Category Archives: Beyond North America

Kayak Costa Rica 2016

We spent 2 weeks in sunny Costa Rica in mid December with an amazing group of friends; 8 days under the excellent care of Costa Rica Rios and another 4 days hanging at the beach enjoying the sand and surf in Dominical. This post covers the first 8 days with a second post covering beach life!

Getting anywhere warm from the Yukon is an adventure in itself… and usually takes over 24 hours of travelling. This trip was 30 hours from airport to airport, including 4 airplanes & 5 different airports, 1 lost luggage adventure mid trip, 1 case of cancelled tickets mid trip, and another 6 hours driving in Costa Rica to get to Turrialba thanks to traffic issues. We spent from 1:00 am to 4:00 am attempting to get some sleep in the underground of the Houston Airport in between flights – Hunter’s first exposure to life as a dirt bag kayaker…

Our winter paddling adventures are about more than just finding warm water, they are a great opportunity to experience new cultures, see new animals and amazing scenery, try out new foods and to continue to practice our spanish.

Our main base camp while kayaking was Villa Florencia just outside of Turrialba, which is located in the Central Valley mid way between San Jose and the Caribbean Sea. The hotel was beautiful with lush grounds to walk around, a swimming pool and hot tub and large spacious rooms. The highlight of the amenities was the Foosball table, where even the chef showed up to take on the strongest one of our group. The biggest challenge was trying to dry 3 people’s wet gear in a humid climate in our room.

Our first day of paddling was on the Pejibaye River, a tributary of the Reventazon River in the Turrialba Valley. The morning session was class II and our “check out” paddle where the guides get to determine skills/abilities etc. It also allowed us to get used to the rental boats that we were using. After lunch at an old school house on a dirt road a group of us put in on the upper class III section and others did the lower section again. The upper section was fun with a good assortment of boulders and felt like a nice creek run in the middle of the jungle.

Days two and three were spent on the Sarapiqui River, which was 3 hours NE near Puerto Villejo. It runs from the Central Mountain Range just north of San Jose to the San Marcos River which runs along the shared border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.  It was further into the rain forest and we definitely found the rain that goes with the forest! Our first run down was on the lower section of the river (class II/III) and it ended in pouring rain, with everyone standing delicately in the bus to get to the hotel to avoid getting the bus soggy for our long ride home. Our second day was on the La Virgen upper section (class III+) and came with a fabulous surf wave and some fun revolving whirl pools. Hunter also shifted into an RPM as he had watched our lead guide Arnaldo having so much fun stern squirting with it on the first day.

Days four, five and six were spent on various sections of the Pacuare River, which is one of Costa Rica’s classic rivers running 108 km from the highlands to the Caribbean Sea through primary rain forest and lowland tropical forests. It is a mix of class III, IV and V depending on the section you run. On day four we ran the Upper Upper section (class II/III) and a smaller group of us ran the 5 class IV rapids before you get into the class V Upper section.

Day five and six were an overnight trip on the Lower section, with a stay at the beautiful Pacuare Outdoor Centre in the middle of the jungle. Lunch break on day five was at a fun tributary that turned out to have a small cave hiding behind the rocks, which Hunter loved. If you look hard you can see his face and hands sticking out of the wall of water. Riverside lunches were always yummy, plentiful and held in creative places!

It was quite the hike up and down from the river side to the POC lodge but so worth it for both the view and the amazing amenities. The wide open kitchen/living room common space was so clean and inviting that Hunter ended up sleeping in one of the hammocks overnight while Tim and I enjoyed our small cabin with nothing but screen between the room and the jungle – lots of noises and with a full moon out it never really got dark.

Our last day of paddling was a mix of III+ and IV and so a smaller group paddled and the others had a great day in the raft. Hunter chose to paddle and styled the class IV rapids thanks to some great guiding by Arnaldo Perez, Costa Rica’s top slalom racer.

