¡Pura Vida! — Sea Kayaking Costa Rica

Pure and Sweet: Sea kayak life in Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica.
Pure and Sweet: Sea kayak life in Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica.
Story & photographs by Michael Powers

¡PURA VIDA! You hear it everywhere in Costa Rica—a kid calls it out on the street, or you may encounter it scrawled on a hand-painted sign in the jungle. Costa Ricans are understandably proud of their little country, which is about the size of the state of Louisiana and unique for having no army, a higher literacy rate than the U.S. and an admirable reputation for protecting its remarkable natural resources.

Jurassic-like bird calls begin every morning at dawn outside our hotel on the outskirts of the capital city of San Jose, the first sign that we have arrived in a still wild land.

The next morning we set off on in a chartered van for a day-long drive south along the Pacific coast to where our sea kayaking expedition will begin. The driver pulls over at a jungle river and we walk out on a bridge. Looking down, we are startled to see a gang of sinister-looking crocodiles gathered along the river bank below. They look huge, about as long with their powerful tails as the sea kayaks we will soon be paddling.

"Why are you looking at me like that? You know what I want."
“Why are you looking at me like that? You know what I want.” Polo Ralph Lauren

An enterprising muchacho approaches us holding a dead chicken, which he offers to sell us for a few colones. Sensing a great photo op, I toss the chicken carcass down to the crocs. They instantly explode into action, leaving no doubt of their capability to devour ferociously, anything edible that might happen to float by.

Later that day deep in the frontier south of Costa Rica we arrive at the Golfo Dulce (sweet gulf). The gulf and the Osa Peninsula that forms its seaward flank evolved over millenniums of geological time from a seismic fault that extends north from there all the way to California. Today, National Geographic designates the Golfo Dulce as the world’s largest tropical fiord and the most biologically rich region on earth.

We find the sea breeze pleasantly refreshing here and make camp for the night on a palm-fringed, white sand beach, appropriately named Playa Blanca.

It is a motley crew of adventureros from all over who begin the next morning to pack our rented plastic sea kayaks in preparation for a multi-day exploration of the Costa Rican coast. In addition to the kayaks, we are taking along two inflatable stand-up paddle boards, which will prove to be a big hit each evening when we make camp.

Guide Mattias gives the SUP a try.
Guide Mattias gives the SUP a try. Parke & Ronen

Our two sun-tanned guides, Matias and Vince, originally from Peru and the Netherlands, both now live here in Costa Rica. A lithesome family of Vikings has traveled all the way from their home north of the Arctic Circle in Norway to experience paddling in the tropics. A dapper raconteur from Haiti, Matias’s Costa Rican girlfriend Janet, two world-touring musicians and an adventure filmmaker from California round out our expedition team.

Our plan is to paddle north along the densely forested shoreline north to reach the upper reaches of the gulf, and then turn south and explore the mainland coast for a time. Finally, we will point our kayaks west and cross the open gulf to return to the Osa Peninsula.

At last everything is ready. After some final words from Matias about staying together, we drag our heavily loaded boats across the sand and into the warm crystalline waters of the Golfo Dulce.

The crew underway in Golfo Dulce.
The crew underway in Golfo Dulce.

We soon come to a lush estuary filled with exotic tropical wildlife. Scarlet macaws squawk loudly to warn each other as we approach, their wings flashing brilliant red through the rainforest canopy. Howler monkeys add their haunting notes to the cacophony, and even high above regal frigatebirds circle majestically in an impossibly blue sky.

We come to where a river flows out of the jungle, and everyone tries not to think about the chicken-crunching crocodiles. But the river calls out to be explored, so we turn shoreward and are soon weaving through a surreal maze of cypress tree roots. Reaching a main channel, we paddle into a mystical Tolkien world, deep in the inner bowels of the rain forest.

When we get back to the open coast the tropical sun has fallen lower in the sky and morphed from its blazing mid-day gold to a deeper shade of crimson. The sun’s position along the horizon has shifted gradually throughout the day too, indicating that we have rounded the head of the gulf and are now paddling south along the mainland coast. Seemingly unbroken wilderness appears to stretch on endlessly ahead, but no one is worried because our guides seem to know where they are going.

However, everyone is happy when Matias turns at last and begins to lead us shoreward again. A deep cove that was invisible from a distance in the waning light, now materializes ahead. The kayaks make a comforting sound as they slide up on to the sand of a secluded micro-beach surrounded by dark rainforest. “Welcome to El Chontal, eco-lodge Pura Vida style,” Matias announces with a broad smile.

A trail winds up from the beach to a compound that a local family has carved out of the thick jungle. Rustic cabins, built of bamboo and hand-hewn lumber from the surrounding rainforest are scattered through a lushly flowering garden environment. Everyone is delighted to discover there are freshwater showers in the cabanas – a far cry from the swat-the-bugs and fight-off-the-snakes world we were expecting to endure on a tropical sea kayaking adventure.

The next morning the early risers gather in an open-air pavilion standing in the center of the garden, where Sidsel from Norway has offered to conduct a class in the special form of yoga that she teaches back home. Practicing the ancient asanas to the accompaniment of Sidsel’s soothing Norwegian voice, mingled with bird songs and the scent of tropical flowers wafting through the pavilion is pure nirvana.

Hold That Pose: Star pupil Janet getting her yoga on.
Hold That Pose: Star pupil Janet getting her yoga on.

After breakfast a local naturalist named David arrives to speak to us about the whales, dolphins and sea turtles that populate the Golfo Dulce in great abundance. He then offers to lead us on a hike into the surrounding rainforest.

