Joanne Marriott bikes, hikes and kayaks across Costa Rica, immersing herself in the country’s unequalled natural bounty.
According to the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica is the happiest country in the world. I certainly can’t find anything to contradict that statement, as I sit on the beach, Playa Espadilla, prior to my journey across the country.
It’s late afternoon and local families are enjoying picnic dinners, taking out kayaks and playing in the surf. Young men climb for coconuts and a paraglider takes off. The Pacific sunset is as warm as the resounding laughter between friends.
This widespread happiness, on show here, persists despite the fact the country has a developing economy, with 20 per cent of the population living in poverty. That seems to prove that money doesn’t equal happiness. But then, what does?
‘Pura Vida’, the locals say, meaning ‘simple life’. It’s a culture and mindset enjoyed by the Ticos (Costa Ricans), who believe in a happy and relaxed way of being. That’s part of it. Not being a local, I imagine I’ll struggle to master this over the course of my 12 days here. But there’s another key factor, something else that has to play a part.
Costa Rica means Rich Coast; the country is blessed with natural riches. I’m talking about mighty volcanoes, raging rivers and steady streams of sunshine, so bountiful they have propelled the country ahead as a world leader in clean energy. Over the last five years, Costa Rica has generated 99 per cent of its energy from renewable sources: 78 per cent from hydropower, 10 per cent from wind, 10 per cent from geothermal and one per cent from solar and biomass.
How can you be unhappy in such a bountiful place? This richness is in fact one of the main reasons I’m here. And after observing the cheery locals on the beach, I’m itching to immerse myself.
I meet my fellow adventurers for dinner in Quepos. My buddies for the next 10 days are a married couple of well-travelled Canadian teachers and two Californian dads, who are beyond excited to be away on a boys’ trip.
My Costa Rican guide, Jairo, a competitive mountain biker with a passion for Thai cooking, talks us through the map. Our coast-to-coast challenge will take us 248km from Quepos here on the Pacific Coast, across the Cordillera de Talamanca, through rainforests and coffee plantations, and down the Pacuare River to the Caribbean coast. It will test our strength and stamina as we use all of our reserves to power ourselves across the country with a combination of hiking, biking, rafting and kayaking.
We kick off with an early start and fresh fruit breakfast, then wave goodbye to the Pacific and start biking inland. The roads turn to dirt tracks through fields and farmland, then narrow and wind along the Río Naranjo, climbing higher and deeper into the rainforest. My tyres sink into slippery mud.
Lush tropical plants line the way. Sprays of banana palms and ti plants, bright bougainvillea and delicate hibiscus, welcome us into tiny hillside villages.
The air is thick and humid. The initial healthy glistening of my skin has transformed into a small river system and I now have sweat dripping off me in quantities that could fill a bathtub. Better keep drinking.
It’s not far until my sun-baked shoulders and saddle-sore glutes get to rest. Down on the wide riverbed of the Naranjo, the stream trickles along past heavy boulders. We soothe our hot feet and aching calves in the pool of a waterfall, then keep winding our way upstream.
From Esquipulas we continue on foot, trekking higher into the mountains. It’s cooler as the trail opens out onto elevated mountain vistas. Dark clouds congregate in stormy skies, bringing a vivid luminescence to the forest below. We camp in the valley of Naranjillo and Jairo rustles up a freshly prepared feast for dinner.
The next few days test my stamina with a combination of hiking and biking up into the Cordillera de Talamanca. This mountain range, formed by the subduction of the Cocos plate beneath the Caribbean, features Cerro Chirripó, the highest peak in Costa Rica at 3,821m. A long arc of volcanoes stretches north along the Cordillera de Guanacaste towards Nicaragua, only one of which has been tapped for its geothermal potential.
We cross an old wooden bridge to commence the steep and strenuous trek up Cemetery Hill. It’s a tough 12km slog in the heat but the views along the valley and across the mountains are astounding. At the village of San Lorenzo we switch to mountain bikes and roll past coffee plantations into Santa Maria de Dota. Our early arrival leaves plenty of time to visit the local coffee cooperative for a tour. I stock up on bags of beans, renowned to be the best in the country, thanks to the shady volcanic slopes.
FULL OF BEANS
The next morning, well-rested and pumped full of the best coffee in the land, I’m ready to take on the steepest climb of the trip. I power up the 14km hill with gritted teeth and pounding thighs, reaching the town of Empalme at 2,330m.
After refueling with breakfast, my technical skills are tested on the steep downhill. I feel myself holding on too tightly and overthinking every move as I dodge rocks and rutted sections on the rough gravel tracks. At the bottom is a fjord and we splash our way through, trying desperately to keep pedalling across without falling off. A beautiful descent through lush green hillsides and coffee-covered slopes leads us into the Orosi Valley.
The morning mist hovers in the cloud forests of the Tapanti Nature Reserve, where feathery ferns erupt and mystical moss drapes from tall trees like elaborate cobwebs. Bromeliads cluster together in the space between branches, forming communities along the strong outstretched arms of towering trees.