Overall we were really impressed with the staff at Costa Rica Rios and would definitely recommend them for anyone looking for a kayaking or warm weather winter adventure trip. They are very family friendly and also open to customizing adventures just for you.

More  photos can be found on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ChasingthesunYT.

Ecuador – take two…

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photo credit: Seth Ashworth

One of our goals this year is to kayak as much as possible, both for progression (for me) and fun (for everyone)! Being in southern Florida for December and January we realized that we were closer than we ever would be to Ecuador (a 4 hour flight vs 30 hours of travel) and jumped on the idea of a new year paddling adventure with the crew from Endless Adventure International, whom we played with last January on our first trip to Ecuador.

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Hunter decided to stay in Florida to get to spend some independent time with his Grandparents so this was also our first kidless trip. Always good to double check that we still like to hang out with each other!

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photo credit: Seth Ashworth

Ecuador kayaking is a mix of creeking and mid-sized big volume rivers, both of which are development areas for me and old hand for Tim. It’s all about the BOOF to make the most of the features…

We were in Ecuador for 11 days and paddled 9 days in a row throughout the Quijos corridor and Tena area. We covered off most of the sections of the Quijos River (Bridge one to the Dam), the Cosanga River, the Upper Misahualli, the lower Jondachi River, the Hollin River and the Jatunyacu River. YES we were tired kids by the end!

One of the coolest experiences was getting to the put in on the lower section of the Jondachi River. You drive through the small community of Mondayaku and there is a flurry of people that leap onto the truck looking for work as porters. For $5.00 someone will carry your boat the 20 minutes down a muddy animal track to the river – best $5.00 ever spent! The Jondachi is located outside Tena, which is on the edge of the Amazon Jungle. It’s class III/IV and amazingly scenic.

The other really fun experience was hanging out with the local kids that were out playing in the rivers. Some days they happened to be on a beach during a section and many times they were at the take outs. The happily fling themselves into the water and swim out to grab onto your boat and then ride around.

Last year when we paddled in Ecuador Tim ended up hitting up hitting his head on a misplaced rock when upside down and perforated his ear drum. With that in mind, we both got new full face helmets last summer and this was our first experience wearing them. Based on the scratches they both received, it turns out they were good purchases!

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photo credit: Seth Ashworth

Many thanks go out to the Endless Adventures team (Chris, Andrea, Seth, Ursual & Wilo) for another great visit. We definitely recommend Ecuador as a place to visit – beautiful scenery, amazing people and what feels like endless rivers to explore and paddle!

Travel Note: Ecuador has amazing diversity. Our first trip touched a bit more on non-paddling things and we strongly recommend Ecuador as a family friendly destination – great infrastructure, very clean, friendly people and enough to keep you busy for at least a month between the Amazon, the Andes, the Beach and the Galapagos.

 

Banos – adventure capital of Ecuador

IMG_1988Banos (de Auga Santo) is a small city in the Andean highlands, just west of the Amazon Jungle, located at the base of the still active volcano Tungurahua. We all wondered why you would name a city “bathrooms” and learned that it’s name actually means “baths of sacred water”, in reference to the thermal hot springs located here. Banos has become a mecca for those seeking fun and adventure – whitewater kayking/rafting, waterfalls, rock climbing, zip lining etc. It has a very youthful culture with people from all around the world making a stop here as part of their wandering travels.

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Banos is a 5 hour drive from the Ponderosa Lodge in San Francisco de Borja. The plan was to drive to Tena (2 hours), paddle the Jatunyacu and then head on to Banos in time for dinner. The normal itinerary has the group paddling the Upper Misahualli, which is right along the main highway, but due to low water levels we made the change, which excited Hunter as he wanted to show off “his” river to the rest of the group…

IMG_1988The put in for the Upper Jatunyacu is at a local eco-tourism resort with swimming holes created in the side tributaries, and they come complete with Tarzan ropes. We had a picnic lunch here before the boys launched into the river and the rest of us headed a little downstream to another put in that would avoid a few tricky class IV features. The Jatunyacu river is also known as the Upper Napo river and the Napo River is one of the two headwaters of the Amazon river, which means that we paddled on a headwater of the Amazon – pretty cool.

