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Another Way to Get Wet – Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica

Sure you could go to the beach to get wet when you travel to Costa Rica. Us? We headed for the Rio Pacuare for some Costa Rican white water rafting.

White Water rafting Rio Paquare River rapids

Navigating the famous rapids of Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare (that’s Eric with the GoPro strapped to his helmet).

The right rafting company in Costa Rica

There are plenty of companies that will take you rafting in Costa Rica but we liked the sustainable tourism approach of an operation called Rios Tropicales.

The company has planted more than 50,000 indigenous trees on the 2,000 acres it owns along the river in a massive reforestation effort. They formed a foundation to create and implement environmental education programs in local schools and they helped build two rural health clinics. Staff for their river lodge was also hired from local villages.

But what about the rafting? It all starts with your guides. Rios Tropicales has a river guide training program that’s based on international standards and practices but the guides themselves are 100% local. Back in 1985 they were the first rafting company to hire guides from the nearby town of Turrialba then they started hiring and training locals from the small community of El Tigre including indigenous Cabecar Indians.

Over the years some of Rios Troipicales’ guides have gone on to open their own rafting businesses in other parts of Costa Rica and the company continues to help promote them. They’re called “ecopreneurs” and they include one former Rios Tropicales guide who is now offering awesome-sounding chute rafting down a unique stretch of river near Manuel Antonio National Park.

 Rios Tropicales Rio Paquare white water rafting trip

The start of our Rio Pacuare rafting adventure with Rios Tropicales.

The right river in Costa Rica

You have a number of raftable rivers to choose from in Costa Rica but one that’s near the top of everyone’s list is the Rio Pacuare. It’s a beautiful river and it’s got kick too. The Rafting World Championships were held on the Rio Pacuare in October 2011.

Rio Paquare River in Costa Rica waterfall

Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare provided an adrenaline rush of rapids and just enough calm sections to appreciate the waterfalls and lush jungle all around us.

Rios Tropicales offers single day rafting trips on the Rio Pacuare all the way through to four days on the river. We opted for the two day Rio Pacuare rafting trip with an overnight in the Rios Tropicales ecolodge on the banks of the river.

Rio Paquare River at Rios Tropicales

A deceivingly-calm section of the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

Day 1 on the Rio Pacuare

We got wet a bit sooner than planned during our Rio Pacuare rafting adventure. During the second set of rapids our guide, Ricardo, steered us left when we should have gone right (or maybe it was the other way around) and we ended up rocketing down a hairy little line through whitewater with a huge boulder and a five foot drop over a mini-waterfall directly in our path. The white water commandeered our raft and we high-sided on the boulder. It’s a miracle we didn’t flip.

White Water rafting Rio Paquare River

Good and wet as we came THIS close to flipping at the start of Day 1 of rafting on the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

The word Pacuare means “little macaw” in the local native language. We didn’t see any macaws but we did enjoy the jungle as we got in some sight seeing during the tranquil floats between exciting rapids on our seven mile (11 kilometer) trip to the Rios Tropicales ecolodge.

dog chihuahua white water rafting Rio Paquare River Costa Rica

Yes, that’s a chihuahua in a life vest hitching a ride on the gear boat during our white water rafting adventure on Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare.

Rios Tropicales Rio Paquare River Lodge

These rapids marked the start of Day 2 of white water rafting on the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

Lounging at the greenest river lodge in Costa Rica

The wooden buildings of the Rios Tropicales ecolodge, the first one ever built on the river, spill out along a stretch of riverbank and include a shared dorm, clean, basic private rooms with bathrooms and some plusher private rooms with more space and even better views.

The entire staff is from local villages and the whole place is powered with hydro-generated electricity which makes perfect sense as you watch the river rush by and listen to umpteen waterfalls tumble down the hillsides, one of them crashing past our room.

If a day of rafting didn’t release enough adrenaline for you you can fill the afternoon with zip lining,  horseback riding, hiking and swimming in waterfall-fed natural pools.

