Quebrada Gata Costa Rica First Descent

Christine and Suresh have owned and operated Desafio Adventure Company in La Fortuna de Arenal Costa Rica since 1992.

When the neighboring town of San Isidro decided they’d like to attract tourists the mayor gave Christine a call and a few days later we joined the Desafio proprietors on an assignment to explore a canyon that had been entered from the side at a few points but because it was so steep and isolated had never been descended from top to bottom.

The video below shows some of the story, a beautiful waterfall or two and a great natural rock waterslide, but unfortunately most of the really cool stuff and big waterfalls isn’t on the video because we were too busy making sure we didn’t break our necks in what turned out to be a very challenging canyon.  Someday we’ll go back.


Ray and Sue Krueger Koplin of Toucan Maps Inc. (mapcr.com) have no idea what they are getting themselves into when Suresh and Christine Krishnan of Desafio Adventure Company (DesafioCostaRica.com) take them on a first descent of an unexplored Costa Rican waterfall canyon near Arenal Volcano.

First we stopped by their commercial operation “The Lost Canyon” which has thrilled thousands of visitors to Costa Rica to pick up some gear and then headed to the mayors office. The mayor and her assistant loaded us all into the town’s 4WD pickup and drove us to the home of the couple who manage the ranch that backs onto the primary forest encompassing Quebrada Gata.<p>After much discussion about how to actually get to the entrance to the canyon, and a delicious breakfast we finally hit the trail.

It was a little disconcerting that the mayor’s aide had to continuously stop and wait for us on the trail.  After all we were the big explorers and he was a city slicker in slacks and loafers who was just going to show us to the canyon entrance then drive the mayor back to town.  At sunset they ‘d meet us at the bottom where the Río Agua Gata empties into the Río Peñas Blancas along side the 4WD road to Poco Sol.

¡Pura Vida! & Ni Sa Bula Vinaka

If there were just one phrase to evoke Costa Rica it would be ¡Pura Vida!

“What does it mean?” you ask.

Well, it’s roughly the equivalent of bula bula! (pronounced mboola mboola) – or more formally – ni sa bula vinaka! (pronounced nee-sahm-boola-vee-nahka!) in Fijian.

“Thanks for nothing!” you say if you’ve never visited Costa Rica or the Fiji islands.

Literally “pura vida” translates from Spanish to English as “pure life,” but it can mean much more than that.    Like it’s south Pacific cousin, bula, it can mean hello, goodbye, good luck, that’s the way the cookie crumbles, now this is living, that’s life with a shrug, and even gesundheit depending on the context.  When we hear Ticos use it we insert the literal translation and it always seems to make sense.

Unfortunately, both phrases seem to be falling out of popular usage as they’re absorbed by global pop-culture, utilized as marketing slogans by the tourism boards of their respective countries and converted into trademarks for clothing companies (bula fashions are a little bizarre because they specialize in snowboard apparel…) but we like the original spirit of well wishes and can’t resist saying ¡Pura Vida! for now,

Ray and Sue

Not for Profit Store Launched


Amazon announced on March 8, 2010 that they would be keeping all of the proceeds from the bookstore for themselves (read more)The original post announcing the opening of the bookstore is below:

We finally got around to updating our recommendations for Costa Rica books and creating the much anticipated Costa Rica Guide Packing List – Shopping Edition.

We never expected big profits on book sales. Amazon was just an easy way to keep cover photos and prices up to date on books we like to recommend, but as our websites grow more popular it’s starting to add up. We’d like our recommendations to stay unbiased by sales pressure so we’ve decided to donate 100% of the proceeds from the Amazon sales to community and conservation projects in Costa Rica.

How the not for profit bookstore donations work

Based on growth over the last five years we hope to raise at least $2,000.00 on about $32,000.00 in sales in 2010. It could be a lot more if the idea catches on and people spread the word through blogs, tweets, facebook and websites.

Who gets the money?

Honestly, we haven’t decided. We just re-did the bookstore and decided to donate the profits this week so we haven’t worked out all the details yet. We know some organizations that could benefit and have asked friends in Costa Rica for recommendations. If you’ve got a suggestion please feel free to add it as a comment below.

One idea is to buy books! Some rural schools in Costa Rica have pretty minimal libraries and a couple hundred new books could have a big impact. We know book distributors that may sell to us at wholesale and a furniture shop to build bookshelves for cost which would make the money go even further.

Teachers and librarians could pick out shelves full of books their kids wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

How can we guarantee the profit from your purchase will be donated?

The short answer is we can’t. Toucan Maps Inc. is a for-profit corporation and doesn’t have non-profit auditing; besides Amazon strictly prohibits tracking customers so it would be impossible for you to tell if your purchase ultimately results in a contribution.

Basically you just have to trust us that it’s not worth risking our reputation for a couple thousand dollars in Amazon commissions. Besides, if we wanted to keep the money we’d just erase all this stuff about donations and keep it like we used to before we decided to donate it.

Go to the Costa Rica Bookstore

Go to the Costa Rica Packing List – Shopping Edition


If you wake up in a pool of sweat it could be that you’re showing the first symptoms of some bizarre tropical disease, but unless you have red spots all over it’s more likely that you’ve discovered a naugahide-a-bed.

Especially in the budget and backpacker price ranges hoteliers sometimes try to protect their mattresses from spills, absorbed odors, sweat and other bodily fluids even more discomforting to consider by covering them with something impermeable.

Some use fake leather upholstery fabrics like naugahyde, others have plastic backed mattress pads and some simply leave the mattress in the plastic bag that it arrived from the store in.