DSCF8493Abby joined us again and it was interesting to see how much Hunter’s confidence had grown from when we paddled this river less than a week earlier. Hunter had yet another great paddle and showed Tim all the cool stuff that he liked about big water. We made it a bit of a shorter day than our first run on this river due to the remaining drive to Banos. Needless to say, we were still quite late getting into Banos due to all the fun that was being had!

DSCF8555We were up bright and early the next morning to meet up with Andres Reyes (black boat), a Banos based member of the Endless Adventures International team, who was guiding us down the Pastaza River. Andres is a fabulous guide and if you get a chance to paddle with him, grab it! Hunter and I were paddling the upper section (class III+) and then the boys were carrying on to paddle the lower section (class IV). It had been raining a fair bit and water levels were somewhat higher than anticipated and this gave me such huge butterflies the entire run.

The whole experience of paddling the Pastaza that day was yet another great learning moment for me as a parent. I had butterflies because I was worried that we were putting Hunter in over his head and that if he swam he would be scared and upset, which would undo all of the progression (both in skill and confidence) that he had made over the past 10 days. I had no doubts that Andres, Chris and Tim would keep him safe – it was all the emotional side of things that I fretted about. Needless to say, I had a crappy paddle, spending too much time watching Hunter and paying attention to the butterflies. At the end of the upper run, which went really well, Hunter says to me “Mom, when we’re paddling can you please stay back a bit. I had Andres, Chris and Dad there to pick me up if I swam, so I was fine”, with absolutely no fear or negative emotion attached to the idea of swimming. ACK – it’s a constant juggle to figure out where that right line is these days!

IMG_0573Hunter and I got out of the river, undressed and then hopped in the shuttle van to follow everyone else down the river. At one of our stops we saw this really cool fish farm, which was on a plateau that was midway between the road and the river. It supplies the local restaurant (just above it on the road) with fresh fish and then sells the rest to other restaurants in the area.

IMG_0612A very special side benefit of paddling with Andres was that we were served a private dinner by his mom at her restaurant (Mercedes Restaurant). While it did not feel like fine dining, it sure tasted that way – the food was OUTSTANDING…. Five stars from all three of us. If you are in Banos it is well worth checking to see if she is open – very reasonably priced, especially for the quality of the food & service.

Every night after we finished dinner we went for a walk around town to explore. The city was very clean and not once did we feel unsafe. Many stores were still open late into the evening and one night we joined an impromptu kids soccer game in the main square. The christmas lights were still up in the streets which made everything look so festive.

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The rest of our time in Banos was spent exploring and playing.The group rented a mix of motorcycles, ATV’s and off road jeeps for an afternoon and it sure was fun! We headed out through town and then up the big mountain that sits right behind the city of Banos.

At the top of the mountain is The Casa del Arbol (tree house), which was written up as the wildest swing in your life by the Places You Must See In Your Lifetime website. It is actually a seismic monitoring station for the volcano but the views are spectacular and the swing puts you out over the edge of the valley looking into nothing but sky – it comes with a good dose of adrenaline if you actually pump to go high!

IMG_5283We fit all three of us on the ATV (standard vs automatic) and Tim did a great job of coaxing the engine to get us all the way to the top of the mountain. He also did a great job supporting Hunter, who drove us all the way down the mountain until we got to town. Driving in town requires a mix of big city and rural farm driving skills, which luckily Tim has!