Zip Line Rios Tropicales Rio Paquare River

Eric kept the adrenaline pumping with some post-rafting zip lining at the Rios Tropicales ecolodge on the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

Even though we were all off the river our guides were definitely not off duty. They doubled as cooks, waiters and bar tenders too and they were good at it, serving up Cacique-spiked punch during happy hour and whipping up a big, fresh, filling dinner made with local ingredients whenever possible.

Jumping off waterfalls Rio Paquare River

Umpteen waterfalls tumble down the steep banks along the Rio Pacuare offering their own adventures.

Day 2 on the Rio Pacuare

Our second day on the Rio Pacuare was even more exciting than the first. Our 11 mile (17 kilometer) journey took us through class III and IV rapids with very few dead stretches in between. In some stretches the canyon was so narrow it felt like the rafts might not fit through.

Rios Tropicales White Water rafting Rio Paquare River

Our raft powering through one of the class III and IV rapids that spiced up Day 2 on the Rio Pacuare.

White Water rafting Rio Rio Paquare River white water rafting

Heading into another rapid on the Rio Pacuare.

What slower water we encounterd was livened up by Ricardo who had us surfing standing waves in the raft, out of the raft and riding the current down stream and generally goofing off. Then it was back to doing our best to paddle in unison in order to get through the next rapids. Turns out, white water rafting in Costa Rica is a pretty good way to learn the Spanish words for “left,” “right,” “forward,” and “back.”

Rio-Paquare-river-float

Catching our breath during a calm section of the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

Rio-Paquare-River-canyon-swim

Bobbing and floating with the current and cooling off in Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare.

Watch us flip, float and flail through the rapids, sail through the zip line and surf standing waves in our video, below, shot on our GoPro during our white water rafting adventure on Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare. It’s long, but we didn’t want to leave any of the adrenaline out!

Costa Rica rafting travel tip

The Rio Pacuare is highest from October through December so if it’s big white water you want (class IV and V) plan a trip then.

Read more about travel in Costa Rica

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities from the past year on the road including SCUBA diving with hammerhead sharks in Costa Rica and perfecting the art of doing nothing on a (nearly) deserted beach in Panama. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2012 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2012 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama

…drove 8,349 miles

…spent $2,608 on fuel

…made seven overland border crossings

We did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2012

Best adventure of the year: SCUBA diving with dozens of sharks including scalloped hammerheads, tiger sharks, reef sharks and all kinds of rays with Undersea Hunter off Cocos Island in Costa  Rica. Find out more about this adventure and what it feels like to be 100 feet (33 meters) underwater surrounded by sharks in the Cocos Island feature we did for the Sunday travel section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

SCUBA diving with Hammerhead sharks - Cocos Island

A hammerhead making a quick underwater u-turn as it spots Eric clinging to a rock while diving in the waters around Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Roesch de Bedout.

Best extreme tubing: There’s a reason they give you a life vest, helmet and elbow guards when you go tubing with Blue River Resort & Hot Springs at the base of Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. This trip down the Rio Azul (which really is an incredible shade of blue) is no lazy float. Best to think of it as white water rafting without the raft.

Best (nearly) deserted beach bumming: Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama (below) will take your breath away with truly golden sand (and not the icky sticky kind), Caribbean blue water, shockingly powerful waves, chairs and hammocks and just a handful of visitors. Add in the recently opened Playa Bluff Lodge directly opposite the beach with US$1.50 icy cold Panama beers, a restaurant and even stylish rooms (US$95 including breakfast) and it’s really, really hard to leave. Totally worth the 5.5 mile (9 km) bike or taxi ride from Bocas town.

Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro

Best all-around rafting trip: The Pacuare River in Costa Rica is a glorious combination of peaceful floats (ample time to appreciate the densely-jungled riverbanks and steep hillsides) punctuated with plenty of white-knuckle moments over exciting stretches of white water. Book your Pacuare River rafting trip with RiosTropicales and your time off the river is just as spectacular thanks to an amazingly rustic yet comfy river lodge they’ve built for their guests.

