Pacuare River >>rafting, rainforest, indigenous + Puerto Viejo >> Caribbean beaches, sloths + Tortuguero >>wildlife water trails, sea turtles
The Pacuare is one of the top ten rafting rivers in the world. Add the overnight in a float in rainforest lodge cut off from from roads, cell service and the world as we know it and it’s a once in a lifetime experience. I feel a little guilty invoking “once in a lifetime” considering how many times I’ve gone back, but every time I’ve found something more incredible than the last.
The river is a hard act to follow but the Caribbean destinations of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Tortuguero hold their own. Spend a few days around Puerto Viejo relaxing under a palm, enjoying the restaurants, hiking in the Gandoca Manzanillo wildlife refuge, or even surfing before heading back to nature at Tortuguero and its canoe and kayak water trails and of course sea turtles nesting.
The Trip Plan
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Pacuare River – It’s hard to decide which is better, the adrenaline of crashing through the throbbing waves or the calm rippling stretches where you can relax and watch the rainforest slip by.
The Pacuare isn’t famous because it’s viscous, difficult or dangerous. It’s famous because it’s amazing, beautiful and fun.
We took my parents on the Pacuare a few years ago. My mom grew up in northeastern Montana on a ranch with an outhouse, no electricity and six older brothers to toughen her up. I’ve never seen her scared of anything, but she did not want to get into that raft. We’d been on the river for all of fifteen minutes before her face was locked in a permanent grin.
Along the way there are side waterfalls where the rafts pull ashore for lunch, photo ops, and swimming. Mid-way there are hikes from the lodges into the indigenous reserve on the east bank of the river where the rain forest and way of life have changed little in the past few hundred years.
There are two main lodges to choose from situated in valleys on opposite sides of the river about half way down. The Pacuare Lodge is in the Deluxe category and the Pacuare River Lodge the mid range but both have flush toilets, running water, comfortable quarters, amazing views and excellent food. Unique experience and solitude are becoming harder and harder to come by as the world fills up. Spending a night in a screen room in the jungle on the banks of the river is something you shouldn’t miss if you have the chance.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a great beach town with plenty of little shops to explore and bars and restaurants to try. There’s a public bus stop and ticket office, a dozen backpacker hostels, bike and surf board rental shops, a couple of supermarkets, banks and other resupply necessities in town too.
If you’re traveling on more than a backpacker’s budget you may want to visit town for the funky shops and nightlife but you’ll want to stay in one of the bungalows. boutique resorts, or rental cottages strung out along playas Cocles, Chiquita and Uva south of Puerto Viejo. The beach cruiser bikes provided by most of the nicer places to stay are a great way to work slowly up or down the coast seeing what the next beach over has to offer in the way of restaurants and waves.
The best snorkeling in Costa Rica is here, off the southern Caribbean around the rocky points and reefs of Cahuita National Park and further south at Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. Each of these nature reserves also offer hiking trails and great wildlife watching. If you hire a naturalist guide you’ll be almost certain to spot common species like sloths and monkeys as well as harder to find eyelash vipers, tent making bats and other surprises.
Tortuguero is one of the places only a lucky few visit. It’s far enough out of the way that we always have to plan well ahead to work it into our travels but are always glad when we do. It’s a perfect fit for this itinerary.
There are two main attractions. First the namesake sea turtles that come ashore to nest (leatherbacks from Feburary through May and Green from June through October) and second the lagoons rivers and canals. During the season any lodge or tour office in the village can reserve a night tour where certified guides with red lights and will take you onto the beaches of Tortuguero National Park to watch the females come ashore, dig nests and deposit their eggs. Reserve well in advance because there are a limited number of permits issued each night.
During the day some of the best wildlife viewing in Costa Rica is on the senderos acuaticos (water trails) of the park. The trails themselves are narrow and limited to canoes and kayaks (our favorite) but there are larger canals and lagoons where canopied motor launches bring photographers and tourists. The bigger boats always have sharp eyed guides who sometimes more than make up for their limited access to the quieter areas. You can hire private guides to paddle with you on the trails as well.
Again the village is the center for public transportation (airport and boat dock), and a haven for backpackers. The eco-lodges are mostly relatively isolated, boat in affairs in the jungle.
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Maps & Driving Directions
The map above links to driving directions and a live map you can use on your phone or other mobile device. Please read about GPS in Costa Rica before assuming that this is all you’ll need.
CostaRicaGuide.com also publishes free printable maps of Costa Rica that you can download to use when you don’t have GPS or cell signals, and print out if you like to have something in your pocket (choose your maps here).
This itinerary cannot be done with a rental car. It’s all rafts, shuttles (or public buses), motor launches and airplanes – it’s so cool!
Fly in and out of SJO international airport in San José. It’s the starting and ending point of this itinerary and typically $100 cheaper than Liberia Airport. If you arrive early at SJO consider transferring to Turrialba and having the rafting operator pick you up there because San José isn’t all that and in Turrialba you can have a leisurely breakfast while the people who didn’t read this are getting up at the crack of “it’s still dark” to run around San José and pick up the rest of the passengers then drive an hour to Turrialba.
If you arrive late just stay in San José and enjoy the sunrise from the van.
Flights from Tortugero are in the morning so if you can schedule an afternoon/evening flight home rather than spending a night in an airport hotel. It’s a long day but it’s a great feeling when your head hits the pillow in your own bed and you think “just this morning I was listening to howler monkeys and eating gallo pinto.”
Backpacker’s Travel Note – this itinerary can be done by public bus and the transfers by raft and boat but it ain’t gonna be super cheap. You can skip the flight back to San José in favor of another boat ride plus a couple of public buses to save about $90 (boat $35, bus $5 vs air $90-150).
Bicyclist’s Travel Note – this itinerary is just silly with a bike. You’d have to shuttle it around the rafting, pay extra to get it on the Tortuguero boat (although they will take it, they take crates of chickens…) and they won’t put it on a plane.
7 – 10 Days
You won’t be able to fly in and depart on the rafting trip the same day because the boats put in at about 8-9:00 a.m. and there are no flights that arrive at SJO early enough to clear customs and get to the departure point in time.
You’re definitely going to have to fly from Tortuguero to San José to make this plan work well in 7 days but it will work well.
Backpacker’s Travel Note – Plan as many as 3-5 extra days to make the bus connections work. Try to spend your extra days in Turrialba and Puerto Viejo (nice spots) instead of staying in San José or Limón (kinda nasty).
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