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Kayaking the Sarapiqui River

Destination: Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui

For more than half a century, major crops like coffee and bananas were transported from the Central Valley and Caribbean slopes to the coast via the Sarapiqui River. The scenic river originates on the Deception Depression between Barva and Poas volcanoes and flows 53 miles into the San Juan River, which continues into Nicaragua. At that time, the waterside community of Puerto Viejo was a one of the largest ports in Costa Rica.

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Today, the river is plied by whitewater rafters and kayakers seeking the thrills of Class II-IV rapids. What began as a low-key destination for only the most intrepid has transformed into one of the country's most promising ecotourism hot spots. The Sarapiqui and its sister rivers, the Sardinal and Puerto Viejo, also have calm Class I sections, where tourists can glide gently in motorized boats, or paddle in canoes while observing local wildlife.

While the majority of visitors, both young and young at heart, attempt Class II and III rapids, I opted for a more peaceful safari float with Aventuras del Sarapiqui. With over 15 years of rafting experience, their guides were experts in river safety, and their enthusiasm for challenging whitewater was contagious. This morning we would be paddling inflatable kayaks (a.k.a. duckies) down the lower section of the river.

After tackling a couple of mild Class II rapids, which my guide and I skillfully maneuvered, we settled into a smooth stretch of glassy river where we spotted several herons, cormorants and crocodiles sunning themselves on the river's edge. We snacked on fresh pineapple as we floated along, soaking up the sun's warmth and the natural beauty around us. Our two-hour excursion was the perfect combination of fun yet gentle rapids and great wildlife watching opportunities. I promised I'd return another day to join Aventura del Sarapiqui's Class III whitewater adventure.

I motored back into town for a quick lunch at one of the small sodas fronting the main street. For just a few dollars, soda patrons can savor a huge and healthy meal of grilled chicken or fish, salad and rice. What Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui lacks in amenities, it makes up for in charm and local hospitality.

Taxi drivers and store owners are quick to smile and love to practice their English with willing tourists. The village has several supermarkets, pharmacies, internet cafes and a nice souvenir store. And a couple of the larger hotels now offer wireless internet. Despite these modern comforts, Puerto Viejo still has a sleepy feel about it, and Ticos far outnumber gringos on the streets.

Later that afternoon I met up with Alex Martinez, a passionate conservationist and owner of Posada Andrea Cristina Bed and Breakfast, located on the outskirts of town. Locally-famous for his pioneering efforts to protect and conserve wildlife, Alex has created a home-grown rescue center and reserve for orphaned, injured or otherwise homeless animals. Known as Tierra Hermosa, the reserve offers a safe environment for the rehabilitation of birds and other species confiscated from poachers, with the hope of release in the future.

Tierra Hermosa is located on ten acres of lowland rainforest, about 15 minutes outside of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. The reserve largely depends on donations and volunteer efforts to help with animal care, cage construction and daily maintenance.

Alex and his family run the colorful Andrea Cristina B & B, complete with four spacious cabins and two bungalows surrounded by tropical gardens. The bungalows are painted in bright Caribbean colors with fabulous murals on the walls. Alex prides himself on providing clean, inviting rooms at an affordable price with no pretense of luxury -- just good conversations and home-cooked meals.

Alex and his son (who both speak fluent English) are excellent birders and naturalist guides, and can arrange a variety of tours throughout the country. In the company of several rescued green parrots, which are lovingly fed and cared for, I spent the better part of the early evening talking with Alex about life and all creatures great and small.

Kayaking the Sarapiqui River in Pictures

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