IMG_0596One of the other things that Banos seems to be known for is “Los Dulces” – their locally made taffy. There were a number of stores on the main street that all had taffy makers busy making taffy. It was interesting watching them pull and stretch and knead the candy, almost like a pizza maker. What I wasn’t so sure about was the food sanitation as it went straight from the pole and then bare hands of the maker into the bare hands of another worker that rolled it into shapes and packaged it. Not quite North American standards I guess…

Just up the block from our hostel (Hostal Santa Cruz, a classic backpackers hostel) was a fun little park with lots of things to play on. It is also a great meeting ground for people with kids. Andrea was there with Radd the day we paddled the Pastaza and came back with news that she had just met a mom and boy that Hunter and I just had to meet! This is one of the many wonderful things about travelling – people from all over the place coming together in various circumstances and finding commonalities. Jeremie and his mom are from Germany and are travelling and homeschooling for a year. He and Hunter had a fun 2 days together and it was nice for both of them to have some “boy time” where they could play, wrestle and joke around. Travel has made Hunter more open to making these quick connections and enjoying them while they last.

The park mural is painted on the back of the facilities building and is worth noting not just for it’s beauty but also for the detail of it’s message. If you “read it” from left to right you can see that it tells the story of rebirth and revitalization, moving from drained & polluted rivers to the bounty of mother nature.

For our last twenty-four hours in Banos we treated ourselves to a night at the Luna RunTun resort, located up on the hill above town, just below the tree house and volcano. When ever we splurge on expensive hotels we do our best to arrive prior to check-in and seek a late check-out to maximize our spend…We had hoped to spend a good portion of our visit in the hot pools and were fairly disappointed with their temperatures. There are five pools, with three of them being “hot”, a large fourth being a cold pool and then a hot-tub. The four “hot” pools (including the hot-tub) were more like a warm bath and there was no variation in temperature amongst them. Definitely a bummer. While the rooms are beautiful, the food was “OK”, and we had fun playing billiards, I wouldn’t recommend a stay here – the price does not match the value.

The views from both Luna RunTun and the Tree House were amazing – the valley is so lush and we were all constantly amazed at the angles of the plots of land that were being farmed.

IMG_0659It was a five hour drive from Banos to the Quito airport. We spent the money on a private car ($100 US) and arrived at the airport around 6pm. The drive was quite scenic and we enjoyed seeing the regional diversity as you travelled north up the Andes. The highways here are well taken care of and it was very smooth driving.

International flights all leave late in the evening and the down side of that is that check-in does not open until 3 hours prior to the flight. This meant that we had 4 hours to amuse ourselves…with all our bags. The good news is that there is a decent sized restaurant/food court area in a complex just across from the airport. We found some comfy chairs and settled in with some food and some movies.

The Jungle Life in Tena

IMG_1548Tena is a popular launching point for Amazon Jungle adventures, as it sits just on the western edge of the Amazon region. It has grown into a major regional economic centre and was historically known as the Cinnamon capital of Ecuador.

IMG_1564For us, Tena meant meeting Abby Dent, aka “Jungle Jane”, whom Hunter and I spent the week paddling with. She was a perfect match & a great coach- she made everything fun, gently pushed Hunter and the end result was some fabulous paddling progression for Hunter during this trip. She was also a great resource to help our learning about Ecuador.

DSCF8231For our first paddle in Tena the boys paddled the Upper Misahualli (class IV) while Hunter, Abby and I did an intro to creeking for Hunter and paddled the low volume Middle Misahualli (class II+) to get used to the technical skills needed for creeking. The water was definitely warmer that in the Quijos Valley and we got away with swim shirts and life jackets. Fun times had by all.

IMG_1606Day two in Tena had the boys paddling the Upper Anzu (class IV) while Hunter, Abby and I shifted gears to introduce Hunter to “big water” paddling – we paddled 18km on the Jatunyacu (class III) on big rolly wave sections with holes you needed to dance around. It was fun to see the grin on his face and to watch his confidence grow moment by moment, to the point where he and Abby co-lead the way down one of the rapids. We had fun playing with all the rafters near the end of the run.