We begin by clambering up a steep hillside to enter a primordial wilderness filled with gigantic trees. Across the overgrown trail march endless columns of leaf-cutter ants, each bearing a bright green piece of leaf much bigger than themselves.

Marie, Sidsel’s 17-year old daughter with a passionate love of animals, is enchanted by all the creatures she discovers. Before leaving Norway Sidsel had cautioned Marie to stay away from the street dogs and whatever exotic animals she might encounter in the tropics, but to no avail.

Marie making friends with the local fauna.
Marie making friends with the local fauna.

“Here in the Costa Rican rainforest there are 124 species of indigenous mammals and 375 of birds, 46 kinds of amphibians and 8000 species of insects,” David explained. His uncanny ability to lead us to an amazing variety of life forms deep in the dense understory amazed everyone.

Yet, we were all excited to be back on the water again the next day. Paddling south along the mainland coast we wove through the mysterious Mogos Islands and passed by another big mangrove-choked river delta where an osprey circling overhead without stopping, as our next campsite was still miles away.

Later that afternoon we reached the beachfront campground where we would stay that night, just as a tropical storm began to darken the sky over the mountains across the gulf. The first order of business after landing was to quickly set up our tents, in case that began to move this way.

The inflatable SUPs were a hit with the Tico kids.
The inflatable SUPs were a hit with the Tico kids. Outerknown

Saladero proved to be another shining example of how a small family cooperative could transform a little patch of wild jungle land into a haven for adventuresome travelers. A trend towards “eco” campsites and lodges, built from sustainable resources in traditional styles by local craftsmen, was obviously big in environmentally conscious Costa Rica.

At sunset the low pressure system we had been watching carefully began to produce a thermonuclear display in the western sky, galvanizing everyone into action. One of our musicians, Bob, was a serious surf ski paddler at home. He elected to re-launch his now empty kayak for a speed run back up north to explore the river we had passed by earlier. Later he would tell us about the herons, kingfishers and other riverine bird species he encountered there.

Nice spot for a concert.
Nice spot for a concert.

The other musician, Jon took his guitar out on one of the inflatable SUPs we had with us, where he proceeded to play and sing to celebrate the spectacular sunset. Our yoga master Sidsel and her disciple Janet both succeeded in standing up on the SUPs to perform the warrior pose (virabhadrasana) – not an easy feat.

During dinner a brilliantly hued parrot flew down out of the forest canopy and began to forage around camp for any trail mix or other snacks that might be unattended. Then he landed on Vince’s shoulder and when no treats were forthcoming, proceeded to give him a sharp little nip on his ear.

In spite of the storm looming in the western sky, the stars shone brilliantly overhead on our side of the gulf that night. Matias announced that reveille would be at the crack of dawn in the morning. Weather permitting, he and Vince hoped to lead us on the 18-kilometer paddle back across the open gulf that day – and they knew it is crucial to reach Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula before the tropical heat of midday causes the winds to rise.

Costa Rica has it all, including mangroves. Lots of mangroves.
Costa Rica has it all, including mangroves. Lots of mangroves.

Frank from Norway was a veteran of many serious paddling expeditions in the frigid seas and rivers north of the Arctic Circle in his homeland. Yet on this Costa Rica adventure he and Sidsel had brought 17-year old Marie, and they were concerned about her doing the long open water crossing of the gulf.

But the next morning the storm had vanished from the western sky, and the great expanse of the Golfo Dulce stretching out before us was now glassy and smooth. Everyone’s paddling skills had been honed by days of kayaking around the gulf, and we all felt ready to go. Still, any open water crossing by sea kayak with less than seasoned paddlers was always a serious concern for professional wilderness guides.

Frank’s final advice to his daughter just before launching was to follow closely in the wake of the big double kayak paddled by Matias and Janet, and allow that big boat “to dig a hole though the fiord for you to surf”.

Gracias Dios, the winds remain light as we crossed the open gulf on that final day. Our little band of expedicionistas was feeling triumphant to have paddled and explored the Darwinian wonderland of the Costa Rica coastline with such intimacy, as only sea kayakers were privileged to do.



Wilderness guides Matias Flores & Vince Lamain worked out the logistics and provided the sea kayaks, transportation and camp meals for our trip. They both live in Costa Rica, and their contacts, resources, knowledge of the country and wilderness skills thoroughly enriched our experience of paddling there. www.tropicalseakayaking.com

The Advanced Elements inflatable SUPs we brought along performed flawlessly and provided a fun alternative to sea kayaking in the tropical waters. They were immensely popular too, with all the local kids we encountered. www.advancedelements.com

There are several digital waterproof ‘sport’ cameras on the market today, but like its name implies, the Olympus Tough TG4 is especially rugged. It is waterproof down to 50 ft, has a fast, ultra-wide lens and also captures good quality video. www.getolympus.com

Kelty Gunnison 1.3 – compact, lightweight, easy to pack in a kayak and free-standing, the Kelty served us as well in Costa Rica as it did on a previous expedition in an Alaskan fiord www.kelty.com

MSR Hubba (single) & Hubba Hubba NX (double) – a high-quality mountaineering tent, also compact, lightweight, easy to pack in kayak & free-standing. www.cascadedesigns.com/msr

There are several different models of the Casio Pathfinder Twin Sensor – all waterproof down to 200 meters, with solar charging, digital compass, altimeter (to 10,000m). It also reads barometric pressure – a very useful feature for sea kayakers, enabling them to foresee weather changes. www.protrek/casio.com

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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