Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pura Vida Day 5 - The Jungle Cruise

Wednesday, August 6, 2008 - Today was the day we answered the age-old question, "Which helmet looked more ridiculous - that which we wore for zip-lining or the one we donned for white-water rafting?". You're right, it's a trick question. They both give the wearer a decidedly tuber-like shadow. It really comes down to whether the tourist underneath looks better in blue or white plastic.

I digress. As I pointed out to my friend David, my verbosity obscures the uneven quality in these dispatches from the jungle. I suppose this means that these little digressions serve a purpose, but this day was long enough without such tangents - so let's begin!

This was the longest travel day of the week. After another early sampling of fried plantains, rice and beans, and tamales, The Gang was settled in on the bus by 8:15am for a 2 hour journey to Finca Corsicana. In other words, the morning would be spent at a pineapple plantation. The weather was, once again, overcast with uneven waves of light rain. As the winding roads took us through varied small towns without names, I struggled to avoid using the lens of North American sensibilities to 'see' how rural Costa Ricans lived. But I continued to be struck by the seemingly down-scale shacks and bungalows that peeked out from the foliage - their windows sometimes framing an expressionless face as our colourful Mercedes coach slid by. For those who preferred their reality to be more artificial, The Incredibles played on the screens above our heads.

Once at the plantation, the skies brightened sufficiently to cause some of The Gang to slather on the sunscreen. Our host, Danny - wielding his expert knowledge of pineapples and an oh-so-sharp machete on his belt - led us from the 'welcome center' into a nearby field to begin our lessons on organic pineapple farming. We were instructed in the finer points of planting and selecting a ripe pineapple. Danny had (and in all likelihood still has) an excellent blend of genuine humour and a interest in farming. While I was sure that he must have delivered these lessons to many groups such as ours, I never felt like I was watching 'just another tourist spiel'.


A teacher and his pupils.

Our preliminary lessons having concluded, we all climbed aboard a quite well-appointed open-air trailer for a journey somewhere into the 28,000 acres of pineapples. Our trailer was pulled by a shiny green tractor under the expert control of Diego. Danny continued our lessons on the finer points of All Things Pineapple as our caravan powered down muddy laneways in search of ripe fruit. On arrival, Diego waded into the field and picked a number pineapples which he tossed football-style to Danny. We would be eating fresh pineapple, we were told, and could consume as much as we all liked. This is where Danny's skill with a machete would be proven. With a few deft strokes, the husk was dispatched and the fruit inside was cut into finger-sized strips, still clinging to the core. Fico and Rae had the pleasure of handing out these treats. The whole thing worked as an assembly line - from Diego supplying the raw materials, Danny supplying the artistry, and Fico and Rae supplying the rewards to The Gang. I cannot remember having this much fun on a farm before.


Diego readies his throwing arm.

After sacrificing a decent chunk of Finca Corsicana's future profits to hungry tourists, Diego pulled us back to the main complex where a surprise would be waiting. There, in the open air cafe, was table after table set with plates of fruit cake, plates of (more!) fresh pineapple, and virgin pina coladas inside hollowed out pineapples. It was lovely - and quite filling! After these refreshments and the obligatory opportunity to case the gift shop, we were back onto Andreas' bus for the next leg of our journey.

The whitewater rafting venue, on Rio Sarapiqui, was nearby. Our journey down the river would begin at a seemingly unlikely spot as we pulled into a laneway protected by industrial-looking buildings. The laneway became 'dirt road', however, and it became evident that we were headed further off the beaten track to find the river. On arrival, lunch was waiting for us in an open-air pavilion - a buffet affair centered around an abundance of soft tacos with lots of choices for building our own creations. It was a satisfying meal in a peaceful setting. Even the nearby iguanas seemed to be restful.

Alas, poor JediBoy (my son) had a brush with Costa Rican wildlife as he finished his lunch. He jumped from the table exclaiming that his leg felt like it was on fire. With Fico's help, we discovered he had been bitten by a nasty brand of caterpillar - not uncommon it seems. A little cooling salve from Fico's kit was all he needed in the way of repairs, however. We also spied a couple of shy (and elusive) Poison Dart Frogs near by. Unlike the caterpillar, they caused us no grief, and seemed to divert JediBoy's attention away from his itchy leg.

Lunch behind us, it was time to test ourselves on the rapids! We filed back onto the bus for transport up-river to our 'putting in' spot. There we found our river guides waiting with our rafts and our gear. Assembly-line fashion, we were issued helmets, lifejackets, and paddles for the afternoon ahead. The final step, a lecture from one of the guides on the mechanics of rafting and taking instruction from our rafting guides.

My family of 4 shared a boat with Fico - piloted by our new friend, Elizabeth (an American earning her keep as a Sarapiqui river guide). Off we went in search of Class 2 and 3 rapids. A footnote: Class 1 is akin to your bathtub while Class 5 is somewhere close to Niagara Falls. Rio Sarapiqui would fall somewhere safely in between. Another footnote: those not wishing to test themselves in the crucible of white water could opt for a gentle float trip down a calmer branch of the river. For the record, no one in The Gang would settle for anything less than frothy mayhem in the warm waters of the Sarapiqui. Adventurers all!


Grim preparations for the challenges ahead.

We shot some rapids (the roughest being early on) and spent time splashing the other rafts as they came near. A common thread through the journey was wildlife. We spotted sloths, Cormorants, herons, vultures, and monkeys at every turn. At the halfway mark we all put ashore for a welcome break and were surprised by an informal buffet of local fruits set out on an overturned raft. I think our raft was paddled quite well - following all of Elizabeth's commands and avoiding losing any of our number. I came oh so close to falling out only once, and thanked the Fates that my feet were firmly entrenched in the raft's toe-holds.


Danger awaits at every bend.

All too quickly we were back at the landing spot, where towels, change facilities, and plastic bags (for our wet clothing) were waiting for us. An added bonus was the barrel of beverages - including local beer - that was offered up for the thirst tillers. I, for one, enjoyed my cool Imperial as I sat on the bus and imagined what kind of images I had captured with my waterproof camera.

Now it was time for another 2 hour journey back to Hotel Kioro. As Monster's Inc. kept people amused via the overhead screens, I may have dozed a bit. Maybe.

We were back in our rooms before 6:30pm. Dinner would be a la carte in the Kioro's restaurant, and we opted to get there early so as to afford Dee enough time to get to her spa treatment later in the evening. The food was very good. Even through my fatigue I managed to enjoy my succulent piece of sirloin with Roquefort sauce. While Dee begged off early to run to the spa, the kids and I elected to punish our full bellies with rich deserts and black coffee. Heaven.

After dinner the kids summoned the energy to don their swimsuits and meet their like minded chums at the outdoor hot springs. I elected to write in my journal amid the solitude of the hotel room. My only interruption was Dee - back from spa experience - looking relaxed and happy.

We slept well. Tomorrow would be another big day spent winging our way towards the mighty Pacific - and the next phase of our Costa Rican adventure.