Courtesy of Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge

Experiencing this wildlife-rich destination by kayak or raft can give travelers a whole new perspective.

Peter Heller
July 03, 2017

Our sea kayak slipped along the edge of the rain forest. The water was smooth as polished jade and scattered with yellow leaves and bobbing figs. My wife, kim, seta brisk pace in front, and were in sync, paddling hard. I loved this. I had never paddled in a place where the jungle hung right over a calm sea.

Kim shouted as the surface of the water darkened. It was like a passing cloud shadow — but there were no clouds. And then the water boiled: it was a bait ball of sardines. The water thrashed with what I hoped were tuna, and an angular black frigate bird with an eight-foot wingspan plummeted into the chaos.

"Look! Kim cried.

"I'm looking! Wow!"

"No there!" She pointed to a wall of trees where a white-faced capuchin monkey rested on a bare branch, staring at us as if we were crazy. He didn't even flinch as a pair of macaws alighted in an almond tree below him and began to shred the nuts out of the green fruit. The macaws were gaudy vermilion, blue, and gold, and they used their talons like hands. Maybe we were the crazy ones. Could all of this be real? Also, why hadn't we come to Costa Rica's Golfo Dulce sooner?

A scarlet macaw, one of the many bird species visitors to the Golfo Dulce can see.
Glenn Bartley/Getty Images

One reason is that the place is remote, and doesn't get much press. Located in southwestern Costa Rica, this narrow gulf, which is roughly 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, is bordered to the west by the Osa Peninsula and to the east by the rugged coastline of the little-known Piedras Blancas National Park. About a quarter of Costa Rica's annual visitors flock to popular destinations like Manuel Antonio and the Arenal Volcano, but only about 2 percent make it here. An oddity of the Golfo Dulce — whose "sweet" water is fed by four rivers — is its shallow mouth, which provides shelter from most ocean currents. Rich in wildlife, the gulf is protected, meaning no trawling or commercial net fishing is allowed.

I had come back to Costa Rica because I wanted to share it with my wife, and I wanted her to meet my buddies. Thirty years ago, I mountain-biked the entire western coast of the country. Along the way I met Rafael and Victor Gallo, two brothers who were crazy about whitewater rafting and kayaking and were starting an adventure-travel company. I think they had five rafts. They asked me if I would guide for them, and I said yes. Later, they invited me to be a kayaker on the Costa Rican team at the first World Rafting Championship in Siberia. (Go figure — we all froze.) The brothers and I have become lifelong friends, and their company, Ríos Tropicales, is now the largest and most environmentally active adventure-travel outfitter in Costa Rica.

Rafa was with us that day in the gulf, and after several hours of kayaking, the three of us paddled together to our motorboat escort. We tied the kayaks together and climbed aboard our 22-foot panga, where a couple of fishing rods quivered in their holders. They seemed to be quivering with anticipation — but that might have just been me. Kim and I threw out the lures as the captain cruised slowly at five knots. Every few minutes, a reel zinged and Kim hooked another fish. She caught a roosterfish with a wild hairdo, a barracuda, and a red snapper and skipjack that we enjoyed for dinner. Her bemused smile killed me.

Kayakers paddle past mangroves near the Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge.
Courtesy of Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge

"Don't worry, Pedro," said Rafa, as he tried not to laugh. "The fish will be here tomorrow."

We fished right up to the long dock of our base, the Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge, a property that's adjacent to Piedras Blancas National Park and reachable only by boat. The lodge couldn't have been more gracious or intimate. Built of farmed and naturally fallen hardwoods, and surrounded by flower and vegetable gardens, it has only nine rooms, three of which were occupied by other couples during the course of our stay.

A cabin at the Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge.
Courtesy of Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge

That evening, on the second-floor deck of the open-air dining room, we took our drinks and sushi (thanks, Kim) to the rail and bird-watched. Squads of macaws flew over us, catching the last sunlight. As the dusk settled, black-mandibled toucans posed on dead limbs and cried, hollow and piercing, for all the lost souls on earth. Locals say their calls sound like someone crying "Dios te dé! Dios te dé!" — which means "God give you." Give you what? I wondered. Peace, maybe. Or an evening in a wild place with a fishing-champion spouse and an old friend.

After three days of sea kayaking, it was time to head to the Pacuare River, on Costa Rica's opposite coast. Kim and I wanted to stay in the water — only for this part of the trip, it would be in a raft.

The put-in for the Pacuare is 40 miles from the ocean, in the rain forest of the Caribbean slope. So just after daybreak, the captain motored us across the Golfo Dulce to Puerto Jiménez, where we took a prop plane to San José. Rafa drove us on good paved roads about two hours east through Turrialba to the village of Tres Equis, and then down a rough dirt road to the banks of the river. By the time we arrived, it was late afternoon.

The Pacuare is consistently named one of the top whitewater rivers on the planet. Rafa and Victor helped keep it that way: they once camped in a lower gorge for weeks to keep a power company from dynamiting in preparation for a dam. The Gallos got scores of others, including natives who live along the river, to join them. Because of their efforts, the Pacuare remains pristine.

I loved being in this forested gorge, where I spent many days after college teaching kayak- ing. Kim and I hopped in a raft with our guide, Verny Chavarría. Floating down-river, we watched the long sunlight illuminate patches of snowy white water. Lianas looped from the branches and blue morpho butterflies flapped over the green pools. Yellow-tailed oropendolas flew back and forth, their cries like falling water.

Years ago, we used to camp on a gravel bar in tents. Not anymore. Rafa was excited to show us his property, the Ríos Tropicales Eco-Lodge. The main building and cabins climb a hill and fade into the forest, a protected area of some 2,000 acres. The whole place is designed around sustainability and the wow factor of living happily in the depths of a river canyon in a remote rain forest. Solar panels and a small hydroturbine on a tributary creek supply electricity, and most everything is built from salvaged wood. There's also a dedicated hammock deck with sweeping views of the rush- ing river below. This side of the gorge, on river right, is virgin forest and wilderness all the way to Panama. It's a corridor for everything from jaguars to packs of wild boar.

Rafting on the Pacuare River with Rios Tropicales.
Courtesy of Rios Tropicales

That night, on the porch of our cabin, Kim and I swung side by side in hammocks and watched the darkness thicken. A single sweep of rain blew through, pattering drops in the leaves. The next day, we would hike up along a creek and zipline high through the rain-forest canopy. The day after that, we would paddle out on the river — eight miles of this 17-mile section—to see tiger herons and slender waterfalls spilling into the water. We would guide our raft into a pool beside an overhanging boulder, where a black phoebe had made her nest — a cup spun of grass and lichen and spiderwebs, clinging to the rock a few feet off the water.

But that first evening at Rafa's camp, we lay quietly in the hammocks, listening to the current rush below and the throb of crickets and tree frogs.

"You're happy, huh?" Kim said.

"It's really good to see Rafa. And to be back in the rain forest."

"I can tell. Let's come back soon."

Some promises are really easy to keep.

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