Best adventure we never thought we’d have: While SCUBA diving with sharks around Cocos Island we got an unexpected bonus with the chance to dive to 300 feet below the surface of the ocean in Undersea Hunter’s DeepSee submersible. You know how they say it’s another world down there? They’re right.

DeepSee submarine under the surface - Cocos Island

Best perseverance-pays-off animal encounter: We’ve been trying to see whale sharks for years and either our timing is all wrong for spotting these seasonal giants or our timing is right but our luck sucks, as was the case when we spent three days diving at the right time in the right place in Belize but we still didn’t see a single whale shark. This is why we returned to Mexico for three days in 2012 just to try to see whale sharks. And it worked. Not only did we finally get in the water with whales sharks we snorkeled around with more than 100 of the giants as they cruised by feeding on plankton with their VW-Beetle-swallowing mouths agape.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Best swimming hole: Ojo de Agua on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua where two bucks gets you access to chairs, tables, benches, hammocks and sun or shade (you choose) around roomy, crystal clear, refreshingly cold, spring-fed pools. The bottoms have been left natural but the sides have been built up in stone and concrete to create depth. There’s even a rope swing and a few enterprising vendors selling snacks and cold beer.

Best adventure activity we’d never heard of: Topless Sport Fishing in Costa Rica. And, no, we didn’t do it.

Find out which one of these adventures made the 25 Epic Adventures by Travel Bloggers in 2012 list as compiled by TravelingCanuck.com.

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Cruising into a Town Worth Your Time – Metapán, El Salvador

It’s the little things that can make a trip. Like cruise control. Since leaving the bitumen bliss of US and Canadian highways behind back in 2008 we’ve been rumbling, bumping and pot-hole surfing our way south over roads that often put the GM test track to shame (and we’ve driven the GM test track so we know what we’re talking about). However, throughout  El Salvador we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the comparatively good condition of most of the roads we’ve traveled down but we were still stunned by the heavenly smoothness of the new Northern Highway to Metapán, a nearly US$300 million project which was funded in part by the Millennium Challenge Corporation. This stretch of road is so good that Salvadorans recently held a skateboarding competition on it. We used our cruise control for the first time in years on this highway as we rolled smoothly into Metapán. It was nice to know it still works.

Metapán is the birthplace of Isidro Menéndez, a key figure in El Salvador’s independence movement and sometimes credited with drafting the country’s first constitution. This helps explain why El Salvador’s Constitution Square is in Metapán, not San Salvador.

Flags of Central America, Constitution Square - Metapan, El Salvador

The flags of five Central American countries fly in Constitution Square in Metapán, El Salvador.

Gun barrel fence in front of Metapan, El Salvador Municipalidad

Yes, the outside of Metapán’s city hall looks a bit like a casino. The fence around that big cat is made from defunct gun barrels by the way.

 

Chemistry is cool

These days Metapán is known more for its lucrative deposits of limestone than homegrown revolutionaries, which explains why the town’s nickname is “the white city.” Some full-size factories have set up shop in Metapán where they process limestone rocks into quicklime (mostly for use in concrete) on a grand scale. However, there are still about 30 lime kilns around Metapán which cook rocks down to this fine, white powder the old-fashioned way. And when we say “old-fashioned” we mean practically prehistoric.

Lime kiln - Metapan, El Salvador

Firing up one of about 30 traditional lime kilns around Metapán in El Salvador where limestone rocks are cooked down to quicklime powder the (very) old-fashioned way.

Los Caleros - Metapan, El Salvador

A calero, or traditional lime kiln worker, in Metapán, El Salvador.

Called las caleras, these kilns are constructed by workers called caleros who meticulously stack quarried limestone into an igloo shape. The stones must fit tightly and the finished igloos are gorgeous–like something sculptor Andy Goldsworthy might make and every bit as temporary. Next, a massive amount of wood is stacked inside the igloo and then it’s lit on fire. Over the next 12 days the fire reaches epic temperatures and cooks the rocks until they quite literally change form–going from dark to pure white.

cooking limestone making quicklime for cement - Metapan, El Salvador

A fired and steaming traditional lime kiln smokes in the sunset near Metapán, El Salvador.