Violent Crime in Costa Rica

Violent crime is rare in Costa Rica when compared with crimes of opportunity like theft from parked cars and foreigners are nearly never victims.  As with most places the majority of violence is domestic – however, muggings, beatings, stabbings and shootings are no longer shocking rarities in San José or to a lesser extent in some of the populous beach areas.

Drug related crime is on the rise as well.  Corruption and inefficiency in the government have allowed cartels latitude to operate, and as other international smuggling routes have come under scrutiny both the trans-shipment and import of cocaine, marijuana and meth are increasing rapidly along with the inevitable associated violence.

U.S. coast guard plane in Costa Rica
U.S. coast guard plane flying drug interdiction surveillance along the Pacific coast

In the past year Costa Rica’s headlines have often seemed more appropriate to Detroit or Mexico – a bus driver shot by a junkie for a fare box full of coins, a headless body of a Colombian national washed up on the beach, and a Canadian woman beaten and shot to death near her home.

The Costa Rican government is well aware of the impact it would have on the tourism industry if any serious harm were allowed to come to an international visitor and although it’s cynical, you can be sure they are doing everything possible to keep violent crime away from tourist destinations.  If you get mugged it might cost you a hundred bucks, but it could potentially cost them millions in negative publicity.

There are simple things you can do to reduce your risk.

Leave your jewelry home and don’t flash cash.  Electronics (camera, i-phone/pad, notebook) are also dangerous temptations so be aware that your new Nikon D90 will make you a target.

There’s more going on in cities causing confusion and distractions that criminals love to take advantage of.  Don’t go to San José if you don’t have to.  If you do go, plan your route on a map ahead of time, know where you are going, walk or drive with relaxed confidence and purpose. If you get lost, pretend you know where you are going until you can duck into somewhere safe (cafe, bookstore, someone’s house). If you have to ask directions on the street, ask a woman because they are generally more safety conscious and won’t direct you through bad areas.

Taxis are all over – in an emergency jump in one (make sure it’s an officially licensed cab, they are usually obvious). Buses work well too, but you never know exactly where they are headed…if it’s an emergency you probably won’t care.

If you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, stay calm, look down, be quiet, remember that it’s just stuff and let them take it if they really want it.

Remarkable Roadwork

We spent a few days on the Caribbean coast a few weeks ago and saw a remarkable transformation. We started up north on Playa Westfalia (Hotel Playa Westfalia – recommended) and there was a crew with a truck full of asphalt, a few guys with shovels, a backhoe and a steamroller out front one morning. Four days later we were at the Korrigan Lodge (highly recommended – see photos) across from Playa Cocles nearly to the Panama border, and there comes the crew.

They had patched every pothole on the road between Limón and Manzanillo in under a week. It was some sort of world record.

Of course this doesn’t happen often (ever?) but there was a reason for the repairs. The president, several government ministers, a handful of prominent businessmen and some French dignitaries were coming to the coast for the finish of the Jacques Vabre trans Atlantic yachting race from Le Havre to Limón over the weekend.

As we headed north the next morning we saw a news van along side of the road next to the Limón airport and a camera was aimed at a reporter standing in the rain and pointing beyond the runway out to sea. I slowed down and peered in that direction and sure enough there was a little white triangle of a sail on the horizon.

Then I looked up as I heard the dull thud of rubber being compressed all the way to the rim and saw muddy spray cover the windshield. The section they had patched earlier in the week was already sprouting new potholes! I smiled to myself as I realized all the roads in Costa Rica were only a MOPT budget cut away from their gloriously holey past (read why we’re nostalgic for Costa Rica potholes).

We Miss Costa Rica’s Potholes – Where Have all the Huecos Gone?

Though far from extinct, the Costa Rican pothole is definitely on the endangered list.  Their numbers are down from the millions to a few thousand and their habitat has been severely reduced by “progress.”

If you’ve ever spent any time in Costa Rica you’re probably asking yourself “yeah, so what?  What kind of nut would miss potholes?  That’s like lamenting the loss of small pox.” but we have our reasons.

Pothole Paradise

Even as recently as ten years ago there wasn’t a road in Costa Rica where potholes didn’t keep the average speed down to 40 kph (25 mph) and many places it was even slower.  On bicycles it was heaven.  we could travel as fast or, due to superior swerving ability and narrow track, often faster than the cars, trucks and buses.  We bike toured around Costa Rica for five weeks on our honeymoon in 1993 and never gave a thought to being pancaked by a 100 kph semi or bus.  Of course there were a couple of spots we avoided, like cerro de la Muerte and downtown San José (where it wasn’t so much an issue of speed as the bumping and grinding of stalled traffic) but basically we could find a route anywhere we wanted to go in the country.

We returned for years riding over 4,500 km before we hung up our bikes in 1999.  There are still great bike rides in Costa Rica, but it’s gotten very difficult to find a safe multi-day tour.  The roads are still narrow, winding and shoulderless, but more and more often they’re also relatively pothole free.  Even on minor two lane highways average speeds exceed 70 kph and of course the morons who want to go 90 can get away with it (until they hit a cow which aren’t endangered).

There are hundreds of kilometers of the rides we enjoyed that would simply be suicide now: Highway 21 from Liberia through Santa Cruz and Nicoya to Naranjo; the Guápiles highway to Limón; 35 up to Los Chiles, and most of 4 through Sarapiquí, San Miguel and Upala, all the way to La Cruz; the Costanera Sur from Orotina through Jaco, Manuel Antonio, Dominical and Uvita; and even the Pan American highway south from Palmar and north from Juntas.

So that’s why we’re a little nostalgic for potholes.