A weekend in Costa Rica with the Pacuare Outdoor Center.
When I saw an email on a Monday afternoon from the National Bicycle Dealers Association that a spot had opened up on Friday for a trip to Costa Rica to check out the Pacuare Outdoor Center I signed up. I saw biking and rafting on the schedule and didn’t pay too much attention to the rest. It was spur of the moment and I needed the trip. The pandemic has been lousy on me and my feelings are pretty fragile right now from last fall. The only flight to the San Jose Airport I could book was a redeye on Thursday night to arrive in the morning on Friday. I hurriedly packed the suggested gear including two bathing suits, big plastic bags, and plenty of battery chargers.
Raphael and a driver picked only me up at the airport because my flight was so early and we had a local breakfast. (By the way it was the first time someone was holding a sign with my name at an airport, I felt special right away.) The three of us stopped at a very local restaurant and I had a terrific local meal. Turns out I would be eating a lot of rice and beans during the next few days. After breakfast we stopped at two different hotels for 4 other participants. Everyone was a member of the NBDA (I am on the board of directors) but we all paid the same really reasonable price for the weekend. A lot of chitchat in the van and we headed out of San Jose, Costa Rica toward the river. Raphael shared lots of local information and we stopped for a sightseeing opportunity at a local church where a stone had some healing powers. It was just like traveling with my mom. She loved that stuff.
We stopped again for lunch (rice, beans, chicken) and had a lively conversation in the van about a lot of things important to all of us. We drove through the countryside and were surrounded frequently by sugar cane and coffee. It was a windy road and we passed other vans and trucks even with a solid line. That made me nervous. After the roughly 3 hours of driving to the center of Costa Rica we turned down to what seemed to be the most unexpected dirt road in a neighborhood and passed family homes to what seemed like an Oasis. Tom Ranieri runs the Pacuare Outdoor Center and guests frequently arrive at this compound which is surrounded by his family, staff and clearly friends. The very modern wooden / steel mini resort is part Air BnB, part Resort, part headquarters and part community/family center. My room had the same spectacular view of the valley below as everyone and the main room.
We waited with the entire neighborhood of family and Tom’s friends for the second half of our NBDA group. They ran late because of bad weather. A long table was set up for everyone and we ate together like a family Thanksgiving Dinner. During dinner Luigi gave us a timeline for the next day. We can expect coffee around 5 AM, breakfast around 7:30 and we would start riding bikes to the river around 8:30. The mileage was 18 miles with lots of hills and they kept hinting some of us might want to take the van, avoid hills and meet 2/3 of the way in. I am a bit heavy right now, maybe they were talking to me. Only two people opted to take the van to the river, the rest of us decided to pedal the distance. I was a bit nervous because I have not been riding but I hoped my hill riding in Topanga would suffice.
Our bikes were ready after breakfast and an amazing night sleep. I was still nervous and excited but the first hill (and longest most sustained) wasn’t worse than our Saturday rides so I was in my element. The road was dirt and again surrounded by sugar cane.
After our two short stops we had a couple annoying punchy climbs and everyone was sorta checking their watches and wondering if we would make it to the river by noon. It wasn’t a hard time but our expected time of arrival. The scenery was fantastic on the off the beaten path route they planned. We had a very short downhill moment on some pavement and then realized we had a pretty long decent. The climbing was over. As we approached the river the jungle became denser and the trail steeper down and a bit jarring. Everyone made it to the river and was pretty happy when we arrive at just about exactly noon. Lunch was being prepared on the back side of a raft. Sandwiches and fruit was on the menu. Super tasty and I was hungry. The river was rushing near us and I was getting excited for rafting.
After safety speeches, helmet testing, rowing practice and all the things appropriate for rafting newbies to hear, we jumped in the rafts. We were split into 2 groups of 5 plus a guide. Two of their team were in kayaks to keep an eye out and take photos. The river was a little cold at first but we all seemed to acclimate. The guides had great fun themselves and it spilled over to everyone. Splashing and fun. I fell in the river for about 2 seconds at a rough part but was immediately pulled back in and that was the worse calamity day one. We had a blast navigating the Pacuare River. We saw Tucans and a whole slew of birds.