Lime kiln fire - Metapan, El Salvador

Wood fires are stoked to incredible temperatures as limestone rocks are turned into limestone powder in traditional kilns which are still used in Metapán, El Salvador.

Take a look inside the fiery, ancient world of a traditional lime kiln in our video from Metapán, below.

 

It takes three days to cool the rocks to a temperature at which they can be handled. At
that point water is poured on them causing a chemical reaction marked by bubbling,
cracking and fizzing until the rock turns into white lime powder (called quicklime) right before your very
eyes.

Watch this amazing process in our video of the transformation from limestone rock to quicklime powder, below. If you don’t think chemistry is cool after you watch this then there’s no hope for you.

 

Time to cool off with some river rafting

An adventure of a different kind takes place on the nearby Guajoyo River where Raul Sanabria has created an aquatic park called Apuzunga where you can cool off in naturally fed swimming pools (US$3 per adult), zip line (US$10 per person), camp and go rafting with some of the best equipment and most professional river guides we’ve seen in Central America (US$40 per person and each raft always has three guides).

whitewater river rafting Apuzunga - Metapan, El Salvador

Heading out for a white water adventure on the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

whitewater river rafting Guajoyo River - Metapan, El Salvador

A raging section of the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

whitewater river rafting Guajoyo River Apuzunga  - Metapan, El Salvador

Rafting guides paddling out on the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

Raul also has a tilapia farm which supplies the freshest of fish to his open air restaurant and bar overlooking the river. Our post-rafting lunch was huge and delicious. Followed by cold beer and a nap in a hammock, it’s a perfect day.

 

The prince of pupusas

Forty years ago a teenaged Amadeo Gonzalez fled Metapán to escape the vicious civil war in El Salvador leaving behind a coveted spot on the national soccer team—a team that went all the way to the World Cup the following year during which the so-called “Soccer War” with Honduras began (though people in both countries are quick to point out that this short but passionate altercation was caused by much more than a soccer match).

By that time Amadeo was in San Francisco working at the Levi’s factory (back when the iconic American jeans were still made in the USA). An invitation to play soccer with a local team in SF turned into a paying gig which allowed Amadeo to quit the factory job he hated and eventually open a restaurant.

Twenty five years ago Amadeo opened Balompie Café in the Mission district long before gentrification made this neighborhood safe and stylish (balompie is a combination of the Spanish words for “ball” and “foot” which used to be used instead of “futbol”). It’s still there and about to be re-located around the corner to chic new digs designed by Amadeo.

A second Balompie restaurant followed, this time in Amadeo’s hometown of Metapán. Then Amadeo opened a second Balompie in San Francisco, solidifying his standing as the source for Salvadoran favorites to a growing Latin population in the city who craved dishes like yucca and chicharron and the most iconic Salvadorean dish of all: the pupusa. This gooey, rich, steaming disc of grilled massa (rice or corn) is traditionally filled with beans, cheese and chicharron, though Amadeo has expanded the offerings to include ingredients like basil and mozzarella.

 Amadeo Gonzalez Balompie - Metapan, El Salvador

Amadeo Gonzalez: Metapán native, soccer lover, owner of Balompie Cafe and the Prince of Pupusas.

The pupusas at Balompie have been voted Best Pupusa by SF Weekly and 7X7 magazine (which put a luscious picture of a plateful of Amadeo’s pupusas on their food issue cover).
Balompie has also been named one of the top 100 Budget Bites by the San Francisco
Chronicle.

