Paddling, snorkeling and relaxing at an eco lodge in Costa Rica's Caribbean |

Paddling, snorkeling and relaxing at an eco lodge in Costa Rica’s Caribbean

Eugene Buchanan paddles around a pair of rocky islets at the tip of Isla Zapatillos.
Photo by Rafael Gallo of Rios Tropicales

Even Costa Rica’s oldest rafting outfitter still has plenty to discover. That’s why I’m motoring around Panama’s Bocas del Toro islands with friend Rafael Gallo. We’re scouting out a sea kayak and stand-up paddleboard itinerary for a new combo trip he’s offering: three days paddling the Pacuare River, overnighting at his eco lodge, followed by four days paddleboarding and snorkeling Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park.

Paddling the Pacuare

Rescuing a sloth from your kayak is a slow process — not surprising, given the victim. 

That’s what we find on Costa Rica’s Pacuare River, paddling up to an obviously stunned Folivora, clinging to a rock above a rapid. I extend my paddle, it latches on with all three toes, and then I grab the scruff of its neck to ferry him to the other side.

We’re lucky we saw it; most of the time, our eyes are on the river’s whitewater or waterfalls cascading from above. The 21-mile stretch drops 1,150 feet, riddling it with Class III-IV rapids. Combine this with an en route jungle lodge — complete with bar, hammock-lined deck, and rooms plumbed and wired via a gravity-fed Pelton wheel — and it’s hard to find a better jungle rafting trip in the world.  

After driving through Braulio Carrillo National Park and its towering Turrialba volcano, a pool of emerald water greets us at the put-in, matching the bank’s foliage. The beach is littered with cat tracks. It’s an oncilla, one of six regional felines, including jaguars, puma, jaguarundi, margay and ocelot. Adding to the zoo we might see are monkeys, tapir, peccarys and more birds than you can count, from toucans and parrots to orioles and green macaws. 

Trailing two rafts, I kayak by rocks and punch rapids for five miles before rounding a bend and seeing our lodge straddling a creek and waterfall. To build it, Gallo floated everything from its lumber to beds and bar in on rafts. The rooms are as romantic as the setting, with towels folded into hearts atop the beds. 

The formula — combining a world-class river trip with eco-conscious lodging — works. Rios Tropicales has won a host of ecotourism awards and encourages guests to plant trees in its private rainforest reserve to offset their carbon footprints.

Paddling up to Rios Tropicales lodge on the Pacuare River.
Photo by Rafael Gallo of Rios Tropicales

In the afternoon, I sample nearby plunge pools and waterfall rock slides. At one, a battalion of blue morpho and zebra longwing butterflies glimmer against the cascade. (Costa Rica harbors 10 percent of the world’s butterfly species.) Other layover options include horseback riding, zip-lining, bird watching, eco-hiking, waterfall rappelling and obligatory hammocking. Two guests return from zip-lining with stories of whisking through the rainforest canopy alongside howler monkeys and a small boa constrictor guarding a tree-top station. 

A deckside happy hour of cacique-infused jungle juice leads to a dinner of jungle chicken with raisins, coconut and macadamia nuts. Helping serve is Salatier, a Cabecar Indian who lives in a village an hour’s hike away. It’s the largest indigenous group in the country, and one of the few tribes the Spanish never conquered. 

A light rain the next morning overrides the sound of toucans. After a breakfast of fresh fruit, banana pancakes and rich Costa Rican coffee, I hop in my kayak and follow guide Diego, Canadian clients Curtis and Leeann, and safety kayaker Walter down the heart of the canyon. The rapids come as quickly as the waterfalls. Wake-up Falls appears around one corner and 200-foot Huacas the next, both bordered by Class IV rapids. 

What do you get out of a world-class jungle river? Whitewater and waterfalls.
Photo by Rafael Gallo of Rios Tropicales

Shortly later, we rescue the sloth. Safely on the opposite bank, he scrambles — scratch that, ambles — dreamlike into the jungle. Now official Sloth Rescuers, we paddle on through Dos Montañas Gorge and finish our own dream trip down one of the best jungle rivers in the world.

