Between the rollicking rapids of this country’s most beautiful river, on the long calm stretches coursing through lush canyons, the scenery and serenity are almost dreamlike.
Laughter and screams that fill the air as the rafts tumble and twirl through the turbulent zones give way to a collective hush, during which you are left in awe, compelled simply to look and listen.
You tune to the sound of water rushing from the mountains to the Caribbean Sea, and to the chirping and whistling of birds deep in the jungle.
This small Central American nation, sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama, has 850 species of birds -- and you seem to be among them all.
A tiger heron tries to blend into the bank, striking a statuesque pose as it waits to pluck an unsuspecting fish from the river.
The pendulous nests of Montezuma oropendolas form colonies in the branches of tall trees. The brightly colored birds are darting from tree to tree, nest to nest.
The female of this species chooses her mate based on the size and safety of his nest, your guide, Andres Vargas Sanchez, says, pointing above the trees to one of many enemies of the oropendolas, a large-beaked toucan, jokingly referred to as “that Froot Loop guy,” in flight over the river.
Onward you go, charging through rapids one minute, looking for monkeys the next, immersed in a universe so vibrant and green that you can hardly believe your eyes.
You’re on the Pacuare River, one of the world’s top whitewater destinations, regarded so in part because of its steep and tricky rapids, but the entire 18-mile stretch run by the rafting outfitters winds through dense, primary rain forest.
You run this river by forward-paddling down and through the bigger rapids, back-paddling to keep your raft in position, “high-siding” when your raft sweeps up against boulders to keep from flipping, but also by just sitting and looking.
And when you eventually take out, at the riverside community of Siquirres, you emerge in sort of a daze, reflecting back on where you’ve been, not quite ready for the bus trip back to reality.
Rafting and kayaking are among the most popular activities available to those visiting Costa Rica. The country has several rivers that are run commercially, with trips ranging in length from half a day to three days, on sections of river ranging in degree of difficulty from Class I-II to the more difficult Classes III, IV and, occasionally, Class V.
The Pacuare fits in Class V. The most exciting time, Vargas says, is from May through December, with November being the best month because rains are subsiding but the river remains high and fast.
Unlike Costa Rica’s other main whitewater rivers, such as the Reventazon, the Pacuare flows freely from its headwaters high in the Talamanca range all the way to the Caribbean.
But its future is far from secure. The country has embarked on an ambitious and controversial program to build more hydroelectric power plants, which will generate electricity both for local consumption and sale abroad. This means building dams, and dams, of course, mean the flooding of rivers and altering of flows.
The Reventazon has two dams, the most recent of which flooded a popular section of whitewater and, some claim, has stemmed the natural cleansing process. Untreated waste from nearby communities enters the river, and at least one big rafting company has stopped running trips there.
Dams and their effects on rivers and the environment are nothing new. In California and throughout the West, they’ve jeopardized salmon and steelhead runs. In some cases, such as on the Stanislaus and Feather rivers, they’ve also spoiled sections popular among rafters and kayakers.
On the Lower Kern River near Bakersfield, on the other hand, the dam that created Lake Isabella offers reliable flows for river runners below the lake, as a certain amount of water is guaranteed to farmers in the valley below.
But progress and prosperity notwithstanding, nobody removed from the politics or special interests related to dams likes to see a free-flowing river stopped in its tracks. Especially a river as spectacular as the Pacuare.
Roberto Jimenez, director of planning for the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), said in a recent interview that the country is investigating other ways to meet energy demands but added, “Hydroelectricity is the best and cheapest alternative for the country.”
He added that ICE “has prioritized and has interest in realizing [hydroelectric] projects” in 13 of the country’s 32 river basins. Of the Pacuare, he stressed that although it holds “important potential for hydroelectric energy, no decision has been made over the possible development of this river basin.”
So it looks as though the river is safe for now. It’s business as usual, not only for outfitters and tourists but for thousands of birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians, and also the indigenous Cabecar Indians.
Said Daniel Peyer, owner of Aventuras Naturales, the country’s second-largest outfitter, “It probably won’t happen until the next decade if it even happens that early, but it’s a concern we always have and it’s growing because there is not a river in Costa Rica that has not been evaluated for a hydroelectric project.”
The two-hour bus trip east to the Pacuare from San Jose -- the country’s capital and the jumping-off point for trips into the wilderness -- is through vast coffee plantations and colorful towns, among them Turrialba, closest to the big rivers and home to most of the guides.
The put-in is at Tres Equis, reachable by bus from a paved mountain road and then by foot down a steep dirt road, leading to an emerald waterway that falls at a rate of 46 feet per mile.
You begin with a long stretch of calm atop a river that seems to absorb the green from its densely forested banks while reflecting the blue from the sky, creating an almost surreal avenue on which you travel.
The more experienced guides know the river’s intricacies and get the most out of each rapid. If you are able and willing, Vargas, who works for Aventuras Naturales, will have you riding up against boulders, riding backward down churning rapids and tucking beneath voluminous waterfalls for a drenching matched only by the infrequent occasions -- and they are never intentional -- when a paddler goes overboard.
“Then all you have to worry about are the piranha,” Vargas warns, drawing curious looks from those unaware that the flesh-eating fish found in South America do not exist in Central America.
The Pacuare basin does, however, boast an array of poisonous spiders and snakes. Jaguars, although they’ve been poached extensively through the years, turn up from time to time. Sloths and iguanas are residents, as are astonishing numbers of colorful butterflies.
The biggest crowd pleasers, though, are the spider monkeys and howler monkeys. Sightings are rare, however, as the Cabecar, whose huts are visible in places through the trees, still hunt monkeys as food.
The Pacuare Lodge is another structure visible on the banks of the river. It’s a rustic facility that houses people on multiday rafting trips. Aventuras Naturales owns the lodge and a zip-line, or canopy-tour operation on a vast parcel of rain forest Peyer says his company purchased to ensure it will never be cleared.
The lodge employs four Cabecar Indians, he adds, “who are being educated that a live monkey is more valuable than a dead one,” as a tourist attraction.
Rios Tropicales Lodge, run by Rios Tropicales, the country’s largest outfitter, is another stopover facility, on another large parcel of rain forest purchased, the company says, to ensure its conservation.
During three-day trips, guests at both lodges spend all of their second day hiking to large pools and showering beneath waterfalls. Those on two-day trips arrive in early afternoon and leave in late morning. Those on one-day trips, meanwhile, are merely passing by.
Sun gives way to rain as you glide quietly by, in bright blue flotillas four or five rafts strong. The quiet ends as you plummet through rapids with names such as El Rodeo, Double Drop, Pin Ball and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
And rain slowly gives way to sunshine as you finally enter the long, wide gorge at Dos Montanas, or Two Mountains, a possible dam site. You can envision such a monstrosity as you jump from your raft and float downstream.
But then you snap to and climb back aboard your vessel and paddle like the dickens through La Llorona and El Sadico, finishing up with a bumpy run through Graduacion, or Graduation.
Post-graduation is a toast to your success ashore at Siquirres. Finally, you board the bus and head back to bustling San Jose.
Now that’s a jungle.