We haven’t been to Amadeo’s SF restaurants but we have eaten at Balompie in Metapán with Amadeo and his wife Evelyn and their gregarious son Ama and we can tell you that it’s impossible to beat the open air balcony with views of Constitution Park and the San
Pedro church which some say is the most beautiful colonial church in El Salvador. The food was delicious and Amadeo’s very personal wall of soccer memorabilia and the fact that the back of his restaurant opens up right into the soccer stadium make Balompie a very smart upscale sports bar too.

 

TIP

Odds are your guide book will recommend that you stay at either Hotel San Jose, Hotel Cristina or (God forbid) the trucker-filled Hotel California while in Metapán. That’s because they don’t know about Hostal de Metapán. Opened in June of 2011, owners Rafael and Estrella have created a spotless, centrally located newcomer with eight rooms including private double rooms with A/C, WiFi, parking, bathroom, free coffee and daily breakfast for US$20. Contact Rafael directly at [email protected] (dot) com or call + 503 2402 2382.

We liked Metapán so much that we’re doing two posts about it. Check out our adventures
with an amateur paleontologist, a closed national park and fried cow udders in our next post from Around Metapán.

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Valley of the Dammed? – Cangrejal Valley, Honduras

We arrived in the Cangrejal Valley at a bad time. A company called Hydro Honduras had their eye on the Cangrejal River which is the heartbeat of this valley outside the grotty town of La Ceiba in Northern Honduras. For more than a decade businessmen had been sniffing around the valley with plans to dam the river in order to produce hydroelectric power. A fresh batch of greased palms had suddenly spurred the project into overdrive and concerned locals were circling the wagons.

Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The Cangrejal River–target of hydroelectric dam builders–in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

 

Damn the dam

Local children in the Cangrejal Velley, Honduras

Local children in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

We sat in on a meeting of hotel and tour company owners as they shared the latest information and consolidated their position against the dam which would alter the  Cangrejal River and would include diversion pipelines that would cut through adjacent jungle.

The tourism business owners (a mix of locals and long-time expats) worried that the dam would mean the end of rafting trips, a primary source of tourist income in the region. A dam would change the natural dynamics of the Pico Bonito National Park, through which the Cangrejal River currently flows. A dam would affect access to fresh water and fish for the people living in the scrappy little villages in the valley.

Up to this point the dam project in the Cangrejal Valley had progressed pretty much like dam projects everywhere: the dam’s proponents had all the political sway, cash and organization while the dam’s opponents struggled to have their voices heard (mainly alleging that the Cangrejal dam project did not meet environmental sensitivity standards). The meeting we attended seemed like a turning point with valley residents putting their money where their mouths were, pooling funds to retain a lawyer to help level the playing field and keep them in the loop regarding developments in far away board rooms.

We hope a reasonable outcome can be reached, but it might be best to move the Cangrejal Valley up a bit higher on your travel to-do list if you want to enjoy all of its watery fun.

Your own private waterfall

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The pool at Las Cascadas Lodge in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras is lovely, but it’s over-shadowed by the waterfalls on the property.

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

Privacy and a lovely natural plunge pool make this waterfall, on the Las Cascadas Lodge property, an ideal skinny-dipping spot (Karen kept her clothes on for this picture, don’t worry).

If you had a rich uncle with a vacation spread in the Cangrejal Valley it would probably be something like Las Cascadas Lodge. This elegant retreat near the head of the valley has a main house (originally built as a residence) with an open kitchen/dining/living area and two rooms. An adjacent thatch-roof bungalow with a screened patio, built-in tub and outdoor shower was built later.

The place is aptly named. There’s a cascada (the Spanish word for waterfall) tumbling and rumbling just a few feet away from the main house. A 20 minute walk up a pleasant trail delivers you to another waterfall with the privacy and natural plunge pool that make it perfect for skinny dipping.

 

 

Riverside yoga

Built on the banks of the Cangrejal River, Casa Verde uses the valley’s tumbling water as a backdrop for their yoga and raw food retreats. Through a series of serendipitous, meant-to-be “accidents,” Wendy Green (a successful yoga instructor from New Jersey) purchased Casa Verde, then sold her home to the previous owner.