We took a pit stop mid way through the run to visit a small village that sits on the side of the river. Abby gave us a “plants of the jungle 101” course and we got to see and experience:

  • how termites and termite wood are used as natural bug repellant: put your hand in the termite nest, have them crawl all over you and then shake them off and wipe the remaining residue all over yourself. Burn the termite nest and it will ward off mosquitos from your camp just like a citronella candle will.
  • pineapple plants – in nature you get one pineapple per plant and they take over 6 months to grow & ripen
  • hot pepper plants – Yep, they were hot!
  • lemon grass – according to Hunter it smelled just like Fruit Loops – it was definitely lemony!
  • cacao pods – super cool… the pod is about the size of a football and grows WAY up on the tree. Depending on the type of plant, the pod is ripe when it is either red or yellow and will fall to the ground. You break it open and it is full of what look like white alien balls. The slime on the alien balls is actually a treat and you suck it off, leaving the cacao seed, which is then cracked open and dried in the sun before being ground into chocolate powder

Day three and everyone was back on the Misahualli again – the boys busy boofing on the Upper section and Hunter stepping things up by guiding Abby and I down the middle section. It was yet another confidence booster for him, and great to continue to build his river reading and decision making skills.

Before we hit the middle Misahualli, Hunter and I got a guided tour from Abby through a local animal refuge facility. It was another example of the Endless Adventure team creating the best possible experience for their guests. Hunter was thrilled and we learned a lot about both indigenous and non-indigienous animals at the facility.

The boys had their own wildlife adventure and found these cute guys at the resort where they took out of the river.

We stayed at a nice family run hotel called the Hostal Villa Belen. Tucked behind a large wall a short walk from downtown it had a wonderful garden area in the centre with cinnamon, avocado and lime trees. The rooms were fairly simple but clean and the staff were wonderful. We ate dinner and breakfast there for two days and the food was worth the stop – flavourful and plentiful.

Wandering the streets of Tena, both during the day and at night, we had absolutely no concerns about safety. It was clean and the people were very friendly. Taxi’s are easy to grab, except when it’s pouring rain, and are very affordable ($1-2 US) for a ride within town. If you are looking for a local company to do rafting or jungle adventures, we recommend River People, which is run by Abby’s family.

Andean Eco-hub; Quijos Valley – Ecuador

IMG_1791The Quijos valley sits on the eastern edge of the Andes mountains and runs all the way to the western edge of the Amazon region. It is moderate in temperature (spring like all year round) and can see rain on a fairly regular basis (any time, any day). These two features combine to create this amazingly lush landscape as far as you can see.

San Francisco de Borja, located right on the Quijos river, is the home base for Endless Adventures International as well as a few other kayak companies. There are more than a handful of rivers that can be reached within a 30 minute drive so this is quite a central spot.

The drive from Quito to the Quijos Valley goes through a number of mountain passes and is definitely a windy journey, which Hunter isn’t a real fan of. We chose to give him some Gravol to help his stomach, with the side benefit that it also helped him have a well needed 90 minute nap. After our full day of adventuring in Quito we arrived at the Ponderosa (Endless Adventures International lodge) in time for a late dinner.

Note: one of the clearly differentiating aspects of an All-Inclusive trip with Endless Adventures is the focus that they put on food. Everything is fresh and local, plentiful, flavourful and there is a relentless focus on food-safety to keep everyone healthy for paddling.

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The lodge is a low key environment with rooms of various sizes, 2 shared bathrooms, and lots of indoor and outdoor shared spaces to chill out. One of Hunter’s favourite places was the main hammock, where he and his new BFF Radd would hang out with their snuggly friends.

Ponderosa Lodge is located on a working farm, with milking cows that are fed sugar cane to make their milk yummy or sweet. They grow sugar cane, various vegetables and raise Guinea Pigs (to eat, not as pets). Hunter was happy to get to use a machete (basic farm tool here) to chop down some sugar cane, which we decided is sweeter than the sugar cane in Mexico.

