Peñas Blancas Safari Float
Now, the idea of floating down a river in an inflatable rubber raft searching for sloths, monkeys and iguanas in a river shared with crocodiles may sound crazy, but it's actually very relaxing. Once you realize the crocs are really more interested in sunbathing than trying to pierce holes in the inflatable rubber raft, it's easy to settle down.
Part of the fun is scouting Peñas Blanca's riverbanks for emerald basilisk lizards skittering across the water; long-nosed bats hanging in the shade underneath the curved trunks of Soto trees and two-toed sloths sleeping curled in fuzzy balls.
Flowing from its origins in Monteverde, the Peñas Blancas courses through white cliffs giving the river its name and continues through Arenal on the way to its confluence with the San Carlos River. The river's chalky green waters are a natural wildlife corridor protected by the Costa Rican government; home to howler monkeys, oriole snakes, green iguanas, snapping turtles, fish and dozens of waterfowl.
Sneaking up close to the animals is quite easy in a raft. I've never been so close to a sloth as I was floating down the river in the raft. Hanging a mere three feet above us, the sloth clung to a tree branch eating leaves while we silently floated underneath. It's breathtaking getting so close to animals in their natural habitat and better yet, to do so in a raft powered by the river's current without polluting their habitat.
Sitting seven to a raft, a naturalist guide teaches rafters to paddle together while spotting and offering insight into the wildlife along the river. Take for instance, when we came upon a baby emerald basilisk. Floating up close with the help of our guide, we coaxed the lizard into running across the water. The guide explained that young lizards can run as fast as 40 mph and 20 feet to 30 feet across the water without falling in.
While the raft is great for families, the canoe is perfect for couples. Each canoe fits only two people giving a little more in the way of peace and tranquility. Floating ahead of the rafts, you're more likely to have the river all to yourself. A guide rides along in another canoe pointing out the wildlife and helping navigate the river.
The canoes also offer more control than the rafts and are a bit steadier for photography but take little more effort to navigate and have more risk of tipping over, which is really only a problem if your camera's not waterproof. Part of the fun though, is paddling between fallen trees to sneak up on a pair of iguanas, or turn the canoe around to get a different angle on the howler monkeys rustling in the trees.
Before floating into the confluence of the San Carlos River toward the end of the journey, we stopped at an old farm. The farmhouse is two-stories, with the living quarters off the ground, shading the patio that used to keep the farm animals safe during long jungle nights. Living without electricity, the family subsists in much the same way as they did when their father first settled the land roughly 80 years ago.
Nowadays, the space underneath the home is a small cafe with wooden tables and benches. The farmer's daughters serve coffee and snacks to rafters teaching them about rural life in Costa Rica. On the table they had fresh yucca bread (sweet, moist and made from a local tuber), cheese and fried plantains served with hot coffee; a delicious snack after floating down the Peñas Blancas.