Apocalypse Now, Tico-style

Adventure and misadventure in Costa Rica's Arenal region.

Author (right) whitewater rafting on El Rio Toro.
  • Author (right) whitewater rafting on El Rio Toro.

“Never get out of the boat. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got off the boat.” ~ Captain Benjamin L. Willard, Apocalypse Now

So there we were staring at the glossy brochure deciding between a class 2 & 3 whitewater rafting trip or a class 3 & 4. I looked up at my nephew, Richard. Immediately we knew we were doing the second option. We hadn't traveled all the way here to float downriver like we were on the Pirates of the Caribbean Disneyland ride. This was supposed to be an adventure!

The next day our adventure began on El Rio Toro (the Bull River) with Richard and I sitting in the front of the raft paddling like mad while his wife, Cindy, clung on for dear life in the back. It didn’t take very long before I was catapulted into the water by some wild rapids.

Costa Rica near-death experience #1.

After I swallowed nearly half a gallon (oops, I mean 1.9 liters... metric system) of water, I was pulled back into the raft by Alex, our Tico rafting guide.

The heart-pumping excitement was just beginning.

Halfway through the trip, we refueled at a nearby river bank where the guides prepared some delicious tropical fruit for us to eat. With newfound confidence and energy we set out to conquer the rest of the river.

After going through some treacherous rapids, we paddled down a calm section of the river. Richard then came up with a not-so-brilliant idea: he asked Alex if we could get out of the raft and float downriver in our personal floatation devices (a.k.a. life jackets). Our guide not only gave his wholehearted endorsement, he advised us to wait a little because further down we could catch a class 2 rapid. As we quickly approached the decided-on spot, he revised his statement – this was a class 2+ rapid.

“Okay guys, you can get out here,” Alex instructed.

Leaving the safety of the raft for the turbulent waters of the Toro River, Richard and I jumped in. Instantly I knew I had made a huge mistake.

At the rafting orientation, we'd been instructed that in the event we found ourselves in the water, we were to lie on our back with our feet straight out. We were not to try to swim or fight the river – just “go with the flow” was the motto. All that went out the window, of course, once I hit the water. For the sake of brevity: I was thrashed, thrown, battered, beat-up, pulverized, demolished, pummeled, pounded, clobbered, jerked, trounced, pounded, bruised, hammered, assaulted, walloped, tossed around and worked over.

After bruising my tailbone, nearly twisting my ankle and ingesting many liters of river water, I could truly say I'd “tasted” the real Costa Rica.

Alex pulled me back to safety, and I promptly regurgitated a good portion of the Toro River into the raft (sorry, no photos). Costa Rica near-death experience #2.

We finally got off the river, dried off, drank a beer, and had a pleasant Tico lunch at a nearby restaurant. At the end of meal I approached Alex to thank him for an awesome time. I handed him a tip, saying sarcastically, “I paid you guys good money so I could kill myself!”

“You can tell all your friends when you get home that you survived a class 3 rapid in your PFD [personal floatation device]!” he replied.

“You said it was a class 2 plus?!”

Alex just smiled and laughed out, “Pura vida!”

Costa Rica travel tip #1: Never get out of a perfectly good raft. More Costa Rica travel tips:


There are two international airports in Costa Rica: Juan Santamaria (SJO) and Daniel Oduber (LIR).

Here's an inside tip: if your goal is to head straight to the beach and spend all your time there, fly into LIR, which is in the northwestern Guanacaste region. There is where the famous beach of Tamarindo is located. Otherwise the great majority of flights arrive into SJO. Key tip: SJO is not located in the capitol of San Jose; it's located about 18 miles from there. The airport is located north of San Jose in the small city of Alajuela.

Most international flights arrive into SJO in the evening so I would recommend staying the night in Alajuela. We stayed at Alajuela Backpackers my first and last night in Costa Rica. Located next to a bus terminal, they're only 4 km from the airport and offer a free airport shuttle.

Accommodations consist of hostel dorm beds and private rooms. The best part is the rooftop bar with a view of the airport, so you can watch planes land and take off with a cocktail in your hand.

La Fortuna

Arenal Volcano.

Arenal Volcano.

You may want to base yourself in La Fortuna for a couple of days; there are a ton of things to do here. The drive from Alajuela takes about four hours. There are two things you must do in La Fortuna: hike the route to the Arenal Volcano (left), and relax in the thermal pools. There are two main hot springs: Tabacon (expensive) and Baldi (inexpensive). We ended up doing Baldi, but if I had to do it over I would do Tabacon (which is naturally heated, unlike Baldi). There’s nothing wrong with Baldi but Tabacon is the Garden of Eden!

Soaking my tired body after hiking the Arenal Volcano at the Baldi Hot Springs was one of the highlights of the trip.

We stayed at the Arenal Backpackers Resort. We had private rooms, which were very clean along with the rest of the place. They can arrange tours for you (they arranged our whitewater rafting tour), and we were satisfied with the tour companies they choose. Also, they have plenty of free parking for your car and excellent security (the whole place is enclosed with a very high chain-linked fence, and you have to be buzzed in to gain entrance; yes, it looks like prison). It is close to town and all the restaurants.

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