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Trip Report Rafting and Puerto Viejo - the ultimate pura vida experience!

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We just returned from our second vacation in Costa Rica this year. It was a short trip (Thursday to Tuesday), but so worth it! My husband travels to CR at least once a month for work, and I figured that we should really take advantage of his free flight and frequent flyer miles for me for a quick trip away without our kids.

I was bummed that the timing of our trip didn’t work out for the Fodors GTG at Bosque, so we decided we would go someplace we hadn’t been. While researching, I stumbled across a rafting transfer to Puerto Viejo and I knew we had found the perfect option. We’ve always been interested in visiting the Caribbean side.

On the other hand, I’ve never been interested in white water rafting. The thought of bouncing through the rapids and the possibility of falling out onto a rock has always scared me. But, my husband rafted in Costa Rica in January, and in every picture he had a huge smile on his face. So, knowing how much fun he had coupled with the fact that he was willing to go out of his comfort zone and zip line on other trips just because I wanted to, made me decide to go for it.

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    I took an afternoon flight out of Minneapolis and landed in Costa Rica around 8:45. There was virtually no wait in immigration, and I breezed past the baggage claim having only a carry-on with me, grabbed a taxi and was on my way to meet up with my husband at the Doubletree Cariari. The Doubletree has an open air lobby and open air walkways, so it feels very tropical. It doesn’t seem like a chain hotel, and is fairly casual. The beds and pillows are extremely comfortable. We went to bed early since we were getting picked up for our day of rafting the Pacuare at 6:00am the next morning. I fell asleep trying not to think about what I was about to get myself into the next day!

    We were picked up on time by Manuel and the driver with Exploradores Outdoors. We saw a lot of people walking along the road as we made our way through San Jose. It was a holy holiday in Costa Rica. Thousands of people were participating in what is called “romeria.” You can read more about it here: http://www.ticotimes.net/More-news/News-Briefs/La-Negrita-receives-the-faithful-in-Cartago_Friday-August-02-2013

    After we picked up two other groups, and headed out of San Jose, it was a beautiful ride through the Braulio Carrillo National Forest - misty and cloudy and very green. Manuel chatted with all of us on the way to Siquirres.

    Once we arrived, we changed and placed our luggage into the very secure lockers. Then, we had a wonderful typical Tico breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, sausage, toast, fresh fruit, juice, and coffee. After breakfast, we loaded up into vans again and made our way up the mountain to our starting point. While we were traveling, we were briefed on the rafting procedures and all of the safety protocol. My husband said that was a really nice time saver because when he went with Rios Tropicales in January, they hauled the groups to the river via tractor, which was fun, but they had to stand on the edge of the river to get their briefing. With Exploradores, we divided into groups and jumped into the rafts right away (Manuel ended up as our guide).

    I didn’t let myself get nervous, even though my husband teasingly tried to freak me out a little bit before we started, and when we came upon the first rapids, I had my feet so tightly secured there was no way I was going to fall out! As Manuel guided us through, we all cheered and thought it was fun. But, it was just a Class I – II rapid, and we were going to be meeting up with IIIs and IVs! Yikes!

    Well, those Class III and IV rapids turned out to be a blast. We had an awesome day on the river, and I never fell out! I am so glad I did it! In between the rapids, we were all able to chat and Manuel filled us in on various things about Costa Rica, and we had fun splashing other boats with our paddles. We jumped in and floated in the river at one point. The scenery was jaw-dropping, even though it was raining. We weren’t able to have lunch on the shore because of the rain, so had to wait until we were at the end of the rafting trip. We left the river and only had to walk a few meters back to where we had eaten breakfast that morning – another plus for Exploradores in my husband’s opinion. We had a great lunch of burritos with all of the fixings, and a small dessert. We purchased the CD of the pictures.

    We loaded into a different van with a new guide and driver, and were on our way to Puerto Viejo. On the way, we saw a lot of banana plantations, and near Limon, a lot of shipping containers. We were excited to see the coast, and the rain had stopped. We arrived at Banana Azul, our destination for the next three nights at about 4:30.

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    Vg, I really want to do it again someday. An overnight trip on the Pacuare would be fun.