Our rafts and guides made to the shore below the Pacuare Outdoor Center and we hiked up to the amazing off grid bungalows with the incredible main pavilion. They have two kitchens because sometimes other rafting companies rent the space but the local knowledge is that the meals are so often rice and beans that the cooks share the work and everyone shares the food no matter who is the operator. My bungalow was like you see in the movies. Mostly massive windows and a short hike to my personal quiet escape.
Dinner was delicious again and we made the mistake of not sitting with the guides. I wish we had spent more meals together. Costa Rica is near the equator so the sun sets about 6 PM every day and sunrise is about 6 AM every day no matter what time of year. I needed a flashlight to get to my bungalow. They had a happy hour prior to dinner and their was beer wine and tequila. Most of us didn’t drink and went to bed pretty early. I think the guides were very happy about that.
After another good night sleep I woke up around 7 AM and headed down for coffee. We had the Canopy and Tarzan swing in the morning followed by a hike to a waterfall in the afternoon. I dutifully headed up the trail to what is like a zip line (Canopy) and was geared up for an adventure swinging between tree tops. Turns out that if given the opportunity to brake I will do that no matter how high in the forest I am. It was the scariest thing I have ever done and I failed miserably. The only way I would not brake was by completely letting go. Luckily they have a braking system for people like me and a plan. You have to go three times til you can exit because the platforms are in the trees. No stairs. It was not my thing. Luigi saved me on the last one and I exited the activity. Most of the others kept going on to 4 more treetops. I went shaking for coffee and abandoned the swing. Two others and I recounted our personal terror until the others got back.
After lunch and after I calmed down most of us went on a hike to a waterfall and swimming hole up a rocky tributary to the main river. The water was cold and refreshing. I didn’t care about much because I was still a little overwhelmed at the canopy. We hiked back to the pavilion and had pasta for dinner after playing board games. The pasta was a nice change. After dinner they had a bonfire and marsh mellows with chocolate syrup. Costa Rica S’mores. Felt like a little kid. It was terrific.
Somehow I had the wisdom to pack up before I went to bed for another amazing night sleep. I had a backpack and day pack with a change of clothes for after the final day of rafting. I realized why they said bring big zip lock bags. It is humid in Costa Rica with random mid day rain storms. Nothing dries. I used all of my Ziplock bags. Headed down for breakfast and journal writing as everyone slowly gathered in the morning and charged my phone for photos. No electricity meant charging was impossible. I have done a lot of off grid bikepacking and I was so prepared that I let others charge their phones on the last morning.
We hiked down to the river again. Two other groups were rafting. A newly married couple from England and some local kids who had done some charity work. Tom is an amazing dude and he had a kayak along with 3 others to keep us all safe and take photos (Luigi, thank you.) The lower part had some level 4 rapids and we really tested our skills. We stopped once to jump in from a rock and again for lunch on an overturned raft. The guides made sure everyone had smiles including themselves. Summer camp always felt like family and the same applied for this adventure.
We kept looking for a sloth but had to settle for a giant lizard as we meandered down the Pacaure River. Like I said before I wanted to reboot and I did reboot during the rafting trip. Everyone was so fun and so nice and kind. After a full day of rafting we jumped in the vans at a pickup spot with showers and towels ready. It is like they thought of literally everything. I was so appreciative and happy I had include dry shoes in my dry bag. It is the little things in life.
After the van ride we headed back to Tom’s place. In the craziest juxtaposition to our weekend we had to get swabbed for Covid 19 shortly after we arrived because almost everyone had a flight within 24 hours. On the deck of this amazing place the reality of the world sunk back in. I had to eventually leave back to the insanity of the modern world. The final treat before reality was the dozens of neighbors and family that flocked to Tom’s (where it seemed like he fed his entire community that night) was a handful of local children who did local dances for us before dinner. I get emotional quick and this was one of those times. So much love and kindness in the air. After the final meal with the local community I headed to bed kinda bummed I had to leaver. (Maybe a false positive Covid test could have helped, but alas, I was not that “lucky”. A good night sleep and the van brought us to the airport the next morning before that final family type meal. To say the very least, I will be back.