She now offers yoga classes (200L or about US$10) and full-on yoga/raw food/wellness retreats with her partner Garth. Casa Verde has a supremely peaceful setting, a wonderful outdoor shower constructed like the inner spiral of a conch shell, loads of fruit trees and the best composting toilet we’ve ever seen.

We took an early morning yoga class with Wendy and she managed to give even lapsed beginners like us a glimpse of the benefits she’s offering on the banks of the river. It didn’t hurt that our hour-long class was quietly observed by a toucan in a nearby tree.

Over the river and through the woods

Swinging bridge - Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras

This swinging bridge above the Cangrejal River is a dramatic way to enter Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras.

It’s always fun entering a national park, but the Cangrejal Valley entrance to Pico Bonito National Park, home to 7,988 foot (2,435 meter) Pico Bonito and a mind-boggling list of wildlife (including jaguars), takes the cake.

To enter the second largest protected area in Honduras you have to walk across a 395 foot (120 meter) long swinging bridge suspended across a gorge above the roiling Rio Cangrejal. Before the bridge was built the only way into the park at this entrance was in a bucket pulled across on pulleys.

 

 

 

 

River rafting pioneers

Twenty years ago a big German rafter named Udo came to the Cangrejal Valley to scout the Cangrejal River to determine if rafting trips could be run on it. The answer was yes and Udo and his wife Silvia decided to stay. They started Omega Tours and pioneered river rafting in the Cangrejal Valley.

Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Rafting on the Cangrejal River in Honduras with Omega Tours.

Udo and Silvia’s river trips are still the most popular in the region. When we were there water levels were slightly low but guides kept the rafting trip adrenaline level high by incorporating canyoneering, bouldering and dramatic jumps into the river as well as traditional rafting. We also loved the fact that Udo and Silvia are working hard to train valley locals as river guides instead of just hiring guides from overseas.

Canyoneering - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Bouldering and canyoneering up the adrenaline level of river rafting trips with Omega Tours in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras. That’s Eric leaping into the Cangrejal River.

Boulder jumping - Cangrejal River, Honduras

We climbed up this house-sized boulder then jumped off into the river as part of our rafting trip on the Cangrejal River with Omega Tours.

Over the years Omega has expanded to include a wide range of accommodations (from super-clean dorms to two fancy two-story bungalows), a delicious (if a bit pricey) restaurant, a lively bar and a wonderful river-fed swimming pool (no chlorine!).

If rafting isn’t your thing, Silvia also keeps a small stable of horses and she loves to lead rides through the valley.

Omega Tours Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Eric and his brother Jeff, ready for the rapids. 

Though the word cangrejal means crab in Spanish, we didn’t see any when we were in the valley. We did see a lot of toucans, however, including one sitting next to the dirt road which runs through the valley–by far the closest sighting we’ve had.

The nearby Lodge at Pico Bonito was undergoing a management shift and general overhaul when we were there but the place was still a bird-watching hot spot. We saw dozens of species and, yes, more toucans including a nesting pair which we were able to observe as they used that massive bills to clean out the mess made by a nest full of toucan chicks.

Toucan Nest - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

This toucan was busy cleaning house on the bird-filled grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.

Northern Potoo - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

Yes, those two drab lumps are birds. Northern potoos, to be exact. Just one of the fabulous bird species we saw on the grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.

 

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Rio Rafting – Jalcomulco, Veracruz State, Mexico

Poor Veracruz state. While other areas of Mexico inspire at least some recognition around the world, most people (us included) don’t know much about Veracruz except that it’s biggest city, Port of Veracruz, hosts what some claim to be the second largest Carnaval celebration in the world after Rio de Janiero (and we’ve met Mexicans who didn’t even know that much). 

Sadly, we didn’t make it to the city of Veracruz in time for Carnaval. However, when we learned that Veracruz state is also home to some of  the best and some of the first white water rafting in in the country we had to go check it out. Here’s what we found on the water in and around the rafting mecca of Jalcomulco–and look for more eye-opening discoveries from Veracruz  state in our next few posts. 

