Three day-old beard, expedition sunglasses, fleece jacket, Jorge fits every part the adventure guide. He looks like he has just shrugged off his pack and crampons from an assault on the south face of Everest. But intimidating at first, Jorge is disarmingly friendly, like every other Tico I've met up to this point. He has the easy manner of someone whose hobby is also his job.
When Alijandro approaches me and invites me on a hike to a small town nearby, I am initially hesitant. I look at one of the other rafters as he lounges in the shade of his tent, an open book lying flat on his chest that rises and falls with a rhythm of someone fast asleep and yearn for a bit of rest. But then I realize Hey, pal, you're in Costa Rica. Time's a-wastin'. Sleep when you get home. I agree and Alijandro's eyes immediately light up. I lace up my soggy shoes, grab my camera and away we go.
This is no scenic hike, it's a commute.
I want to stop, to spy into the trees, look for a story to talk about, but every time I look up, Alijandro has gained thirty feet on me. Sweat begins to pour off my face as we march up through the dense, steamy jungle. I've forgotten to put DEET on before we left and as we muck our way up the soggy, muddy path, I expect to be devoured by mosquitoes. Yet I'm surprised that there are almost no insects at all. In fact I have yet to be bitten by a single mosquito since arriving in Costa Rica (a record which will last another week until I reach the Pacific coast). But as we rise higher, it grows visibly cooler and the jungle around us thins. When I finally catch up with Alijandro, he is staring out over a huge expanse of green rolling hills, partially blanketed with canopy. He has a smile on his face like the proud smile of child showing his parents a hand-drawn picture from school. It is a smile of sheer exhilaration.
"Beautiful," is all he says. All he needs to say.
We trudge along a dirt road now, sharing stories with each other when I ask how much longer until we reach the town.
"We're here," he tells me matter of factly. I look around. Aside from a couple of scattered houses in the distance, a cow here and there, I seemed to have missed something.
"Bajo Tigre is a very simple town. Electricity only one year," as he points to a simple power line nailed to the trees. "Pura vida, eh?" he smiles. We continue along the road until we reach two small, single room buildings painted brightly. A hand-painted sign in front reads "Bajo Tigre" and above, "medicianales." Alijandro explains that this is the school and the herb garden in front is the village's natural pharmacy. He explains how this tiny school recently hosted American students for a day as a sort of exchange. He muses on the fact that even though the children didn't speak each other's language, they still enjoyed themselves immensely, especially when they played soccer.
"Who won?" I ask, trying to hide the patriotism in my voice.
He smiles, recognizing it. "Costa Rica always wins."
We wander around for some time while Alijandro occasionally stops to say hello to passing children or to a friend in front of his house. I wonder what it would be like to live in a town like this, to be away from the bustle of cities and color television and email and fast food and rush hour traffic.
While dinner cooks, I take a refreshingly cool shower during which I refuse to acknowledge what might be lurking at my feet (I would later see a river toad the size of my shoe flopping past my tent). When I emerge, I am amazed to see that candles now illuminate the entire campsite. Everywhere I look, candles cast a soft glow over the darkness- lining footpaths, tents, any available surface that can hold a candle. We sit down at a picnic table complete with silverware, wine glasses and candles, finally enjoying what we've been smelling for the past hour - delicious chicken smothered in Siau's secret sauce (a tomato-based sauce with various herbs and spices), garlic bread, fresh salad and of course, rice and beans, the staple of every Tico meal.
When Jorge fills my glass with red wine, I am caught off-guard. A candlelight dinner with red wine under a full moon is not what one usually expects from a river rafting trip, and judging from the others' reactions, I am not alone in feeling bliss. Our conversation runs from the day's experience on the river and the favorable impression of the camp to constellations and beyond. When full stomachs and red wine begin to tug at our eyelids, we retire to our tents one by one. As I lie in my tent later that night, listening to the hush of the river below, I try to count the different insect sounds I can hear. I get to seven before falling asleep.
The next day on the river makes me realize day one was simply a warm up. We alternate between churning class III and IV rapids and easy stretches of sheer canyon walls with trees rooted in the rocky ledges. As we approach a set of rapids, Alijandro prepares us up for the run, reminding us about commands and safety, before hitting the rapids. After a blur of white water and oars and rocks and whoops, we emerge soaked and smiling, sometimes one rafter lighter than when we started. Between rapids I plop into the deliciously cool water and float down the river like driftwood, staring into the sky. An old footbridge spanning the river passes overhead. A Great White egret. A flock of parakeets.
By Misha Troyan, San Diego Correspondent. First photos in collage courtesy of Costa Rica Expeditions. All other photos by author.