Our first morning was a slow start due to us all being tired from travelling. We headed off to the neighbouring town of El Chaco to check out their Sunday market and pick up some fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. Ecuador allows people to ride in the back of a vehicle IF the cab is full – Hunter was thrilled to take advantage of this rule when ever possible and was always the first to volunteer to ride in the back.

With all the overnight rain we headed to the local swimming pools for a warm up and then off to run the Borja and a section of the Quijos river. There was so much water that what is normally a trickle between the pools was a runable drop, which we had fun with. Hunter also worked on his play boating skills with Chris. With levels running quite high, we decided that Tim,Chris and I would run the Borja river, which can only be run at medium and high water. It was a fun warm up and orientation to creeking. The Borja runs into the Quijos, which was running at high +++ level. Big, brown pushy water with waves so big you couldn’t see the person you were following. Thanks to managing to find the big grabby hole that was strong enough to window shade me and pull me out of my boat, I exited at the take out at the lodge while Tim and Chris continued on to just above the canyon.

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We headed off to Tena the next day for three days of jungle paddling (details to come in my next post) and then were back in the Quijos valley in time for New Years Eve and 2 more days of kayaking.

New Years Eve is quite the cultural experience in Ecuador. It actually stretches over about a 48 hour window (mid-day on the 31st to mid-day on January 2nd). Historically widows dressed in black and holding their babies would venture into the streets on New Year’s Eve to seek money to support themselves.This has evolved over time to men (young and old) dressing up as women and putting up road blocks to collect drinking money. Tim got stopped in Tena walking down the street in the middle of the afternoon 🙂

We all bought masks of sorts from the street vendors in Tena to take part in the evening festivities in Baeza, which is just down the road from Borja and a kayakers haven. It was definitely quite the street party… The other Ecuadorian custom is the burning of effigies at midnight, to send off the past year and welcome in the new one. This ranges from elaborate stuffed effigies to individual pieces of paper with thoughts.

Baeza medical centre

Baeza medical centre

New Years day brought a slow start to things… the boys paddled the Quijos from Bridge II to the Canyon while Hunter and I took a day off and enjoyed the sunshine while catching up on some school work.

Unfortunately Tim ended up hitting his head so hard on a rock on the lower Quijos that he burst his eardrum and had to make a stop at the Baeza medical centre for some urgent care. This definitely put a different perspective on his paddling for the rest of the trip – he tried to walk the line between the Doctor’s guidance of “no paddling, no water in the ear” and being in Ecuador surrounded by fabulous class IV+ creeking! Ear plugs, padding, duct tape and using Lee’s helmet with the ear protection were the compromise. He also opted out of any runs that would clearly see him likely to be totally submersed.

NOTE: At this time (late January), Tim is on the mend. Hearing is at about 50% and not consistent. We are looking forward to it improving over the coming months.

January 2nd had more highs and lows… The high was Hunter confidently paddled the Middle section of the Cosanga, a class 3+ creek that flows into the Quijos river with the entire group. He had a fabulous time and really enjoyed it.

The low was that I got hit hard by a food bug that had been brewing since our night out in Tena and was knocked out for the next 24 hours.

The last day of Quijos valley paddling saw everyone on the Quijos River again, with medium water levels, which made it a completely different river. The girls paddled from Bridge 4 to just above the canyon while the boys paddled from Bridge 1 – Bridge 2, with some carrying on all the way to Bridge 4. It was great to paddle this river at this level as I left it on a good note – nice and challenging but not too challenging. Hunter had a bit of the flu so he stayed home and recuperated.

IMG_1940We took a day off on Sunday and the entire group headed to the Papallacta Hot Springs (Termas de Pallacta), which is located high in the mountains heading west towards Quito. It is at 3800 meters/12000 + feet and the altitude was definitely noticeable. It was the last day of the christmas/new years holiday window and quite busy with south american tourists ending their holidays.

The Quijos Valley is ripe with adventure and we only touched the surface, leaving plenty of room for new kayaking and exploring experiences when we return!