    Banana Azul is beautiful, with a perfect location – on the beach and away from the busy town. Cozy seems like an odd word to describe a hotel in the tropics, but with all of the lush gardens on the property, the wooden furniture along with quiet music playing in the background in the lobby/bar/dining area, the beautiful view and peaceful sound of the ocean nearby, it was the first word that came to our minds. Pet dogs and cats occasionally roam around, adding to the comfortable atmosphere. We stayed in the Red Frog room, which was extremely nice. It had air conditioning (a rare find on the Caribbean side of CR), a huge private patio, and a private back deck with a plunge pool that was heated to a comfortable temperature.

    We spent the first evening walking along the beach, relaxing with some drinks, eating an excellent and very fairly priced dinner (fajitas and a brownie with ice cream for dessert), and Facetiming with our kids (thanks to the free Wi-fi the hotel provides) to let them know that Mom survived and loved the rafting trip. We were hoping to book a snorkeling tour for the next day, but the water visibility was not expected to be good, so the boats weren’t going out. We decided to see what the weather was doing the next day before we made any plans.

    Saturday morning we decided not to rush ourselves, so had a leisurely breakfast. We both ordered a typical Tico breakfast which was included with our room along with coffee, fruit, juice and yogurt. We were happy to see that the sun was shining. We spent some time in the ocean getting tossed around by the waves, and then we decided to rent bicycles and head down the coast. Who would think that such a simple activity could bring such pleasure? I was grinning from ear to ear as we started riding. There was something special about riding an old fashioned one speed bike with a funky basket in front through the rainforest with the ocean in view.

    Navigating through town was a little bit tricky, as it was very busy. There was a surfing competition being held at Playa Cocles, so there were quite a few cars coming and going. We kept riding and decided to go to Punta Uva to check out the beach. We couldn’t both go in since we had our camera along, so my husband spent time in the water while I leaned back against a log in the shade and just cooled off in the breeze and took in the view. It is a pretty beach, and there were several families along with their dogs there enjoying the day. The sand at Punta Uva is a light brown color, different from the sand at Playa Negra at Banana Azul which is black.

    We decided to forge ahead to Manzanillo. The jungle on each side of the road became denser, and there were less cars. After a couple of tough hills (one speed bicycles are not good on hills), we made it. Manzanillo was a happening, hopping beach. We ate lunch at Maxi’s on the second floor overlooking the beach. The place was buzzing from the conversations of customers and the music was pumping. We each ordered the Caribbean style fish and it was a huge plate of excellent food.

    After our refueling, we took off back toward Puerto Viejo. Along the way, we heard howler monkeys nearby, and thanks to a lady standing along the side of the road with a zoom lens camera, we spotted a sloth. We stopped briefly at Playa Cocles to check out the surfing competition, but didn’t stay too long. We got to Banana Azul around 4:30. We ordered some well-made drinks from the bar (by the way, most of the drinks are made with fresh fruit and freshly squeezed juice) and swam in the pool until the rain started to fall. Ate another excellent dinner, relaxed in our plunge pool, and called it a night early.

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    It was still raining when we woke up Sunday morning. Took our time over breakfast again and ordered the eggs benedict. We decided to go to Cahuita National Park and hike since it wouldn’t matter that it was raining, but fortunately, while we were on our way to catch the bus, the rain stopped. We got off at the Puerto Vargas entrance and paid the fee to get into the park. The park trail was easy to follow and right along the beach. We walked slowly, and saw an anteater, a raccoon, an agouti, a sloth, a capuchin, lots of sand and blue crabs, and heard howler monkeys. It was an 8 km walk, and during the first half, we didn’t meet too many people. The second half of the trail was very muddy and a bit busier. It was supposed to be about a two hour hike, but we ended up taking close to three because it’s hard to walk fast when you are looking up at the treetops or taking in the beach scenery! There were some spots along the beach that were picture postcard pretty.

    The trail ends in the town of Cahuita, which is a quiet little town. We ate lunch at a restaurant that one of the bartenders from Banana Azul recommended called Coral Caribeno. It was good, reasonably priced, and we each had Caribbean style shrimp. The bus stop was a bit confusing to find because it’s not well marked, and we had the timing wrong, so spent almost an hour waiting for the bus back. We encountered many helpful and friendly Ticos while we were trying to get to the right spot and the right bus.

