliant colour they dash amongst contrasting dark green leaves peppered with the coloured speckles of the lantana flowers. The brightly feathered scarlet rump of a Cherrie’s tanager flies ahead looking for a feast of berries in the lower canopy while at the toe of my stiff leather boots appear endless processions of leaf cutting ants, snaking a trail across the road and carrying thousands of times their own body weight. Previously my pack had felt weighty but once again Mother Nature had put me in my place.

Keen-smelling turkey vultures now join yesterday’s black vultures riding the thermals and occasionally soar in for a closer look. They can hone in on carrion from kilometres away and such interest in me suggests maybe I should wash my shirt in this evening’s camp-side stream. Fortunately as we crest 1000m above sea level the now rain-cooled atmosphere is enough to keep my feet moving happily, and the vultures at bay, as we begin our descent towards the tiny hamlet of Naranjillo.

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Former second division footballer turned guide Juan-Carlos Nelson is at home in the Costa Rican Central Divide. (Image: Mark Watson)

Caffeine hit

High in the rainforest and coffee plantations of the central divide we find respite from the day’s heat in the headwaters of the Naranjo river, where flickers of turquoise, black and brilliant green reveal themselves as myriad urania swallowtail moths lining the riverbank. It is not long before we collapse into tents under a bright full moon and a creeping carpet of mist ascending from the valley below.

Tomorrow brings a 5am wake-up in preparation for a 13km hike and a 13km MTB, but the local rooster appears over-keen for dawn and begins crowing at 2.30am… somehow this is far more soothing than the sounds of any city traffic.

In the cool of the morning we begin to climb a maze of steep zig-zagging trails. Weaving through the near-vertical coffee plantations of the Costa Rican central range, startled Central American whiptail lizards scurry amongst the undergrowth as the mercury once again surges. We rapidly gain 500m in elevation offering glimpses of remote and untouched waterfalls in the Rio Naranjo now far below where a common black hawk chases its avian prey.

The clouds mercifully keep the mercury in the lower 30s and we make good time to our rendezvous with Memo and the support vehicle carrying our mountain bikes for the final uphill push to the coffee hub of Santa Maria.

Arriving in the agricultural hub I waste no time in undoing the entire day’s hard work by finding the closest rustic coffee shop where I order a Dulcito, which consists coffee, chocolate, Baileys, condensed milk and frothed milk… I know! Blasphemy to coffee snobs, but how can I refuse such a concoction of caffeine and cholesterol.

On yer bike

With tents swapped for soft beds, Santa Maria proves to be a mere 16-hour stopover and as the sun rises over a hidden, but not too distant Turrialba Volcano, I somehow find myself once again straddling a mountain bike and pedalling uphill.

Leaving the coffee plantations of Santa Maria far below, our 47km sweat-fest begins with a near two-hour lung-busting 800m vertical tarmac ascent to 2350m above sea level and the top of Costa Rica’s continental divide.

I’m forced to blare some tunes from my phone to get the brain in the right zone but this fan-dangled Suunto continues to beep at me, warning my heart is about to explode, and so instead I decide to hang back and motivate Jess who appears to be suffering more than I today. And so begins a comedic bike-dance-hillclimb to the tunes of Hilltop Hoods; there’s a lot of laughing and wheezing but we finally summit the divide.

Supposedly, it’s all downhill from here. Finally I am in my zone… the gravel begins and the gradient steepens enough to drop the seat to near its lowest level. We plummet nearly one and a half vertical kilometres toward our overnight camp, eyes watering and barely enough time to note the hanging Montezuma nests on the trailside trees. I have a few near misses as my brakes cook and deep ruts suggest I veer left when I want to turn right. I finally stop under a shady glade to cool the boiling hydraulics only to notice a brilliant female acorn woodpecker quizzically looking at me.

Dave turns up with a grin from ear to ear; while he had me on the ascents I just pipped him on the descents, quite probably due to my lack of brakes rather than skill level. Jess follows whooping with joy and then Suz drifts in. Ashen faced she announces, “That was the scariest thing I’ve done in my life.” I try to convince her it becomes more fun the faster you go, but Jill’s arrival with bleeding knees and elbows proves my theory is not always totally accurate.

Wild soundtrack

It is more than halfway through our traverse when we descend slowly toward the Caribbean Coast but our 13km mountain bike route surprisingly detours upward towards the 4715ha Tapanti National Wildlife Refuge.

High above the impenetrable rainforests of the Costa Rican lowlands lie the cloud forests of central Americas great continental divide and the Talamanca Mountain Range. Here the humidity sits at nearly 100 per cent every day of the year in a vast, quiet stillness of steep, lush, mist-enveloped peaks and ravines.

It is in such terrain that jaguars roam at night, but by day, our only interruption to the stillness of Tapanti National Wildlife Refuge is the spectacular song of the black-faced solitaire that echoes throughout the valleys in a melodic whistle.

As I contour toward the River Grande de Orosi, I realise this is the Costa Rica I have been looking for. The physical challenges of prior days fade as I soak up the stillness, peering into the undergrowth in a vain quest to spy a tapir, spider monkey or ocelot, but sight is of little use in the dense forest and it is the singing of the solitaire or the distant calls of the howler monkey that offer evidence of a hidden world.