Scouting Bocas del Toro’s Bastimentos National Marine Park

Dave Smith, owner of Panama’s Casa Cayuco eco lodge, meets us dockside in Bocas Town, an island first visited by Columbus in 1502 during his final voyage to the New World. We’d already taken one panga ride from the mainland town of Almirante and now face another. While surfers motorboat to outer shore breaks, we hop in Dave’s boat for the half-hour ride to Bastimentos, leaving empty ceviche bowls, Balboa beer bottles and Reggae music in our wake. 

Aerial view of the Casa Cayuco lodge.
Photo courtesy of Casa Cayuco

Passing a maze of low-lying mangrove islands, we arrive at Casa Cayuco, an off-the-grid eco lodge with palm-lined beaches straight out of “Survivor” …literally. The reality show was filmed just down shore, as were portions of the less-successful show “Dating Naked.”

Thankfully, we’re far away from such pretentiousness, which is what Dave and his wife, Suzanne, were seeking when they bought the property in 2013.

“We were looking for a place on a beach where you could park boats on a dock,” Smith said. “We hit the jackpot; it’s super rare to have both down here.”

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The lodge certainly fits well with Gallo’s chalet on the Pacuare. Completely solar, all its lights are LED, with fans running on 24-volt DC from a radiant dual inverter. The rain-fed water, held in a 20,000-gallon storage tank, is purified, meaning you can drink straight from the faucet.

“Thankfully, this area has a healthy mix of both rain and sun, so it’s easy to keep it off the grid,” Smith said.  

Much of the lodge is made from nispero — including floors, siding and bar — the sixth-hardest wood in the world. Impervious to termites, it’s so heavy it actually sinks. Colorful, multilayered Panamanian “mola” artwork hangs in the lobby and rustic-yet-elegant rooms are complete with private baths, canopied beds and hammock-lined porches.  

I have time for a quick paddleboard along the beach before the dinner conch blows for homemade coconut bread, baked red snapper with lemon caper sauce and baked potatoes with organic swiss chard. For dessert: Mama llena Panamanian bread pudding with vanilla caramel sauce. An upside-down, wooden cayuco, or canoe, hangs above us as our chandelier.  

In the morning, Jose, who grew up on the island, motorboats us out — passing fishermen in low-riding, homemade cayucos — to snorkel the Whoville world below an otherwise innocuous mangrove island. Unless you knew, you’d never fathom the life clinging to the roots below, from finger-sticking anemones to yellowline arrow crabs and flytrap-like feather dusters. On the way back, two dolphins leapfrog over each other surfing our wake — another bonus of visiting the country’s oldest national marine park. 

Later, we boat over to the tandem Zapatillas islands, sea kayaking and paddleboarding off a picturesque palm-lined beach, the waves of the Caribbean on one side and calm waters of the bay on the other. Two tiny, rocky islands each house a lone palm tree. Jose catches an octopus, which clings to our arms, and we spy green sea turtles lounging on the beach.

At sunset, we surf gentle rollers past the dock, while two other guests, Terry and Christine from Nova Scotia, watch from their dockside candlelight table. Their fare: curried king mackerel and lobster caught by Jose, with mousse made from indigenous chocolate.  

We’re up early, thanks to the shriek of a rednecked woodrail. Before motoring over to paddleboard Starfish Beach, we birdwatch with Jose’s 20-year-old nephew, Belamere, fresh from winning the night’s regional baseball game in nearby Salt Creek.

We hike across the island in search of the elusive three-wattled bell bird, whose techno-, high-pitched call resembles the amplified sound of the ring-toss game on the dock. We’re in luck: We both see and hear it, its call commanding the respect of the entire jungle.

If you go

Rios Tropicales offers a combined trip on the Pacuare River and Panama’s Basimento National Marine Park through Casa Cayuco.

On the way back, we throw sticks in a pond for a caiman, catch the tail end of a white-faced monkey swing, and marvel at the handiwork of a golden orb weaver spider, which spins the strongest web in the world — one synthetically emulated to make bulletproof vests.

Toward the end of our hike, we hear something else. It’s the whine of a baby sloth, Belamere said. Inside, I wonder if I should go lend it a hand. 

To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email

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