The Sarapiqui River is powerful and brownish, as it has been raining non-stop for the past 24 hours. Seated in a kayak, resting on the river bank, I observe how David flips himself over with his kayak in the current. The short red embarkation is now floating downstream, upside down. Within a few seconds though, David appears from underneath the water, with a huge smile. “So this is how we do the underwater exit”, he says. “Your turn now!”
David is our kayak instructor for the day. He has just explained what we should do in case we flip over with our whitewater kayak: safety position protecting head and vital organs, pulling up the skirt, and pulling out of the kayak to the rear. Practicing on shore seems easy and now, it is time to do the same in the river.
Really not tempted at first, as it is pouring and the water is colder than expected, we quickly pass the test and are eager to start paddling to warm up. We pick up some speed while we float downstream surrounded by the dense jungle that is home to 850 bird species. “More than in the USA and Europe together!” David announces proudly.
While having fun maneuvering the very responsive kayaks around, we wonder at rare green ibises flying over. Different kinds of kingfishers, like the Amazonian kingfisher, great blue herons and some vultures pass us by while we watch how small birds catch some insects above the water.
A few treetops move and the familiar howls and roars of howler monkeys hanging over the river can be heard. One of them is carrying a baby, and the big daddy is probably telling us to leave his family alone.
Another sound attracts our attention: a toucan with its bright colors of its oversized beak crosses the river above our heads.
Small frogs jump around on the bank when we take a break to eat some delicious locally grown pineapple, still the main industry before tourism around La Virgen. Indeed, with so many bird species, this area is not only appreciated by white water enthusiasts, but also by birdwatchers and ecotourism has become a great part of the local economy, as in all of Costa Rica.
David highlights the importance of a balanced ecosystem: for instance, the seeds of a specific fig tree will take longer to germinate after passing through the digestive system of a fish evolving in the Sarapiqui River. This leads to the dispersion of the seed upstream of the river, and not only downstream by current. This pretty impressive synergy shows the importance of preserving the rainforest and its inhabitants, as it is done in the protected zone of La Selva, also one of the worldwide landmarks for tropical forest research.
If Costa Rica has been paving the way in terms of preserving its nature, we were surprised by the impact of some parks on their surroundings. In the case of the smallest park of Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio, that possess a very rich biodiversity attracting crowds of tourists, kilometers of coastlines are completely spoiled by high-rise housing complexes, restaurants and souvenir shops.
Ending our jungle kayak tour, we have seen more wildlife floating on the Sarapiqui River, than in all the national parks and reserves of Costa Rica we have visited, while having the minimum possible impact on our environment. We just hope that we will return soon to also experience the white water adventures more upstream of the Sarapiqui River, still unspoiled by herds of tourists.
Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text & photos)
- While in La Virgen for a rafting or a kayaking adventure, make time to visit the Reserva Biológica la Tirimbina. Crossing the impressive second longest suspension bridge of Costa Rica, you will access a network of well-maintained trails along which you may spot sloths, frogs and many birds. As a non-profit organization, your entrance fee is used for research and conservation.
- We highly recommend Sarapiqui Outdoor Center to tune your river adventures: from half-a-day to a two-week trip on many rivers throughout Costa Rica, David and his team are knowledgeable, very experienced and can take you on class I to V rapids with their good quality kayaks and rafts.
- Our conclusion may sound a bit negative towards parks and reserves of Costa Rica. Many of them indeed feel more like Disneyland, and we invite our readers to explore off the beaten track areas to lessen their impact and enjoy the wildlife, everywhere to be found in Costa Rica, with less crowds.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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