Exiting the refuge I am rejuvenated for the cruisy mountain bike to Pejibaye where I stay with a local family, amusing one another with my lack of Spanish and their lack of English. Utilising multiple charades skills, we manage to communicate and I leave the following day in the good books after cheering the appropriate football team at a communal get-together.

Into the drink

Our intended arrival date at the Caribbean coast is looming as we take on our last hair-raising mountain bike descent. On the banks of the Pacuare River we leave our bikes and boots to slip on river shoes and finally tackle the infamous rapids of the eastern slopes. After more than a week of fatiguing days, at long last we allow Mother Nature to push us along. The cascading waters of the Rio Pacuare send us swiftly toward our riverside camp and we arrive early enough to dry gear, lay up in hammocks and soak in the soothing sounds of the forest and river before switching our head torches on.

It doesn’t take long to realise the Pacuare River rainforest at night teems with wildlife.

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My personal view for a number of days as we rafted the majestic Rio Pacuare River toward the Caribbean Coast. (Image: Mark Watson)

Armadillos scurry in the undergrowth whilst tarantulas creep from their subterranean tunnels, and tiny bright red flashes of poison dart frogs leap out of sight whilst their incredibly huge cousin, the smoky jungle frog, is hard to miss at nearly 20cm long. If you look closely enough amongst the thick rainforest foliage you will likely discover camouflaged snakes, insects and arachnids of all shapes and sizes… including an incredible alien-like juvenile leaf mimic katydid we spot just metres from our campsite. Following a day of rest under rainforest waterfalls it is time complete our 30km multiday whitewater raft journey through the larger grade 3 and 4 rapids of the lower Pacuare River. As we prepare, it becomes obvious the local poison dart frog population is revelling after the overnight rain and the brilliant red amphibians come out aplenty to see us off on the rest of our journey (see Quick Fact 3).

The long sweaty MTB climbs from the Pacific Ocean to the continental divide are a memory as we settle in to the final day whitewater rafting the Pacuare River. Listed by National Geographic as one of the top 10 river trips in the world, it is easy to see why.

Upstream Grade V rapids challenge even the best kayakers and rafters while downstream waterfalls cascade from the steep jungle, arcing out to rain down into the deep canyons. The thick green foliage alongside is intermittently interrupted with black sand beaches where kingfishers and toucans sweep from one side of the river to the other.

It is on the Pacuare River where our traverse finally comes to an end. Following an overnight camp with three toed sloths in the branches overhead, and even prettier green and black poison dart frogs hiding in the damp undergrowth, we ride the trusty mountain bikes for the last time to our kayak put-in point.

Paddling the endmost stretch of our traverse, kingfishers swoop toward the water whilst my eyes search for caiman in the now widening waters and mangrove forests. Muscles ache for one last moment as our final paddle strokes lead us to a sandy beach and, with wobbly jelly kayak legs, our now smelly and motley crew stand together in unison to open a bottle of champagne.

On the fine sandy Caribbean coast we raise glasses high and toast, “Pura Vida!” Our adventure has finally come to an end but we have all sipped from the flask of pure life.

Random quick fact 1

The wealth of many Central American countries, including Costa Rica, was heavily dependent on bananas exported by the United Fruit Company in the early and mid 20th Century. The United Fruit Company rapidly grew to become the largest employer in Central America, exporting fruit, but also controlling railroads, shipping and even Central American governments.

The company’s dominance of trade and export of bananas in Central America, along with its exploitation of workers, heavy handed involvement with government and shady dealings, led to the coining of the term ‘Banana Republic’.

The Panama Disease of the mid 1900s decimated Costa Rican crops, forcing the transition to alternate exports of palm oil, along with pineapple, coffee and now ornamental plants.

Random quick fact 2

You will certainly know about it if you brush up against a Cornizuelo in Costa Rica. Bullhorn Acacia (Cornizuelo in Spanish) have a symbiotic relationship with Bullhorn Acacia ants. The ants live in the large, easily identifiable conical thorns of the tree and the tree provides nectar for colonies of many thousands of ants. In return, the ants protect the plant by eating surrounding plants to eliminate competition, and also attacking any animal that climbs or brushes up against the plant. The only exception are a few bird species such as Rufous-naped Wrens who protect the ants by defending them from other avian insectivores, whilst benefiting from the ants who attack any monkeys or snakes looking for a meal of wren eggs.

The essentials

Who: World Expeditions offers a 12-day Costa Rica Traverse, linking the Pacific to Caribbean by foot, mountain bike, river raft and sea kayak. The journey is rated Moderate to Challenging and costs start at A$3390 excluding flights. Bookings include accommodation (hotels and camping), most meals, transfers, equipment (bikes, rafts, kayaks and camping gear), support vehicle and experienced guides.

When: Trips are offered all year round except for the height of the rainy season (June to November).

Getting there: United Airlines flies to San Jose, Cost Rica via Los Angeles and Panama City for around $1400 from Sydney.