This part of Veracruz state has two things which are crucial to a good white water river: mountains and rainfall. In fact the highest mountain in Mexico, 18,490 foot (5,636 meter) Orizaba volcano, can be seen from Jalcomulco on a clear day. And the area averages almost four feet of rain each year.

It was nearly 90° where we pulled over and took this picture near Jalcomulco, however, the weather on top of 18,490 foot Mount Orizaba was still wintery.

Folks started running the rivers here decades ago and today there are around 40 different rafting companies to choose from. 

We chose Mexico Verde, which has been running the rivers around here for 16 years. They also run a very unique “base camp” on five acres of land that was once cleared and turned into a mango orchard (the arms of the massive old trees still provide welcome shade and more mangoes than you can shake a stick at). The jungle has crept back into the orchard over time and current owner Mauricio and his staff have gently carved out a wonderful retreat in the midst of it all–thanks in part to the United States Army. 

Who knew an army surplus tent could be transformed into a 3-star suite with a private bathroom?

Mexico Verde’s overnight guests are accommodated in army surplus tents bought in the US then brought to Veracruz and transformed into four bed rooms with shared spotless and roomy bathrooms or suites with their own bathroom. There are beautiful rugs on the hardwood floors, and nice sheets and private decks. Even Wi-Fi. 

At Mexico Verde your 3-star tent suite comes with morning coffee service on your front porch.

The army tents aren’t the only things that are being recycled at Mexico Verde. The company reclaims and reuses all water via a cutting edge on-site system. All garbage is sorted and either composted or recycled. And there’s even a nursery where indigenous plants are being grown and replanted around the mango trees. 

In case you didn't get wet enough after a day of white water rafting there's always Mexico Verde's pool--the small hot tub is particularly inviting.

Three delicious meals a day, a refreshing swimming pool and a soothing hot tub don’t hurt either… 

The well-traveled owners of Mexico Verde love the Grand Canyon and this bridge spans a small creek that's been labeled "Barancas Grande" or Grand Canyon.

Every Mexico Verde rafting trip is accompanied by a safety kayaker whose job it is to scout the rapids and be on standby to pluck any swimmers out of the water as fast as possible if need be. Mexico Verde also has a roster of highly-experienced and highly-trained and certified guides who speak English in addition to Spanish. Our guide, Coba, is from the local area but spent years guiding in the United States on many rives we’ve only dreamed of rafting. He’s also a biologist, by the way and helped us identify a lot of birds during our trip, including a juvenile eagle. Of the 40 or so river rafting operations in and around Jalcomulco, Mexico Verde is one of the few that employs predominantly local river guides like Coba. 

Off for a day of white water fun.

You can watch us and Coba (okay, mostly Coba) in action on the Rio Antigua in this video. 

[youtube width=”470″ height=”287″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RfHo0JJvv8[/youtube] 

Our raft and our raft-mates negotiating a rapid on the Rio Antiqua in Veracruz state.

We were rafting in the low-water season when the 10 mile trip down the Rio  Antigua, which plummets roughly 3,000 feet in just 70 miles, is at it’s most placid–which was still a lot of fun. In the high season (July/August) this same trip, which took us about two hours and rarely approached class III rapids, whizzes by in less than an hour hurtling through a never-ending series of class IV and V churns. 

Our raft and our raft-mates negotiating a rapid on the Rio Antiqua with the help of our guide, Coba, in the back of the raft.

Just look at how spastic we all look coming out of this rapid, like a bunch of clowns in a bathtub. Now look at how calm our guide Coba is there in the back of the raft. It looks like he's meditating as we flail about in the water.

Our raft and our raft-mates negotiating a rapid on the Rio Antiqua in Veracruz state.

GLAD WE HAD
Waterproof housing for our Flip video camera  (good up to 30′ deep) which let us shoot the video in this blog post
Chaco sandals which are slip-proof  and stay on our feet no matter what the river throws at us.

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