    We spent what was left of the afternoon and the evening at Banana Azul. It was so peaceful and relaxing there, with good food and drink, we just didn’t see the need to go into Puerto Viejo for dinner. I noticed that most of the other people staying there did the same. It was Caribbean night, so we were able to taste rondon (a yummy seafood soup) and eat some fantastic jerk chicken polished off by coconut flan for dessert. We chatted with Colin, the owner, for quite a while. He loves what he is doing and it shows with how well he runs the hotel. The service there was friendly and quick, and the people at the front desk were great about answering questions. Prices for drinks and food were very reasonable. There were little things such as coffee available on the beach, a water cooler to refill water bottles available in the main lobby, and bug spray sitting out for anyone to use that were extra touches that impressed us.

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    Nice report. You made good use of your time. We loved Banana Azul, too. You'll have to go back and try some of the cute restaurants along the road to Manzanillo. They were our favorite part of our Puerto Viejo trip.
    By the way, I of course fell out of the raft in the class I - II rapids. My kids never let me forget that.

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    You all make me chuckle - especially you, Shooie! Some people think that falling out adds to the fun! We had a couple of people in our raft go over, plus our raft got stuck on a rock, so we weren't without incident. After another raft finally broke us free, we had to do a lot of paddling to catch up to our second place spot (I suppose for the pictures), and we joked with our guide that he was punishing us for messing up!

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    Finishing up. Aren't you glad I didn't go for 10 days with as long as this is?

    Monday was our last day, and we were getting picked up at 2:00. We rented bikes again, and planned to go to the Jaguar Rescue Center. We had also promised our daughters that we would pick up some souvenirs. None of the stores in town opened too early, so we couldn’t get anything before we got to the center.

    There was a huge group of people waiting for the tour. I hadn’t inquired ahead of time how long the tour lasts. When we found out it was an hour and a half, we started thinking that it would be hard to ride back, get our shopping done and get showered before checking out at noon. It was another sunny day, we’d been to an animal rescue center on a previous trip, and the ocean waves were calling our names. So, we decided to pass on the tour. If we had had another full day of our trip left, we would have done it. I’ve read many great things about it. Next time.

    We biked a little longer, stopped at Playa Cocles which was now deserted, managed to find some souvenirs (which wasn’t easy because the town just isn’t that touristy), and biked back to Banana Azul. We jumped into our bathing suits and hit the waves. There were a few other hotel guests with the same idea. It was great to finish our trip with some ocean fun.

    We checked out at noon, and sat on the beach for a while with three friendly dogs to keep us company, then ate a delicious lunch. Interbus arrived to pick us up right on time. It was sad to have to leave Banana Azul. The trip back was long, but the scenery was pretty. Riding through the Braulio Carrillo Forest this time was a bit unnerving. It was raining, starting to get dark, and quite foggy. Zipping around those curves while meeting semi-trucks was a little spooky, but I figured that the Interbus drivers know what they are doing. Tico drivers in general seem to have incredible reflexes!

    We arrived at the Doubletree at the scheduled time of 7:00. We booked the room using points, and we were upgraded to the Executive Suite. Too bad we had such a short stay since we had early morning flights home the next day. The restaurant my husband usually frequents near the Doubletree is not open on Mondays, so we ate at the Doubletree’s restaurant. The food is decent, but way overpriced. We were back at the airport the next morning by 5:00am to head home.

    We arranged our trip through Gecko Trails. Normally, I make all of our own arrangements, but it was on their website that I first read about the rafting transfer, so I had them make all of the bookings. It was simple just to make one payment to them, and they were very helpful with questions I had. They have a desk at Banana Azul, making it easy to arrange tours through them once you are there.

    We really loved the Puerto Viejo area. We liked the idea that you don’t have to book expensive, organized tours to enjoy the area. But, there are there are plenty of them to choose from if you prefer - adventure, cultural, wildlife. If we had been in the area longer, we would have taken advantage of a few of them. It’s not a touristy area, we felt safe, and the beaches and rainforest are pretty. I would love to go back and check out more of the area restaurants that I’ve read are so good. It was worth the long drive to get there and back because we felt so immersed in pura vida once we were there. If you’ve ever wondered about the southern Caribbean side of Costa Rica, I encourage you to go!

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    Awesome report and insight! Love reliving some of my favorite places and reading about your adventures...Pacuare River and Puerto Viejo (and Banana Azul to be precise) are always on the top of my list to recommend as I try to lure people away from some of the more typical spots. You have me thinking about when I can go back again. :-)

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    Great report of fun times, JN! I really enjoyed the Caribbean side in February and stayed outside of Cahuita. The park is great, full of wildlife. Have to return again and hope the waves are calmer for snorkeling as our trip was cancelled, too.

    Thanks for all the details.

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