We pass through gushing streams and under long hanging nests. Flame trees demand attention, showering the forest with their flamboyant blooms. Descending through fields of sugar cane, past small homesteads and farms, we reach our campsite in the modest village of Taus. A magical swimming hole awaits us in the Río Pejibaye, with moss beards and trailing vines streaming down into the water from the twisting, arching arms of an old tree.
We cycle along the river, past fruit and vegetable stalls, village schools and playgrounds, until it joins Lake Angostura. The shimmering dark blue surface of this artificial lake dominates the landscape. The valley was flooded for the development of the Angostura Dam in 2000; this hydroelectric project is now the largest in Costa Rica, contributing 10 per cent of national energy production.
We bike down to a sandy beach and jump into the blue rafts for our first taste of whitewater on the mighty Río Pacuare. Flowing from the rugged slopes of the Cordillera de Talamanca down to the Caribbean coast, the Pacuare is one of the top whitewater rafting destinations in the world, with 110km of class II, III and IV rapids. These rapids flow through the pristine rainforest, which conceals mystical canyons and sparkling waterfalls.
We paddle the 10 kilometres to El Nino Del Tigre, our refuge for the night and all of the next day. We are swept up in the swirling currents and carried along, bumping past boulders and tumbling into the froth, before arriving at this remote retreat run by a local family. Perched on the edge of the rainforest next to the Pacuare, it offers a peaceful sanctuary for weary adventurers.
We make our home in the river campsite with tents on raised timber platforms, set in landscaped tropical gardens with banana palms and ginger flowers. I head to the timber-framed communal bar to find Jairo unloading fresh fruit into baskets, ready for cocktails. I sink into one of the hammocks strung to the rafters in the open-air rooftop lounge and immediately I am relaxed.
After a rest day spent lazily swinging in hammocks, spotting toucans and reading books, we jump back into the rafts the next morning. Straight away, we are whisked away in an enthusiastic rush by the swirling, churning stream. We tumble along as rapids surge and spill over each other, plunging around corners and veering past boulders, then float through gentler sections, immersed in the tranquility of the rainforest.
We pass through the canyon of Dos Moñtanas where steep cliffs enclose us in a mystical and breathtaking chasm. Rainforest cascades down over the towering cliff tops, shielding us from the outside world. A tiny bridge stretches across the ravine, lonely and abandoned. Waterfalls pound down rocky slopes in a rush to meet the river, while beautiful morpho butterflies beat their electric blue wings, shimmering and dancing into the rainbows cast by the delicate spray.
This unique wilderness is home to the indigenous Cabécar people. For decades, they have been fighting to protect their valley from being flooded by the development of a new hydroelectric dam. The original proposal positioned the dam here at Dos Moñtanas, but the focus has now shifted to the Upper Pacuare and the ancestral lands of the Cabécar tribe.
Development of the dam would flood their villages, destroy the rafting industry and damage the delicate ecosystem of the river. It’s hard to imagine a hydroelectric dam in this magical place, but projects such as these have fuelled Costa Rica’s rise as a world energy leader. Suddenly the clean image of sustainable energy for the planet is overshadowed by the dark and devastating idea of sacrificing a pristine natural environment such as this.
GO WITH THE FLOW
The gradient mellows and the rapids subside. The rainforest yields to banana plantations. On arrival at Finca Pacuarito, bright heliconia and ginger flowers surround our raised tents on a perfectly pedicured lawn. A nearby bunch of bananas look almost ripe for picking. Hammocks stretch between teetering trunks. Along the forest trails, bright flashes of colour reveal tiny poison dart frogs hiding amongst the leaf litter.
When we push off in kayaks the next morning, the moon still lingers large in a hazy purple sky, above a volcano’s silhouette. Banana plants and grasses dominate the water’s edge, illuminated by orange splashes from the poro trees. We paddle along tranquil olive-green water with vines trailing down, tickling the surface. Howler monkeys lurk in the treetops, announcing their presence as we pass.
After 40km of paddling, my kayak beaches on a dark and desolate sandbar, strewn with palm fronds and logs. Beyond is the Caribbean Sea. It marks the end of the Pacuare and my coast-to-coast adventure.
As my expedition mates hug me and squeals of congratulations ring in my ears, I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment that it’s all over. I’ve been caught up in the excitement of looking forward to the next leg, the next challenge, the next magical place around the next corner.
Nevertheless, it’s been an epic adventure across volcanic peaks, down raging rivers, and through some of the most beautiful landscapes imaginable. There’s no forgetting that. Just being here, amongst this – that’s something special. I feel blessed to have experienced such unrestricted wilderness, such an overflowing excess of nature.
A cork pops and bubbles fizz into our glasses. We toast the end of this incredible journey. To each other and the friendships formed. To the people who have cared for us along the way. To the natural riches of Costa Rica: the volcanic mountains, the virgin rainforest, and the Pacuare River. Long may it flow.
This article originally appeared in the 2019 January/February issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today to keep up to date with all the latest outdoor adventures, travel news and inspiration.